September 1, 2014

When Bedser bowled the Don for a duck

After receiving a pasting at the hands of the Australians during the first post-war Ashes tour, Bedser decided he had to think up a new delivery: the legcutter

Bradman is caught off Bedser's bowling for 38 at Lord's in 1948 © PA Photos

Alec Bedser's "pitched leg, hit off" delivery to clean-bowl Don Bradman for a duck at Adelaide Oval in February 1947 was, Bradman claimed, "the best ball I ever faced."

It was as good as the Shane Warne ball to dismiss Mike Gatting in Manchester in 1993, but we don't have TV footage of Bedser's delivery, so we are left to rely on the memory of witnesses. I'll take Bradman - the best judge of cricket and cricketers in my experience - as a reliable enough "witness". Bedser proved to be one of the Don's toughest combatants on the Test stage. He was also one of his best mates.

In 1939, Alec was enjoying the first of more than 15 seasons with the Surrey county side. A year later his cricket was rudely interrupted by the outbreak of World War II., Bedser, one of many RAF servicemen trapped in Dunkirk, was evacuated from that dangerous peninsula by a miracle flotilla of little boats.

Over the next few days, while the other RAF evacuees were recuperating, Alec and his inseparable twin, Eric, stole away aboard one of the little fishing boats to rescue their mates still trapped in France. Alec was that sort of bloke: loyal, true, a wonderful friend, and while a tough competitor, he was scrupulously fair.

Alec played for Surrey between 1939 and 1960. In 51 Tests from 1946 to 1955, he took 236 wickets at 24.89. In 1953 he took a then-record 39 wickets (at an average of 17) in the Ashes series against Lindsay Hassett's Australians, being the mainstay of an attack that eventually undid Australia in the fifth Test at The Oval - England winning back the Ashes they had lost to Bill Woodfull's team in 1934.

He bowled late, dipping inswingers and then developed the legcutter, which lifted him above the ruck of mere mortal medium-paced bowlers.

The old-timers I have spoken to place Bedser second to Maurice Tate among the great medium-paced bowlers. However, Tate bowled on faster pitches and when he got the ball to cut, it moved swiftly, allowing little time for even the smartest batsmen to withdraw the bat. Late in his life, Bradman told me that he could detect late movement and that he turned the blade "edge-on" to avoid snicking a catch to keeper or slip. Then again, that was Bradman. Such a ploy by mere mortals would no doubt turn out disastrously.

Bradman told me, as he must have told countless others: "Plenty of batsmen watch the bowler's fingers hoping to detect what sort of ball he's going to deliver, but that's no good to me. Let me see the ball coming, and then I'll decide the best place to hit it."

Bedser made a memorable Test debut against India at Lord's in June 1946, taking 7 for 49 off 29.1 overs in the first innings and 4 for 96 off 32.1 overs in the second. He immediately established himself as a man of iron; a bowler who would trundle away through thick and thin.

And that's how it panned out for him in the second Test at Old Trafford. He again went berserk with the ball, taking 4 for 41 and 7 for 52.

The Indian visit was a precursor to England's much-awaited tour of Australia, their first down under since Gubby Allen's team of 1936-37. After six long years of war, the Australian public were hungry to watch Test cricket. There was huge speculation about Bradman. Was he going to play, or would he concentrate on building his stock-broking business? Eventually Bradman decided to play in the Tests.

"Balls just after the war had hardly any seam, so I found I had to actually spin the ball. I found my big hands helped the process and that I did not have to change my action at all"
Bedser on developing the legcutter

Bedser was, of course, in the England touring squad and he was looking forward to bowling to the great batsman. Bradman's first innings, in Brisbane, was the subject of great controversy, for the Englishmen were adamant he had chopped a ball off the bowling of Bill Voce straight to Jack Ikin in the gully and was out for 17. Bradman stood like a statue, waiting upon umpire George Borwick to adjudicate, while the bowler and his fieldsmen gathered in a group. The consensus among the players was that Bradman got an outside edge, the ball flew comfortably waist-high to Ikin, who took the catch cleanly. But umpire George Borwick was of the opinion that Bradman had jammed the ball into the pitch and it then flew to Ikin: a "bump ball". Bradman went on to score 187.

