Of all the twenty-five Australian teams that have visited the United Kingdom the latest combination under W.M. Lawry was perhaps one of the most disappointing. Nevertheless, they succeeded in their main objective to retain the Ashes, which Australia have now held for ten years.
The previous side when R.B. Simpson was captain in 1964 had good cause to complain about the weather, which denied them reasonable pre-season net practice, halved the playing time in each of the first two Tests, and prevented a ball being bowled on the last day of the final Test, but those frustrations were insignificant compared with the lot that befell Lawry's men who rarely showed their true potential.
At Worcester, for the first time in history the opening match of an Australian tour was completely ruined by rain and as the dismal story continued, one hundred hours were lost altogether. When the first day of the fourth match, against M.C.C. at Lord's, was blank the touring side had lost forty-nine hours playing time out of their first possible sixty.
The following Monday was miserably cold but it did at least allow the Australians their first full day's cricket in eleven attempts. Whereas in 1964 at a similar stage in the tour the four matches had yielded the visitors £6,085, the Australians arrived at the Sunday of their match with M.C.C. with only £1,858, a loss of £4,227.
The financial situation caused so much concern that the Australian manager asked all the counties with whom the side had fixtures from the beginning of June to play on Sundays. Only Kent were able to fall in with his suggestion and so for the first time in England the Australians played on a Sunday on August 18 at Canterbury.
During the M.C.C. match it was also agreed to add an extra day to the fifth Test if the series was level after the fourth Test.
Fortunately for the Australians, advance bookings for the Lord's, Headingley and Oval Tests were satisfactory and large crowds assembled at other matches in August. Consequently, in the end they showed a handsome profit of £40,000.
The modern Australian batsman never plays on uncovered pitches in his own country, so that when he comes to England he needs the opportunity for plenty of match practice, especially in the early fixtures. The 1968 party was the youngest in average age to go abroad and no doubt the ten newcomers learned a great deal which will stand them in good stead in the future, but too often they failed when apparently having played themselves in and set for a big score.
Many Englishmen and even some Australians came to the conclusion that this was a very moderate side. Looking at the bare results this was a reasonable opinion. They won only five of their matches against the seventeen first-class counties -- Northamptonshire, Sussex, Essex, Derbyshire and Kent. The Champions, Yorkshire, captained in that match by Fred Trueman, beat the Australians for the first time since 1902, and their colours were also lowered by Glamorgan, who repeated their victory of 1964.
Yet for all their shortcomings Australia drew the rubber with England, possibly through the spin of the coin. Lawry won the toss in the first Test at Old Trafford and Australia began by making 357. At the end of the first day there was talk of the pitch showing signs of wear but there was no excuse for England scoring only 165.
The Australian bowlers were flattered by the miserable performance of many England batsmen. No one made 50 in that first innings and Cowper, who took only 32 wickets during the tour for 24.06 runs, bowled 26 overs in this single Test innings for four wickets which cost only 48 runs.
So Australia went on to win the first Test comfortably by 159 runs and were in a position to concentrate on avoiding defeat in their remaining four meetings. They had narrow escapes from disaster on the rain-affected pitches at Lord's and Edgbaston, but either side might have won at Headingley. Neither had the courage there to make a bold attempt to achieve victory, which must surely have gone to England if they had held their catches.
The Oval Test went against Australia despite a valiant effort by Lawry who batted seven and a half hours for 135 -- Australia's only hundred in the series. Here the England bowling was clearly superior, even before the storm that nearly washed out the final proceedings when Underwood carried all before him.
Looking at the Australian batsmen individually one felt that the best was not seen of Walters and Sheahan. Both had their moments of sheer brilliance, but they never came to fruition. In such a wet summer they failed to do themselves justice. Each played his highest Test innings in the first match at Old Trafford, but, batting so often on suspect surfaces, neither established himself as expected in English conditions.
The same criticism also applied to the left-handed Cowper, though he was no stranger to England, for he came in 1964 and won unbounded admiration for his attractive batting. Then, in 29 innings he scored 1,287 runs, average 51.48; now his aggregate dwindled to 744 from 24 innings and he averaged 37.20.
An injury at Torquay where, against the Minor Counties, his left thumb was fractured kept Cowper out of the team for their last five engagements, including the Oval Test.
