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Australia, under Richie Benaud, their new captain, won the 1958-59 Test series against the visiting England team, led by Peter May, so convincingly by four victories to none that English enthusiasts were left wondering how their favourites came to lose the Ashes which they had held since 1953.
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. 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.
There were unfortunate and, as it happened, significant happenings for England before the tour started. Laker, prior to selection, made it known that he would not be able to make the trip, then changed his mind. Wardle, following his dismissal by Yorkshire, was left out of the originally selected party of seventeen.
Sixteen players sailed on the S.S. Iberia, but because of injuries to Watson, who had to undergo a knee operation after hurting himself on board ship, and Subba Row, who fractured his wrist just before the First Test, reinforcements in Mortimore and Dexter were flown out. The enlarged M.C.C. party consisted of:
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.
Tyson, who achieved such wonderful deeds four years previously, could not produce his bewildering speed; Bailey was not a match-winning quantity either as batsman or bowler, and Lock, for all his enthusiasm, rarely constituted a danger in the Australian Test matches though he met with a good deal of success in State games and in New Zealand.
Evans was another stalwart who gave evidence of a decline in power, but the shortcomings of Richardson, who so frequently failed as opening bat, were the most serious for the side. Five times in eight Australian Test innings Richardson was out of less than a dozen runs and England's ability to make a sound start suffered accordingly.
The blame for England's batting break-downs cannot be laid wholly at Richardson's door. Most of his colleagues were ill at ease against the ball moving from leg to off -- the main form of attack by the left-arm fast-medium bowlers, Davidson and Meckiff, and the stock delivery of Benaud. The dominating part these men played in the Tests is shown by the fact that, between them, they took 72 of the 94 wickets credited to Australian bowlers.
The tactics of Davidson and Meckiff had been exposed the year before when the South Africans, on their own grounds, were so often caught off snicked or edged strokes, but the correct theoretical strategy of the England selectors in countering with the choice of three left-hand batsmen, Richardson, Watson and Subba Row, did not have the desired effect, largely because injury restricted the Test chances of the latter two. Subba Row did not play in any Test.
That England had not profited from the pointers of the South Africa-Australia series was obvious from the big proportion of 32 catches going to the wicket-keeper or slips out of 58 altogether held by Australia in the Tests. As in South Africa, Grout, the Queensland wicket-keeper, distinguished himself and in the Final Test at Melbourne he equalled the 1946-47 record of Don Tallon of dismissing twenty victims in an England-Australia series.
More resolution against Davidson, Meckiff and Rorke -- the young 6 ft. 4 in. right-arm fast bowler who made his presence felt in the last two Tests -- should have been forthcoming but only May, who had to shoulder a very heavy burden as leading batsman, and in a lesser degree Cowdrey, his vice-captain, were able to combine dour resistance with comparatively facile stroke-making. Each hit one century and averaged over 40 in the Tests.
Graveney, after early frustrations, partially fulfilled the expectations of his admirers, but Milton failed to do himself justice and England's opening problem was never satisfactorily solved.
The weakness in this respect is graphically shown by an analysis of England's first-wicket partnerships: First Test: Richardson and Milton, 16 and 28; Second Test: Richardson and Bailey, 7 and 3; Third Test: Bailey and Milton, 19 and 30; Fourth Test: Richardson and Bailey, 7; Richardson and Watson, 89; fifth Test: Richardson and Bailey, 0 and 0.
Australia's opening partnerships were: First Test: McDonald and Burke, 55 and 20; Second Test: McDonald and Burke, 11 and 6; Third Test: McDonald and Burke, 26 and 22; Fourth Test: McDonald and Burke, 171; Favell and Burke, 36; Fifth Test: McDonald and Burke, 41 and 66.
So the sense of struggling from the start, which nearly always attended the England innings, persisted throughout the series. The tourists never found an opening batsman as reliable as McDonald, who surpassed anything else he had done in Test cricket by heading the batting with an aggregate of 519 runs, including two hundreds, at an average just under 65.
Australia were by no means sound all through the batting order, although they generally found someone to play a useful innings at a crucial stage. Harvey touched his most brilliant form only once, when he trounced the England bowlers for 167 in the Second Test, and it was just as well for Australia that in O'Neill they found a new star with old-fashioned ideas in using the bat for the main purpose of hitting the ball.
