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1958

England routed in 'a travesty of a game'

England went Down Under with great expectations in 1958, but things went downhill rapidly for them

Martin Williamson

December 21, 2013

Comments: 8 | Text size: A | A

The morning after a wretched collapse, The Daily Mirror, December 6, 1958
The morning after England's wretched collapse in Brisbane © Daily Mirror
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Few England sides have set out for Australia with as much confidence as the one that set sail from Tilbury on September 20, 1958. And few, until now, have come quite so spectacularly unstuck.

England had retained the Ashes in 1956, convincingly beaten West Indies the following year and then thrashed a weak New Zealand side in 1958. The only slight hiccup had come in South Africa in 1956-57, when they squandered a 2-0 lead to draw the series. Australia, meanwhile, were undertaking a rebuilding exercise under their new captain, Richie Benaud, but had shown signs of having turned the corner after three successive Ashes defeats.

Such was the interest that the English press corp outnumbered the touring squad, a fact that was widely commented on at the time. For the infamous Bodyline tour in 1932-33 only two reporters had travelled from England, and one of those was a tennis writer.

On paper, the England team was exceptionally strong; some believed it was the best that had ever been sent overseas. The bowling attack in itself looked awesome, built around the fast bowling of Fred Trueman, Frank Tyson, Brian Statham and Peter Loader; the spinners were the pair who had wreaked havoc in 1956, Jim Laker and Tony Lock; Trevor Bailey was one of the best allrounders in the world; the highly rated Godfrey Evans was keeper; and the batting centred on Peter May, the captain, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney, and early replacement Ted Dexter.

On the eve of the tour Benaud wrote in the Daily Mirror: "I fully agree with those who say this may be the finest side to leave England for 26 years." But he presciently warned that the fast bowlers would struggle. "Your selectors are banking heavily on the fast bowling " battle force" … but speed merchants may find things tougher this year than in 1954. Australian wickets have slowed a lot since then, and now resemble the white, baked strips so common around 1946-50."

The squad arrived in Australia after almost four weeks at sea (it was the last touring side not to fly to Australia), via Colombo, where they played two relaxed matches. In the initial press conferences May charmed the media and all seemed well.

The first small crack appeared in the tour opener in Perth, where the track lacked any real pace. One paper claimed England were being given "anti-Trueman pitches in response to the pro-Laker pitches on 1956".

The performances in the tour matches were satisfactory but it was increasingly clear that plans for an all-out pace attack would have to be revised and also that the batsmen were struggling for top form. Trueman and Tyson were underwhelming, with 14 wickets between them. England were also dogged by a string of injuries. But on the plus side they twice dismissed the much-hyped Norm O'Neill - dubbed the second Bradman - cheaply.

 
 
At five to three somebody in the magnificent Brisbane press box asked how long it had been since Bailey scored. 'At twenty past two,' answered George Duckworth. 'Today or yesterday,' yawned somebody Jack Fingleton in Four Chukkas to Australia
 

"It's been proved time and again that a side with four fast bowlers is hopelessly ill-balanced," wrote Keith Miller as the first Test approached. "The point is that if the wicket is fast three quickies are perfectly adequate and if the wicket is slow they are all pulled down to a common level once the shine has gone from the ball."

Comments from Ian Johnson, the Australian captain in 1956, were openly ridiculed in the press. "It is my unbiased opinion that Australia will have the edge in Tests because we can score quickly enough to win. England's powerful bowling will fight it out with our powerful batting," he said. "I certainly believe your batting is brittle."

Reality really hit in the final match before the first Test when rain saved them from a likely defeat by Queensland after Ray Lindwall skittled them for 151, but England were still favourites for the Test, even when Trueman was ruled out with a niggling injury.

By the end of the first day at the Gabba the series had been turned on its head. May won the toss and, against local wisdom, batted. By the close they had been bowled out for 134. Although they fought back to keep Australia's lead down to 52, they were again dismissed for under 200 to lose by eight wickets.

Despite the win, Australia's board and cricket fans were unhappy with the appalling rate at which England scored. Benaud had assumed the captaincy against a backdrop of dwindling interest in the game after a decade of dull cricket and vowed a fresh, attacking style.

England's scoring rate of 23 runs in every 100 balls was condemned and the batsmen were pilloried in the press, none more so than Bailey, who had top-scored in both innings at a funereal pace. His second-innings 68 took seven and a half hours and ensured the ground was almost empty for the last two days. It could not even be defended as a bid to bat out time as Australia won with a day-and-a-half to spare.

The statistics of boredom

Trevor Bailey on tour with England
He shall not be moved
© Getty Images
  • Trevor Bailey's second-innings 68 took 458 minutes and 427 deliveries. In all, he hit four fours. His 357-minute half-century remains the slowest fifty by an Englishman in Tests
  • On the fourth morning 19 runs were added by England in 90 minutes
  • The first 14 overs of the day yielded 14 runs
  • The total runs on each of the first four days were 142, 148, 122 and, the nadir, 106 during England's second innings throughout day four
  • Australia were not beyond reproach. In their second innings Jim Burke ground out 28 not out in a little over four hours
  • England scored 23 runs per hundred balls; Australia made 34 runs off the same number.

