Cricket summer at The Oval 75 years ago - Kia Oval Skip to main content

While the foundations of Surrey’s golden era were being laid, 75 years ago, the Three Feathers had to face heartbreak as they finished runners-up by just four points and were left wondering what might have been in a summer that brought also Don Bradman’s farewell tour and the London Olympics, all played against a background of recovery from the Second World War. Richard Spiller looks back to 1948.

Surrey’s season

By the time Surrey opened their 1948 campaign, they had not won the County Championship since 1914, a season cut short by the First World War.

Second place in 1921 and 1925 was the closest they had got since then and, in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was a case of rebuilding both the team and The Oval.

They finished level with Leicestershire in 11th place in the first post-war season, handicapped by the accidental appointment of Nigel Bennett as captain. Errol Holmes, having led the side from 1934-38, was pressed into action again the following year, a man who clearly split opinion. Sir Jack Hobbs described Holmes as having “the pulse of cricket at his fingertips and he always led Surrey the right way” while Jim Laker reckoned he was the biggest snob he met in the game.

His availability patchy because of business commitments in 1948, Holmes would only make eight Championship appearances and Michael Barton – who would replace him for the next three seasons – would captain the side more often than not. A rise to sixth place in 1947 had offered hope but Surrey were now without pacer Alf Gover, who had taken more than 100 wickets in each of the past two seasons – lifting his first-class tally to 1,555 – in stretching his career beyond the war. But at 40 he felt another season was beyond him, retiring to concentrate fully on coaching. Early in the summer the county also bade farewell to another stalwart in the prolific Tom Barling to take up a coaching appointment at Harrow School.

But after losing to MCC by 94 runs at Lord’s and Bradman’s Australians inflicting a thrashing by an innings and 296 runs, Surrey made sufficient progress in the Championship to stay in touch with the leading pack without ever heading it.

That was helped by veteran left-hander Laurie Fishlock enjoying a vintage summer, making 1,729 runs, while Stan Squires (1,435), Jack Parker (1,127) and Barton (923) headed the rest.

Surrey had insisted that Alec Bedser rested the previous winter rather than touring West Indies with England and it paid off, taking 74 wickets at 19 despite playing all five Tests – holding the home attack together – with off-spinner Laker collecting 72, having appeared in three Tests.

They were indebted, though, to left-arm spinner Jack McMahon, born in South Australia and having joined the club in 1947, who claimed 85 victims. Eric Bedser’s advance as an off-spinner earned him 32 wickets, deputising ably for Laker.

A spurt of four wins in five matches sent Surrey into their penultimate home game against Middlesex, starting on August 7, with a serious chance of the title. The hosts were inserted on a rain-affected pitch, opener Fishlock’s 82 holding them together as left-arm spinner Jack Young’s 7-50 finished off the innings for 156. That looked rather better when Laker (4-51), Alec Bedser (3-25) and McMahon (3-20) rushed out Middlesex for 118. But Young took another seven in the second innings, Surrey having now lost Eric Bedser to illness, the visitors needing 142 at a run a minute to win. At 35-5 they looked beaten, George Mann (29) and Walter Robins (38) adding a rapid 62. McMahon removed both but Jim Sims hit hard, his side still looking outsiders at 120-9. Surrey’s catching let them down twice though, Holmes also failing to recall Alec Bedser until it was too late as Middlesex grabbed victory.

There were still six matches left and Surrey’s title hopes could be rescued if they beat Glamorgan at Cardiff Arms Park. Wilf Wooller’s side had been among the frontrunners throughout but were widely expected to fade away. The newest of the first-class counties at that stage, they had struggled desperately for much of the time since being admitted to the Championship in 1921.

Little fazed Wooller, who had played 18 rugby internationals for Wales before WW2 and then spent three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

He admitted that rival counties might have stronger batting or bowling but none caught and fielded better.

Wooller made 89 out of Glamorgan’s 239 all out– Laker claiming 5-86 – before Surrey suffered a catastrophic final hour, collapsing to 47-9, wrecked by the off-spin of Johnnie Clay.

Recalled at the age of 50, Clay had played in his county’s maiden season, his availability now limited by being a Test selector. He finished off the visitors for 50 on the second morning to collect 5-15 and took another five in the second innings. This time Surrey did slightly better, Fishlock (38), Bernie Constable (30) and Stuart Surridge’s late 33no lifting them to 165 all out but they were still beaten by an innings and 34 runs and their title ambitions were at an end.

Glamorgan would go on to win the title – pleasing the romantics – by thrashing Hampshire at Bournemouth, a match terminated by umpire Dai Davies uttering the immortal words: “That’s out – and we’ve won!”

Surrey could at least look with optimism to the future. Two of their most promising young players had been away on National Service, meeting in the Army v Navy match at Lord’s when Gunner Tony Lock was up against Writer Peter May.

The following spring’s Wisden also noted, in the schools section, that “MJ Stewart, a right-hander with a number of attractive strokes” had shone for Alleyn’s School.

Oval Test

If sport had been strictly rationed during the war, like so much else, there was now a wealth of it. The London Olympics would normally have had undisputed top billing but this was no ordinary year. The first Australian tour since the conflict saw Donald Bradman captaining one of the strongest Australian teams of all time on his farewell to cricket.

They became known as “The Invincibles”, the only team to go through an entire English tour without losing a match, a considerable achievement given they played 31 first-class matches, including five Tests.

Having won the first post-war Ashes series 3-0 down under in 1946-47, only the margin of victory was in dispute and the Australians gave a demonstration of their awesome batting power early on by scoring 721 all out in a day against Essex at Southend.

