1953 August 17, 2013

Same Ashes, but an altogether different world

England regained the Ashes at The Oval in 1953 and 2005. But the experience of Test cricket could not have changed more in in the 52 years between the two matches

England and Australia head into the final Test of the summer with only pride and prize-money at stake. In the last two Ashes series The Oval has been where the ownership of the urn has been decided - both times in England's favour - but before that, only one of the previous seven series has gone down to the wire.

The scenes in 2005 will long live in the memory, mainly because the wait for English supporters to see their team regain the Ashes had been so long. Fifty-two years earlier there were equally euphoric scenes after a similar wait. But the build-up could not have been more different from the saturation coverage of the modern era.

Australia arrived in 1953, having held the Ashes for 19 years. All three series since the war had been one-sided - Australia had won 3-0, 4-0 and 4-1 - and although Don Bradman had retired after the 1948 tour and the team was considered past its best, the tourists were still a formidable proposition.

The first four Tests had been drawn, with three affected to varying degrees by the weather in what was a wet summer. At Lord's, England had only escaped through a famous fifth-day stand between Trevor Bailey and Willie Watson, and in Leeds they indulged in dubious time-wasting tactics as Australia ran out of time in their chase.

The newspapers, the main way most followers kept in touch in both countries, fuelled the hype. The Sydney Morning Herald referred to "the Test to end all Tests" while the Daily Express billed it as "the most thrilling Test in 20 years to decide world cricket supremacy".

None of the players spoke to the press before the game, not because they were in purdah but simply because the media did not ask and there was no appetite from the public to hear from them. The players were there to play, the writers to write.

The Oval Test was extended to six days - (and oddly started on a Saturday with the second day a rest day), to try to ensure a result, and the public interest was huge. Queues started building early in the morning on the day before the match; by that evening they stretched all around the brick perimeter walls. But the newspaper reports of huge numbers outside the ground put many off and the first-day attendance of 26,500 was below capacity.

One similarity to today was that ticket touts were operating. One would-be purchaser was ten-year-old John Major, cricket enthusiast and 37 years later prime minister. "I couldn't get a ticket [but] heard a tout had some for sale, and rushed up to him eagerly, money clutched tightly in hand, but he looked at me with scorn and named a premium far beyond my means. With wet eyes, I withdrew and had to settle with disappointment for the radio instead."

And the radio was how the millions - and in those times when football and cricket had separate seasons, cricket was genuinely the summer game - followed the match. But they did not have the luxury of uninterrupted coverage. On the radio, coverage was intermittent - ball-by-ball Test Match Special was still four years away. The morning session was interrupted for 45 minutes by a musical interlude and then by motorcycling ; the motor sport alternated with the Test in the afternoon, and the final session was covered either side of Jazz Club.

Television viewers, whose numbers had risen dramatically with a number of sets bought specially to watch the Queen's coronation two months earlier, but were still relatively low, had to make do with just 15 minutes before lunch, although they did get to enjoy the entire evening session. Highlights later in the day were many years away.

One of the few direct quotes that appeared in papers on the day of the match was from Oval groundsman Bert Lock, who predicted he expected "the spinners to get some help", adding "the side that wins the toss should make a lot of runs but the bowlers too should have a chance". The pitch was a far cry from the rolled-to-a-road surface on which England had massed 903 for 7 in 1938.

Australia warmed up for the match by thrashing Essex, posting 477 for 7 on the first day at Southend, the same venue where five years earlier they made 721 on the opening day of the corresponding meeting. Jim de Courcey's 164, which included 28 off one over, was enough to secure him a recall for his third and last cap at The Oval.

England's players, unlike today, had not had a few gentle days practice to prepare them. The day before the Test Alec Bedser had bowled 21 overs and Jim Laker 28 in Surrey's drawn Championship match, and, along with Peter May, had only finished at Loughborough at 5pm before heading back to London; Tom Graveney was still in the field at Cheltenham at 6pm.

The most rested of them was Fred Trueman, who was on National Service and so had played relatively little. His call-up at The Oval was his first Test appearance of the summer, and he prepared by taking 10 for 112 for the RAF against the Royal Navy at Lord's.

Although the out-of-town players were put up in the Great Western Hotel in Paddington, those who lived in and around London stayed at home and commuted in each day. For Trevor Bailey that was by train, side by side with some of the same people who would be in the crowd.