Poor Bedser copped a pasting, getting Arthur Morris (2), but suffering at the hands of Bradman and Hassett (128). Bedser took 2 for 159 off 41 overs.

It was in this Australian innings of 659 that he decided he needed to develop a ball that left the right-hand batsman: a legcutter, the very delivery that would bring him eternal fame in Adelaide a few weeks down the track.

In November 1999, Alec wrote me a lovely letter explaining how he came to develop the legcutter:

"Most fast bowlers pre-war bowled outswingers because of the lbw law [then in vogue]. The ball had to pitch [in line] stump to stump before an lbw appeal was upheld. Inswingers were rather frowned upon by the so-called experts - not many were bowled, so Don never really had to cope with the late inswing bowling and especially difficult was such a bowler who could also get the ball to move from leg to off after the ball pitched. I needed to develop such a ball. Today they call this a legcutter and because of the big seam on the ball these days it deviates upon pitching. Balls just after the war had hardly any seam, so I found I had to actually spin the ball. I found my big hands helped the process and that I did not have to change my action at all."

In the second Test, in Sydney in December 1946, Bradman and Sid Barnes, who both made 234, had a record 405-run fifth-wicket stand. Bedser knew how good Barnes was off his pads and he decided that the Sydney Test was the best place to try his new delivery.

"I didn't want the ball to swing in, so I held it across the seam as if gripping the ball for a legbreak. When it pitched it went away off the track like a big-spinning legbreak. Obviously I had spun the ball. Sid looked down the pitch and said, 'What's bloody going on?' I walked back for the next ball, again holding the ball across the seam, and Peter Smith, an older Essex player fielding at mid-on, observed my grip and said, 'You can't hold a new ball like that.' Next ball I held it the same way and again it skipped off the pitch, just like a legbreak. It took me another 18 months to achieve the accuracy I wanted. Developing that ball confirmed what I had always believed - that bowlers should try things and think for themselves."

Bedser finally dismissed Barnes, but his 46 overs would return him a dismal 1 for 153.

The fourth Test was in Adelaide, where Denis Compton scored a century in each innings for England, as did Arthur Morris for Australia. Keith Miller also hit an unconquered 141, but it was Bedser's inswinging legcutter to bowl Bradman for a duck that will live forever in cricket folklore.

"When I bowled Don at Adelaide, the ball swung in after pitching round leg stump, moved from leg to off and hit the off stump. Don must have missed it by six inches," Bedser wrote.

Bradman was amazed by the delivery: "The ball was, I think, the finest ever to take my wicket. It must have come three quarters of the way straight on to my off stump, then suddenly it dipped to pitch on the leg stump, only to turn off the pitch and hit the middle and off stumps. It was too good for me, similar to the ball Bill O'Reilly bowled me with in a match at Bowral in 1925."

Bedser went on to dismiss Bradman six times in Test matches. He got him for a duck twice, but Bedser was mindful that the post-war Bradman was nowhere as good as he was between the wars.

"I never saw him play before the war, but I have spoken to many who did. Jack Hobbs always said he was a better player before the 1914-18 war, but Hobbs still managed to score 100 hundreds after he had turned the age of 40. Maybe Don was not as brutal [after the war] but he was still bloody good!"

Former Test captain and Australia team coach Bob Simpson has good reason to laud Bedser. "Alec was tremendous to me," Simpson says. "In 1954-55, with Hutton's side, Bedser was out of favour. Whenever in Sydney when I was 12th man for NSW, Alec would come into the dressing room and say, 'C'mon young Simpson, come to the nets and I'll bowl you a few.'