Like all great teams, Australia possessed a formidable attack, their pace trio of Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Bill Johnston a match for anyone, helped by amendment to the playing conditions which allowed a new ball after just 55 overs. Not surprisingly, a makeshift England side led by Norman Yardley were blown away.

Australia won the opening Test at Trent Bridge by eight wickets – Bradman making 138 and Denis Compton’s 184 not enough to save England – and then triumphed by 409 runs at Lord’s.

England claimed a substantial first innings lead at Old Trafford, in a rain-hit draw, and were narrowly ahead at Headingley, going on to set the tourists 403 on the final day on a deteriorating pitch. Bradman, though, rode his luck to make 173 and opener Arthur Morris’s 182 was instrumental in them winning by seven wickets.

That brought the series to The Oval and Bradman’s final Test. A match starting on August 14 – the same day as the closing ceremony of the Olympics – began with the square covered in sawdust after heavy overnight rain. Yardley chose to bat first, despite the damp pitch, fearing further rain would make it more difficult later but saw his side demolished for 52, largely by Lindwall’s 6-20. Only Len Hutton, briefly omitted earlier in the series, survived for long to finish unbeaten on 30.

Those in the capacity crowd who had worried they would not see Bradman bat on the opening day – it was unlikely he would need more than one innings – had to carry on waiting while openers Morris and Sid Barnes put on 117. But when Barnes went for 61 at 6pm, in walked The Don to a thunderous ovation and three cheers from his opponents.

Needing just four runs to finish his Test career with an average of 100 or more, even this most unsentimental of men admitted he was stirred. To the second ball he faced, from leg-spinner Eric Hollies, Bradman failed to spot the googly and was bowled, a stunned silence followed by equally tumultuous applause.

While his captain surveyed a final average of 99.94, Morris kept going to make 196 before being eighth out, the next best Lindsay Hassett’s 37, Warwickshire’s Hollies finishing with 5-131 from 56 overs.

Australia’s 389 was still more than enough, Hutton making 64 and Compton 39 but England bowled out for 188 to be beaten by an innings and 149 runs. Amid the wreckage, there was one major plus for the hosts, Surrey’s Alec Bedser the outstanding bowler for his side with 18 wickets over five Tests.

What else happened?

Clement Attlee’s Labour government, elected in a massive landslide in 1945, introduced two major changes – the nationalisation of the old regionalised private train companies on January 1 saw them operating as British Railways (later British Rail). And in July the new National Health Service began functioning, offering universal healthcare which was free at the point of delivery.

Rationing continued, although it ended for bread in July, the basic petrol allowance – stopped the previous year because of a dock strike – being restored although private motorists still only had enough for around 90 miles each month.

Mahatma Gandhi, having ended a fast aimed at curbing inter-communal violence in the aftermath of the partition of India in preparation for independence, was assassinated. Other parts of Britain’s dwindling empire going their own way included Malaysia and Ceylon, which became Sri Lanka later.

In the United States, president Harry Truman signed the Marshall Plan which authorised $5billion worth of aid to 16 countries attempting to recover from the Second World War. He also signed an executive order ending racial segregation in the American armed forces. Having succeeded Franklin D Roosevelt in the dying days of the war, spending just 82 days as vice-president, Truman won his own mandate at the end of the year in a surprise victory over Republican Thomas Dewey.

The first major crisis of the Cold War saw Soviet Union forces blocking railway, road and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under the control of Britain, the USA and France. The Berlin Airlift saw necessities being flown into the city in a remarkable operation.

Princess Elizabeth, heir to the throne, gave birth to a son, christened Charles Philip Arthur George. He would have to wait until 2022, midway through an Oval Test, to become King.

Field Marshall Jan Smuts and his wartime government were defeated in the South African general election, the winning National Party immediately launching their policy of apartheid which would dominate the country until 1994.

The Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, bringing more than 800 Afro-Caribbean immigrants to settle in Britain.

The Summer Olympics had originally been awarded to London for 1944 but now came four years later, the first to be staged since the Nazi-dominated event in Berlin 12 years earlier. Britain was so short of money that there was no cash – and little time – to build new venues. Much of the action, between July 31 and August 14, was at Wembley Stadium and the adjacent Empire Pool while other venues used included the Herne Hill Velodrome. Accommodation for athletes was spartan, some having to be housed in prisoner-of-war camps which had been cleared of the usual residents, given a lick of paint and the barbed wire removed. Germany and Japan were not invited and the Soviet Union declined to send a team.

The star was Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, who claimed four gold medals, the mother of two nicknamed the “flying housewife”, while Finnish gymnast Veikko Huhtanen collected three golds, a silver and a bronze. The USA dominated the medal table, taking home 38 golds, 27 silvers and 19 bronzes. Britain claimed three golds, two for rowing and one for sailing.

The Winter Olympics had been staged in St Mauritz, Norway finishing top of the medal table followed by Sweden and hosts Switzerland.

Arsenal won the Football League Championship by seven points from Manchester United, who were still playing at Manchester City’s Maine Road ground while Old Trafford was rebuilt after war damage. Compensation for Matt Busby’s side was beating Blackpool 4-2 at Wembley to claim the FA Cup, their first trophy for 37 years.

American Bob Falkenburg won the men’s singles final at Wimbledon, beating Australia’s John Bromwich 7-5 0-6 6-2 3-6 7-5. Louise Brough defeated fellow American Doris Hart 6-3 8-6 for the women’s title.

Henry Cotton won his third and final Open title at Muirfield, finishing five strokes ahead of defending champion Fred Daly.

George Orwell completed his final novel, 1984, warning about totalitarianism, which would be published early the next year.