Ashes at The Oval: Drama & Controversy

Published: 8th June, 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 fifth part of his series, Richard Spiller looks back at one of the most famous finishes – and all the controversy that came with it.

Scoring a Test century on your home ground – particularly against Australia – is a career highlight for any player. Yet John Edrich’s 164 in the 1968 Test at The Oval is often forgotten amid all the drama and recriminations surrounding this most extraordinary match, which aroused worldwide controversy and intense political fallout.

Just as in the two previous home Ashes series, Australia had already retained the urn by the time the series reached its finale, despite the tourists often looking second-best. Wisden labelled them “perhaps one of the most disappointing” of the 25 squads to have visited these shores by then.

Yet they went ahead in the opening match at Old Trafford, winning by 159 runs against an oddly-selected home side which possessed just three frontline bowlers, England having entered the series in confident mood after beating West Indies in the Caribbean.

Rain saved the visitors at Lord’s, the hosts making 351-7dec and then bowling out Australia for 78, the follow-on reaching 127-5 when time ran out. Skipper Colin Cowdrey’s century in his 100th Test at Edgbaston put the hosts in charge again, despite the loss of the opening day to rain, while all but 90 minutes on the last were washed out with their opponents 68-1 chasing an unlikely 330.

Both Cowdrey and his opposite number Bill Lawry had to sit it out at Headingley, where a tightly-fought draw ensured The Ashes would stay with Australia for the rest of the decade, having regained them in 1958-59.

So was The Oval an anti-climax? Not a bit of it.

As subject as anyone to the changing moods of the selectors – and facing competition at the top of the order from the likes of Boycott, Barber and Milburn – Edrich’s place at the top of the order had finally been cemented by a solid series in West Indies, maintaining his form through the English summer and hitting half-centuries in his previous four innings.

Cowdrey, now fit to return, was desperate to halve the series even if the Ashes were gone and took the chance to bat first. His side reached 272-4 on the first day, which owed much to Edrich’s 130no, his fourth century in 13 Tests against Australia.

In doing so he joined the likes of Walter Read, Tom Hayward, Jack Hobbs (twice) and Ken Barrington in the ranks of Surrey players who had achieved the feat on home turf. Only Mark Ramprakash (2001) and Kevin Pietersen (2011) have achieved it since.

Edrich went on to 164 on the second day – another 17 in the second innings lifting him to 554 for the series – but all eyes were on his partner by then. Basil D’Oliveira had been dropped after the first Test, despite hitting 87no, and was only recalled when Roger Prideaux dropped out late, having done little in between to advertise his abilities.

Yet there was much more to it than form when it came to D’Oliveira – for months a debate had been raging about whether he could, would or should be picked for the forthcoming winter’s tour to the land of his birth, South Africa. The Cape Coloured all-rounder had moved to England for the chance to play the level of cricket which apartheid prevented.

Now he played with a remarkable certainty given the personal pressure circling around him, a typically forceful 158 driving England to a commanding 494 all out. Umpire Charlie Elliott’s aside to him on reaching three-figures, “you’ve really put the cat among the pigeons”, one of the great sporting understatements.

Despite Lawry’s typically staunch 135, Australia conceded a sizeable after being dismissed for 324, speedsters John Snow and David Brown claiming three wickets apiece.

England took just three hours to muster 181 all out in their second innings, on the fourth day, despite the best efforts of Alan Connolly (4-65), and then grabbed two quick wickets – Lawry and Ian Redpath – which left the tourists in trouble at 13-2 going into the final day.

They were in even greater strife at 85-5 just before lunch when an enormous storm hit the ground, quickly leaving it under water. Even the reappearance of the sun soon after seemed too late to rescue England’s hopes of securing the victory which had eluded them all summer.

A picture of England captain Colin Cowdrey gazing forlornly at the puddles appeared to sum up the hopelessness of the situation.

Edrich explained: “We thought the game was over but Colin wasn’t having any of that and he still thought we could get back out there.”

Yet Bill Gordon, who had joined the groundstaff four years earlier and went on to be the head groundsman later, gives the credit to his predecessor Ted Warn: “It was Ted who convinced Colin Cowdrey that we could do it. It was an amazing achievement really.”

Spectators were inveigled to help out, using spikes, forks and whatever else they could use being pressed into action, and the game was finally restarted with 75 minutes remaining.

Yet time seemed to be running out on England again as Cowdrey’s multiple bowling changes failed to work. Appropriately it was D’Oliveira who made the breakthrough, removing the stubborn Barry Jarman. Cowdrey immediately recalled Underwood, who had taken three wickets earlier, and his unique brand of left-arm spin was ideal for the drying pitch. Surrounded by the every fielder possible amid a sea of sawdust, the rest folded in 27 deliveries with opener John Inverarity who had battled away for four hours to make 56 – leg-before shouldering arms with a maximum of two overs remaining.

Underwood finished with 7-50 and Cowdrey had his victory by 226 runs, although different sort storm was just about to break as he helped to pick a squad for South Africa which excluded D’Oliveira.

The controversy which followed it included MCC members forcing a special meeting to discuss the matter, while any pleasure South Africa’s government took from D’Oliveira’s exclusion was soon broken when he was drafted in for the injured Tom Cartwright.