Rarely can a national newspaper have led with such a vicious attack on a team as did the Daily Mirror. "This was the end," wrote Brian Chapman. "This was the descent into the abyss. This was the utter denial and negation of any sport, let alone cricket. They should take those mythical Ashes, out of the Museum at Lord's - urn, velvet bag and all - and dump them into the sea. I am quite serious when I urge that the sort of cricket inflicted upon us in this first Test will asphyxiate the game. Certainly I don't care a hoot who wins this match if victory has to be achieved by an exercise in sleepwalking."

Jim Swanton in the Daily Telegraph was deeply unhappy. "[This] was, I honestly think, the dullest and most depressing I have ever watched... there was no tactical or technical justification whatever."

And in the Times, John Woodcock described it as "a travesty of a game… to watch is unrewarding, to play in is excruciating, and to write about it is something one would rather be spared. The public will not come to see it and no one will blame them".

Behind the scenes a row was brewing that was to rumble on for another five years. England manager Freddie Brown wanted to make an official complaint about Ian Meckiff's bowling but was dissuaded from doing so by May, who thought it would look like sour grapes after losing. A private word to Don Bradman, Australia's chairman of selectors, went badly, Bradman suggesting they tackle the actions of Lock and Loader before complaining about others. By the end of the series there was open condemnation of Meckiff and several other Australian quicks. "So there we were," Trueman wrote years later, "two top international teams chucking the ball at each other."

England never recovered from Brisbane. They lost three of the four remaining Tests by sizeable margins (eight, nine and ten wickets) and only twice passed 250 in eight innings, never passing 300. After sailing in expectation, they returned home in ignominy.

"England certainly had a number of injuries, but neither this factor nor complaints about umpiring and the doubtful actions of several bowlers could gainsay the fact that the tourists were not good enough," Wisden concluded. "This was the basic reason for their disappointing displays against an Australian side which, though excellent as a team, was far from brilliant in individual achievement.

"On paper, judged by performances either in Australia on the previous tour or against Australia, West Indies and New Zealand in England, the established players seemed to have justified selection, but long before this tour was over it became apparent that several had turned the corner."

What happened next?

  • England did not regain the Ashes until 1970-71
  • May led England to a 5-0 series whitewash of India the following summer
  • Of the side in the first Test, Bailey, Laker, and Peter Loader did not play for England again after the tour; Evans and Arthur Milton's careers finished the next season
  • Meckiff's action continued to arouse scorn and the whole issue of illegal bowling actions became a major blight on the game. Bradman ended up leading a campaign to ban "chuckers". Meckiff was no-balled in his first over of the Brisbane Test exactly five years later and never played cricket again

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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Posted by rajatmehra on (December 23, 2013, 11:16 GMT)

Just change the names of the individuals and few statistics and this article could very well be used as a "Rewind" to the current series in few years.

Posted by   on (December 23, 2013, 4:33 GMT)

lyoung, I don't think the similarities between the 58 side and this years side are there. The 58 side genuinely had the right to be confident the current English side limped to an Ashes victory in August on the back of getting the 50/50 calls and the weather saving them in two tests. Certainly Aust had the momentum going into this series. Only biased English supporter would not have seen this as a very even series. I admit however, I did not see the whitewash from Aus coming.

Posted by   on (December 22, 2013, 18:07 GMT)

The umpiring was truly awful in the series with England copping the rough end.Lock was not the same bowler once his "chinaman" was discarded and guys like Meckiff and Rourke had highly controversial bowling actions.Freddie Brown,the team manager,was from another era and hopeless for the task.Laker's spinning finger was split raw and he battled physically although his bowling averages were very respectable and he did get top order guys out.Benaud was a great, ruthless captain and Davidson a superb bowler.All in all England were out thought,out fought,out captained and outplayed in 58.

Posted by TenDonebyaShooter on (December 21, 2013, 21:02 GMT)

The most interesting feature of this article is the evidence it provides of unsporting behaviour between the teams and boards, and of media hyperbole, over half a century ago. Certainly food for thought for those who harp on about the "good old days" ...

Posted by Beertjie on (December 21, 2013, 12:58 GMT)

This series was just too early for my recollection: the Gabba test two years later ignited my passion for the game. Apart from the calypso cricketers, it was very attritional for many years, though. However, the Aussies have always had a more attacking mindset than most, although their single-mindedness is not universally appreciated. Keep that urn, mates!

Posted by   on (December 21, 2013, 10:10 GMT)

I hope that its not years before England regain the Ashes. I suspect some of the current team will also play their last tests in Australia

Posted by lyoung on (December 21, 2013, 8:50 GMT)

"Few England sides have set out for Australia with as much confidence as the one that set sail from Tilbury on September 20, 1958. And few, until now, have come quite so spectacularly unstuck."

"This was the basic reason for their disappointing displays against an Australian side which, though excellent as a team, was far from brilliant in individual achievement."

These passages could almost be applied to the current Ashes series. The parallels are uncanny.

Posted by MrKricket on (December 21, 2013, 6:40 GMT)

My father, who was a proud founding member of the Queensland Cricketers' Club boldly took his new wife (my mother) to the Brisbane Test. That was the "Day of the Barnacle". She didn't realise she'd be a part of history. My mother took about 40 years to recover enough to watch cricket again! If only he'd taken her to the final day of the Brisbane Test two years later... he attended alone but left early as he was so sure Benaud and Davidson would win it from where they were late afternoon!

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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