September 20, 2015

Ashes one-hit wonders

From Ted McDonald to Richard Ellison, certain players saved their best for the old rivalry, before drifting away for various reasons

Richard Ellison (left) took 17 wickets in two Tests against Australia before he faded away as a Test bowler © PA Photos

The Ashes are now done and dusted for another year (or so it seems, due to the relative frequency of such contests in recent memory). The 2015 series will be perhaps best remembered for the strangely one-sided nature of each individual game, and also for some stunning singular performances. However, all these match-winning performances were from the usual suspects. Unlike other series in the past, no new Ashes talent burst onto our collective consciousness like a meteor from the cricketing heavens.

Cricket fans will be familiar with the shooting star that was Bob Massie, who destroyed England at Lord's in 1972 with the force of the Tunguska event before burning out and disappearing forever after just another five Tests. There have been other players who made substantial contributions before quickly disappearing back into the cricketing wilderness. Prior to World War I, such situations were not uncommon because matches were few and far between and there was a need for individuals to maintain their employment status rather than play international cricket for often insignificant remuneration. However, since the Great War there have been examples of players who have performed at genuinely high levels for one Ashes contest and then were never able to replicate that form in subsequent Test series.

Ted McDonald is now remembered as a great fast bowler, and along with Jack Gregory formed the first outstanding Test fast-bowling partnership. McDonald only played 11 Tests for Australia, though, and only succeeded in one series. He played three Tests of the 1920-21 Ashes, and struggled to make an impact, taking six wickets at 65.33. Similarly, against South Africa in 1921-22 he took just 10 wickets at the less than stellar average of 37.10. But - and this is where his legend was born - he and Gregory jointly destroyed England in 1921, sharing 46 wickets. This was to prove the high point of his Test career; he accepted an offer to play as a professional for Nelson in the Lancashire league in England and never again turned out for Australia in international competition.

In 1972, Australia's Bob Massie made a Test match his own © The Cricketer International

Another example of this one-series phenomenon is Jack Iverson, the Australian "mystery" spinner. At 35 he debuted against England in the 1950-51 Ashes, and while he only took 21 wickets in the five matches, he consistently perplexed and befuddled the England batsmen. Iverson had a unique grip, in which the ball was held between the thumb and a bent middle finger. He used this middle finger to impart spin onto the ball, with little discernible change in action. The English batsmen simply could not pick which way the ball was going to turn, and Iverson caused chaos.

His raw statistics, although fine in their own right, fail to recognise how often he managed to beat the bat without catching an edge. Keith Miller noted that even the legendary Len Hutton "could not fathom him". However, Miller was possibly indirectly responsible for ending Iverson's career. Following the 1950-51 Ashes, Miller and his New South Wales team-mate Arthur Morris played Victoria in a Sheffield Shield match and decided to "go after" Iverson. Their calculated attack smashed his bowling to all corners; Iverson lost his confidence, and his Test career was limited to those five Tests.

Frank Tyson is often remembered primarily for his outstanding performance in the 1954-55 Ashes. However, he was also successful against other teams, including South Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand, and interestingly, his bowling average against each of them was far lower than that in matches against Australia.

A more contemporary English fast bowler, Richard Ellison, also played Test matches against three countries other than Australia. In his case, though, the statistics were the reverse of Tyson's. He struggled to make any real impact against India, Sri Lanka and West Indies, with respective bowling averages of 73.80, 106 and 32.33 in a total of nine Tests. However, in two amazing Tests against Australia in 1985, he took 17 wickets at just 10.88. Bowling at what was described as "gentle medium-pace", Ellison's late swing and subtle movement off the pitch proved ideal in English conditions. The Australians, weakened by the loss of a number of key players who had chosen to join a rebel tour of South Africa, could not cope with Ellison's bowling in overcast conditions. Brought into the team for the fifth Test, he took 6 for 77 and 4 for 27, and then followed it up with 2 for 35 and 5 for 46 in the sixth. He never again approached these heights, and his Test career was over at 26.

Age was not a barrier for David Steele against Australia's fearsome attack in 1975 © PA Photos

Bowlers, in particular those with strange actions or a predilection for certain pitch conditions, are often likely to rise rapidly, and then disappear just as quickly once the opposition works them out. Batsmen are less often in this situation, but one English player showed incredible courage and fighting spirit against fierce pace bowling, and was then seemingly discarded for no real reason. David Steele was picked from relative obscurity at the advanced age of 33 for his debut in the second Test at Lord's in 1975. Australia, on the back of some fearsome fast bowling by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, had won the first Test by an innings and 85 runs. Team totals of 101 and 173 meant that the selectors were obligated to make some changes to the batting order for the second Test, but the left-field choice of Steele was not widely predicted.

It was evidently his perceived skill against fast bowling that led to his promotion into Test cricket; his first-class batting average of just 31 and a total of just 16 hundreds across 12 seasons didn't seem to demand selection. Nonetheless, after taking over the key position at No. 3 in the batting order from Keith Fletcher, Steele very quickly demonstrated the appropriateness of his name. In spite of prematurely grey hair and a demeanour seemingly more in keeping with an accountant than a Test cricketer, Steele didn't take a backward step against Lillee and Thomson. He made a fine debut double of 50 and 45, of which the first-innings half-century was particularly meritorious. He held the innings together, in spite of losing Barry Wood, John Edrich, Dennis Amiss and Graham Gooch before 50 was on the board. His near century partnership with England captain Tony Greig was ultimately a key moment in ensuring that England finished the match with a draw rather than going 2-0 down in the series. Steele then proceeded to emphasise his skill in combating fast bowling by scoring 73 and 92 in Leeds, and 39 and 66 at The Oval. He finished the series with 365 runs at a team-leading average of 60.83.

Steele played against West Indies in the 1976 series, and didn't quite manage to sustain this excellent start. Nonetheless, against another very dominant fast-bowling attack and in light of the home team's substantial defeat, his eventual series total of 308 runs at 30.80 was still a passable performance. However, he never played Test cricket again. Quite why he was discarded is not entirely clear, and it added another layer of complexity to the debate that followed his initial selection from obscurity. He will always be remembered, as with the others mentioned earlier, for the one Ashes series in which he shone.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow

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