The Story Thus Far
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. 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. He was a man on a mission in his last series as an Australian captain and player and determined to come back home without a loss from the almost six-month-long series. He was not about to give any quarter and stumble at the last hurdle as his predecessors had done in 1902 and 1921, losing in the final festival match.
Bradman took every one of the 34 matches in that 1948 series seriously, making sure his team did not let up, even when he himself was not playing. And when he played, he ensured the opposition were ground to dust. 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.
The first Test at Nottingham had gone the way of the Australians. England was all out for 441 in the second innings 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. Australia had a 1-0 lead.
The second Test at Lord’s had followed the same script. Despite an injured Lindwall bowling through the pain and a Miller unable to roll his arms, Australia had prevailed in no uncertain manner, by a matter of 409 runs. Left to score an impossible 596 runs to win after managing only 215 in the first innings, England had collapsed for 185 thanks largely to some excellent bowling from Ernie Toshack and Lindwall. Fifteen minutes after the last wicket fell, heavy rain flooded Lord’s. If this had been a non-Christian nation, the English could have blamed their Gods. For now, all of England could only agree that after only two Test matches the rampaging Australians were beginning to seem Invincible.
In a Hurry in Surrey
In a scene that modern day players with their frequent complaints of the overload of cricket could not even begin to contemplate, the day after the Lord’s Test match, the Australians found themselves in the field bowling to Surrey at The Oval. Granted, the travel had been minimal from St John’s Wood to the southern suburbs of London, but the kind of rest the rigours of Test cricket demanded was clearly in short supply for the visitors.
However, not everyone was displeased. The likes of Sam Loxton who had been warming the changing room chairs for two Tests in a row were happy with the six days a week cricket and hurled it at the hapless Surrey batsmen on a war-damaged Oval pitch. Surrey was plainly lucky that Lindwall had been rested.
The exchanges between Keith Miller and Bradman continued to be frosty. Bradman was still peeved at Miller refusing to bowl in both innings of the Test citing an injury that his captain refused to believe existed. Miller had gone to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall after the Test, and when he staggered back into the Piccadilly at breakfast time, he bumped into his captain, who, later that morning, made him walk from fine leg to fine leg each over. A spectator very kindly offered Miller a bicycle. Bradman asked him to bowl, but after one over Miller again returned the ball to the skipper. He then failed with the bat and dropped two catches. The relationship was not getting any better.
Lindsay Hassett’s fourth and Bradman ’s sixth century on the tour thus far gave the Aussies the lead and then McCool bowled out Surrey to leave the visitors 122 to win. Loxton asked Bradman if he could be sent up the order to get a knock, and Bradman, in a hurry to get to Wimbledon asked Loxton to open the batting with his mate young Neil Harvey, another man who had not yet played a Test on the tour. 20 overs later when the young pair jubilantly returned to the guy having knocked up the runs without too much trouble, an empty dressing room greeted them. The entire team had followed Bradman to Wimbledon to see Bromwich in the Wimbledon final against American Ralph Falkenburg. They had also taken all the cars.
When finally Loxton made it Centre Court on the Tube and sat down next to Doug Ring (Bradman was in the Royal Box) he turned to Loxton and asked: “Tell me, Sam. Did we win?”
The soon to be Invincibles would have to take their relaxation where they could get it, for right after the tennis, the team took the train to Bristol. The next day Gloucestershire awaited Bradman and his boys, an encounter the visitors would win by an innings and 363 runs.
The Controversial Dropping of Hutton
When the England team was announced for the third Test at Old Trafford, a stunned nation found the name of the greatest opening batsman in the world, and England’s batting spearhead, Len Hutton, conspicuously missing.
Since the war, Len Hutton had averaged better than 40 against the Australians. No one other than Denis Compton had matched that. That summer, his two half-centuries for the MCC and his 74 in the first Test at Nottingham had given England hope that he could anchor the top order. In the near darkness at Lord’s in the second innings, he had been visibly uncomfortable, but the question was whether England was in any position to drop him on that basis.
To gauge how important he was to the English cause one only has to note the following exchange. Cyril Washbrook when asked by an Australian journalist who the best batsmen of the day in the world were, said: “Me and Len Hutton.” “What about Bradman, Morris, Hassett and Barnes,” the journalist asked? “They only have to face English bowling. Me and Len have to play Aussie bowling,” came the answer.
And yet Hutton was not in the team. He had not even had the courtesy of being informed in person or on the phone – he heard the news on the radio. The selectors never explained their decision. About this lack of explanation, at the end of his career, Hutton would write: “Had they done so it might have softened the blow. Privately I held the selectors…to be wrong. That was all there was to it. Hard as I searched my mind for an answer, I came up with nothing, and I am still none the wiser.”