Bedser drove back from Loughborough the night before. "I got back home at 10pm, got up the next morning and drove an hour to The Oval to play in the Test," he recalled. "We also didn't have a coach. We were England players: we understood the game and didn't need coaches.

"I suppose I was a bit tired going into The Oval . There were a few thousand people in the streets outside the ground before play but it wasn't the same feeling of euphoria as there is now. After all, it was only a cricket match, if an important one."

Admission for only a third of the 30,000 in the ground was by pre-sold tickets for the first four days, meaning everyone else had to queue for admission; no tickets at all were sold in advance for the fifth and sixth days.

Even when in the ground, spectators faced an uncomfortable time as they had to find the best view they could. "Those desiring seats can buy tickets at the entrance to each stand," explained the Surrey secretary. The lucky ones managed to get a place on the grass inside the boundary. The unlucky ones stood on the tarmac banking.

The difficulties facing spectators, the majority of whom did not have seats, was succinctly explained by Joseph Mallalieu in the Spectator. "On Saturday I spent all day long on the grass," he wrote in that week's edition. "On Monday and Tuesday I have stood all day long, partly on my flat feet and partly on tiptoe. I trampled one child under foot, knocked over a woman, got into an argument with a man and thereby managed to see [Denis] Compton take the catch in front of the pavilion rails.

"For the most part, although I was there I had to be told. Girls or men, between the overs we eased our necks, we of the 20,000 who had no proper seats and growled that stiffneckedness [was] the occupational disease of cricket watchers at The Oval."

The discomfort was worth it. After two see-saw days the game turned in a half-hour as Australia crumpled in their second innings from 59 for 1 - a lead of 30 - to 61 for 5, and amid scenes of almost unbearable tension England gradually eased to an eight-wicket win. If the margin sounds comfortable, it was not. Mallalieu again described the final scenes.

"The cricket was always entertaining but the Oval crowd revealed its suffering. 'You in the stripped trousers, sit down' we shouted at the chaps in front [or] 'you there, with the dirty neck, kindly sit down… and have a bath'.

With victory for England almost secured, Lindsay Hassett, Australia's captain and no bowler, came on for the denouement and Compton famously swept the winnings runs. The crowd surged onto the outfield, quite possibly as much to stretch their legs as in euphoria.

Among them was a 14-year-old cricket obsessive called Brian Luckhurst, who had taken the last bus from Sittingbourne to London and slept outside The Oval to guarantee his seat. Eighteen years later he scored the winning runs in Australia, ensuring that England again regained the Ashes.

What happened next?

  • England retained the Ashes in 1954-55 and again in 1956
  • Trueman had no time to join in any celebrations as his pass from the RAF only lasted until 23.59 that night. "There was a huge cake and some champagne but I didn't drink in those days. I went to King's Cross for the train to Lincolnshire, took a bus to the village and then walked two miles back to the camp. The sergeant of the guard said: 'Back off leave, Trueman? I'll sign you in.'"
  • The Final Test, a fictional film released in 1953 and written by Terence Rattigan, centres on the last Ashes Test of the summer at The Oval. Written in 1951 it resonated with audiences when released and featured cameos from Compton, Bedser, Len Hutton, Godfrey Evans, Jim Laker and Cyril Washbrook. John Arlott provided the match commentary.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • GARY on August 19, 2013, 1:17 GMT

    @Cantbowlcantbat and you're not quite right either. England won the Ashes under Illingworth in 1970/71 then retained in 72. Aus won them back in 74/75 and 75 then England won them back in 77 and then again in 78/79. I'd say winning 4 out of the 6 series in the 70's is recovering pretty well. In fact from 1970 till 89 England held them 7 times to Aus 3. As we sit today, Aus have won 31 series to England's 31 series.

  • MOHAN on August 18, 2013, 16:56 GMT

    The nostalgia of the article cannot mask the inaccuracies in it. In the 1970-71 Ashes series, the Ashes were regained by England in the Seventh and last test of the series at Sydney by 62 runs. So Brian Luckhurst could not have scored the winning runs. Further in the Oval 1953 series, Denis Compton scored the winning runs off Arthur Morris and not Hassett, who though did bowl the penultimate over.

