From 1948 until the present, 1968

The modern Golden Age

Sir Neville Cardus

The Golden Age is, inevitably located in the past; distance lends enchantment to the view. Usually it is a period which we live in while comparatively young, at a time when our impressionable senses are still unstaled and quick to respond to fresh events and personality.

The lover of cricket who today is arriving at middle age has every right to argue that in the history of Test matches between England and Australia he had the good luck to experience a Golden Age second to none in the summers extending from 1948 until only the other year; for as he emerged from youth to manhood, did he not see the sunset of Bradman's career, the high noon of Hutton, Compton, Harvey, Edrich, Evans, Bedser, Laker, Miller, Lindwall, Peter May, Syd Barnes, Tyson, Hassett, Davidson, Tallon, to name a few resplendent talents?

Also, he has witnessed the rising stars of such as O'Neill, Barrington, Dexter, Barber, Cowdrey, Parks, Boycott, Titmus, Simpson, Walters, McKenzie, Burge, Trueman, Lock -- and the sequence is not ended there.

I go far as to say that most of these players -- post-Hitler war -- could go with distinction into the company of any of the shining lights of the so-called Golden Ages of the decades reaching from Grace to Hobbs.

Bradman's Australian team of 1948 has been described authoritatively as the strongest ever; it was unbeaten, won four Tests out of five, won twenty-three first-class games out of thirty-one, half by an innings. Eleven batsmen of this invincible contingent scored fifty centuries between them. And the attack contained two truly great fast bowlers, Miller and Lindwall, and another almost as great, if not as fast -- W. A. Johnston.

We should bear in mind, though, as we try to compare cricketers of one epoch with another, the material environment, the rules and general constitutional procedure, as well as the ground conditions. In 1948, a new ball was available after 55 six-ball overs had been sent down. As soon as the shine of the leather diminished, Bradman exploited a defensive attack and field, Toshack and leg-side clusters.

Often the new ball was in the fingers of Lindwall and Miller again after a mere 130 runs had been scored by the England XI -- an England XI whose bowling depended heavily on Alec Bedser, supported (if that is not too strong a term) by Yardley, Laker, Pollard, Jack Young, Edrich and Compton.

The experiences of Laker in 1948 were a deliciously ironic preparation of a wrath later to befall Australia. Bradman and his men hammered Laker unmercifully in 1948, to the tune of 831 runs for only 14 wickets. A certain batsman who lambasted Laker in this glorious summer of Australia's plenty sent me, for the next year or so, a Christmas card on which he would slyly add -- "My best wishes to Jim." Everybody knows how time lavished on Laker ample revenge.

In July, 1956, at Old Trafford, the most wonderful of all happenings took place, the most wonderful in all the recorded annals of serious cricket. Laker's 19 wickets in one and the same Test match, v. Australia, with Tony Lock bowling nearly 70 overs at the other end; here was a performance staggering credulity.

No writer of a romantic school-story for boys would ever have dreamed of expecting his readers to believe that his hero could, even in a prep. school game, take nine for 37 and ten for 53. The analysis of Laker's ten wickets in Australia's second innings strains belief to this day: 51 overs, 2 balls, 23 maidens, 53 runs, 10 wickets. Here, for certain, is a record which will remain unbeaten.

In 1948, Australia achieved a victory almost as incredible as Laker's miracle at Old Trafford. On the fifth day of the Test match at Leeds, England, captained by Yardley, declared a second innings closed (365 for eight), leaving Australia to score 404 in 345 minutes. The wicket was dusty; and before Australia batted again, a famous Test player, now working in the Press Box, was certain that Australia would be lucky to get as far as 100 all out.

So responsive to spin was the pitch that Denis Compton's spin threatened a quick collapse of Bradman and the rest. Bradman was, in fact, soon missed at slip off Compton... Arthur Morris should have been straightway stumped off Crompton. Morris and Bradman then decided that Compton should be removed from the England attack -- which he, alas, was.

With so many runs to play with the England captain should have persisted with Compton, who every over, delivered at least one almost unplayable spinner. Bedser and Pollard could have bowled tight at the other end. Compton's final analysis might well have been so many overs, 230 runs and seven wickets -- which would have served to win the match.

In this same historic Golden Age summer of 1948, Denis Compton attained heights of skill, courage, and personal dominance as batsman, not often surpassed in the most heroic and legendary ages by Trumper, Ranji, Macartney, Hobbs, or any other immortal.

In the first of the five Tests of that year, at Trent Bridge, England's first innings was wrecked by the velocity of Lindwall, Miller and Johnson; all out 165. Australia responded with 509, including an innings by Bradman which, incredibly, occupied him for four hours and three quarters.

Hopelessly behind, England had to struggle for survival in shocking changeful light. Despite the absence of Lindwall, who pulled a muscle, the pace of Miller and Johnston was, in the circumstances, terribly challenging to eyesight and responsive bat. Hutton played dourly for 74; but the truly heroic achievement was Compton's 184, compiled in ten minutes under seven hours.

And it was evilly ended by a fearsome bouncer from Miller. Compton first envisaged a hook, changed his mind, then lost balance, and fell into his own wicket. In a long experience of Test cricket, I can recall few, if any, individual innings surpassing this of Compton's, at Trent Bridge, June 1948 -- surpassing it for quiet technical control, judgment, patient discipline, and perfect poise of personal style.

In this same rubber of 1948, at Old Trafford, Compton again conquered physical pain and shock with the born master-cricketer's resource. In England's first innings, disastrously opened against Lindwall and Johnston, Compton was dealing with a no-ball bouncer from Lindwall. The ball skidded from the edge of the bat to his forehead, knocking him out temporarily.

