The Oval: The great Ashes leveller - Kia Oval Skip to main content

England’s hopes of a remarkable fightback from 2-0 down to win the 2023 Ashes might have been drowned out at Old Trafford. But The Kia Oval has seen many fascinating battles in which both England and Australia have been desperate to share a series even if hopes of grabbing back the urn have gone. Richard Spiller takes a look back into previous encounters.

1938: Hutton’s epic for the ages

Beating Australia in the age of Don Bradman was never an easy task and the only time England managed it once he became established was by employing the infamous “Bodyline” tactics of the 1932-33 tour. Once normality was restored, Bradman proved unstoppable. His first Ashes tour as captain, in 1938, saw draws in the opening two matches, the third at Old Trafford being abandoned without a ball bowled before Australia won by five wickets at Headingley to retain the urn. England believed they deserved something from the series, though, and Wally Hammond’s luck with the toss held on a pitch prepared by ‘Bosser’ Martin along the usual lines – he squeezed the life out of them by using the four-ton roller known as “Bosser’s Pet”, having bound them using liquid manure which could be smelt from the Tube station.

Len Hutton had scored a century in the opening match of the series, failed twice at Lord’s and missed the match at Leeds through injury. Now he was back and under orders from Hammond to bat as long as he could in a match which would be played to a finish, however long it took. The slender 22-year-old lost opening partner Bill Edrich for 12 but was joined by his sturdy Yorkshire colleague Maurice Leyland in an alliance which took the hosts to 347-1 by the end of the opening day.

Left-hander Leyland was the least favourite opponent of leg-spinner Bill O’Reilly, who led what was effectively a three-man attack and had been promoted to number three for that reason. As the match began on a Saturday, it was followed by a rest day in which Hutton – on 160no, having survived a straightforward stumping chance at 40 – attended church in the morning and then went to the seaside. The pair took their alliance to a record 382 before Leyland was run out for 187, Hammond then making 42. His exit prompted a mini-collapse of three wickets for nine runs as Eddie Paynter (0) and Denis Compton (1) soon followed but Joe Hardstaff proved able company, Hutton reaching his triple-century just before the close at 634-5.

In view was the record highest Test score of 334, held by Bradman and scored at Headingley in 1930 with a youthful Hutton watching. He inched towards it and finally got there, cutting Chuck Fleetwood-Smith for the runs required. His 215 stand with Hardstaff (169) for the sixth wicket was another record, Hutton finally departing for 364, made over 13 hours and 20 minutes, a score which remained the Test best until Sir Garfield Sobers overtook it in 1965.

England weren’t finished, another of the five Yorkshiremen in the side replacing him. Arthur Wood, the 40-year-old wicketkeeper was making his debut in the absence of Les Ames and so keen to get to The Oval that he had taken a taxi from Nottingham. Entering at 770-6, he described himself as “just the man for a crisis”.

With opener Jack Fingleton having already torn a leg muscle, Bradman now fractured a bone in his ankle while having a rare bowl and Hammond finally declared at 903-7, much to the disappointment of Martin, who wanted to see a team reach four figures on his pitch. O’Reilly’s 85 overs had earned him 3-178 while left-arm leggie Fleetwood-Smith must have wept as he reflected on his 1-298 from 87.

With just 16 wickets to take, England’s task was considerably easier and it was no surprise that Australia folded for 201 in their first innings – pacer Bill Bowes claiming 5-49 – and then 123 to lose by an innings and 579 runs.

In all, 94,212 spectators witnessed the marathon effort and England had their share of the spoils, although they would have to wait another 15 years before regaining the Ashes, on that same ground in Kennington, with Hutton now captain. His name will be associated with The Oval forever.

1968: ‘Deadly Derek’ causes a storm

If the sixties were swinging for many then the prevailing theme for England in the Ashes was summed up by the Rolling Stones: I can’t get no satisfaction.

Ambushed 4-0 by Richie Benaud’s side when they had travelled down under as favourites in 1958-59, they lost in the following two home series – 1961 and 1964 – with their hopes of levelling at The Oval thwarted on both occasions. Only Fred Trueman becoming the first man to reach 300 Test wickets saved the latter from being a damp squib. Neither of the decade’s trips to Australia, in 1962-63 and 1965-66, were rewarded by victory either as they were finished 1-1.

So, by 1968 the appetite to recapture the urn was becoming overwhelming, not least as it came on the back of England winning a hard-fought series in West Indies under Colin Cowdrey.

But a poorly-chosen home side crashed to a 159-run defeat in the opening match of the series, at Old Trafford, and Bill Lawry’s men were saved by rain at Lord’s and Edgbaston before a drawn fourth Test at Headingley confirmed they would retain the Ashes. That just left the final match at The Oval, Surrey’s John Edrich relishing his home pitch to score a typically solid century on the opening day, which England closed at 272-4. The star of the second was Basil D’Oliveira, out of the side since Manchester and now back as a late replacement for Roger Prideaux.