"The thing which impressed me about Alex was his huge size, the most penetrating of blue eyes and his huge hands. He kept smashing me on the leg with his big offcutters, but it was a terrific experience facing him. In the return match with MCC, I got 98 for NSW.

"Later, when my career was over and I was Australian coach, Alec would often see me and offer advice on some of our pace bowlers. He was always spot-on with advice. Alec Bedser had a very shrewd cricket brain, identified talent well and knew how a problem could be rectified."

Bradman (centre) with Bedser (left) and Norman Yardley at a charity event in London in 1974 © PA Photos

Apart from dismissing Bradman four times in succession during the 1948 Ashes, Bedser defeated the great Arthur Morris 18 times of the 21 in which he bowled to him.

Glenn McGrath did a similar job on England's Mike Atherton, but Morris was a world-class player, Atherton a plodder who was lucky to play in an era when England had such a weak array of batting talent.

In 1962, Bedser became an England selector, and from 1969 to 1981 he was the England chairman of selectors. He managed tours to Australia in 1974-75 and in 1979-80, and he was assistant manager of the 1962-63 tour.

Bedser visited Australia many times. Australians warmly remember Bedser as a strongly built medium-fast bowler who possessed a never-say-die attitude in the tradition of British bulldog spirit. In return, he loved the country and the people, and he loved Adelaide perhaps most of all. There he always was invited to the Bradman home for dinner, and he played golf regularly with the Don.

I last saw Alec at the Ritz in London, 2005, where he stood to speak at an informal gathering, saying, "I won't keep you long" and then proceeded to talk lovingly of his beloved cricket to a group that included Test champions Neil Harvey, Alan Davidson, Arthur Morris, Sam Loxton, Colin McDonald, and his brother Eric .

Nearly two centuries ago British workers found the bust of a bronze statue of the Emperor Hadrian that had lain in the mud of the Thames. Hadrian's feet and hands were missing. Perhaps the gods of cricket decreed that they be given to a man of enormous physical and mental strength: a valiant knight of the Test arena - Alec Bedser.

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on September 4, 2014, 11:23 GMT

    @SLSup, you must be unaware of the changes to cricket over the years. The game favours the batsmen much more these days. I have batted on wet uncovered wickets like the ones of yesteryear and also on the "roads" of today and there is no doubt that wickets are better for batting when covered overnight. There were plenty of great bowlers around in Bradman's time such as Lindwall, Miller, Larwood, Voce etc and brilliant fielders like Harvey and many others. When bradman was coach of South australia in his 50s, the SA fast bowlers couldn't get him out. He was still way too good.

  • Dummy4 on September 4, 2014, 2:39 GMT

    Such a wonderful, and honest piece of writing. Thank you, Ashley! :)

  • Jay on September 3, 2014, 0:03 GMT

    Ashley -- Maybe the title should be rephrased "When Bedser bowled the great Donald Duck"! It's no duck hunter's fluke that the dangerous Alec followed up a year later by trapping the invincible Don in a haul of 4 live catches - including laying of another egg - on the 1948 "Invincibles Tour"! Still, it was not Bedser's magical legcutter at Adelaide Oval, but Eric Hollies' deadly googly at The Oval that 'spoilsported' Don's farewell party with the most famous "duck" of all in cricket history! It's said that while the iconic Bradman walked away with "rather a sad heart", his old team-mates Jack Fingleton and Bill O'Reilly were laughing in the press box. Jokes aside, this most famous duck immortalised 99.94 as equally legendary in cricket history! Yes, in a comedic sense, the Donald Duck Family has a special place in cricket folklore for posterity, Ashley!!

