Sir Don Bradman’s Australia starts the Ashes campaign of 1948 in a commendable fashion…..
In the Summer of ’48, Don Bradman led a formidable Australian team across the oceans with intent, with resolve, with enormous talent in their ranks, and with the dogged will to win all that they could. The stories around those 56 days on the voyage and the 112 days of brilliant cricket (of the 144 days spent on tour in Great Britain), have become the stuff of lore, taking on a life of their own in the telling and re-telling over the past 70-years.
After years of destruction and loss of human life in a Britain where the populace continued to face rationing, this Australian team brought back the joy of cricket at its very best. Bradman had announced before the tour that it was going to be his last and, combined with the Australians’ swashbuckling style on the field and the swagger on and off it, this was a breath of fresh air to the thousands clamouring to get into the grounds to witness history being made. Attendance records would be broken that stand uncontested seven decades later.
While the result of the tour would not be uniformly pleasing to the peoples of the two nations, there is no doubt that the quality of the cricket was of the highest order.
The Australian Team
The 1948 Australian team, besides Bradman, comprised Lindsay Hassett (vice-captain), Arthur Morris (co-opted selector), Sid Barnes, Bill Brown, Ron Hamence, Neil Harvey, Ian Johnson, Bill Johnston, Ray Lindwall, Sam Loxton, Colin McCool, Keith Miller, Doug Ring, Ron Saggers, Don Tallon, and Ernie Toshack.
Since the resumption of cricket following World War II, Australia had played 11 Tests and had been unbeaten. In 1946–47, they won the five-Test series against England 3–0, and followed this with a 4–0 series win over India in the following season. All the Tests had been played at home, but the core of the team that sailed to England comprised of players who had been a part of this string of victories.
The agreed playing conditions were a big factor in team selection. England had agreed to make a new ball available after 55 six-ball overs in the Tests; a new ball was generally taken after every 200 runs, which usually took more than 55 overs to accumulate as per the strike rates of the time, so the rule change meant that a new ball was more frequently available. Unsurprisingly, the Australians chose a strong pace attack to form the core of the bowling.
The selection was however not easy. Chronic knee injuries had begun to hamper medium-pacer Ernie Toshack, and he only made the trip after a 3–2 vote by a medical panel. Leading paceman Ray Lindwall had been playing with an injured leg tendon. In addition, his foot drag during the delivery stride led to speculation about the legality of his bowling action. While the injury was tackled before the tour, Bradman, with his immense experience, advised his bowler to ensure that his foot was further behind the line than usual to avoid being no-balled, and to operate below full speed until the umpires were satisfied. It is a testimony to the efficacy of this advice that Lindwall was not hampered by a no-balling issue on the tour. Keith Miller had drawn Bradman’s attention while playing the Victory Tests in 1945 for the Australian Services Team against England immediately after the war, and while Miller considered himself primarily a batsman, the captain saw enormous potential in his pace and movement. In the 1946-47 series at home, Miller had surprised himself with his penetration partnering Lindwall.
Lindwall and Miller were fearsome fast bowlers, with high pace and the ability to deliver menacing short-pitched bowling at the upper body of the batsmen. England had no pacemen to counter with the same tactics, Alec Bedser being the sole workhorse. At one stage during the tour, the short-pitched bowling of the Australians prompted England to drop Len Hutton from the team which further weakened the batting.
The batting line up was an embarrassment of riches with the likes of Hassett, Morris, Barnes, Hamence and future superstar teenaged Neil Harvey.
Hassett was already popular with the British public as much for his batting as for the stories from his time with the Allied Forces. There was the story of an ‘irritating young subaltern’ who, unimpressed with Hassett’s cavalier attitude towards military discipline told him: “If you took the trouble to clean your rifle you might just manage to become a good soldier.” Pat came Hassett’s reply to the less than capable cricketer: “If you cleaned and oiled your cricket bat for twenty years, sir, you’d never score a run.”
Then there was the favourite tale doing the rounds of a Hassett quip when he saw a Middle Eastern sheikh with his 199 wives: “One more and he’s entitled to a new ball.”