O'Neill scored little more than half the runs McDonald obtained in Tests, but his refreshing attitude of aggressiveness proved a valuable asset to his side. His second innings score of 71 not out at Brisbane, where he appeared in his first Test, did as much as any other individual effort to give the Australians confidence in their ability to overcome England.
In an age of pushes and deflections, O'Neill brought back the thrills of the powerfully-hit drive, and those off the back foot were reminiscent of W. R. Hammond. Even when making a defensive stroke, O'Neill hit hard.
England did not equal Australia in any aspect of fielding and were much inferior when it came to turning the half-chance into a catch. Brilliant efforts by Davidson, Harvey, MacKay and Grout played and important part in helping to decide the destination of the Ashes.
Australia possessed an inspiring leader in Benaud. He set an example of keen and fearless fielding by often posting himself close to the bat and, except for the Third Test when, with Australia two victories to the good, he closed up the game with an exaggerated defensive field, his handling of the team did him credit. Moreover, his bowling prowess with the leg-break, top-spinner and googly made him one of Australia's best players.
May, as a player -- probably the finest batsman in the world -- ranked as high as his rival, but there the comparison ended. Whether or not his policies were decided by others -- his tour selection committee consisted of himself, Cowdrey, Evans, Bailey and Brown, the manager -- the fact remained that May never seemed to communicate to his team the driving force which Benaud gave to Australia.
May's field-settings were stereotyped, especially in the placings for his fact bowlers with the new ball. Benaud, in contrast, backed up the efforts of Davidson, Meckiff, Lindwall and Rorke with the most intimidating fields he could devise.
May had a fairly reasonable excuse, when England's batting deficiencies became clear, that he could ill-afford to throw runs away, but his semi-defensive outlook when Australia were batting was not calculated to keep his opponents on tenterhooks.
The England bowlers were usually in the unhappy position of having few runs to play with, but no one could have bowled more whole-heartedly than Statham. He was magnificent in the first innings of the Second Test at Melbourne, where he took seven wickets for 57, and in the three other Tests in which he played he bowled fast and accurately although not always meeting with the success he deserved.
Loader, who opened with him in the first two Tests, was quite troublesome with his liveliness, but Trueman and Tyson were included in the later Tests -- Trueman with fair success.
Statham and Loader were ruled out of consideration for the Fifth Test after suffering injury and shock in a road accident when a car in which they were driven from Wangaratta to Wagga Wagga overturned. Loader suffered cuts on an arm and head and Statham badly bruised a shoulder. Neither played again on the tour.
England's casualties, which began with Watson and went on match in and match out until Richardson cracked two ribs in the closing stages of the tour in New Zealand, provided chances for the reserves.
Swetman kept wicket in place of Evans in the Third and Fifth Tests and earned commendation for a meritorious innings of 41 on his first Test appearance, but he was not always sure behind the stumps and missed chances. Still, in following a great wicket-keeper like Evans, he had a very heavy task.
Dexter appeared in two Australian Tests without taking the eye, but Mortimore played a good innings of 44 not out in his first Test -- the fifty, at Melbourne. He made the most of his opportunities as an off-spin bowler in New Zealand after Laker had said he was unfit for this section of the tour and went home.
Laker bowled well in Australia and headed the English averages for Tests and all first -class matches. When he found pitches unsuitable for quick spin, which was the case on the majority of occasions -- he used variation of flight and pace and Australian onlookers were able to appreciate the skill which brought him the world record of 19 wickets in a Test match against their country in England in 1956.
Turning from the subject of appreciation of the finer points of cricket, mention should be made of the other extreme. This, for all the talk about throwing and jerking, was the negative cricket which led to so much dull and unenterprising play. The first four days' play of the Brisbane Test, during which both sides sparred for an opening, typified this trend. In successive days of five hours' cricket the runs scored were 142, 148, 122 and 106. On the second day England, in the field all the time, bowled only 57 overs.
This was quite a gallop compared with the second day of the Adelaide Test, when, with Lock on his own as spinner, only 51 overs were managed while Australia raised their score from 200 for one to 403 for six wickets in five hours. Australia were not blameless in respect of wasting time by the slow walk of their bowlers back to their marks, and on the fifth day of this Fourth Test, just before Australia regained the Ashes, Benaud and his men bowled only 56 overs.