Lawry was also laid low when the little finger of his right hand was broken by a rising ball from Snow in the first over of the Australian's first innings of the Third Test at Edgbaston. Consequently, the Australian captain missed the fourth match at Headingley where the England captain also could not play.
This was Lawry's third visit to England. In 1961 he scored 2,019 runs; in 1964 1,601; and in 1968, 906. His value to his side certainly could not be assessed by this downward gradation. There was no mistaking Lawry's determination to see Australia make a sound start. The tall left-hander set his men a model example in watchfulness with his head down over the ball. He also handled his men wisely in the field and appeared to be a cheerful leader but never one to yield his own wicket lightly.
The newcomer to England who really made his mark was Ian Chappell, grandson of the former Australian captain, Victor Richardson. At the same time his young brother, Gregory, enjoyed a most successful first season in county cricket with Somerset.
A sturdy right-handed batsman, Ian had a lean time in the Lord's and Oval Tests but made 73 and 9 at Old Trafford; 71 and 18* at Edgbaston and 65 and 81 at Headingley. He displayed a sound compact style and looked more difficult to dislodge than many of his colleagues. He played strongly off the back foot and cut well. Chappell came second to Lawry in the Test averages, but headed the batting for all first-class matches, scoring 1,261 runs, average 48.50.
The only other batsman to complete his thousand runs for the tour was Redpath -- 1,474, average 43.35, compared with 1,075, average 32.57 in 1964. In those four years Redpath had made great strides from a purely negative approach to fluent stroke play. Making the most of his height, he was quick on his feet when advancing to the ball. Inverarity was rather like the earlier Redpath, but must have benefited from his first visit to England and should develop considerably in the near future.
Considering the assistance bowlers received from the damp pitches, the Australians possessed one of their weakest attacks of all time. McKenzie and Hawke were erratic and costly, though McKenzie put in some wholehearted spells, notably at Headingley.
Far more effective was Connolly, who accomplished so little in 1964 that many of us were surprised to see him in England again. Evidently the Australian selectors knew what they were doing. Connolly had reduced his fast-medium pace and learnt to swing the ball each way. In the damp, humid conditions which generally prevailed Connolly moved the new ball considerably and was easily Australia's best bowler. He took 23 wickets at 25.69 apiece in the five Tests.
Freeman, the fourth pace bowler, was seldom troublesome except with the bat, which on occasion he wielded to good purpose. Renneberg, left out of the Tests, enjoyed some successful spells with the new ball.
For spin, Australia relied almost entirely on Gleeson, a right arm leg-breaker who flicked the ball from the outside of a bent second finger. He took most wickets during the tour, 58, but his twelve Test victims cost 34.75 runs each.
Mallett, a tall off-spinner and seven years younger than Gleeson, looked a better prospect. His only Test opportunity came at The Oval and he counted Cowdrey as his first Test scalp.
If everything else is forgotten, Lawry's men will be remembered for their very fine fielding. Sheahan saved countless runs at cover, Redpath, leg-side, Walters in the deep and Chappell, Cowper and Lawry besides the wicket-keepers, Jarman and Taber, all excelled. Only in slip-fielding did this team fall behind the standard of W.W. Armstrong's 1921 side. R.B. Simpson was greatly missed in the slips as he was for his batting and bowling.
The Australians were popular on and off the field and this was due in no small way to the efficiency and courtesy of the men behind the scenes: R.J. Parish (Manager, and Chairman of the Australian Board of Control), L. Truman (Treasurer, and Secretary of Western Australia C.C.) and David Sherwood (Scorer).
Test matches -- Played 5: Won 1, Lost 1, Drawn 3
First-class matches -- Played 25: Won 8, Lost 3, Drawn 14, Abandoned 1.
All Matches -- Played 29: Won 10, Lost 3, Drawn 16, Abandoned 1.
Wins -- England, Northamptonshire, Oxford and Cambridge XI, Sussex, Essex, Derbyshire, Kent, Rest of World XI, Ireland (2).
Losses -- England, Yorkshire, Glamorgan.
Draws -- England (3), Leicestershire, Lancashire, M.C.C., Somerset, Surrey, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Middlesex, Hampshire, President of M.C.C.'s XI, Duke of Norfolk's XI, Minor Counties.
Abandoned -- Worcestershire.