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Ashes at The Oval: 1950s & 1960s

Published: 6th May, 2019

When England take on Australia in the final Test at The Oval in September, it will be the 38th time they have done battle at the Kia Oval.

In the fourth part of his series, Richard Spiller looks at the years after Don Bradman had retired as England clambered back on top.

Once The Don had retired and his ‘Invincibles’ side began to fade away, England were always going to find life easier.

Not that it happened straightaway. Amid hopes of an immediate turnaround when England travelled down under in 1950-51, they lost 4-1.

That consolation ‘elusive victory’ – the title of EW Swanton’s book on the tour and a first win in three series since the Second World War – had the effect of fuelling great excitement when Lindsay Hassett brought his side over here in 1953.

Coronation year demanded sporting heroics, Surrey’s Alec Bedser leading the way by claiming 14 wickets in the drawn opening Test at Trent Bridge and then the Australians being deprived of what had seemed a certain victory at Lord’s by Trevor Bailey and Willie Watson batting through most of the final day.

Signs that the tourists might crack – they still had a mighty attack headed by Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller – started to show at Old Trafford, taking a narrow lead on first innings but then sinking to 35-8 when they batted again only for time to run out with the fourth day having been lost.

PART ONE: EARLY ASHES AT THE OVAL

Australia were on top again at Headingley but could not gain the success which would have retained The Ashes, which meant the fight would be settled at The Oval.

Now Bedser – who claimed a remarkable 39 wickets in the series – and Fred Trueman conspired to dismiss Australia for 275 on day one. Lindwall held them up by hitting 62 down the order and then claimed 4-70 but was unable to prevent England eking out a lead of 31 through Len Hutton’s 82 and Bailey’s 64

It was on the third day that both match and series were decided, Australia unable to cope with the Surrey spin duo of Jim Laker and Tony Lock, revelling in the helpful conditions of their home pitch to provoke a collapse from 59-1 to 85-6. Lock’s 5-45 and Laker’s 4-75 finished off the innings for 162 and England needed 132 to win back The Ashes they had conceded in 1934.

They lost Hutton for 17 and Peter May – the fourth Surrey player in the side – for 37 but it was appropriate that two of the bastions of England’s post-war batting were together when the moment of victory came. Bill Edrich (55no) watched as Denis Compton made the winning hit, the crowd sweeping across the ground in celebration before Hutton’s victory speech from the pavilion.

Bernie Coleman, who was to become one of English cricket’s most influential administrators and play a leading role in Surrey’s off-field development, watched both the Lord’s and Oval Tests. He recalled: “We really didn’t seem to have much of a chance of saving the game at Lord’s but Watson and Bailey batted superbly to get a draw.

“That set up the situation at The Oval. It was a wonderful scene at the end, watching the crowd stream across in front of the pavilion, having at last finally won back The Ashes.”

Micky Stewart was in the infancy of his career in 1953 and was present for the pivotal third day of the game. He remembered: “Australia didn’t see an awful lot of finger-spin – over there the bowlers were either fast or leg-spinners. So they struggled to cope against Laker and Lock on a turning pitch.”

And what does he remember of the reaction to winning back The Ashes after so long: “Everyone was very pleased but it was a different world. Cricket was a game and regarded in that context.”

If Australia had been exposed by spin in 1953, that was as nothing to their struggles three years later. Undone by the pace of Frank Tyson during the intervening series in 1954-55, they had surprisingly gone ahead in the second Test at Lord’s only to be thrashed by an innings and 42 runs at Headingley, Laker and Lock claiming all but two of the wickets.

Worse was to come for the tourists at Old Trafford, this time Laker claiming the greatest bowling feat of all time by taking 19 wickets for 90 (a frustrated Lock finished with the other one) to retain the Ashes with victory by an innings and 205 runs.

If the Australians viewed the final match at The Oval with trepidation it was no surprise – they had already lost to Surrey there early in the tour, a first defeat at the hands of a county since 1912, when Laker had claimed 10-88 in the first innings.

Attention on the opening day, though, fell on Denis Compton as he made 94 on his comeback after having his right kneecap removed the previous autumn, lifting England from 66-3 to 222 in company with skipper Peter May. His 83 was another highlight of a series which saw him average 90, before a collapse to 247 all out against Miller (4-91) and Ron Archer (5-53).

Australia were in danger of following-on for a third match running at 47-5 until the mighty all-rounder Miller – playing his last Test in England – made 61 and with Richie Benaud (32) and Ray Lindwall (22) narrowed the lead to 45. Brian Statham (3-33) and Laker (4-80) largely shared the spoils.

