July 1980

The Watson- Bailey epic

John Arlott's personal reflections on the great England rearguard at Lord's in 1953, when, it seemed, half the country held its breath all afternoon

John Arlott's personal reflections on the great England rearguard at Lord's in 1953, when, it seemed, half the country held its breath all afternoon ...

Willie Watson hooks on his way to 109 © The Cricketer

Some in the Press-box thought it would all be over by lunch; others gave it until three o'clock. No-one thought it could run anywhere nearly all day in this fine weather; certainly no-one gave anything for England's chance of winning, or even saving, the game against Hassett's powerful Australian attack. It was Tuesday, June 30, 1953. The night before, England, set 343 to win, had lost the wickets of Kenyon, Hutton and Graveney to Lindwall and Johnston in less than an hour. Watson, coming in at No. 5, had been dropped once and had given another half-chance in a single over of Ring's leg-spin, turning in awkwardly from the worn patch outside the left-hander's off stump. So, on the last morning, at 20 for 3, they wanted 323 from exactly the same seven wickets as had fallen in 93 minutes for 81 runs on Saturday afternoon when the pitch was much less worn.

On the first four days the crowd had massed densely up to the boundary ropes. Now the grass was bare; spectators were scattered about the seating; the atmosphere devoid of the tension of the earlier phases. The applause was splutteringly formal as Denis Compton, at his cheerful shamble, and Willie Watson, tall, fair-haired and composed, walked out to pick up the innings. Difficult as it may now be to believe, Compton had had such a short time of it since 1950 that he was playing for his place; for Watson it was his first Test against Australia.

With portentous care they saw out a dozen overs of Ray Lindwall - master craftsman among fast bowlers - and Bill Johnston, dealing in almost everything between slow finger-spin to lively swing and cut from a considerable height and the awkward angle of the left-armer. Then Hassett, determined to keep them under pressure, hustled up both his leg-spinners. Ring bowled Watson a probingly accurate maiden over, pitching in the dust on his off side. Benaud was less accurate and, in a single over, Compton hit him three times with increasing power through mid-off for four. Johnston returned. Ring spun into Watson, whose forward stroke only half-trapped the ball between bat and pad; as it rolled agonizingly on he kicked it away adroitly, as became a soccer player, from no more than six inches short of his stumps.

Drinks sent back
At half-past-twelve, Ron Archer, the Australian twelfth man, came down the pavilion steps with a tray of drinks only for Hassett, with a single, sharp, cutting gesture, to send him back. He wanted no interruption in the process of winning the match. Surely enough, ten minutes later, Johnston dropped a brisk cutter on the edge of the worn patch; it straightened and kept low enough for any batsman; and Compton was lbw. That, it seemed to everybody, was the decisive blow. Nearly five hours to go: and, as Bailey walked out, someone observed that, in nine innings against Australia, his highest score was 15, his average less than eight.

This situation was to prove his element; and to establish him as an effective Test cricketer. There was no pressure upon him to score runs (only a lunatic could contemplate England forcing a win against such opposition). So Bailey could concentrate upon the stubborn defence which was to characterise him in cricket history. He plunged religiously forward, pad first, bat following closely in the prod which, Keith Miller once said, haunted his dreams.

Watson now settled to his innings. He was always a calm, almost aloof, but handsome batsman; purist in style; poised, up standing, virtually incapable of an ugly stroke. Some said he was not sufficiently competitive; but, at all games (he was one of the last double, cricket-soccer, internationals), he was a cool thinker. Upon opportunity he struck hard; driving away the close fieldsmen who might catch him off the ball which lifted from the dust. Both batsmen treated Miller with such respect that his four controlled and fast overs yielded only one run. As the batsmen walked in to lunch - 116 for 4 - one small section of the crowd let out a sudden, perhaps intuitive, burst of quite excited applause.