But rising above everyone in the team was the towering personality and stature of little Don Bradman.
The Australian journalist Andy Flanagan wrote about the anticipation of Bradman’s arrival in England: ”cities, towns and hotels are beflagged, carpets set down, and dignitaries wait to extend an official welcome. He is the Prince of Cricketers.” Bradman received hundreds of personal letters every day, and one of his dinner speeches was broadcast live, causing the BBC to take the unprecedented step of postponing the news bulletin. Following Bradman through the tour was the buzz about his clearly stated intention to become the first team to go back undefeated from the British Isles.
Bradman’s own words sum up how he felt about his 1948 team: “Knowing the personnel, I was confident that here, at last, was the great opportunity which I had longed for. A team of cricketers whose respect and loyalty were unquestioned, who would regard me in a fatherly sense and listen to my advice, follow my guidance and not question my handling of affairs … there are no longer any fears that they will query the wisdom of what you do. The result is a sense of freedom to give full reign to your own creative ability and personal judgment.”
The Battle of Nottingham
In the days of long travel across the seas followed by longer tours that lasted a few months, it was customary to play a number of first-class fixtures before the real battle started on the Test arena. In fact, the amount of cricket that teams had to play far exceeded the workload of modern players notwithstanding the many formats that exist today. On a typical tour of England, there was cricket played 6 days a week over a 5-month tour . Then there was the travel to and from matches on match days by train and bus.
So when the teams came to Nottingham for the first Test, the Australians had already played 12 first-class matches, winning ten and drawing two. Eight of these victories had been by an innings and another by eight wickets. The intent was now clear by deed as it was by word.
With rain forecast, Bradman picked Ian Johnson the off spinner to exploit a wet wicket. The rest of the bowling line up was filled with his pacemen. Norman Yardley won the toss and elected to bat first to avoid having to deal with a deteriorating pitch in the fourth innings. If Bradman had won the toss he would have done the same. He would candidly admit later: “I am certain we won the 1948 Nottingham Test because I lost the toss.”
Walking out to bat were Hutton and Washbrook, a pair that had put together three century partnerships against Lindwall and Miller in 1946-47. Lindwall was cautious, conscious of his foot and cutting back on his pace by a quarter while Miller bowled at full tilt with no warm up. Facing up to Miller’s second over, Hutton was slow to step forward and the ball took the edge. Australia had the first breakthrough as a pre-lunch downpour sent the players back to the pavilion.
When the players come back Edrich was dropped but Lindwall got Washbrook to hook one to Brown at the boundary. Before long, England was 46 for 4 and when Dennis Compton was bowled by Miller, half the English side had been dismissed for 48. This soon became 74 for 8 before Jim Laker and Alec Bedser came together with swinging bats and put on 89 to take England to a semi-respectable 165 all out.
Malcolm Knox in his book Bradman’s War would quip: “England’s 165 was worse than it should have been but better than it might have been.” Laker was the highest scorer with 63. Bill Johnston ended with 5 for 36, the result of his accurate bowling using pace and swing in equal measure. At one stage his first two wickets in Test cricket had come without expensing a single run. Miller had 3 for 38.
The British press harboured no illusions about England’s bowling strength. This was evident in the sweepstakes run in the press box which put Australia’s likely score anywhere between 302 and 904.
Australian openers Morris and Barnes took the score to 73 before Laker removed Morris. Bradman came in and the score moved to 121 before Barnes at his score of 62 was caught by wicket-keeper Godfrey Evans with a one-handed diving effort. Bradman would say about the catch: “Evans’ catching of Barnes was one of the most miraculous feats of recovery as well as acrobatics one would see in a long time.” Miller was then dismissed for a duck by Laker. Brown didn’t last long and then Lindsay Hasset joined Bradman at the crease.
Bradman had thus far not been entirely at ease. Alec Bedser employed a leg side field and kept attacking his pads. The Edrich replaced Laker and proceeded to bounce Bradman who got the first taste of what it might have been like for the English batsmen to face Lindwall and Miller without sightscreens, for none had been made available for the Test.
