England 2 Australia 1

Australians in England, 1956

Norman Preston

The gradual decline in Australia's cricketing strength since the retirement of Sir Donald Bradman at the end of his triumphant tour of England in 1948 was not halted by the team of seventeen players led by Ian Johnson in 1956. Although they lost the rubber by the bare margin of two wins by England (at Leeds and Manchester) against one by themselves (at Lord's) they were more or less outplayed in four of the five Tests and gave a disappointing display against the majority of the counties.

Their confidence was shaken by the wettest of all summers in memory and in batting, bowling and fielding they were inferior to England. The Australian is mainly a Saturday afternoon cricketer, brought up on hard, true pitches, blazing sunshine and a clear light. In these conditions his keen eyesight will generally compensate for minor flaws in technique; yet we saw in Australia in 1954-55 that, when batsmen were faced by bowlers of genuine pace like Statham and Tyson, those without natural gifts and sound coaching behind them could not survive. Similarly these men had no answer in England when day after day the pitches favoured spin.

They could not forget the way Laker and Lock wrested the Ashes from them at The Oval in 1953. Whenever they faced Laker they feared his off-spin. In seven matches, including two for Surrey, Laker claimed 63 wickets against them. Yet his whole tally for the season came to no more than 132.

The Test which Australia won was played under dry conditions when, happily for them, Johnson won the toss. Otherwise Australia had the worst of the weather, the pitches and the toss, which May won four times. Unlike England, who possessed plenty of bowlers for any type of pitch, Australia were sadly deficient in spin.

Not for thirty years had an Australian team found victory so elusive. The following summary of first-class matches played by the Australians in England since the first World War emphasises this:--

YearCaptainPlayedWonDrawnLostTie
1921(W. W. Armstrong)3321102-
1926(H. L. Collins)339231-
1930(W. M. Woodfull)31111811
1934(W. M. Woodfull)3013161-
1938(D. G. Bradman)3015122-
1948(D. G. Bradman)312380-
1953(A. L. Hassett)3116161-
1956(I. W. Johnson)3119193-

It must be pointed out that victory was not Johnson's main objective in the early matches. He preferred to use these games for experimental purposes in the way of giving his batsmen and bowlers practice under strange conditions. Other teams have adopted the same methods, but the fact remains that this was the first of all Australian sides to visit England who entered the opening Test without a win to their credit against any of the first-class counties.

Johnson came in for some strong criticism in only the second match of the tour when at Leicester, after disposing of the county for 298 early on the second day, the tourists occupied the rest of the match while they built up a total 694 for six wickets. Miller, no stranger to English conditions, made 281 not out.

When at length the team gained their first win in the third week of May, Johnson declared that the experimental period, having served its purpose, was now completed and the aim in future would be victory; but meanwhile the many weaknesses in the side had been exposed and there was a growing confidence in English circles that the Ashes would be retained.

Already, the Australians had suffered their first reverse at the hands of Surrey, the County Champions, by a margin of ten wickets. Not since 1912 had any county lowered the Australian flag, nor had the Australians any excuse to offer. Johnson won the toss, but they were dismissed for 259, Laker gaining undying fame by taking all ten wickets on the first day, a feat he repeated on the last day of the Manchester Test.

The Australians, realising the suspect nature of their batting from the beginning of the tour, intended to use Miller mainly as a batsman, but the plan had to be revised when Davidson chipped an ankle bone and Lindwall pulled a leg muscle in the undecided first Test at Nottingham. So they entered the second Test at Lord's with Miller, Crawford and Archer as the seam bowlers, and thanks almost entirely to some magnificent bowling by Miller, who took five wickets in each innings. Australia won by 185 runs and went ahead in the fight for the rubber.

Australia thoroughly deserved this success, but they had to wait until July before gaining their first win over a county. Then they outplayed Gloucestershire on a sandy surface at Bristol and enjoyed the best of drawn games with Somerset and Hampshire.

The turning-point in their fortunes came at Headingley in the third Test. Davidson was still on the injured list, and although Lindwall was fit, Miller complained of a sore knee which prevented him taking any part in the attack. To make matters worse, Johnson lost the toss, but within an hour the first three England wickets were captured by Archer for 17 runs. At this stage Miller's help to drive home the advantage would have been invaluable, for the Ashes were within Australia's grasp. Instead, Washbrook, returning to the England team after an absence of five years, sealed the gap with May, the pair adding 187. By the time Australia batted, the pitch had become dusty and ideally suited to Laker and Lock. Later a deluge transformed the turf into an even worse state and the two Surrey spinners carried all before them, taking 18 of the 20 wickets, so that Australia were beaten for the first time on this ground--by an innings and 42 runs.

The fourth Test at Manchester followed almost the same pattern, except that this time England were given a sound start by their batsmen. Everything went against Australia who contributed to their own downfall by an irresolute display on another dry, false pitch. They faced a total of 459 and attempts to hit Laker off his length proved so disastrous that the whole side were out in less than two and a half hours for 84. More rain caused long delays until the fifth day when the sun shone and Laker on a drying pitch completed his wonderful match record of nineteen wickets for 90 runs.

This time defeat came by a margin of an innings and 170 runs. Australia had only the final match at The Oval left to try and draw the rubber. Again they were outplayed and moreover the inadequacy of their slow bowling was fully exposed when they had England batting on a treacherous pitch and failed to seize the chance of a quick kill. In the end only rain spared them from another beating.