  • Christopher on September 2, 2014, 10:31 GMT

    Bradman never demonstrated any weakness against pace or bounce. The idea is preposterous to anyone who played with him or saw him play. Those comments arose only from Larwood and co, when devising Bodyline, but it was the field placings and line of bowling that created the results. No batsman in any era would have done better and Bradman still averaged more than any batsman on either side. There was a suggestion that when making 228 against Larwood - an innings in which he was given out, caught Duckworth, Bowled Larwood, after he describes turning the bat 'edge on' to let a swinging ball pass, that he had, several times flinched when hooking or pulling. Bradman refutes it, as does his innings total. As for 1931 v WI, it was The Depression and Bradman had been in an extended battle, for the right to earn money outside cricket by writing or dictating articles - even offering to stand down. As he stated, 'my concentration wasn't all it could have been that season, due to these troubles.'

  • Christopher on September 2, 2014, 10:14 GMT

    I find the continued speculation about The Don's credentials to be very poorly informed. While Bedser took his wicket several times, as the story goes, it was Bill O'Reilly, who suggested that he employ a leg slip - Hutton in '48, which worked several times. The Don turned 40 on that tour and they were far more arduous affairs then. In fact modern batsmen have a far easier time and their averages would suffer under the conditions endured then. I would go so far as to suggest, that The Don's average would be far higher in modern times, with its manifold advantages. With respect to pace, it was Australian express bowler - Lindwall,who described bowling to The Don as 'heartbreaking'. Miller, his opening partner, once turned up to Aus net practice, a decade after his retirement, asking for a bowl. He bowled perfect outswingers at a pace described as - 'as good or better than Mackenzie - Australia's opening bowler. There has never been, nor may there ever be, another to match The Don.

  • Ashok on September 2, 2014, 4:58 GMT

    @Mr. Lock: I beg to differ. I think Atherton had the misfortune of having to face some incredible attacks at their best. Donald-Pollock, McGrath-Gillespie-Warne, Ambrose-Walsh, Wasim-Waqar- those attacks would have reduced the averages of far better batsmen. And let's also not forget that pitches across the world were much livelier in the 90s than they are today.

  • Dummy4 on September 1, 2014, 22:04 GMT

    The game will have been difficult in different ways in different conditions. The idea that playing Hedley Verity on a wet wicket would be any less taxing as facing Wasim Akram when the ball is swinging or the West Indies in their pomp in the 1980s is ludicrous. The challenges would be different and would need to be mastered. Bedser found a way to make Bradman and co work harder for their runs, he did his job, whether anybody thinks he wold be easier or harder to play that other fine bowlers is neither here nor there. Respect the fact that Bradman found him hard to play and that Bradman was the best there has been, he might not have played in all different conditions but he was consistent over a long period of time against the best players available and was hugely successful. Brandman might not have played against the best quick bowlers but Hedley Verity was one of the finest spinners to play the game.

  • veetal on September 1, 2014, 21:58 GMT

    hearing the story how Bradman would turn his bat edge on to defeat late swing was chilling.

  • Michael on September 1, 2014, 19:56 GMT

    James Pickles, you can add Gillespie, Saqlain, Mushraq Ahmed, Javagal Srinath and of course Murali. I agree I think he would have averaged 40+ in this era as would Alec Stewart. Add Graham Thorpe to those two and you have three of the most under rated English batsmen of all time.

  • c on September 1, 2014, 19:15 GMT

    The following words by Bedser tells quite a tale: "Developing that ball confirmed what I had always believed - that bowlers should try things and think for themselves."

    Hmm... DON and other greats played at a time when bowlers were quite predictable with even the in-dip considered UNGENTLEMANLY? Whoa whoa. True the batsman of those days had to contend with uncovered pitches but I've seen games in the modern day where covered pitches behaved much worse than olden day scorecards show! If the batsmen of old had to contend with uncovered pitches they certainly had an ADVANTAGE playing against much easier bowling, fielding, and cricketing laws that were much more lenient towards batsmen.

    Take the new DSR law. It used to be that "the benefit of the doubt goes to the batsman." Today, if the onfiled umpire makes a call when even the TV Umpire has to review dozen times (with commentators disagreeing on what they see) that the BENEFIT GOES TO THE ON-FIELD UMPIRE! Modern day greats ARE GREAT!