  • Dummy4 on August 18, 2013, 7:28 GMT

    Wellllll, Cantbat, England weren't too bad in the sixties .. might not have held ashes but drew some series .. 1968 - Boycott, Edrich, Cowdrey, Barrington, Graveney, D'Olivera, Knott, Knight / Illingworth, Snow, Brown, Underwood .. Thing is we remember sides and players at their best, most often .. In the 53 side only Hutton (55) averaged over 40 .. Bedser 39 wkts, Lindwall 26, next 13 (Wardle) .. May played only first and last Tests, Graveney avg 24 .. When remembering back it's often a case of "The older I get the better I was" .. One day you'll be Didbatdidbowl !!!

  • Mark on August 18, 2013, 2:43 GMT

    Not quite right Andrew Appleby. England din't recover in the 60s and 70s. Australia held the Ashes '59-71 then quickly regained them in '75. Since WWI Ashes have been held for long periods by Australia (20-29, 34-53, 59-71) with short "down" periods when England regains them.

  • Robert on August 17, 2013, 18:38 GMT

    This match was important to the nation. Sad, I know, but I have remembered word for word the editorial that appeared in one of the national papers, probably the defunct Daily Graphic, on the final morning of the match:

    "The tremulous thought that has obsessed millions since 6.30pm yesterday is that only 94 runs with 9 wickets in hand stand between us and the Ashes, which departed for Australia 19 years ago.

    If we fail to get them it won't make a ha'porth of difference to the world situation, the import/export gap or even the price of eggs. Cricket is, of course, only a game. So is climbing Mount Everest.

    But how this nation needs those runs."

  • Mark on August 17, 2013, 17:39 GMT

    Can't blame them for rejoicing. Australia were the world champion cricket team in the 1930s and 1940s led by such superb players like Don Bradman, Keith Miller and the Shane Warne of his day Bill O'Reilly. Also World War 2 intervened robbing Don Bradman and Keith Miller of their best years. I was astonished to read later that Aussie allrounder Keith Miller was an ace world war 2 fighter pilot. Yeah Don Bradman retired in 1948 and other great Australian players. England regained the initiative in cricket in the 1950s after Aussie dominance of cricket throughout the 1930s and 1940s. I am sure there would have been a lot of rejoicing after regaining the Ashes in 1953. Different era though before the advent of one day cricket, Kerry Packer revolution and 20/20.

  • Dummy4 on August 17, 2013, 15:43 GMT

    Interesting thing is that England used 18 players in this series .. only Hutton, Bailey, Evans and Bedser played all 5 .. Trueman just this one (tho on national service) before the unfortunate 53-54 series in WI which gave him a troublesome tag and cost him a few Tests and wickets .. Benaud played in all five, scored 15 runs (ave 3), took two wickets (ave 87) off 68 overs .. What happened to him ?

  • Dummy4 on August 17, 2013, 14:28 GMT

    Wow! Is the only word to describe this. So thrilled am I that I just don't want to come out this! Fascinating article.

  • Dummy4 on August 17, 2013, 14:05 GMT

    @Hammond: I think you might be a bit generous to the current English side. We are decent and have several quality players, but we aren't in the best of form - Australia have lost because they do not have enough good players. I think England deserve a No. 2 ranking, but we are light years behind South Africa. We are better than India, though.

    I think a side with Len Hutton, Bill Edrich, Peter May, Denis Compton, Tom Graveney, Trevor "Barnacle" Bailey, Godfrey Evans, Jim Laker, Tony Lock, Fred Trueman, and Alec Bedser doesn't really have any real weak links in it by comparison.

  • Dummy4 on August 17, 2013, 11:26 GMT

    England after WW2 had solid batting - Hutton, Washbrook, Edrich, Compton etc - but they were taken apart by Lindwall, Miller, Toshack and Johnstone in 48. The only bowler of note was Alec Bedser. 1953 was his swan song as Trueman, Tyson, Statham and Loader came to the fore. The Oval Test was the only one where England played five bowlers (excluding Brown at Lords). Of Trueman. Bedser, Bailey, Laker and Lock only Bailey featured in 54-55 with Tyson, Statham, Wardle and Appleyard. Bailey was probably the lynch pin of England in the 50's. Australia in the 50's had plenty of bits and pieces players and they came together under Benaud - with a few bowlers chucked in. England recovered in the 60/70's until Lillee and Thomson then McGrath and Warne. I expect Australia will recover too .. but hopefully not too soon ..