Calm. Quiet. Unassuming. Quick. Deadly. Lethal.
It is indeed rare that all six adjectives fit a single man. At the Gabba in Brisbane, between December 9th and 14th 1960, they all did. Joe Solomon was the man, a cricketer not a sniper, his otherwise unremarkable career immortalized by a moment of genius. Few had heard his name before the match. No book on the history of Test cricket would ever omit his name after it.
It was the worst of times….
The second half of the 1950’s was not a good advertisement for Test cricket. Of the 11 most boring Tests in history (measured by run-rate when at least 20 wickets fell in the match), 10 were played between 1954 and 1958. Chucking became a recognized vice. Roy Gilchrist was banned by the West Indies and sent back home for repeatedly bowling dangerous beamers at an Indian batsman, Swaranjit Singh, despite his captain’s warnings to the contrary in a first-class match against North Zone.
On successive England tours to the West Indies in 1954 and 1960, riots erupted at Kingston and Port of Spain. Bottles were thrown at a match in Delhi. Of the seven least productive batting days on file, five were recorded between October 1956 and Christmas 1959, none less memorable than the mind-numbingly boring 106 runs that England scored in a five hour period on Day 4 at the Gabba in 1958-59.
Something had to give.
The Australian summer of 1960-61 when Test cricket changes gear
It was perhaps fitting that this most unspectacular period in Test cricket would end with a series and a Test that would restore faith in The Gentleman’s Game. Not for the first time, it was left to two of the most exciting and talented sides of the time, West Indies and Australia, to break the shackles of mediocrity.
When Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud went out for the toss at the Gabba to kick off the series, neither could have imagined that they would be a part of history.
At 65 for 3 and Hunte and Kanhai both back in the pavilion from some fiery bowling by Alan Davidson, Worrell might have rued his decision to bat first. But then Garry Sobers played a magnificent innings of 132 and in the company of Worrell himself, was largely responsible for the West Indies pulling themselves out of trouble. Gerry Alexander, Joe Solomon and Wes Hall at the end, all hit half-centuries to guide the West Indies to the score of 453.
In what increasingly began to look like a high scoring draw, Australia piled up runs in response. Bobby Simpson scored 92 before being bowled by the wily Sonny Ramadhin. Norm O’Neill came in at the fall of Neil Harvey’s wicket with the score at 138 and was the last man out when the Australian innings ended at 505. His magnificent innings of 182 compiled over six and a half hours were chiefly responsible for the 52-run lead that Australia went in with into the second innings.
The complexion of the game would, however, change in the second outing. It was as if the Test was a sum of two games, the first played over 3 days and the second over the next two. As Rob Steen was to say in his Cricinfo article marking the 50th anniversary of the Test, “Over those five days at the slow-blinking dawn of the 20th century’s most progressive decade, Australia and the West Indies also gave us a blueprint: a three-day test of skill capped by a two-day examination of nerve, underpinned by a refusal to regard the draw as a worthy goal until all other options had been exhausted.”
Alan Davidson, Australia’s legendary all-rounder, who had taken 5 wickets in the first innings and scored an attractive 44, would be on song again in the second innings. This time he would run through the West Indies batting taking 6 wickets in 24.6 eight-ball overs. Among his victims would be Garry Sobers with his score at 14. Despite some dogged resistance from Kanhai Worrell and Solomon, West Indies would be all out for 284, leaving Australia 233 runs to win on the final day.
When Benaud walked in that fateful fifth morning, he would find white clover flowers dotting the turf. With heavy showers just after 7 am the groundsman had not been able to mow the grass. With just over 200 to get, Benaud was not too worried. That happy state of affairs was however not destined to last. In what seemed like no time at all, Australia would be reduced to 92 for 6 by an unplayable Wes Hall.
Panic started to run through the Aussies, but Alan Davidson was far from done. To top off a memorable match where he had already taken 11 wickets despite a broken top joint of his bowling finger and scored 44, he would now play what was perhaps the innings of his life. He was to recall later: “I went in at 5 for 57 in the second dig and it wasn’t a position you’d hope to go in on, but I used to love those situations. It’s the challenge that goes with those sort of situations.”
At tea with Australia at 109 for 6, Sir Don Bradman, the chairman of selectors, would go up to Benaud in the dressing room and ask: “”What’s it going to be?” “Well, we’re going for a win,” said Benaud. “I’m very pleased to hear it,” replied Sir Donald.
Davidson (80) and Benaud (52) would put on a record 134 runs for the seventh wicket. From one end, the man with the big heart, Wesley Hall would keep hurling them in. Davidson remembers: “Wes Hall bowled magnificently when you consider that he had new boots that he hadn’t been wearing, and he had these giant blisters on the bottom of his feet. He ended up putting this great slab of sticking plaster across the soles of his feet after he’d cut the blisters off. Really, it was just raw flesh, and he kept pouring in and bowling his heart out. That was one of the most sensational things I’ve ever seen on a cricket field. He must have been going through agony.”
And then it happened.
Once again, from the horse’s (Davidson’s) mouth: “I thought we had the game sewn up. I’d spoken to Richie with two overs to go. It was tip and run, and I said “we don’t have to do anything silly, just make sure that I’m down there to face Wes” because I reckoned Wes would bounce me once – well, that was either a four or a six, and we only wanted seven. Then of course Richie played the first three or four [off Sobers] and then hit it straight to Joe Solomon and took off. If I’d have been Usain Bolt I wouldn’t have made my ground.”
