Ashes At The Oval: The Bradman Years

Published: 7th April, 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. Richard Spiller focuses on the Bradman effect, in the third of his series.

Click here to see the first article in the series while you can see the first years of the 20th century here.

Until the intervention of Don Bradman, England had every reason to regard The Oval as their lucky ground.

In 15 matches, they had lost just once – the seven-run defeat in 1882 which spawned the legend of The Ashes – and won nine times. The little genius had been unable to prevent Australia suffering a 4-1 thumping in 1928-29, in his maiden series, but when battle was rejoined in the English summer of 1930 he scored a century at Trent Bridge, adding a double at Lord’s and then 334 at Headingley.

Despite that, it was still 1-1 when the sides arrived at The Oval, England taking the controversial decision drop skipper Percy Chapman, ironic given it was there he had led them to victory – which won The Ashes – four years earlier after being put in charge.

The match was to be played to a finish, however long it took, England getting a good start through openers Herbert Sutcliffe (161) and Jack Hobbs (47) and new captain Bob Wyatt making 64 on the way to 405 all out.

That was put into perspective first by opener Bill Ponsford making 110 out of the first 159 and then Bradman hammering 232, taking his tally to a record 974 for the series, putting on 243 for the fourth wicket with New South Wales strokemaker Archie Jackson (73).

It drove Australia up to 695, despite the efforts of leg-spinner Ian Peebles – who finished with 6-204 in a marathon 71 overs – and England crumbled second time round to 251 to lose by an innings and 39 runs. This time it was left-arm spinner Percy Hornibrook , collecting 7-92 in his seventh and final Test, who was their undoing.

That made a sad finale for Surrey’s Hobbs, playing the last of his 61 Tests aged 47 and having scored 12 centuries in Ashes battles. He made 47 and nine, being cheered all the way to the wicket in his final innings and given three cheers by the Australians.

By the time the sides returned to The Oval four years later, The Ashes had swapped hands twice. England had won them back in controversial fashion in 1932-33 under Douglas Jardine in what has become known as the Bodyline Series, a tactic of using short-pitched bowling designed specifically to reduce Bradman’s effectiveness but used liberally by an attack led by Harold Larwood.

Jardine and Larwood had been sidelined by the time Australia headed back in 1934 and although Bradman’s output had been curtailed by ill-health – peritonitis putting his life in danger at one stage – he marked his return to fitness with an epic 304 at Headingley. Despite that, it was 1-1 again going into the final match.

The Don had put on 388 with Ponsford in the fourth Test and this time they took advantage of Bosser Martin’s superb pitch by adding 451 for the second wicket, a record only exceeded on three occasions (for any wicket) since. Ponsford reached 266 in what was to prove his final Test and Bradman hit 244, Australia amassing 701 all out. It was all too much for Wyatt’s men, Maurice Leyland’s 110 the main resistance while they were bowled out for 321.

Australia chose to bat again, seamers Bill Bowes and Nobby Clark taking five wickets apiece, but England were dismissed for 145 second time round, leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett collecting 5-64, to lose by a monumental 562 runs and concede the urn once more.

Bradman was to play two more Tests at The Oval, yet he had scored his last international run on the ground. Succeeding Woodfull as captain for the 1936-37 series in Australia, he spearheaded a remarkable comeback from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against Gubby Allen’s side.

The 1938 battle opened with draws at Trent Bridge and Lord’s followed by the Old Trafford Test being washed out without a ball bowled. In triumphing by five wickets at Headingley, Australia again retained the urn but the match at The Oval was once again to be played to a finish.

England had first use of another prime surface and Bradman had to watch while Len Hutton, at 22, batted through the first two days to be unbeaten on 300, having added 382 for the second wicket with Yorkshire colleague Leyland (187). He had Bradman’s own Test record of 334 in his sights and, on passing the record received the adulation of the crowd and a warm handshake from the Australian captain.

Hutton went on to make 364 out of 903-7dec – which remained a team record until 1997 – as Joe Hardstaff joined in the run orgy with 169no, left-arm spinner Chuck Fleetwood-Smith suffering the mortifying figures of 1-198 from 87 overs.

