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. 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. All of England could only agree that after only two Test matches the rampaging Australians were beginning to seem Invincible.
The third Test at Old Trafford saw the inexplicable dropping of England’s best batsmen Len Hutton. Despite this, Australia had their backs to the wall and with rain helping, they were forced to play out for a draw. What was important however for Bradman was that after three Tests and more than halfway through the tour, the Aussies were still unbeaten.
Playing to Bradman’s Plan
When the 1948 tour started, while Invincibility was an early objective, it was not the primary one, nor the secondary. This was the golden age of the Ashes contest, and Australia had had the urn securely locked up since 1934. The last time they had given it away to England was during the 1932-33 Bodyline series and a year later with neither Larwood nor Jardine in the team, they had wrested it right back from the lion’s den. In 1948, Bradman’s first priority had been to retain the Ashes. This done, a win or draw in the fourth Test at Leeds would clinch the series. Invincibility, the third goal, he was convinced, would follow.
The Ashes retained, before the team moved on to Leeds, it was time to let down the hair. Miller and Lindwall, inseparable on the field and off it, were determined to enjoy the time off before the match against county champions Middlesex at Lord’s. And so they did.
Bradman found them in a dishevelled state the morning of the Middlesex match. Miller was in any case not a morning person and rarely arrived at a ground more than 15 minutes before the start of a match. But in this instance, Lindwall and Miller had taken their ‘relaxation’ a bit too seriously. Lindwall asked to be excused from the match, but Bradman would have none of it. Sixteen fruitless overs later, Lindwall lay on the grass exhausted. Bradman walked over to him and quipped: “Have a nice time last night, Ray?”
The march towards invincibility was far from over, and Bradman would not let anyone forget it.
The Greatest Test – Leeds 1948
Not surprisingly, when the teams arrived in Leeds, Len Hutton was back in the side after being inexplicably dropped from the team at Lord’s. There were only two Tests left, and even if it was already known that the urn would remain in Australia, England’s series could yet be salvaged by wresting victories in the remaining matches. Laker joined the team to beef up the bowling.
For Australia, the injury to Barnes meant that after waiting for more than half the tour, playing every tour match that he could, young Neil Harvey would finally make his Ashes debut. In fact, Harvey thought Bill Brown would come in to replace Barnes and was content to be the twelfth man again as he had been for the first three Tests. He was having breakfast the morning of the match when Bradman came and sat down next to him. “You’re playing today” was all he said before walking out of the dining room.
As Malcolm Knox put it, “Bringing in the teenager was a bold move by Bradman. Brown, the champion opener of the 1930s had been the outstanding batsman of the non-Test games, with four centuries and a double century….Yet, Bradman was able to cast his pragmatism aside and yield to his imagination. The boy would play.” The decision would prove crucial and launch the teenaged Neil Harvey, who had already scored a magnificent 153 against India the previous Australian summer, as the worthy successor to Bradman and the mainstay of the Australian batting as well as its leader for much of the next decade and a half.
For Bradman himself, Leeds was a happy hunting ground and the memories of his 334 in 1930, 304 in 1934 and a brilliant 103 in 1938 against an unplayable Hedley Verity were fresh in the memories of fans overflowing the stands. Headingley was surely Bradman’s home away from home. The fans thronging the ground that July day of 1948 wanted only two things – a fitting farewell innings from Bradman, followed by an English victory.
A letter written by a fan during the second evening of the Test match that Bradman was to receive a few days after the Leeds Test concluded is a measure of the adoration and esteem in which he was held by English fans who knew he was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon and treated him as one of their own. The letter read:
“Dear Mr. Bradman,
My friends and I gambled on our English weather, three doubtful cycles and the fortune of the road, and cycled to Leeds to see the second day of the Test. My friend broke a gear on the way back, I broke a mudguard and we both had to push our exhausted friend over the moors, but it was well worth it.
Yours very sincerely
From one hopeful cricketer,
One not so hopeful,
One who cannot play at all.”
A dream start for England
Yardley won the toss and Len Hutton walked out to bat to a thunderous ovation. Hutton may have been away for just a game, but the Yorkshire crowd were making sure the selectors received the message about what they thought of the ill-conceived decision to drop him the previous Test.
Tiger O’Reilly commented that the wicket was “so green that it was difficult to decide where the out-field ended and the pitch began. But any thoughts the Aussies had had about a quick breakthrough were soon dispelled.
