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The Great Leveller: Ashes Tests

Published: 10th September, 2019

Drama over? Not by a long chalk if the history of Ashes Tests at the Kia Oval is anything to go by. Richard Spiller takes us back to some classic encounters.

The Ashes may have gone now but England to can yet finish their international season – one which brought World Cup glory – on a high by making it 2-2 at the Kia Oval this week.

While some of the great moments in English sporting history have happened when the urn has been reclaimed at The Oval – the match in 2005, although a draw, remains burnished into the memory of all who watched – there has been great drama too on occasions when one side or other has been desperate to grab a tangible reward for all their efforts even though the main prize is beyond them.

1938: HUTTON’S 364

Australia hate to give away an advantage but in 1938, having already ensured they kept the urn courtesy of two draws, an abandonment and victory by five wickets at Headingley, Don Bradman’s side had to concede second-best to a 22-year-old opener from Yorkshire.

Len Hutton ensured his name would be associated with The Oval forever by making a world record score (for the time) of 364 after England won the toss on a plumb pitch, reaching 300 after two days and then passing the old landmark of 334 set by Bradman himself. He finally departed after more than 13 hours at the crease, having been joined in a second-wicket partnership worth 382 by Yorkshire colleague Maurice Leyland, who made 187. Joe Hardstaff’s unbeaten 169 lifted the score to a mammoth 903-7 before Wally Hammond declared.

By then Australia were missing Bradman and fellow batsman Jack Fingleton through injury, being bowled out for 201 and 123 to lose by an innings and 579 runs. It was the last match between the sides before the Second World War.

Australia were to become adept at securing The Ashes by the odd match in the 1960s, having won them back on home soil in 1958-59. They arrived 2-1 up at The Oval in 1961 and got the better of a draw and were in front 1-0 three years later when another stalemate was only made memorable by England fast bowler Fred Trueman becoming the first man to take 300 Test wickets.

1968: Spectators get involved

It looked as if history was going to repeat itself in 1968, Bill Lawry’s side having gone ahead in the opener at Old Trafford and hung on through the next three matches – aided by the weather – and looking to secure the series in Kennington.

They became embroiled, though, in one of the most dramatic finishes in the game’s history and a match which was to have far-reaching implications.

England’s 494 all out owed much to Surrey’s John Edrich making 164 on the first day before Basil d’Oliveira – dropped after the first Test but recalled for the last – ensured control was maintained in his 158.

“You’ve really put the cat among the pigeons,” said umpire Charlie Elliott when the Worcestershire all-rounder reached his century. D’Oliveira had been forced to move to England to play professionally because of the apartheid laws in his native South Africa. His heart was set on being a member of the touring party there the following winter.

After Lawry’s men were bowled out for 324 and saw their opponents reach 181 all out in the second innings, they were set 352 for victory but fell to 13-2 by the end of the fourth day.

The match looked almost over when Australia were reeling at 85-5 just before lunch on the fifth, only for a massive thunderstorm to transform the playing surface into a massive lake, leaving most to assume the match was finished.

England captain Colin Cowdrey, having paddled out to the middle, was persuaded by groundsman Ted Warn that it could be restarted and soon spectators were answering an appeal to help clear the water.

“It was Ted who convinced Colin Cowdrey that we could do it. It was an amazing achievement really,” remembered Bill Gordon, a newish member of Warn’s team who went on to be the head groundsman himself.

Spikes, forks, blankets and towels were all employed to complete the job, play restarting with 75 minutes remaining and D’Oliveira making the initial breakthrough before left-arm spinner Derek Underwood swept through the tourists, fielders clustered round the batsmen on a square covered in sawdust.

He finished them with a maximum of two overs remaining, his final 7-50 evidence of a lethal ability on drying pitches and earning England victory by 226 runs, much to the relief of Cowdrey.

The aftershocks were much greater – D’Oliveira’s exclusion from the original tour party provoked massive protests and when he was called in to replace Tom Cartwright (injured) the South African government cancelled the tour. It took until 1994 before the sides met again in Test cricket.

Australia took their revenge four years later. Furious that Ray Illingworth’s side had retained The Ashes by winning the previous match at Headingley – Underwood again their undoing with 10 wickets on another surface perfect for him – they arrived at The Oval 2-1 down.

Now they bowled out the hosts for 284 and then made 399, Ian and Greg Chappell joining in a 201-run stand which made them the first set of brothers to score centuries in the same Test innings. Dennis Lillee added five wickets to the handful he had claimed in the first innings, dismissing England for 356 second time round. Needing 242 in a match which stretched into a sixth day, Australia won by five wickets, a victory which could not assuage the disappointment of failing to take home The Ashes but gave them an awful lot of satisfaction.

That will be England’s aim this week.

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