An unpleasant surprise was in store for M.C.C on their eighth post-war tour of Australia. Having been selected on the assumption that as a consequence of Dennis Lillee's back injury in West Indies early in 1973, Australia were unlikely to call upon a genuinely fast bowler, Denness's side in fact found themselves confronting two - Lillee and a youngster from Sydney, Jeff Thomson, who up to that time had made a bigger name for himself by what he had said in a magazine about hurting batsmen than by anything he had done on the cricket field.
In his only previous Test, against Pakistan, two years earlier, Thomson had taken nought for 110 in 19 overs, while his inability to command a certain place in the New South Wales team in 1973-74 had been a factor in his moving to Queensland a few months before M.C.C.'s arrival in Australia. In the event, Thomson, six feet tall, 24 years old, and equipped with the extremely powerful V-shaped back that characterises many fast bowlers, took 33 wickets in four and a half Tests and looked sure to break Arthur Mailey's longstanding record, 36 in 1920-21, when he hurt himself playing tennis on the rest day of the Adelaide Test and was unable to bowl again in the series.
Lillee, within himself at Brisbane, bowled with a hostility that bordered on savagery throughout the series, steadily gaining pace as he gained confidence in his back. And his pace was comparable to Thomson's so that England had no respite.
By one of those accumulating coincidences that have no connection with logic and therefore no explanation, four Tests passed before Lillee took other than two wickets in an innings. He got a better reward at Adelaide, with four in each innings, and finished the series with 25, eight behind Thomson. In its way, Lillee's was an even more remarkable achievement because less than two years earlier it was open to doubt whether he would ever bowl fast again. Ambition and iron determination carried him back to the peaks of fitness and success he had achieved as a 23-year-old in England in 1972. He spent weeks in a plaster-cast to take the strain off his back after Australia's tour of West Indies and in 1973-74, patiently following medical advice, hardly bowled at all in the hope that if he did everything he was told he might yet battle back to open Australia's bowling in the series against England.
Watching the two in action, it was easy to believe they were the fastest pair ever to have coincided in a cricket team. They would have been too good for better batting sides than Denness's even without the superb standard of catching set by Greg Chappell and Mallett in the slips and gully, or without the help they got from the pitches. Of the first four Tests - Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney - only the Perth pitch could be described as true. Overall, they were unevenly grassed and fast, giving variable bounce, especially at Brisbane.
The catching reached its zenith at Perth, where the Chappell brothers, Mallet and Redpath shared 13 in the slips and gully, compared to one by Marsh, the wicket-keeper. At least a quarter of those catches would have stood out as the "catch of the match" in most Tests. Twenty-three of the fast bowlers' 58 wickets fell in that segment, while from all Australia's bowlers, the total rose to 38, with another 18 to Marsh.
On top of those advantages, the umpires, Brooks and Bailhache, gave Thomson and Lillee considerable freedom in respect of short-pitched bowling. Thomson's tremendous strength - or perhaps some feature of his perfectly fair but "hurling" action - enabled him to get the ball up from a fuller length that any fast bowler I had seen. But even from him, there were often two unmistakable bouncers an over, while Lillee sometimes bowled three or even four.
Not that Australia had exclusive rights to the bouncer. Including Greig, there were six men in the M.C.C. party capable of bowling it and, especially in the early matches, it was freely used. It might even be said that Greig was himself responsible for the slackening of the unwritten law that the ball should be pitched up to tailenders by dismissing Lillee with a bouncer at Brisbane in the first innings of the series. Five Australians got out misplaying hook strokes in that innings (three to Willis) and from then on the shot was less in evidence. But tailenders had to be on their guard against bouncers for the rest of the tour, and right at the end, when the M.C.C. moved on to New Zealand, there was almost a fatality. This came in the first test when New Zealand's number 11, Ewan Chatfield, needed the kiss of life as he lay on the pitch after deflecting a bouncer from Lever into the temple off his gloves.