Go-slow methods by bowlers were not the only tactics adversely criticised. Bailey played a marathon innings of seven hours thirty-eight minutes for 68 in the First Test, and although at the start circumstances demanded caution he should have altered his policy later.
Burke often rivalled Bailey for doggedness, as did MacKay, so spectators could depend upon having to sit through at least one boring spell of batting each day.
Still, the most regrettable aspect of the Australian tour concerned the umpiring and the way decisions were received. There were errors -- notably the giving out of Cowdrey in the First Test, when, in my opinion, the ball bounced in front of Kline, and the run-out decision, afterwards altered, against McDonald in the Fourth Test when his runner, Burke, was completely out of view of Umpire McInnes, who gave the verdict.
There were many other incidents dealing with what English followers of the game know as the drag problem and with so-called gamesmanship -- in which both sides engaged -- which irritated both the players and those who had come hoping to see the real spirit of cricket. Running on the pitch by bowlers and batsmen and the rubbing of the ball on the ground by Lock and Laker were examples of questionable tactics bringing reproofs from umpires.
Umpire McInnes, the centre of controversy, stood in the first four Tests; then, after being passed over for the Fifty, he announced his retirement.
Bowlers of each side were rightly no-balled for overstepping the bowling crease with their back foot -- the Australian version of the drag -- but England batsmen had my sympathy when Rorke was frequently allowed, without penalty, to drag from a foot behind the bowling crease to the popping crease and finally deliver from a distance of about 18 or 19 yards.
Australian umpires at that time passed as legitimate the foot action of a bowler, however far he dragged, so long as he brought his back foot down behind the bowling crease in the first place, and discontent followed this wide difference in interpretation of the law.
On this very controversial tour, which I reported for Reuter and the Press Association, perhaps the most vexed question was related to the delivery action of some Australian bowers. Not once in Tests or in other first-class matches did the umpires no-ball a man for throwing or jerking.
Had they, as I saw things, strictly carried out the Law they should have called on many occasions Burke, Meckiff, Rorke and Slater, of the Test bowlers, and several other men of lesser reputation.
The actions of the bowlers concerned varied from a bent elbow or a poised upright arm to a bent wrist -- movements difficult to analyse even with the help of a film camera -- but all had in common a look admitted to be doubtful even by a good proportion of Australian cricket enthusiasts. As the Law stipulated that umpires should call no-ball if they were not entirely satisfied of the absolute fairness of a delivery, there seemed to be something radically wrong. Some Australians, including umpires, stated that a universal definition on the point of what exactly constitutes a throw or jerk would help towards interpreting Law 26.
The Australian Board of Control denied the existence of a throwing problem. At home and when the visit to Australia had concluded, M.C.C., the English ruling body, were bolder in admitting that they had for some time entertained misgivings about the doubtful actions of certain bowlers in England and instructed umpires and county officials to take the necessary remedial steps. Lock, whose action was often questioned by Australians, changed his style on returning home to one embracing a smoother delivery at slower pace.
The Australian part of the tour, in brief summary, followed from the start a pattern of breakdowns and recoveries by the inconsistent English batting with an occasional fine individual performance.
Little harm, from the result standpoint, ensued in the State games and that against the Australian XI, for out of these ten contests four were won and the others drawn. The lessening of confidence in themselves as collapse followed collapse did, however, exercise a damaging effect upon the abilities of the players and although May, repeatedly calling tails, won the toss four times out of five in the Test matches, England never once looked like being victorious.
The Englishmen, for all their setbacks, were undefeated when they came to the First Test, but Australia, against general prophecy, beat them. The margin of eight wickets fairly represented Australian superiority, asserted through the left-arm attack of Davidson and Meckiff, the spin-bowling of Benaud and the forceful batting of O'Neill. May set up a Test record by captaining England for the twenty-sixth time, but he enjoyed no personal batting success. Australia were left to score 147 for victory and the match ended in five days.
The relaxing trip to Tasmania, which came earlier than usual and could, with a more sensible rearrangement of fixtures in future, be put back until the England men really need a rest, produced draws in the two three-day games. Dexter made a pleasing first appearance at Hobart and Mortimore, at Launceston against a Combined XI, had the distinction of claiming O'Neill as his first victim of the tour.