Bradman would later write: “English authorities are very casual about such details. They don’t always appear to regard the player’s requirements as Priority No. 1…it may enable a few more spectators to see the game – in other words it may add a few pounds to the gate money – but that won’t compensate for somebody getting cracked on the head one day.”
Edrich’s bouncers were replaced by 17 overs of Barnett with every single ball pitching outside the leg stump with six fielders on the leg. Bradman watched Hassett deal with this negative bowling with hand on his hip and ankles crossed at the non-striker’s end.
Barnes sitting in the pavilion wrote: “This is not bowling; it is not cricket at all. Just a waste of time.” Hassett made no attempt to force the pace and Tiger O’Reilly, now a journalist rather unfairly wrote about his batting:”the most outstanding feature of the batting was the unlimited capacity as a crowd-boring agency.” John Arlott was kinder: “Hassett made his runs so slowly that only his grace and concealed humour made his innings tolerable.” For all the criticism, Hassett’s final contribution was a valuable 137.
When Bradman finally raised his bat after 221 minutes at the crease, it was the slowest of the 29 centuries he would score in his career. That night, Tiger O’Reilly went to the Black Boy Hotel for a drink with Alec Bedser. Always generous with his advice, O’Reilly advised Bedser to move Hutton from leg slip to fine-leg, twelve yards from the bat, add a mid-on and a short leg, then bowl a faster ball into Bradman’s left hip and rib cage.
In Bedser’s second over of the morning, Bradman was gone for 138, glancing a ball between his left hip and rib cage to Hutton at short fine leg. Bedser waved to O’Reilly in the press box and the Australians went ballistic with accusations of betraying Bradman. It was all, however, a bit late. When the Australians were finally dismissed, they had amassed 509.
Hutton and Washbrook walked out needing to bat two days to save the Test. Washbrook was caught behind attempting a hook to a Miller bouncer on the leg side, and Edrich failed to read an Ian Johnson arm ball. John Arlott remarked: “The price of reserved tickets for the fifth day’s play at once dropped several more points.”
But without an injured Lindwall to pin him down, Len Hutton went on the offensive. Compton soon joined the party and they were scoring at more than a run a minute. To quote Arlott, “With the game apparently within their grasp, Australia were threatened by two great batsmen batting at their greatest.” Keith Miller decided to try offspin and was promptly hit for a flurry of fours by Hutton. Miller went back to his long run, fuming and muttering under his breath. Hutton had unwittingly unleashed the devil, as he would soon realise.
Miller didn’t care that this was Nottingham, the home of Harold Larwood. The colliers of Nottingham had not forgiven Bradman and his men for what had happened to fellow collier Larwood, made the fall guy for Douglas Jardine’s Bodyline. For the last thirty-five minutes of play that day he sent down an average of four bouncers an over at Hutton and Compton. This was Miller’s version of Bodyline, in fading light, without sightscreens. Hutton would confess after retirement: “I did not fear being hit, but Miller was the exception. I never felt physically safe against him.” Miller was booed, barracked, and physically threatened.
The next day Miller dismissed Hutton with an offcutter then got Compton hit wicket while hooking, but by then he had scored 184 and England was 405 for 7. Eventually, England was all out for 441 leaving Australia to score 98 to win. With rain coming down heavily all over Nottingham but seemingly miraculously sparing the ground, and Bradman out for a duck in an exact repeat of the dismissal from the first innings, an unbeaten 64 from Sidney Barnes ensured an eight-wicket victory for the visitors.
But a match as dramatic as this could hardly end on such a sedate note. As Barnes hit Young for a four with Australia’s score at 93 and sprinted into the pavilion picking up a stump on the way as a souvenir, he looked back to see all the English players and his partner waiting in their places. One of the players in the dressing room advised him to go back as Australia still needed a run. It was Hassett who would finally hit that winning run. A fuming Barnes was denied a stump as the English players made sure they picked up all six on their way to the pavilion.
Australia had a 1-0 lead and Bradman’s lads had taken the first step on what would be a long journey to the Invincibles sobriquet that they would eventually earn.