Thomson's steep lift was by no means the only factor that made it so hard for the umpires to apply Law 46 to everyone's satisfaction. Another was the size of the crowds and the extent to which they identified themselves with the two fast bowlers. Not since 1958-59 had Australians been able to see England taken to pieces and it wasn't a chance they were about to miss. More than a quarter of a million watched the third Test, at Melbourne, including 77,000 on Boxing Day, and when the teams immediately moved on to Sydney, where Australia recaptured the Ashes, the five-day attendance of 178,027 was a record for the ground. Cash takings predictably broke records all over the place - Australia's rate of inflation was running even higher than England's at the time.
When Thomson and Lillee were bowling, the atmosphere was more like that of a soccer ground than of a cricket match, especially at Sydney, where England's batsmen must have experienced the same sort of emotion as they waited for the next ball as early Christians felt as they waited in the Colosseum for the lions. Passions were occasionally roused by the fact that during the season Lillee had published Back to the Mark, a book in which he openly admitted that when he bowled a bouncer he aimed to hit the batsman and make him think twice about the wisdom of going on batting.
No fast bowler had been as explicit as that in print (although it stands to reason that a bouncer has to be straight to be effective) and there was no doubt that the comment played its part in provoking the exultant chants of "Lill...lee, Lill...lee" from the jam-packed Hill that accompanied him along the 30-yard walk to his mark, and up the first half of his run-up...to be followed by an expectant hush as he neared the bowling crease.
It would have needed umpires of much self-confidence to have interfered with this Roman holiday, and Brooks and Bailhache - a fledgling of 27 - did not possess it. It was a very difficult series to umpire and the Australian Board of Control did nothing to relieve the burden by appointing the pair for all six Tests, so that they were never out of the thick of it. Yet when all their difficulties are added up it must be said that their umpiring fell short of required standards. The lack of protection afforded to England's batsmen prompted a re-examination of Law 46 at the Test and County Cricket Board's spring meeting (March 1975), while their judgement of lbw and legside catches seemed at times to bear little relation to reality. Batsmen sometimes appeared to be immune from lbw decisions unless they were right back on their stumps with the ball keeping low. England's bowlers seemed to suffer more in that respect, but Australia had their share of controversial decisions in the form of catches near the bat, culminating in Ian Chappell's twice being adjudged caught at the wicket in the sixth Test when on each occasion he seemed to miss his attempted leg-glance with something to spare.
To return to Lillee and Thomson, they would almost certainly have won the Ashes for Australia without any of the additional advantages that came their way through brilliant catching, helpful pitches and confused umpiring. England's batting, arguably their weakest in Australia since the war, had little experience against fast-bowling and as painfully at sea against it, broadly because of an inability or reluctance to get in line. They were without Boycott, who withdrew a month before the team left England because "he couldn't do justice to himself"; saw their other linch-pin, Amiss, reduced to mediocrity, and to cap everything ran into a sequence of injuries and illness of which Alec Bedser, the manager, could not remember the like in all his years in cricket.
The most serious were to Edrich, the vice-captain, Amiss and Lloyd, who all broke bones - Edrich on two occasions; Denness's adjustment to Australian conditions was hampered by a virus that affected his back, while Willis, the fastest bowler, was troubled by sore knees from November onwards. There was scarcely a member of the 17-man party who was not out of action at one time or another and Knott and Greig were the only two who played in all six Tests. Nothing paints a clearer picture of the overthrow of England's main batting than that Greig and Knott, who batted mainly at numbers six and seven, were responsible for eight of the 14 scores of 50 and above. They stood at out as the successes of the tour, while Greig's flamboyance gave their side character in the field.
Edrich, Willis and Underwood were others who did well. Edrich's highest score in four Tests was 70, but considering his failures against Lillee in 1972, and the additional psychological advantage Lillee established by breaking Edrich's hand at Brisbane, and a couple of ribs at Sydney, the left-hander's resolution against the fast bowlers was impressive even by his own standards. There was no braver innings that his 33 not out in two and a half hours at Sydney, where he narrowly failed to save England from defeat after being forced to retire hurt first ball.
