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

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