Soon after lunch, too, with England 227 short of the statistically possible win, but four hours short of the unlikely draw that was their highest objective, the bush telegraph sent the news of resistance through London, and the ground began to fill. A few minutes before three Hassett took the new ball There to use it were the now legendary Lindwall and Miller; destroyers of the England batting of 1946-47, 1948, 1950-51, reinforced by Davidson and Johnston.

An uncharacteristic attacking stroke from Trevor Bailey during his innings © The Cricketer
Ever since 1948 these two had possessed the almost hypnotic power to chill an English crowd into awed silence. It happened again as Lindwall slowly furled his sleeve and tapped his foot like a stallion pawing the ground. All day Watson had been growing in stature; making his strokes with a lack of hurry which argued that the bowling was not fast. Five fierce overs for five runs and a shattering blow on Bailey's determined bottom hand, and Hassett allowed Archer to bring on drinks.

Another five overs, rising to crescendo, from Lindwall and Miller; the odd bouncer flogged out of the reluctant Lord's wicket; another thunderous blow on Bailey's knuckles. Altogether ten overs for only nine runs; but no wicket. Slowly, as two of their batsmen resisted the arch destroyers, the crowd sensed that England might, historically, save the game. Increasingly often, survival through a testing over produced a slightly feverish burst of applause.

At tea Watson and Bailey were still there; the wildest hope of an England win snuffed out by Lindwall and Miller but only an hour and 55 minutes from the honourable safety of a draw. Gradually acceptance of defeat gave way to anxiety, to hope, to shaky, illogical, but spirited confidence.

Look, though, at the batting to come Freddie Brown, Godfrey Evans, Johnny Wardle, Alec Bedser, Brian Statham; all so desperately vulnerable to such pace as this that they could be swept away in ten minutes.

Hassett threw in Miller (five overs for seven runs) and Davidson (five for eight) at their highest pace; saving Lindwall, it was later argued, to sweep away the rest, once breakthrough was achieved. It was almost half-past-five when Watson swung Ring with the spin, over Benaud to square leg for the boundary that brought him a century in his first Test against Australia. The crowd stood to him in applause, at once admiring, incredulous, affectionate, grateful; it was a greeting for an emperor. He had played one of the epic innings of Test cricket, flawless since the initial gropings of the fourth evening. Then Ring did it again and Hole, at short leg, took the catch off bat and pad. Forty minutes remained; Freddie Brown came in and drove savagely at Ring.

Walking down from the commentary box a sudden thought led past the England dressing-room to one of the huge, deep, Lord's baths where Willie Watson lay deeply relaxed.

'Oh, bloody well played Willie.' 'Thanks; wish I could have stayed ... don't go - have you got a cigarette?' He took it, and a light; inhaled deeply. Len Hutton came in; took the other chair. 'Sit down.' Hurried sorties to the balcony saw a couple of lusty swings by Freddie Brown; rebuked by two scowling shakes of the head by Trevor Bailey. Back to the bathroom: the listening silence was broken by a sudden burst of applause; and Len's quick, agonized 'Trevor's out.' A few moments later, Bailey himself came into the bathroom, sweating, weary, eyes darkly sunk, face deeply lined as that of one in a fever. He and Watson exchanged nods; then: 'Sorry skip' and, more of a sob than an oath - 'Silly shot - straight to cover.' Len dismissed the apology with a quick scratch out of the hand.

'How long?'

'Half an hour.'

'Has he brought Ray on?' (In retrospect that was the decisive issue). A quick foray - 'No' (and he did not). The tension in the bathroom became too much. Or was it worse than Freddie Brown's boundaries and edges? Three minutes remained when Hole caught him at slip off Benaud. So four balls of the last over left at 282 for 7; Australia could still do it.

They did not; Wardle kept out of trouble, and he and Evans walked in at the end of, surely, the epic rescue operation of all Test cricket. England had been given the chance to win the Ashes and, at The Oval, they did so, after 19 years. By then, though, the English selectors had dropped Willie Watson, who at Lord's had so gallantly and handsomely created the opportunity. Selectors may overlook greatness; history doesn't.