January 2005

Voyage of discovery

Fifty years ago Len Hutton's team left England for an Ashes tour that has passed into legend

Fifty years ago Len Hutton's team left England for an Ashes tour that has passed into legend. Even Hutton couldn't have imagined what was to come. John Woodcock remembers

Peter May on his way to a hundred at Sydney © The Cricketer

It must be a fair assumption that most readers of the magazine will know the storyline of the MCC tour of Australia in 1954-55: how England took a fearful drubbing in the first Test match at Brisbane, and yet won the next three Tests at Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide; how, by doing so, they retained the Ashes; how Peter May and Colin Cowdrey with the bat and Brian Statham and Frank Tyson with the ball lifted our hearts, and how their venerable captain, Len Hutton, was rewarded with the knighthood which he had been led to believe might be his if he came back victorious.

In those long-gone days, liners left Tilbury for Sydney twice a week, carrying some 650 first-class passengers, the majority of them Australians who had been "home", as they still nostalgically called the old country. Every four years a team of English cricketers went with them, bound for Fremantle, the port for Perth. It was more as a rest after the relentless English season, and for the chance to talk cricket, than as a bonding exercise that the voyage was beneficial. It was tedious at times, but incredibly spoiling: comforts galore, the stirrings of romance and the journalistic bliss of an unexpectant office.

On September 15 1954, the Orsova sailed with 18 players, a manager, a physiotherapist, a scorer-cum-baggage master (the incomparable George Duckworth of wicketkeeping fame) and a press contingent of 19. It would be 71 days before the first Test started, 24 of them before Australia so much as appeared in one's porthole. That was the tempo. The build-up to the Test series was barely perceptible. With a professional as captain, co-existence between the amateurs, of whom there were five, and the professionals was seamless, as indeed it was on all the tours I made while the distinction between the two still existed.

An essentially private person, Hutton gave few clues as to his thinking. He was introspective yet endearing, single-minded yet unassertive. The Hutton twinkle was easily lit. As close to him on that tour as anyone, including May, his vice-captain, were the three Yorkshire journalists, Jim Kilburn (Yorkshire Post), Bill Bowes (Yorkshire Evening News) and John Bapty (Yorkshire Evening Post), all his elders. He knew the proven way of winning Test matches was with speed, and, as a student of gamesmanship, he planned to keep Australia waiting, to make them fret, to get up their noses. Whether he saw Tyson ever becoming such a telling force I very much doubt. It is made less likely by the fact that there was no Test match then on Perth's already lightningly fast pitch. It was a long time, too, before Tyson was lassoed, let alone broken in. First came the shortening of his run-up by nearly a half, a move recommended by Alf Gover, who had flown out to Australia to cover the tour for the Sunday Mirror and had had Tyson through his cricket school at Wandsworth.

The other surprise packet, Cowdrey, had been one of the reasons for Hutton asking for an extra batsman to be added, as cover, to the party (the reason for it numbering 18 rather than the usual 17). In the event, Cowdrey was an inspired selection, though Hutton was not to know it, anyway, until the first match against New South Wales in the second week of November. Before that, starting with the picnic game in Colombo, Cowdrey several times played the occasional cameo, but that was all. Against NSW he touched the heights with a century in each innings, batting at No. 6 in the first and opening for the first time in his life in the second. His partnership of 163 with Hutton in the first was the start of a warm and lasting friendship between the two.

Cowdrey and Vic Wilson, a delightful Yorkshire farmer and the 18th pick, were both chosen for the match against NSW so that a decision could be taken as to which, if either, should play at Brisbane a fortnight later. Wilson made nine and 0. After the first of his two hundreds, Cowdrey received a cable saying something like, "See Two Kings Three-Fourteen," a biblical quotation which was found to read, "And the Lord said to Elijah do it the second time." And the second hundred duly followed. Some weeks later Cowdrey received another cable equally short but a good deal more momentous. From Sir Pelham Warner, it ran, "Cowdrey Melbourne Magnificent Warner." What a message to receive!

A week after his 22nd birthday Cowdrey had just made the first, and to my mind the finest, of his 21 Test hundreds. After less than an hour's play on the first day of the third Test match, England were 41 for 4; Cowdrey's 102 out of a total of 191 was the pivotal innings of the whole tour. On getting to the wicket he had been greeted not with a volley of abuse, as might happen today, but with a "G'dye young Cowdrey" from Keith Miller.

Frank Tyson: Bradman reckoned him to be the fastest he had ever seen © The Cricketer
It is difficult to think of anyone playing today who puts one in mind of the emerging Cowdrey. Although of an entirely different build, there was, perhaps, a touch of Ramnaresh Sarwan about him in those early days. While batting with Hutton against NSW at Sydney, Cowdrey had learnt something of the old master's fieldcraft. Because the pitch there was slow Alan Davidson, a superbly versatile cricketer, had switched from bowling left-arm pace to orthodox left-arm spin. "Well bowled Alan, well bowled." Hutton kept saying, while appearing to make heavy weather of the fairly innocuous stuff that was coming down. Between overs, to an intrigued Cowdrey, Hutton said in an aside, "I suggest we keep him bowling these if we can, don't you?"

One of the joys of touring then, and of going by sea, was the chance it gave of getting to know the players so well. If, for me, there was a cricketing shadow across Australia in 1954-55, other than the defeat at Brisbane, it was in the fortunes of Alec Bedser, a very great bowler (he had taken 69 wickets at 16.87 apiece in the two preceding Ashes series) and already a great friend. Having contracted shingles on the ship going out, he had to stand by while Tyson and Statham carried all before them on pitches on which, by then, Bedser himself might well have been in his element.

Never an easy communicator, and under mounting pressure as captain, Hutton handled the matter of Bedser's omission unsympathetically, and certainly not in a manner due to such a champion. At no time did he face him with it. It has to be said, too, that England's over-rate in the Test matches was awful. It was, I am afraid, a deliberate ploy, aimed at upsetting the Australians. The Test matches were of six days of five hours each (with an unspecific number of overs), rather than the five of six, which they have been ever since, and this also benefited England. But, that said, it was still a terrific achievement by England, and one that was very soon put into perspective when, after the last Test match, Australia went straight to the Caribbean and (where they had never been before) overwhelmed a star-studded West Indies side.

Statham was a beautiful bowler, as tireless as he was accurate, and, for those few weeks in Australia, Tyson, whose yorkers far outnumbered his bouncers, was fast enough for Sir Donald Bradman to say many years later that he was unquestionably the fastest he ever saw. Arthur Morris, who went in first for Australia in four of the five Test matches, told me that facing Statham after Tyson was like facing Trevor Bailey after Statham, and Bailey was on the fast side of medium. Bailey's input was, of course, considerable, not least in the planning, and, bowling as they were at the time, Johnny Wardle and Bob Appleyard made the best pair of slow bowlers England have ever sent to Australia. May was a glorious batsman, whose 102 in the second Test in Sydney was the pair of Cowdrey's Melbourne masterpiece, and Denis Compton was still good enough to average 57 in his 16 first-class innings on the tour. Godfrey Evans was a tremendous cricketer, fearless of the Australians and utterly irrepressible, even in the gloom that followed Brisbane. As a measure of England's bowling resources, Jim Laker, Tony Lock and Fred Trueman had all been left behind.

The team were away for nearly seven months, during which they played 28 matches - the last four of them in New Zealand and 21 of them first-class. The golfers in the party had every chance to get their handicaps down, and press conferences were few and far between. It was, as I need hardly tell you, the greatest fun.

This article was first published in the January issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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