Bradman had been carried off the field with a broken bone in his leg on the third day, after putting himself on to bowl, and with fellow batsman Jack Fingleton also out of action Australia sank to 201 and 123, beaten by an innings and 579 runs to leave the series drawn 1-1.

It was to be another decade before Australia returned, the Second World War having ensured international cricket – along with so many other things – was suspended.

As had happened earlier in the century, English cricket took longer to pick up after the conflict and were handed a 3-0 drubbing down under in 1946-47. Little more was expected this time, not least with Australia looking even stronger, Bradman overcoming concerns over his health to make a final tour at the head of a side which became known as “The Invincibles”.

They cut an astonishing swathe through the country, not least scoring an extraordinary 721 all out in one day against Essex at Southend.

England’s makeshift side were heavily beaten at Trent Bridge and Lord’s before a wet draw at Old Trafford. Moving across the Pennines to Headingley, England fancied their chances of a victory which would keep the series (and Ashes) alive when they set the tourists 404 to win in less than a day only for opener Arthur Morris (182) and Bradman’s 173no to claim an outstanding victory by seven wickets.

The series was then put on hold for almost a month while London hosted the Olympic Games but, if anything, it only increased the drama of Bradman’s final Test, when he needed just four runs to finish with a career average of 100.

That The Oval was able to stage the match was a miracle. When the war had finished in 1945, the ground was a prisoner-of-war camp – albeit never used – and it was estimated that it would take at least three years to be fit for purpose again.

Groundsman Bert Lock had other ideas and affected a remarkable transformation so that cricket restarted the following season but there were still giveaway signs where bomb damage, albeit remarkably light given the ground’s location, had been patched up.

Despite poor weather in the build-up, Lock and his team got the match started only an hour late, England captain Norman Yardley deciding to bat first on a sodden pitch rather than risk more showers later making it even worse.

The hosts lasted just two-and-a-half hours as Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Bill Johnston wreaked yet more havoc in bowling them out for 52, Hutton’s 30 before being last out regarded as accomplished as his marathon 10 years earlier. Lindwall finished with 6-20.

Instead of having to wait until the second day to see Bradman, the huge crowd now realised he was likely to start his final innings – and they could be pretty sure there would only be one – on the first.

Openers Sid Barnes and Arthur Morris put on 117 to delay his appearance until shortly before 6pm, Bradman’s arrival greeted by an ovation for the ages and Yardley shaking his hand in the middle and then leading his side (and the crowd) in giving three cheers.

The Australian was not known as emotional man but even he admitted the occasion moved him and that surely contributed to misreading a googly from leg-spinner Eric Hollies and being bowled by his second delivery, a stunned silence giving way to the tumult which accompanied him off the ground, heading into the pavilion through the doors which have now been named after him with an average of 99.94

It was Morris instead who took the honours by making 196 out of 389 all out – Hollies finishing with 5-131 – and his starring role is a favourite memory of former Surrey president Bernie Coleman, watching from the top of the pavilion.

“It was a wonderful place to see the game and the whole occasion seemed to be all about Bradman. One thing I remember as much as anything was that when he was bowled out by Hollies was that there were no histrionics. He just put his bat under his arm and walked off.”

“But the funny thing was that Arthur Morris made 196 and no one talks about it.

“He became a great friend of many of us at the club later and he said that people used to ask him whether he saw Bradman’s last innings or whether he was there.

“He was able to tell them he saw all of it – from the other end of the pitch – but no one remembers that bit.”

Facing another massive defeat, England at least fared better in the second innings, Hutton (64) again leading the way and gaining support from Bill Edrich (28) and Denis Compton (39). Once they fell, though, the hosts were rounded up for 188 (Johnston 4-40) early on the fourth day.

Australia had won by an innings and 149 runs to claim the series 4-0 but the era of Bradman, who was knighted shortly afterwards, was over and a new chapter in the story of The Ashes could begin

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