England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 1953

Cricket as a situations game

Trevor Bailey recalls the day that England won the Ashes in 1953

Trevor Bailey recalls the day that England won the Ashes in 1953

Trevor Bailey is bowled by Ron Archer © The Cricketer
My most memorable cricket match was against Australia at The Oval in 1953. It was neither the finest nor the most exciting in which I played, and from a purely personal angle it was certainly not my most successful. It contained neither a great innings nor an outstanding bowling feat, and as England won by eight wickets shortly after lunch on the fourth day, there was no close, dramatic finish. What made it unforgettable was quite simply the situation, and cricket is a `situation' game.

First, Australia had held the Ashes for 19 years, so that even the most unpatriotic Englishman felt it was time they returned. Second, since the war England had not only lost the last three series to the Aussies, but their annihilation had been almost as complete as the two recent West Indian whitewashes. Inevitably the players who had suffered so much at the hands of our oldest cricketing enemy, then the unofficial champions of the world, were thirsting for revenge. Third, a Test is much more than just a cricket match. It is a battle in a full-scale war. That summer saw four memorable encounters between two well-matched teams, thus setting the stage for a perfect climax with the Ashes at stake and an extra day allowed to make sure of obtaining a definite result.

Finally, the Oval Test not only marked the conclusion of my personal best allround series in this country but it also established for the rest of my career my role in the England team as third seamer and defensive batsman. I was originally capped against New Zealand and had toured Australia primarily as an opening bowler and a free-scoring middle-order county batsman, described, somewhat ironically in view of later events, by Wisden as `an attractive strokemaker'.

The summer of 1953 changed all that, though not immediately, as I took the new ball in three of the Tests. However, as a batsman, even before the series commenced, I was involved in rearguard actions and crease occupations against the tourists. For the Oval the selectors decided on a well-balanced attack, three seamers and two contrasting spinners, with myself as the allrounder at No. 6. I had worked out that our five pure batsmen could not be expected to provide more than say between 200 and 250 runs, especially against high-quality pace bowling. This left me and five tailenders all capable of making between 20 and 30, but two were bound to go cheaply. It seemed to me that if I managed to drop anchor until the arrival of No. 11 and edge, nudge and nick a few while they played their normal game we would have a very good chance of reaching a total of between 300 and 350. Over the years it worked suprisingly well. I became known as the `Barnacle', with the forward defensive as my signature tune.

The selectors were confronted with many of the same problems which faced Peter May & Co. last summer: inability to decide on the best openers, the most effective seam attack and the basic composition of the side. They made two changes at The Oval from the team which had so narrowly escaped defeat at Leeds, Peter May and Fred Trueman coming in for Reg Simpson and Willie Watson. The Australians brought back Bill Johnston and relied on five pace bowlers - who said the West Indian four quickies are a new idea? - which did not make any sense as the Oval pitch had already a reputation for breaking up early.

Lindsay Hassett won the toss for the fifth time on the trot and decided to bat on what looked a placid pitch. Indeed, in a six-day Test, on an uncovered pitch which was unlikely to last, he had no alternative; but his decision proved probably the biggest single factor in our victory.

Much to everyone's surprise, on the first day our seam trio ( Bedser, Trueman and myself) were able to obtain movement both off the pitch and in the air. We were further assisted by two short bowlers which not only livened up the wicket but helped to retain the shine in an era when outfields did not polish the ball. The outcome was that Australia were dismissed for 275, which would have been considerably less if we held all our catches. There is no doubt that if the Australian pace quintet had operated that day we would have been lucky to have reached 150. After all, at Headingley in far less helpful conditions we struggled to 167.

When play recommenced after the weekend all the moisture and most of the life had disappeared from the pitch, so that their attack presented few problems, even though Johnston at about medium-pace could bowl cutters reasonably well. At 150 for 2 England looked in control, but then everything started to go wrong and at stumps we had sunk to 235 for 7.

On Tuesday, requiring 40 runs to draw level, Tony Lock and I faced the bowling of Lindwall and Miller plus a comparatively new ball, which accounted for Tony. I found a valuable new ally in Fred Trueman, and during our partnership of 25 I realised for the first time that the match was ours for the taking, because immediately Johnston had relieved Lindwall the ball began to turn sharply. It was a case of an occasional spinner against Laker and Lock, not forgetting Alec Bedser, who had the best leg-cutter in the world. All that was required was for Alec and myself to bat as long as possible. We lasted until the last over before the interval, when I was bowled by a ball which pitched well outside my off stump and hit the top of middle. Although I never liked losing my wicket, I would always settle for 64, while a lead of 31 and the way that last delivery had behaved allowed me to enjoy my lunch.

After four perfunctory overs Trueman and Bedser were replaced by the Surrey twins, and at the end of a marvellous first over Laker had Hassett lbw, and though the left-handed Morris found he was able to cope more confidently than his right-handed colleagues against Jim's offspin, it was merely a question of time. The Australian batsmen were plainfully vulnerable against class spin bowling on a turning pitch, and were dismissed for 162 despite some very substandard fielding. We required a mere 132 for victory, on a slow pitch and against one spinner. The Ashes were ours unless our batsmen committee mass suicide.

Fifty-five minutes remained when Len Hutton and Bill Edrich began our reply. With so few runs at his disposal Hassett was not only forced to abandon his usual very attacking field, but after only two overs his one hope, Bill Johnston, took over from Ray Lindwall. It looked very simple, and though at 24 Len ran himself out, by the close we had reached 38 for 1 without much difficulty.

We required only 94 on that historic Wednesday, with nine wickets in hand. A large crowd turned up to watch and savour `the kill'. Despite the smallness of our target, I have never experienced more tension in a dressing-room, because the objective for which we had fought so hard throughout that summer was within our grasp. It is very exciting to win a tennis or golf tournament, but for me, nothing can compare with the satisfaction of winning a major event - and they do not come much bigger than the Ashes after an absence of 19 years - as part of a team. It would be true to say that no series since the war caught the imagination of the general public so much until that Botham bonanza in 1981.

Apart from a few anxious moments against Johnston, Edrich and May made their way cautiously towards the objective, until at 88 the latter was caught off Keith Miller, which brought in Denis Compton. The ` Middlesex twins' were still together at lunch with 101 on the scoreboard. The reasons for the slow scoring were the accuracy of the Australian bowling, the brilliance of their fielding, which throughout the series had been far superior, and the refusal of our batsmen to take any chances.

After the interval Bill and Denis gradually acquired those 31 runs, and the crowd swarmed across in a spontaneous expression of joy which in that more restrained era came as a surprise. When the spectators were requested to avoid the square they obeyed automatically, and there was not a policeman in sight, while the balcony appearances of the players brought applause but no chanting. Times have changed

In addition to the joy of having achieved what during the summer had so often appeared to be the impossible, I treasure two complements. The first occurred near the close when Tom Graveney suggested that if a wicket should fall I should go in ahead of him, as I had batted and bowled against them more than anybody else. In fact I played in 10 matches against the tourists that summer. The second occurred when the Australians invaded our dressing-room to offer their congratulations, and Ray Lindwall complimented me on my contribution. Our celebrations at the ground lasted to about 6 pm, when I set off to join my wife and friends at the Connaught Club, to be followed by a memorable night on the town - or at least so I have been told.