There was widespread outrage across the country, and even the Aussies were taken aback. All kinds of conspiracy theories abounded including the close friendship between Bradman and one of the English selectors Robins which people said Bradman had used to influence the decision.
Morris would remark with a smile and a wink: “I wouldn’t put it past Don. Maybe he was putting ideas in their heads.” Neil Harvey would later say: “I believe Bradman would have tried to influence Robins. When you’re playing an Ashes series, psychology comes into it. If a bloke looks out of form, you can try what you can to get rid of him. I can imagine Bradman voicing doubts about Hutton. I wasn’t privy to it, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
Be that as it may, when the teams gathered at Manchester for the third Test, there was no Hutton to open the batting for England. Psychologically, the Aussies were already ahead before a ball had been bowled.
Bradman’s 50th Test
Since 1905, no Test match at Old Trafford had returned a result, the uncertain Manchester weather being the usual culprit. That didn’t worry the Australians too much as they were already 2-0 ahead. Perhaps more significantly for them, the 50th test match of Don Bradman’s career would be played at a ground where he conceded he had always been “notoriously unsuccessful.”
Old Trafford was a ground that had suffered widespread damage from bombing during the war, with both the field and stadium being affected. While the ground was playable, parts of the stadium were unusable leaving limited seating. Such then was the setting when Don Bradman and Norman Yardley walked out for the toss.
Yardley won the toss and elected to bat on a cold and cloudy day. Bradman conceded he would have done the same. Cyril Washbrook faced the first ball of the innings in Hutton’s absence (normally Washbrook would be at the non-striker’s end while Hutton took first strike) accompanied by George Emmett making his Test debut. It would be the only Test Emmett would ever play for England.
At 28 for 2, Denis Compton walked in with all of England’s hopes resting on his broad shoulders. Five runs later he had courted disaster as an attempt to hook a waist-high Lindwall bouncer resulted in the top edged ball smashing into his face splitting an eyebrow. Debutant Jack Crapp joined Edrich as the Englishmen gritted their teeth and proceeded to play themselves in. But at 119 for 5 Compton was forced to walk back in with his eyebrow stitched, joining captain Yardley at the crease.
Sam Loxton, finally in the Test side took out Yardley soon after. But first, in the company of Godfrey Evans and then Alec Bedser, Compton proceeded to play one of the greatest innings that had made him the hero of the post-war generation. When England was finally all out for 363 the next day, a day that John Arlott would describe as a day of “epic cricket for England,” Compton was unbeaten on a defiant 145 garnered with the help of sixteen boundaries in his five-and-a-half hours stay at the crease. Speaking to me about this innings and others that Dennis Compton played in that immediate post-war period, David Frith would recount how “[Dennis] Compton grabbed the imagination of all, us young boys.”
With Sid Barnes injured while building, Ian Johnson was sent in with Arthur Morris to open the Australian innings. But with Johnson departing quickly and Bradman’s “notoriously unsuccessful” run at Old Trafford continuing, Australia was soon 13 for 2. Morris and Keith Miller rebuilt the innings but Barnes, despite collapsing from chest pain was forced to come in the next day at 139 for 5, only to be carried back to the hospital a run later from the pain. Australia managed to avoid the follow-on but when the innings ended at 221, England, for the first time in the series was ahead by 142 runs.
Australian backs to the wall
When England walked in for the second innings they were in no doubt about what was about to happen. Washbrook would say later: “We had to remember that this was the first time in a post-war Test that the Australians had been in trouble. Their intentions to hit back with all possible means in their power could not be doubted.” And so it played out.
With their backs to the wall, the Aussie aggression re-emerged in all its wonderful glory. Keith Miller’s back had a miraculous recovery (or so it seemed to the Englishmen) and in company with Lindwall, a barrage of short-pitched bowling started and it would continue. Edrich and Washbrook took the fight to the Aussies, employing the hook with magnificent effect. Talking about his hooks off Lindwall just off his nose, Bill Edrich would say: “The best way is to let it come here (pointing to a spot between his eyes), then you’ve got to hit it. The hook’s safe enough as long as you remember that the ball never hurts as much as you think its going to.” Keith Miller, not one to part with compliments easily, called Edrich a “deadly hooker.”
Putting together a 124-run partnership the two helped England pile up a substantial lead and England ended the third day at 174 for 3. The fourth day was washed out by rain and when Yardley declared at the same score on the fifth morning, Australia was left to score 317 for a victory, by no means an unachievable task, but a difficult one that would give England the chance to go for a victory by picking up wickets quickly.
As it would happen however the rain persisted so that the entire morning session’s play was lost. Bradman asked his batsmen to down the shutters, no doubt with invincibility on his mind, and when stumps was called, the visitors had made 92 for 1 in the 61 overs that were bowled.
Bradman’s boys may not have been 3-0 up, but by escaping unscathed from Old Trafford, they had taken another huge step towards Invincibility.
(To be continued….)