1972 July 25, 2015

The fungus that floored the Aussies

Australia's 1972 tourists were fuming after the pitch at Leeds was left bare, slow and perfectly suited to the bowling of England's Derek Underwood

Derek Underwood relaxes after taking ten wickets in the match at Leeds © PA Photos

The previous Rewind dealt with Jim Laker's 19 for 90 at Old Trafford in 1956 and how the dustbowl served up by the Manchester groundsman upset the Australians. Sixteen years later, the Australians were again aggrieved by a Test pitch, this time at Headingley, and protestations by Yorkshire officials that the grass had been attacked by a fungus cut little ice as they were spun to a defeat inside three days.

England and Australia headed to Leeds for the fourth Test of 1972 with the five-match series level at 1-1. England held the Ashes as a result of their 2-0 series win in 1970-71, so Australia needed to win both remaining Tests.

Their pace bowlers, most notably Dennis Lillee, posed a real threat and it was widely expected that Headingley would provide a fast and well-grassed pitch to suit them. Instead, the teams arrived to find the match pitch almost devoid of grass. Although it had been underwater the previous weekend, the pitch had dried out since, and the authorities later claimed that as a result of the water, the surface had become infected with fusarium, a fungus that had killed the grass.

Australian suspicions were fuelled by the fact that the rest of the square looked in good shape. "It was uncanny that it only attacked a strip 22 yards by eight feet and the rest of the ground was perfectly healthy," Greg Chappell wrote. "Quite a coincidence, too, that England had selected two spinners for the match."

That England had called up Derek Underwood, a world-class left-armer who spun the ball at close to medium pace, for the first time in the series further added to the Australians' sense of injustice. A bare, crumbling pitch was tailor-made for him.

"It was pure coincidence that I happened to be recalled," Underwood said. "Norman Gifford had played in the first three Tests and taken one wicket." England also had Ray Illingworth and Peter Parfitt to help him. Australia in turn summoned offspinner Ashley Mallett and slow left-arm allrounder John Inverarity into their side.

Even the home press were suspicious. In the Times, John Woodcock pointed out the pitch "might have been made for Underwood… it does no one any credit". Former Australia batsman Jack Fingleton, writing in the same paper, was clear where he felt the problem lay. "It has been completely shaven of grass… far too much has been taken off." In the Daily Telegraph, EW Swanton admitted it was "an embarrassment", although Norman Preston in Wisden absolved the groundsman of blame. "The disease spread while the covers were on during the deluge and killed much of the grass before the staff had an opportunity to treat it. It was established that mowing was in no way to blame."

On arriving at the ground the day before the Test, some of the Australians inspected the pitch and were appalled. Opening batsman Keith Stackpole suggested to Ian Chappell, his captain, that he have a look himself. "I reminded him I only looked on the first morning of the match," Chappell said. "'Well,' said Stacky, 'you'd better look at this one.' When we reached the middle Stacky threw a ball hard into the surface of the pitch and it bounced no higher than his toe." When he repeated the exercise on the lush green strip next to the one for the match, the ball bounced to chest height. Underwood maintained that "while it was not a good Test wicket by any means, there had been no skulduggery".

For the first time since 1921, England fielded an XI at Headingley without any Yorkshire representation (Illingworth was a Yorkshireman who was playing for Leicestershire at the time).

Chappell won the toss and batted, and for the first 90 minutes there were no problems. Then, on the stroke of 1pm, half an hour before lunch, Illingworth introduced Underwood into the attack, but his first two - loose - overs went for ten. When he came on, Australia were 56 for 1 and they reached lunch at 79 for 1 without undue alarms.

That all changed in the afternoon as Underwood and Illingworth strangled the life out of the innings. From 93 for 2, Australia slid in 40 minutes to 98 for 7. With close fielders around the bat - three almost within touching distance - Underwood was all but unplayable. He finished with 4 for 37 from 31 overs as Australia were bowled out for 146. "We had to work hard to get something out of the wicket because it was so slow," Underwood said, "but the damp helped."

England, who closed the first day on 43 for 0, found batting on the second day as much of a problem as the Australians had on the first. Mallett and Inverarity exploited the conditions and by lunch England were 112 for 6. However, Illingworth led a fightback and with John Snow added 104 for the eighth wicket, steering England to a first-innings lead of 117. Australia's spinners had bowled their hearts out, but as Woodcock noted, "at the last they lacked the class and the strength of spin to finish the job".

Lillee bowled a long spell after lunch, but well within himself on a pitch that got slower by the session and where the ball rarely rose above knee height. "The couple of times I tried to bowl a bouncer, I was embarrassed by the result," he said. "It was just a joke." Bob Massie, the 16-wicket hero of Lord's five weeks earlier, was not even bowled until the final session.

After polishing off the innings early on the third day, Australia lost two early wickets to Geoff Arnold before Underwood came on with almost inevitable results. By this time the ball was starting to lift from worn patches, making batting even harder. In his first 13 overs, Underwood took 5 for 18 and the game was all but over. Australia were eventually dismissed for 136, only avoiding an innings loss thanks to a lusty last-wicket stand between Paul Sheahan and Massie. Underwood ended with 6 for 45 to finish with match figures of 10 for 82. England knocked off the 20 runs needed for the loss of John Edrich.

In the post-match interviews, the Australians kept their feelings in check, under orders from Ray Steele, their manager. "We were dudded, we know that," he told the dressing room. "But we won't be whinging about this to anyone, least of all the press. Anyone whines about the Headingley wicket and I'll come down on you like a ton of bricks." Ian Chappell limited himself to one comment, which few disagreed with. "It's not a good cricket wicket, for starters, but I can't say any more than that."

The last word should go to Bill Bowes, the former England fast bowler, who was by then writing for the Yorkshire Post. Bowes admitted that "he had not seen a Leeds pitch like it in 40 years". After time to reflect, he wrote in the following year's Wisden: "A pitch that afforded considerable help to the spin bowlers found batsmen in both teams unable to cope and the Australian cricketers were completely outplayed. [But] the batting of both sides was flimsy."

What happened next

  • Australia won the final Test at The Oval to draw the series 2-2. Underwood finished that match with figures of 6 for 184

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

Comments