Now the selectors were attacked from both sides and it led to the tour being cancelled, no cricket being played between the countries until apartheid had been dismantled.

“Basil was a fine player and I thought he should have been in the side all the way through,” reckoned Edrich. “He was underestimated by many people.”

Typically unassuming about his own role in winning the game, he added: “It was always special to get any Test century, especially against Australia and even more so coming at The Oval.”

Edrich was to find himself in charge four years later, following an injury to skipper Ray Illingworth.

England had finally recovered The Ashes by winning 2-0 in the 1970-71 series and kept their noses just in front when battle was rejoined, winning the first Test at Old Trafford. Australia levelled at Lord’s but were held off at Trent Bridge only to be beaten in three days at Headingley, the recalled Underwood claiming 10 wickets on a pitch perfectly suited to him.

Ian Chappell’s feisty side were determined to take a share from the series even if they could not regain the urn and – with the match extended to six days – dismissed England for 284 early on the second day, the final two wickets adding 103 thanks to the unorthodox brilliance of wicketkeeper Alan Knott’s 92.

Chappell (118) and his younger brother Greg (113) then became the first brothers to score centuries in the same Test innings, Ross Edwards (79) pushing Australia up to 399 all out.

England’s only debutant of the series, Barry Wood, impressed by making 90 in the second innings and Knott cracked another 63 while the home side’s 356 all out was the only time all series they passed 300. Not surprisingly there were no individual centuries and, as for much of the series, they found the pace of fiery Dennis Lillee too much, his 5-58 in the first innings complemented by 5-123 in the second.

Left to make 242 when they batted again on the fifth day, Australia were aided first by spearhead John Snow leaving the field after bowling six overs – having been struck by Lillee earlier – and then seeing off-spinner Illingworth sprain his right ankle while bowling. That left Edrich in charge and with D’Oliveira in his final Test also unfit to bowl, he could do nothing to prevent Paul Sheahan (44no) and Rod Marsh (43no) adding 71 to win the match by five wickets on the sixth afternoon, levelling the series 2-2.

Edrich’s moderate series in 1972 meant he spent 18 months out of the international game but his phlegmatic temperament was never better tested than during the torrid 1974-75 series, when Australia unleashed Lillee (fit again after a career-threatening back injury) and Jeff Thomson, who left a stream of broken bones and careers in their wake on the way to regaining The Ashes 4-1.

South Africa had been due to visit the following summer but, in the aftermath of the D’Oliveira affair were now firmly in the cold. So Australia agreed to follow the inaugural World Cup by defending the urn over four Tests, winning the first by an innings at Edgbaston.

Edrich had suffered more than most in Australia – a broken hand and cracked ribs. But when he found a pitch to his liking in the next match at Lord’s he made 175 – his seventh and largest century against Australia – in a drawn match. England fancied their chances of levelling the at Headingley when they set the tourists 445 to win, the chase having reached an intriguing 220-3 by the end of the fourth day.

There was to be no climax, vandals breaking into the ground overnight before pouring oil over the  pitch and gouging out parts of it. Rain which started before lunch would almost certainly have prevented a positive result either way.

A day was added to the final match at The Oval and Australia made sure they would hang on to the lead when Rick McCosker (127) and Ian Chappell – making 192, having announced he was stepping down as captain – put on 277 for the second wicket on the way to 532-9dec. A weather-hit third day perfect for bowlers was instrumental in England being dismissed for 191, Thomson and Max Walker claiming four wickets each, and they followed on early on 341 behind early on day four.

Edrich dug deep foundations this time in making 96 and was just four runs from an eighth century when he was bowled by Lillee early on day six.

“I thought it was on hit him through the legside but I missed it,” reflects Edrich ruefully, but he had the opportunity to watch county colleague Graham Roope make 77 on his recall after two years out while David Steele – the 33-year-old from Northamptonshire who made such a huge impact that he was Sports Personality of the Year for 1975 – hit 66. The man who saved England, though, was Kent’s Bob Woolmer, whose 149 stretched over a remarkable 495 minutes.

Australia, having declared late on the second day, finally dismissed their opponents for 538 late on the sixth, Lillee (4-91) and Doug Walters (4-34) their most successful bowlers, and rested weary limbs in batting out time at 40-2.

Edrich’s long spell in Test cricket had finished by the time Australia returned for their schedule tour in 1977, a series overshadowed by many of the world’s best players signing to play in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket down under.

England, led now by Mike Brearley, were easily the better side and won 3-0, a draw at Lord’s followed by wins at Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and Headingley. The opening day at The Oval was lost to rain and the hosts found themselves inserted, being bowled out for 214. The outstanding feature of the second day had been debutant seamer Mick Malone bowling all but two of the 45 overs bowled from the Vauxhall End, finishing with 5-63 from 47 in what was to be his sole Test.

David Hookes’s 85 and a century stand for the ninth wicket between Max Walker (78no) and Malone (46) took Australia to 385 but with much of the third day having also been lost to the weather, England only had to bat out 26 overs, finishing at 57-2 in a soggy finish to a series full of action on the pitch and intrigue off it.

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