Willis responded energetically to the duties of spearhead and took 15 wickets in the first three Tests, bowling fast. He was carefully nursed, playing in only one State game once the series had started; but three Tests inside a month in December and January increased the strain on his knees, and his two wickets in the fourth and fifth Tests cost a hundred runs each. He was unfit to play in the sixth Test and like Lloyd and Cowdrey returned to England without going to New Zealand. Lloyd aggravated an old neck injury during the Adelaide test, and Cowdrey was contracted only for the matches in Australia. He had joined the team in Perth, having hastily been summoned from an English winter in the hope that 20 years after his first tour under Sir Leonard Hutton he could shore up the batting when Edrich and Amiss were injured at Brisbane.
In making his sixth tour of Australia, Cowdrey equalled the record of J. Briggs, the Lancashire slow left-arm bowler, who toured in 1884-85, 1886-87, 1887-88, 1891-92, 1894-95 and 1897-98.
The highlight of Underwood's tour came at Adelaide, where with the help of a drying pitch he took seven for 113 on the first day of the fifth test and 11 wickets in the match. Conditions favoured him there, but he bowled beautifully on all types of pitch, making cleverer use of flight than on previous tours so that in effect he often playing the part of an orthodox slow left-hander. It reflected the quality of his bowling that of his 17 Test wickets, seven were "Chappells" - and not one a tailender. As in 1970-71, he was culpably omitted from the team for the second Test and having also missed both West Australia matches, completed yet another tour without a game at Perth.
Most of the others had their days, notably at Melbourne in the sixth Test, which England won by an innings. For once, everything went right. Australia, winning an awkward toss, were shot out for 152 by Lever, who took six for 38, whereupon England scored 529, Denness getting 188 and Fletcher 146. The explanation for this remarkable turnabout was that Thomson was out of the match, while a bruised foot restricted Lillee to six overs. Making allowances for the possibility that Australia, four-love up, had lost their sharpness, and the fact that England got the better of the conditions, the result showed how much Australia owed to their two faster bowlers. Greg Chappell's batting was in a class of its own, Redpath did a priceless blunting job at number one, and Walker was a reliable seamer - but without Thomson and Lillee there was not much between the sides. Before their 529, England's scores had been 265 and 166 at Brisbane; 208 and 293 at Perth, 242 and 244 at Melbourne, 295 and 228n at Sydney; and 172 and 241 at Adelaide.
Denness followed his 188 in the sixth Test with 181 against New Zealand at Auckland, where England also won by an innings, and finished the tour at the top of the averages and with the highest aggregate. That was at tribute to his determination, for it was not until his thirteenth innings that he even managed a fifty, and his lack of form, and technical deficiencies were such that he felt obliged to leave himself out of the reckoning for the fourth Test. He got back on track with a brilliant 157 not out on a "cart-track" against Tasmania at Launceston, followed with 99 in the second New South Wales match, and made 51 and 14 on his return to the Test team at Adelaide.
His two later hundreds showed how well he can play without fast bowling to contend with. They gave him just the chance of holding on to the captaincy when Australia visited England in 1975 - a chance he seemed to have lost irrevocably when he was dismissed six time for 65 in the first three Tests; and made a possibly decisive contribution to Australia's victory at Adelaide by failing to use Titmus in partnership with Underwood when the ball was turning.
Denness set an energetic example in the field - another department in which England were heavily outgunned - and promoted a better team spirit than was the case in the West Indies; mainly because he showed a greater readiness to listen to advice. There were times nevertheless when field-placings were being made by other than the captain; but even with hindsight it is doubtful whether an England side could have been selected that might have given Australia a run for their money, no matter who the captain was.
It was coincidental that of the four selectors who picked the seventeen players only Alec Bedser, the chairman, was re-elected for the following English season because of the others - J. D. Bond, B. Taylor and O. S. Wheatley - only Taylor was available. The feeling existed all the same that England's interests would have been better served by selectors with experience of Test cricket. Sir Leonard Hutton, K. F. Barrington and C. S. Elliott, their replacements, all had that experience - more than a hundred Tests between them as players or umpire.
Tour officials: Captain - M. H. Denness; Vice-Captain - J. H. Edrich; Manager - A. V. Bedser; Assistant Manager - A. C. Smith; Physiotherapist - B. Thomas.
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