PART TWO: THE 20TH CENTURY BEGINS

Rain arrived in such quantity just after lunch on the third day that it prevented play until the fifth afternoon – taking in the rest day too, with around 12 hours out of 30 lost in a miserable summer overall – which limited the home side’s time to push for a third win, David Sheppard’s 62 was the highlight of their 182-3dec but rather than offer his opponents the faintest chance of levelling the series, a cautious May declaration left them just two hours to make 228.

He had reason to regret it when they plunged to 27-5 before time ran out, Laker’s 3-8 in 18 overs driving his remarkable tally to a record 46 wickets at 9.6 each.

By the time the Australians made their next trip five years later, the landscape of the Ashes was looking very different. England had departed to the southern hemisphere in 1958-59 with a side hailed as one of the strongest in history, tipped to win a fourth successive battle, yet had been thrashed 4-0 by Richie Benaud’s men – ending their unbeaten run in any series since 1952 – in a tour which was marred by bad feeling over throwing.

An uneasy truce was in place by 1961 as a clean-up took place while the retirement of Laker meant the man who had given Australia nightmares changed the balance further, Lock still being in place but having remodelled his own controversial action.

Benaud’s side were not regarded as being particularly strong with bat or ball but they were led by a man who was as sharp a tactician as he was to prove magnificent a commentator for so many years.

England had hung on for a draw at Edgbaston and went behind at Lord’s but a deadly burst of 6-5 by Fred Trueman at Headingley squared the series. They looked set to go in front at Old Trafford only for a Benaud-inspired collapse to beat them by 54 runs and ensure his men kept the Ashes.

At least England could still square the series with a win at The Oval, an ambition which was all but ended when they were bowled out for 256. May’s 71 was the best, a reminder of his old dominance after missing much of the previous two years through illness, left-arm seamer Alan Davidson finishing with 4-83.

England had omitted Trueman and were locked out of the series by Norman O’Neill (117) and Peter Burge (181) driving them to 494 all out, leaving May’s men just over two days to fight for a draw. That they achieved it was down to opener Raman Subba Row, who hit 137 having announced his retirement from first-class cricket before the match at the age of 29, after just 13 Tests.

Born in Streatham and educated at Whitgift School, the left-hander had spent his early years with Surrey before taking up the captaincy of Northants, although his career as one of the game’s leading administrators – particularly his deep involvement at The Oval – was to last far longer.

With the aid of Ken Barrington (83), one of three Surrey players in the side alongside May and Lock, England hung on for the draw at 370-8.

It was to prove May’s farewell too but the man regarded by many as his country’s finest post-war player did not go out amid standing ovations and guards of honour, preferring a typically low-key end to a career of 66 Tests – scoring 4,537 runs at 46 – with 41 as captain.

PART THREE: THE BRADMAN YEARS

Ashes series in the 1960s were all closely-fought, ending either level or decided by one match and Australia held the urn throughout. A 1-1 draw down under in 1962-63 was typical, so it was no surprise that the next renewal in 1964 was tight.

So wet was the weather in the opening Tests at Trent Bridge and Lord’s that results were almost impossible, Peter Burge’s epic 160 at Headingley key to Australia winning by seven wickets.

That sent the sides across the Pennines and at Old Trafford – scene of that antipodean nightmare eight years earlier – Bobby Simpson took advantage of winning the toss on a shirtfront pitch by making a marathon 311 in 762 minutes which enabled his side to bat into the third day before finally declaring at 656-8dec.

Home skipper Ted Dexter (174) and Ken Barrington’s 256 assured England of a draw as they responded with 611 but the Ashes were decided again before the series reached its finale.

England were dismissed for 182 in tricky batting conditions by seamer Neil Hawke’s 6-47 and Bill Lawry (94) gave the visitors a healthy lead as they batted comfortably through the third morning. Treated harshly by Burge at Headingley, Trueman had been left out at Old Trafford but that turned out to be a blessing.

The fires of one of the great fast bowlers had almost been quelled and his chance of being the first in the history of Test cricket to reach 300 wickets was ebbing away, marooned on 297. Just before lunch he took things – and the ball – into his own hands by returning from the pavilion end, removing Ian Redpath’s middle stump for 45 and next ball finding Graham McKenzie’s outside edge to reach 299.

There was no time for another delivery before lunch and no spectator wanted to be late back. But the Yorkshireman did not leave them waiting for long, an edge from Hawke being pouched at first slip by Cowdrey to the roar of the crowd, the batsman sportingly shaking his opponent’s hand as he walked off.

Trueman finished with 4-87, Australia bowled out for 379, and it was Geoffrey Boycott’s 113, his maiden Test century, which helped England bat with considerably greater ease to reach 381-4 at the end of the fourth day, giving them a lead of 179. Cowdrey (93no) and Ken Barrington (54no) might have hoped to plunder more and set up an intriguing finish but the final day was completely washed out in a series which largely lived up to the definition of a damp squib.

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