Back to Adelaide for the Christmas match against South Australia, which was drawn in thrilling circumstances with Trueman taking the ninth wicket with the last ball of the last over; but M.C.C. pleasure in a stirring struggle was marred by injury to Milton, who cracked the top joint of the middle finger of his right hand -- a fracture which reopened three weeks later when another blow on the same finger against Victoria ended his active participation in the tour.
Then followed the most exacting period of the tour with the Third Test match immediately following the Second. At Melbourne, on a faster pitch that at Brisbane, Davidson delivered a body-blow at once by dismissing three men in his second over, and Australia, despite a score of 113 by May, again won by eight wickets with a day to spare.
Harvey demoralised England in a brilliant innings of 167, and so did Meckiff in another way, for his six wickets for 38 in the second innings started the hunt for throwers and jerkers and routed England for 87 -- their lowest score in Australia for 55 years. Australia needed only 39 to win and an hour's play on the fifty morning finished the match.
At Sydney, where May and his selectors surprisingly preferred Dexter to Watson, England, facing the loss of the Ashes in three straight games, rallied and earned a commendable draw.
Meckiff broke down in the second innings with tendon trouble, but it was the fighting spirit and skill shown by May and Cowdrey, who hit a hundred in a fourth-wicket stand of 182, which turned the fortunes of the game after England were 138 behind on the first innings. May actually found himself able to declare and challenged Australia to score 150 in and hour and fifty minutes, but on a pitch showing signs of wear they played cautiously.
M.C.C.'s only double -- a second success at Victoria's expense -- revived drooping spirits at Melbourne, where Cowdrey led the side to victory by nine wickets in a period of intense heat. Temperatures on two days reached 109 in the shade. Watson played his highest innings of the tour -- 141 -- and Trueman bowled very well. Milton was just finding his form again when his finger injury recurred.
Though the return match with New South Wales was spoiled by rain, it afforded May the opportunity to hit another century in fine style. Rorke displayed his top speed and clinched his selection for the vital fourth test in the absence through injury of Meckiff.
May's decision to send in Australia at Adelaide will long be debated, but I think he was absolutely right to take the course most likely to give England the victory necessary to keep the series alive.
The night before the match Laker had been included in the list of players chosen. Next morning, after testing his finger with bowling in the nets, he left May in a predicament by declaring himself unfit to play, so there was full justification for the England captain putting all his eggs, as it were, in the fast bowlers' basket. Statham and Trueman bowled valiantly, but in vain. McDonald, who went on to make 170, the highest individual score of the series, and Burke laid the foundations of Australia's win in an opening partnership of 171.
Australia totalled 476 and England, upset by Benaud's wiles and Rorke's speed, were out of 240 and followed on. A better fight in the second innings, with Graveney and Tyson making last-ditch stands, failed to stem the tide. Australia required only 35 runs to win the Ashes and with two hours left they accomplished the simple task. May offered congratulations to Benaud after the match and gave him his England cricket cap as a memento.
In the Fifth Test, at Melbourne, England were convincingly beaten for the fourth time. The margin of nine wickets, again with a day in hand, reflected the merits of the teams. Benaud, on this occasion, sent England in against a battery of four fast bowlers, and the strategy paid off.
Lindwall achieved the record he had so long sought by passing Grimmett's 216 Test wickets -- the best by an Australian. McDonald appropriately set the seal on his valuable contribution to Australia's triumph by making the winning hit and taking out his bat.
In this way, the tour in Australia ended. Whether or not the publicity arising from controversial matters created additional interest, over 50,000 more people watched the series than saw Hutton's team in 1954-55. The net profit for the five Tests was £44,984 (Sterling), an increase of £12,176 on the 1954-55 figures. M.C.C.'s profit on the whole Australian tour was £16,500.
The last month in New Zealand, where two Test matches and three other games were played, came as a pleasant relief after the stress and strain in Australia. England, with only twelve men available for the trip -- Milton, Evans, Laker, Bailey, Loader and Statham returned home -- were too good for the plucky New Zealanders and won the First Test at Christchurch by and innings and 99. Lock, back to something like England conditions, took eleven wickets and Dexter hit his maiden Test century. The Second Test, at Auckland, was ruined by rain, but the expenses of the tour -- paid by New Zealand -- were covered and a profit made.
All Matches--Played 27, Won 10, Lost 4, Drawn 12, Abandoned 1
First-Class Matches--Played 22, Won 7, Lost 4, Drawn 11
Test Matches--Played 5, Won 0, Lost 4, Drawn 1