1953 November 23, 2013

A barnacle on Australia's backside

Questionable spirit of cricket isn't just a modern tendency. Great players of the past also indulged in it, especially when it came to saving a Test

The way many of us view cricket of old through rose-tinted glasses makes us forget that cynical manipulation of the laws and stretching gamesmanship to the limits are almost as old as the game itself.

The Ashes series of 1953 is best remembered for the last-day stand at Lord's between Trevor Bailey and Willie Watson that saved England, and then the finale at The Oval, when Denis Compton hit the winning runs and England regained the urn after 19 years. But had it not been for some outrageous tactics on the final day of the drawn fourth Test at Headingley - and a lot of rain - England would never have been able to head into the fifth Test with everything to play for.

The 1953 Ashes attracted huge crowds, but the cricket itself, while tense and seeing fortunes ebb and flow, was often staggeringly dull. Wisden's editor lamented "the reluctance of so many batsmen to produce their strokes" and criticised the batsman who "shut out of his mind all ideas about runs and goes back entirely on the defensive".

A low-scoring first Test was spoiled by rain. The opening morning of the series produced 16 maidens; on the curtailed first day Australia crawled to 157 for 3 off 92 overs. The tone had been set.

The second Test, at Lord's, was the exception. The run rate nudged three an over and the final day has gone down in cricket folklore. The third Test was also wrecked by the weather, but not before Australia collapsed to 35 for 8 in what should have been a meaningless last hour. So little time was left that they were never going to lose, but they left Manchester with bloodied noses.

The fourth Test was another one for the diehards. On a wet track Australia stuck England in and dismissed Len Hutton second ball. Thereafter England showed no inclination to do anything but block. They closed on 142 for 7 - averaging 27 runs an hour. The Daily Mirror headline asked: "How can England have been so bad?"

Australia were positively cavalier when they batted, managing over three an over as they took a 99-run first-innings lead.

When England batted the second time they were every bit as dull as on the first day. In front of 36,000 spectators, Compton, who history recalls as a swashbuckling strokemaker, made 61 in nearly five hours; his terrible twin, Bill Edrich, 64 in a little over four hours. A result of this slow play was that England had eaten up time but not really built enough of a lead.

"Bailey now and then seems to confuse time with eternity"
Lead editorial in the Times

They started the last day 78 ahead with five wickets in hand and Compton, 60 not out overnight, unable to resume because of a swollen hand. The early wicket of Godfrey Evans exposed the tail, but Australia were again blocked by Bailey, who ground his way to 38 in four hours and 21 minutes.

With Jim Laker, he ate up time and eked out runs. And the gamesmanship started. He delayed bowlers by fiddling with his gloves and checking his pads. At one point allrounder Keith Miller bowled a full toss past Bailey's head. When the crowd jeered and booed, Miller sat down in protest, inadvertently playing into Bailey's hands by wasting more time. "I was riled by his continual wasting of time playing around with his gloves and generally behaving irritatingly," Miller said.

On the stroke of lunch, Bailey, who had scored 12 in the session, appealed against the light even though the sun was out. Wisden noted: "After the time it took umpires Frank Chester and Frank Lee to consult, it was too late for Ray Lindwall to begin an over."

England were eventually dismissed after tea, leaving Australia a target of 177 in 115 minutes. Few expected them to chase, given the way they had collapsed at Old Trafford, a view reinforced when their openers emerged from the pavilion five minutes late and ambled to the middle. But from then on they attacked.

They lost Lindsay Hassett, the captain, early but the batsmen who followed looked for quick runs and a stiff target soon became a quite realistic one - 77 in 50 minutes.

Hutton then turned to Bailey, who had the mindset that all was fair in love and war and, so Wisden claimed years later, persuaded his captain to kill the game by any means. The idea that the plan was not Hutton's gains more credence when set against newspaper reports that referred to his "unintelligent" field placings at the start of Australia's chase, with the Daily Express going as far as saying it highlighted his "inadequacy as a captain".

Bailey was, by the strictures of the time, an amateur, a gentleman. His attitude was far more professional than many today. A recent Cricket Society newsletter included a letter from Murray Hedgcock that recalled that Bailey once told Jonathan Agnew that he "used to bowl beamers quite deliberately", and recounted how he had broken a batsman's hand with a well-aimed beamer targeted at his nose. According to Test Match Special producer Peter Baxter, Bailey used to say that if a batsman came in with a broken finger then "bowl at it".

Bailey immediately set a six-man leg-side field with catchers in the deep and two men preventing the single. He then proceeded to bowl round the wicket down the leg side, making scoring all but impossible, certainly on the off side. Just in case his negativity was not sufficient, he ambled back to his mark so that he took six minutes to deliver each of his six overs. He also extended his run-up and, wrote John Woodcock in the Times, "suddenly had a lot of problems with his bootlaces".

"The batsmen could not reach five out of every six balls," reported AFP. When Graeme Hole tried to swing Bailey out of the ground he was caught on the square-leg boundary by Tom Graveney. The other batsmen decided not to throw their wickets away in the same manner and in six overs Bailey took 1 for 9.

The runs dried up and Australia finished 30 runs short with six wickets in hand. Bizarrely, Miller, Australia's most flamboyant hitter who batted No. 4 in the first innings, was dropped down the order. "He was held back as the most suitable reserve," explained Australia's manager. A more plausible explanation was that he was simply angry.

Bailey's stonewalling had clearly annoyed Miller, who had an altercation with a spectator. As they left the field at the end of England's innings Miller grabbed an elderly man by the jacket and frogmarched him into the pavilion saying: "Come with me. I've got something to say to you." Miller claimed he had been abused. The man replied that the comment came "from the man next to me". "The fellow denied he had said anything, so I had to accept it," Miller shrugged.

The post-match drinks, usually friendly, were icy. "The Australians were absolutely livid, and I think rightly so," Evans recalled. "They had been cheated of victory, they said, by the worst kind of negative cricket." Even Hutton, who had instigated the go-slow, later admitted to having doubts. "I asked Trevor to bowl down the leg side without a slip. I have no doubt bowling down the leg side is purely negative in theory and is bad for the game."

The press concentrated on the fact that the match had been saved, and while there were a few low-key criticisms of the way England had done that, the general mood in the home newspapers was one of relief, praise for Bailey and anticipation for the series finale.

In Australia, there was a different tone. "Bailey, so electronically negative, is one of cricket's pallbearers," wrote the Perth-based Mirror. "The Baileys of cricket are fast eating out cricket's heart. Let the staunch adherents tolerate them if they will, but for heaven's sake don't make heroes out of them."

What happened next?

  • England regained the Ashes with their win at The Oval. Bailey's 64 in a little under four hours was vital in securing England a slim but vital first-innings lead.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa