Christopher Sandford recalls the '72 Ashes with Bob Massie's explosive debut and the emergence of the Dennis Lillee legend
Series between England and Australia - until the 1960s arguably the unofficial world championship - had always produced tension and a sense of occasion. But in 1972 the weather was hostile, the pitches indifferent and crowds at Old Trafford and Headingley stayed away.
Yet the summer, if not born to greatness, achieved it. Lillee asserted himself as a great bowler, Stackpole, Edwards and the Chappells all seized their chances, and Underwood proved himself the world's best bowler on a helpful pitch. The drawn series (England retaining the Ashes) fairly reflected the balance between the sides, with a modicum of exceptional talent handicapped by a surplus of mediocrity. It was not a vintage year but good cricket was played by two teams both a fraction below par, and Massie's Match became lore.
Improbable as it sounds today, the home side began the series as favourites. Only seven of the 17 Australians who had toured England in 1968 remained: Ian Chappell, Doug Walters, Paul Sheahan, John Inverarity, John Gleeson, Ashley Mallett and Brian Taber. They did, however, include a 22-year-old bowler who by sheer speed and bounce - these were the days before his back injury forced a gesture towards control - took 31 wickets in the series. Dennis Lillee, like Miller and Lindwall a quarter of a century before him, `arrived'.
The first Test at Old Trafford was played under heavy skies to thin crowds; altogether 38,000 turned up and receipts for the whole match came to only £18,000. England generally held the upper hand, thanks to Greig (who top scored in both innings) and Arnold, whose skilful use of swing and length demoralised Australia's batsmen.
England's first innings of 249 was more than 100 better than the tourists'. Only with Stackpole at the crease did Australia climb the slope to respectability. Improvisation gave way to selection and deliberate ball-by-ball treatment until Arnold helped himself to four wickets. In their second innings England made 234, including Greig's 62 and 47 by Boycott. Lillee again bowled admirably, not just at his fastest but intelligently and determinedly, to take six of the last seven gob Mass wickets. Marsh equalled an Australian wicket-keeping record world record with five catches in an innings.
The tourists' winning target was 342 in a day and a half. In the event their batting veered from adequacy to indifference, not to say professional incompetence. Only Marsh and Gleeson, in the lower-order, held up proceedings. England won by 89 runs before tea on the last day, the first time in 42 years they had taken the first Test of a home series against Australia.
England were badly let down by their own batsmen in the second Test at Lord's. Debutant Bob Massie, of whom nothing had been heard before (and little would be again) took 16 wickets for 137 runs. His twin weapons were prodigious swing, mainly away from the right-hander, and Lillee, at the other end, who bludgeoned the batsmen onto the back foot. It was teamwork raised to a high art. Massie capitalised on the hostility of his partner, who in turn paid generous tribute to `the best one-off performance' he ever saw.
England at least held their own for 272 in the first innings, Greig and Knott sharing a quickfire 96. On Saturday, with the gates closed and 30,000 inside, Greg Chappell released himself in full fury. His 131 was full of glorious improvisation, with as much style at his command as power. Marsh, in tandem, thrashed a dramatic fifty. The tourists led by 36.
Massie did for England in their second innings. Without a hint of mystery, just a fine command of out-swing, he took a devastating 8 for 53. Yet again Lillee attacked like a dog fresh from the leash. Only M.J.K. Smith, recalled by England at the age of 39, and a rearguard action from Gifford and Price saw the total to 116. Australia were left needing 81 to win and made them easily enough. The series was tied at one-all with three to play. England were again doomed by their batsmen at Trent Bridge. In reply to 315 (Stackpole 114, with five dropped catches), the home side eked out 189. The names Lillee and Massie were again graven deep in English hearts. Even for connoisseurs of more recent collapses, this was batting at its most abject; in an entire session no more than 40 runs were added. The England bowlers then supplied a diet of long-hops to Ian Chappell and Ross Edwards. The latter progressed to 170 not out in five hours, including one five and 13 fours. Australia declared at 324 for 4.
The largely dreary fourth innings apparently brought out the rain. For the first time in the Test the scene reverted to wintry gloom and the only question was whether England would survive. They did, thanks to Luckhurst and Parfitt. Ian Chappell declined to ask for the last half-hour, though as he said the moral victory was Australia's. (his actual words were more colourful.) It was at least a well-attended Test, with record receipts of £41,748.
As at Old Trafford in 1956, Australia were beaten at Headingley by prolific spin; as before, some of them had to clutch hard at their good humour when describing the pitch. In 1956 Laker and Lock had been the perpetrators of a rout. Illingworth and Underwood never quite managed that, but the latter gave a classic display of the leftarrner's art. With commendable understatement, Underwood describes this today as one of the three or four most enjoyable' matches of his career.
It began with Australia slumping from 79 for 1 to 146 all out. The total would have been less but for the tail. England replied with 263, the top scorers implausibly being Illingworth and Snow. The tourists then prostrated themselves before Underwood. In a deadly dozen overs he took 5 for 18, repeatedly pitching on the leg stump and rattling the off at a raspish pace. His line, to be sure, was immaculate, but the plain truth was that Australia were trapped on a spinner's happy hunting ground. They disintegrated in their second innings to 136. England made the 20 to win for the loss of Edrich in Lillee's second over. At 2-1 up in the rubber, they duly retained the Ashes.
The most squarely matched Test of the series came at The Oval. With an hour to play on the last day any one of four results was possible. That England lost was, in the end, due to Sheahan (so often disappointing), but also to a flukish run of injuries that left Snow, Illingworth and D'Oliveira unable to bowl. The tourists could scarcely be said to have won by default but it was a farcical ending to a dramatic Test. England's first innings of 284 owed little to the specialist batsmen and much to Knott, who came to the rescue with 92. In reply, the Chappells put on 201 in just over three hours - 1 l 8 to Ian, 113 to Greg - the first time any two brothers had each hit a century in the, same innings of a Test. It took the classic pace/spin axis of Snow and Under-wood to apply the brakes. The pair restricted Australia, who at one point had looked set fair for 500, to 399. At the halfway stage the two sides were at stalemate.
England for the first time in five Tests then mustered 300. The stalwart of the day (making his debut, with the winter tour of India and Pakistan in mind) was Barry Wood. His 90 chimed with Knott (63) and D'Oliveira (43) to bring a respectable 356. Australia were left with a feasible but distinctly tricky target of 242 to win.
First D'Oliveira and Snow were injured. Then Illingworth slipped while bowling and sprained his right ankle; the team's leadership fell on Edrich. Except for those cumulative blows, the match seemed within England's grip. In the end Sheahan saw the tourists home. Australia won by five wickets, a statistic which was perhaps more than the true state of play warranted.
No English batsman averaged more than 36 in the series. Greig, always `in the game', led the lists but collaborated too often with the bowler in his own dismissal. With the ball, Snow, Underwood and Arnold all had their moments. Knott scored crucial runs and was his meticulous self behind the stumps, except when he dropped Stackpole at Nottingham. For Australia the Chappells, Edwards and Stackpole were there when called upon. Lillee was the real find of the tour - England would hear of him again over the next decade. Meanwhile, after The Oval, Massie would play just two more Tests for his country, a star who burned out almost as fast as he rose.