Joe Solomon threw down the stumps from midwicket and Davidson was run out for 80. In walked wicketkeeper Wally Grout who had been chain smoking all afternoon in his nervousness at having to face Wes Hall. Grout’s nightmare didn’t take long to play out. The first ball from Wes Hall hit him in the solar plexus, a crippling blow. Benaud ran down the pitch so as to take a strike and Grout staggered through to complete the run.
Frank Worrell walked up to Hall and told him, ‘whatever you do now, do not bowl a bouncer to Richie Benaud.’
Hall himself recalls what happened next. “As I walked back I said myself, ‘eh eh, let’s go Benaud, forgetting all that the Captain had said, I’m bowling the fastest bouncer that I’d ever bowled in my life.”
Richie Benaud: “Surely no one in his right mind would bowl a bumper at that stage of the match… but it was a bumper delivered with every bit of speed and power the big fella could muster. I tried to hook… trying for the four runs that would have all but won the game. The only result was a sharp touch on the gloves and Gerry Alexander’s victory shout as he caught me. Have you ever tried so hard to do something… concentrated so desperately that everything else was pushed out of your mind… and then seen it disappear in a fraction of a second? Then you’ll have some idea of how I felt as I passed Grout at the other end and said: “All yours Wal…” He merely lifted his eyes and muttered: “Thanks very much!”
Hall continues: “I swung round, my arms raised, going towards my captain, hoping he will embrace me, but all I got was a stony silence and a wicked stare. So I said, ‘He’s out skipper, he’s out!’. He says, ‘What did I tell you?’ I said, ‘He’s out, he’s out.’ And then the joke was no more. He said ‘Do you really understand what would have happened had that ball had taken the top edge and gone for four runs?’ For the first time in twelve minutes I remembered that Australia needed four to win.”
The new man Meckiff came in. He played the third ball then missed an attempted slog from the fourth. Grout took a daring bye, and Hall missed the stumps with a throw that would have run Meckiff out. Next ball, Grout was dropped when he scooped it up high to square leg. Rohan Kanhai and Hall converged and the bowler dropped the catch. Three to win with three balls left.
The uncut grass and clovers that Benaud had been reflecting upon all day while his batsmen were facing Hall’s hostility were to frustrate him further. Chastened by his captain’s admonition, Hall bowled an innocuous delivery at Meckiff who hit him through mid-wicket. A yard from the boundary, the ball stopped in the grass. The batsmen had just set off for their fourth run. Conrad Hunte threw the ball in from 80 yards straight into Alexander’s gloves who whipped off the bail with Grout a foot outside his crease.
Scores level with two balls remaining and No. 11 Kline at the crease.
Frank Worrell walked up to Wes Hall again. “Well listen. If you bowl a no ball … you will never be able to land in Barbados again.”
As Wes Hall was walking back to his mark contemplating this, Worrell ran up to him again and said: “I have nothing to tell you. But the problem is that batsman doesn’t know that I have nothing to tell you. So if I move the man at backward square leg two feet to the right, and then two feet to the left, he wouldn’t know that I had nothing to tell you.”
So it was said and so it was done. Worrell asked Joe Solomon to move two feet to the right and then two feet to the left. It is perhaps fair to say that gamesmanship and psychological mind play on the cricket field has seldom had a more immediate effect.
Lindsay Kline had only one thing on his mind – put bat on the ball, and run. And so he did – to Solomon behind square. One can only assume that a No.11, with so much pressure on him to take the winning run, would have been unlikely to know exactly where the fielder finally was at the end of the little side play from Worrell.
Brydon Coverdale in a lovely piece titled The Man in the Photo describes what happened next: “Solomon is ready. He sees the ball coming his way; he has no time to think. He acts on instinct, runs to the ball, picks it up, aims at the one and only stump he can see. And, like he did in the previous over, and like he did with all those stones aimed at mango stalks, he hits. His team-mates leap in joy. Kline’s partner, Ian Meckiff, is run out. History has been made, and Joe Solomon made it.”
83-years after the first Test match was played, the statistically improbable event had happened. The cricketing world had a Tied Test.
Jack Fingleton would in his uniquely eloquent style write: “By taking the corpse of international cricket out of its winding sheet and infusing new life into it; by converting what used to be cricket wars of attrition into joyous events…Australia and the West Indies have set an example which other cricketing countries will ignore only at the peril of their own cricketing status.”
Fingleton’s elation while bordering on the hyperbole was not too far from the mark and almost prescient. While the excitement that this single event generated may not by itself have been responsible for the revival of interest in Test cricket, there is no doubt that it was probably the trigger that signalled the renaissance. It would take the advent of the limited overs game and a few more decades before the Test match draw would go from the norm to the exception and the revival of the format would not be in doubt.
In 2017, only 6 out of 44 Test matches would fail to produce a result. In the midst of its elation at the revival of the game, the cricketing world would do well to remember that in no small measure it owes this to the unassuming Joe Solomon from Guyana who aimed at and knocked down a single stump 57-years ago today to turn a sport on its head.