Three hours later, with England's score 119 for five, Compton returned to the fray, stitches in his head, and for five hours and twenty minutes fought England's fight, and was not out for 145.

There were, so reports have it, certain blemishes on the noble surface of this innings; he was missed at the wicket more than once. Maybe. But for composed art of batsmanship and watchful eye and glass of style and mould of form, this was another Compton creation which, through all the ages, memory must preserve.

Let us not begin to remember Compton only for his vivacity, his glamour and eye-catching appeal, he was absolutely an organised batsman, technically well-schooled, grammatical -- and entirely idiomatic and Comptonian.

As I have mentioned, the Australian team in England in 1948 has often been described as the strongest, most unbeatable, of all. I don't agree that it surpassed the Australians of 1921, in all-round techinique.

As we have seen, Bradman's Invincibles of 1948, thrived on the fact that every 55 overs a new ball could be called into play by the fielding side. Given the legal and material circumstances of 1921, a summer of continuous sunshine, I doubt if the 1948 Australians would compare, in all conditions of weather and wicket, with Armstrong's men.

Armstrong had at his command two great fast bowlers, Gregory and McDonald, supported by the leg and googly spin of Mailey, Armstrong's own accurate leg-spin, with Hendry's seamers in reserve, not to mention Macartney's left-arm spin -- but Gregory, MacDonald and Mailey sufficed to settle the hash of England's batting.

Moreover, the batsmen at Armstrong's disposal were, I believe, as powerful and versatile as any XI has assembled in a Test match -- for example, H.L. Collins, W. Bardsley, C.G. MacArtney, T.J.E. Andrews, J.M. Taylor, C.E. Pellew, J.M. Gregory, W.A. Oldfield, E.A. McDonald, and A.A. Mailey.

The weakest Australian team to invade England? I should say the team which visited us in 1956, even though the attack included Keith Miller, R.G. Archer, A.K. Davidson and Richie Benaud. Lindwall was on the decline then, and Davidson suffered physical injury.

The astonishing fact about these Australians of 1956 is that not a single century was scored by any one of them in the Test matches. Laker, in this rubber, helped himself (that is the term!) to no fewer than 46 wickets at 9.60 each -- an achievement almost equalling on paper (but not in fact) Sydney Barnes's 49 wickets at 10.93 each, on the matting, v. South Africa in 1913-14 (and he took part in only four of the Tests played).

I am convinced that one of the most excellent sustained bowling performances witnessed during Englandv. Australia Test matches in this country was Alec Bedser's 39 wickets, average 17.48, done in 1953. He was not heavily aided at the other end by, variously, Lock, Laker, Wardle, Bailey, Statham, Tattersall, and the embryonic Trueman.

Bedser had established himself already, in Australia, as a bowler in the great succession to Maurice Tate. At Nottingham, in 1953, Australia batted first and rounded 200, with only three batsmen out. Then, in three spells with a new ball, Bedser dispatched one batsman for 7, two for 5, and four, clean bowled, for 2. In this Test match, Bedser's reward was 14 wickets for 99. To describe him as a seamer, with latter-day connotations, is libellous.

Bedser used the seam with intelligent finger leverage. Did anybody ever see him, or ever see Maurice Tate, bowl a real, undisguised long-hop? It was in this summer of 1953 that England won back the Ashes after Australia had held the symbolic trophy for nineteen years.

In 1964, when Australia last visited these shores, Simpson's team won the only finished Test; but England threw (or conspired to throw) a match away at Leeds, when a change of bowling, spin to speed, was exactly what Burge and Hawke would have ordered. But not always is the class and skill of any period in a country's cricket history truthfully to be measured by the winning and losing of Test matches.

In 1902, the high noon of the classical Golden Age, England lost the rubber to Australia, even though an Eleven could be gathered together containing these Imperial names: A.C. MacLaren, F.S. Jackson, C.B. Fry, K.S. Ranjitsinhji, G.L. Jessop, Rhodes, Braund, Tyldesley, Lockwood, Lilley, Hirst.

Victory or defeat scarcely came into the issue during the summers in which Peter May, David Sheppard and Jim Laker were at their best. Pressed into a corner, I'd hesitate long before ranking Peter May second to the most glamorous of the Edwardian master batsmen. And for cultivated presence at the wicket, Sheppard could have survived comparison in company of R.H. Spooner himself.

Was MacLaren more imposing than Dexter in full flowing tide? Has any wicket-keeper excelled Godfrey Evans as a sight to see, and as omnipresent catcher and stumper?

Since the 1940's English cricket has produced a nucleus of talent from which a team could be chosen hard to overthrow by the greatest England (or Australian) XIs of yesteryear. Consider these names and the image of prowess and personality conjured up by each: Hutton, Washbrook, May, Compton, Cowdrey, Dexter, Barrington, Evans, Laker, Lock, Trueman -- there's a combination fit to play the Rest of the World in the Elysian fields. And no place for Graveney, Jim Parks, Bill Edrich, Tyson, Statham, Titmus, Barber, Boycott!

So with the Australians in this epoch of supposed decline and fall: Morris, Barnes, Harvey, Miller, O'Neill, Simpson, Walters, Davidson, Benaud, Lindwall and Tallon.

Nature and the genius of cricket lavish gifts in equal and generous quantity in all periods, all seasons. It is the way they are used that counts. We may be sure that after some lean years recently the Australians of 1968 will not allow inborn potentialities to run to waste for want of the ancient and Australian will to win.

© John Wisden & Co