It was the first time in sixty years that England had won three consecutive rubbers against Australia and never before had the Australians gone through a series without any batsman hitting a century in the Tests.

Although ten of the team made at least one hundred in the other matches, the final batting figures, even taking into account the bad weather, compared most unfavourably with those of previous tours. Whereas R. N. Harvey finished with an aggregate of 2,040 runs in 1953, he made no more than 976 in 23 first-class matches and these included the highest score of his career, 225 against M.C.C. at Lord's. The many failures of this noted left-hander were a big disappointment.

Only three batsmen, J. W. Burke, C. C. McDonald and K. Mackay managed to complete 1,000 runs for the tour. Burke, who headed the Test batting with an average of 30.11, showed very sound defence and looked far less vulnerable than his colleagues. I. D. Craig, as in 1953, was the youngest member of the party and, besides gaining a place in the last two Tests, he shaped so consistently well during the second half of the tour that one felt he had firmly established himself. The experience he gained from his two tours may well prove invaluable to Australia in the future.

C. C. McDonald also showed much improvement on his second visit. While he never became a dominating batsman, he played two good innings in the Tests, one at Lord's, where he shared an opening stand of 137 with Burke, and the other at Manchester, where his 89 against Laker on a drying pitch was worth far more than its face value.

K. Mackay, the Queensland left-hander, finished top of the batting in all first-class matches, averaging 52.52, but he looked so very raw against the turning ball that he was left out of the last two Tests. Here was the case of a self-made player failing in the fundamentals. He had no back-lift to his bat and made most of his runs by deflection, though now and again he released a powerful off-drive. He possessed unbounded patience, as he showed in the Lord's Test when he stayed with Benaud in the vital stand of 117 that left England too big a task in the fourth innings. That day Benaud played the highest innings in the Tests for Australia, 97, but his other eight innings brought him only 103 runs and his leg-break bowling, though successful on occasion against ordinary opposition, did not trouble the best batsmen.

Most of the bowling in the Tests fell upon Miller and Archer, but owing probably to the abnormal number of soft pitches, neither was consistently deadly, nor had England any fear of the old combination of Lindwall and Miller. Lindwall had shed much of his pace, though his action was as smooth as ever and his ability to swing the new ball remained.

The team possessed three slow bowlers of repute, Johnson, Benaud and Wilson. Between them they claimed only 14 wickets in the five Tests compared with 61 obtained by Laker and Lock. Johnson, who came to England in 1948 but was omitted from the 1953 team, carried a big responsibility. He could not approach Laker's skill on English wickets, but he was a shrewd and skilful captain who led his men conscientiously both on and off the field. Wilson, a left-arm slow bowler from Adelaide, never adapted himself to English conditions. He lacked finger-spin and did not appear in any of the Tests.

There were two efficient wicket-keepers in G. R. A. Langley and L. V. Maddocks. Langley established a new Test wicket-keeping record at Lord's, where he helped in the dismissal of nine opponents. More will be found about both Langley and Burke in the Five Cricketers of the Year at the beginning of the Almanack.

With as many as 43 days of the tour interfered with by rain, including 13 blank days, the profits, though amounting to £60,000, fell £20,000 below the 1953 figures. The weather alone was responsible for the fall, for judging by the advance bookings for the Tests, there was no decline in public interest.

That the tour went through so pleasantly was due in no small measure to the good-will, courtesy and tact shown by both Ian Johnson, the captain, and Mr. W. J. Dowling, the manager. The question of the drag was solved without any formal pronouncement and whatever were the inner feelings of the Australians over the pitches which were prepared at Headingley and Old Trafford, they kept them to themselves. Still the fact remained that the surfaces of both these pitches broke up on the second day. The abnormally dry spring coupled with the absence of sunshine in the summer months no doubt contributed to the problem.

Match reports for

1st Test: India v Australia at Chennai, Oct 19-23, 1956
Report | Scorecard

2nd Test: India v Australia at Mumbai (BS), Oct 26-31, 1956
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3rd Test: India v Australia at Kolkata, Nov 2-6, 1956
Report | Scorecard

Match reports for

Only Test: Pakistan v Australia at Karachi, Oct 11-17, 1956
Report | Scorecard

Match reports for

Tour Match: Worcestershire v Australians at Worcester, May 2-4, 1956
Scorecard

Tour Match: Leicestershire v Australians at Leicester, May 5-8, 1956
Scorecard

Tour Match: Yorkshire v Australians at Bradford, May 9-11, 1956
Scorecard

Tour Match: Nottinghamshire v Australians at Nottingham, May 12-15, 1956
Scorecard

Tour Match: Surrey v Australians at The Oval, May 16-18, 1956
Scorecard

Tour Match: Cambridge University v Australians at Cambridge, May 19-22, 1956
Scorecard

Tour Match: Lancashire v Australians at Manchester, May 23-25, 1956
Scorecard

Tour Match: Marylebone Cricket Club v Australians at Lord's, May 26-29, 1956
Scorecard

1st Test: England v Australia at Nottingham, Jun 7-12, 1956
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2nd Test: England v Australia at Lord's, Jun 21-26, 1956
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3rd Test: England v Australia at Leeds, Jul 12-17, 1956
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4th Test: England v Australia at Manchester, Jul 26-31, 1956
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5th Test: England v Australia at The Oval, Aug 23-28, 1956
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