The Worcestershire all-rounder had already been the subject of much speculation through the year about whether he would be selected for a return to his native South Africa, from which he had been forced to emigrate because of apartheid. Would those same laws mean he was welcome back as part of the England side?

Backroom machinations had attempted to avert that possibility and it seemed D’Oliveira’s poor form through much of the summer might do the job for them. But now D’Oliveira took his chance, an imposing 158 driving up his adopted country to 494. Upon reaching his century, umpire Charlie Elliott congratulated him and added: “Christ, you’ve put the cat among the pigeons now.”

Lawry’s typically obdurate 135 dominated Australia’s 324 in reply and the match was into its fourth day when England batted again, making their way to 181 all out and setting a target of 352. They had time to reduce the tourists to 13-2 before the close and, given sufficient time, looked sure to win the match on the final day. That seemed a certainty at 85-5 when, moments before the lunch interval, a huge storm hit The Oval and left the ground waterlogged within 30 minutes.

Cowdrey, having waited so long for his chance to be captain, despaired that the chance of victory had been drowned but was persuaded a restart was possible by head groundsman Ted Warn, who engaged members of the crowd to help his staff clear the playing surface. They did so in time for the match to restart with 75 minutes remaining, but Australia’s lower order would not give up easily. Cowdrey tried permutations of all his bowlers, and it was D’Oliveira’s medium pace which finally made the breakthrough by bowling wicketkeeper Barry Jarman.

Immediately, Cowdrey removed D’Oliveira and replaced him with Derek Underwood, his colleague at Kent who was so lethal in drying conditions, with just 35 minutes remaining. Ringing the batter with every fielder, the left-arm spinner found a previously soaked surface now playing tricks for him, having Ashley Mallett and Graham McKenzie caught at short-leg by the imposing David Brown. Johnny Gleeson lasted 12 minutes but there was still the problem of John Inverarity, who had seen off all comers for more than four overs. But with just six minutes left and the tension almost unbearable, Inverarity threw his pad at an Underwood delivery and was leg-before.

Australia were all out for 125, their hosts triumphant by 226 runs and Underwood had 7-50, his captain the happiest man in England.

1972: Agitated Aussies avenge Headingley’s defeat

It was Australia who arrived at The Oval feeling aggrieved four years later.

They had finally surrendered the Ashes to Ray Illingworth’s side in 1970-71, Ian Chappell patiently rebuilding but his developing side still underdogs when they arrived in England for the 1972 tour. Defeat by 89 runs in the opening Test at Old Trafford was cancelled out by an eight-wicket victory at Lord’s, where Bob Massie claimed 16 wickets in a sensational debut. England held on grimly for a draw at Trent Bridge, Illingworth’s ‘Dad’s Army’ harried constantly by the pace off Dennis Lillee, but it was all very different at Headingley. A pitch which had been infected by fusarium could not have been more perfectly suited to the recalled Derek Underwood.

Labelled “an embarrassment” by EW Swanton in the Daily Telegraph and slammed by the tourists, who suspected foul play, it helped him claim 10 wickets in a match which finished inside three days with victory ensuring England retained the urn.

Australia vowed vengeance and an extra day tagged on to the final Test gave them the ideal platform.

Lillee’s 5-58 led the destruction of England’s first innings, which would not have got close to 284 all out but for wicketkeeper Alan Knott’s 92. Then Ian and Greg Chappell became the first brothers to score centuries in the same Test innings. Making 118 and 113 respectively, they added 201 for the third wicket on the way to 399 all out. Underwood had to work rather harder for his 4-90 from 38 overs.

Facing a substantial deficit, England relied on opener Barry Wood – their only debutant of the summer – to see off the Australian pacemen and his 90 proved a superb effort in a series where no Englishman scored a century. Knott’s 63 included an assault on Massie, his side passing 300 for the first time in the series in reaching 356 despite the ferocious Lillee taking another five wickets.

Attempting to defend 242, the hosts suffered two serious blows. Pacer John Snow was unable to bowl more than five overs following a nasty blow from Lillee while batting. And with the pitch wearing, Illingworth’s right ankle sprain late on day five cost them a crucial counterpart to Underwood, as well as his astute tactical knowledge.

Keith Stackpole (79) and Ian Chappell (37) added 116 for the second wicket but 71 were still needed when Paul Sheahan and Rodney Marsh came together at 171, inching along at first and then expanding as victory came in view, Marsh’s delight obvious at the end as he wheeled his bat round in celebration.