Hutton drove Miller magnificently through the off side in his first over, and so brutal was he that an off-colour Miller was replaced after two overs. Lindwall was struggling from the other end to make an impact. John Arlott spoke in wonder: “never in the series had England’s first wicket outlasted the spell of the opening bowlers.”
Even when Toshack and Johnston had a go, they could not get a breakthrough. After lunch it got worse as the openers attacked, taking five fours off Lindwall. As the century stand came up in 131 minutes, Arlott referred to the stand as being “behind the clock, but ahead of expectation – even abreast of hope.” As the batting grew more masterful, the bowling appeared ragged. Jack Fingleton called it “atrociously bad.” Finally, Hutton batting at 81, played a forward defensive stroke to Lindwall and somehow missed the ball which knocked back his stumps. The pair had put on 168, by far the highest opening partnership for England in the series.
Washbrook steadfastly refused to indulge in the hook shot which had been his downfall more than once and completed his century, finally dismissed for 143. John Edrich and Alec Bedser carried on the unrelenting carnage on the Australian bowlers and when both departed, England was 426 for 4. The rest of the batsmen could put on only 70 runs more and England was all out for 496 in the final session of the second day. The wrecker in chief was Sam Loxton, picking up his first three wickets in Test cricket and wrapping up the tail.
Bradman and Hassett took the visitors to 63 for 1 at stumps after losing Morris early.
The Emergence of a Worthy Successor
If Australia was to take the fight to the hosts, the start on the third day was going to be crucial. With Don Bradman and Lindsay Hassett at the crease, there was no reason to believe otherwise. A stunning over from medium pacer Dick Pollard changed all that. He first got Hassett to edge one to slip, and when Miller responded to Bradman’s serious words of caution by smashing the first ball for three, Pollard bowled one on Bradman’s middle stump that kept very low and knocked back his off. Suddenly Australia was 68 for 3 and in serious trouble.
Bradman later recalled his thoughts as he passed Harvey on his way back to the pavilion: “A silent prayer from me went with him. Surely it was asking too much of him to succeed where we had failed.”
Neil Harvey, on the other hand, exhibited none of the nervousness the others around him seemed to feel. He had promised himself he would only use one of the new unmarked bats he had been presented in England by Slazenger who sponsored Bradman’s bats, if he went in to bat in a Test match. So holding a brand new bat under his arm that hadn’t even been touched by a practice ball, jauntily capless, Harvey walked up to take guard. That done he met Keith Miller mid-pitch. Miller, just about to give the young man some words of encouragement, was taken aback when Harvey spoke first and said: “Whats going on here, eh? Let’s get into them!”
Neil Harvey had arrived on the big stage and planned to stay there for a long time.
The next hour was one about which Arlott was to write later: “I don’t think I have known a more enjoyable hour of cricket.” Miller was in his elements, one of his sixes claiming a victim in a young blonde in a green dress who had to be removed in an ambulance, and inspired by his belligerence, Harvey let loose as well. The two Victorians had taken the fight to the hosts. Tiger O’Reilly penned: “They laid about them with such joyful abandon, that it would have been difficult, if not absolutely impossible, to gather from their methods of going about it that they were actually retrieving a tremendously difficult situation.”
When Miller was finally out to an extraordinary catch by Edrich at short fine leg for 58, all of England breathed a sigh of relief. But Harvey was only getting started. As a nervous Sam Loxton walked in, Harvey walked up to his closest mate and told him confidently: “They can’t bowl, Sammy.” He then went back to take strike and proceeded to loosen up with strokes all round the wicket, particularly severe in cutting virtually anything pitched outside the off. At lunch, Australia was 204 for 4, a remarkable recovery.
After lunch, Loxton joined the party with the advent of the new ball. He hit Pollard for successive fours and then a six. Godfrey Evans behind the stumps told him: “It wouldn’t have been a six at Melbourne.” Pat came the reply: We are not in Melbourne and I was easing up on the shot.”
The pair slowed down as Harvey reached 99 and stayed there for the better part of three overs. On ABC Radio in Australia, Alan McGilvray, the voice of cricket in Australia at the time, said: “Don’t worry, Mr and Mrs Harvey, he’ll get them.” And so he did, off driving Laker for a single, bringing up his century in 177 minutes. Harvey would recall: “I can still feel Laker pat me on the shoulder. I felt like I had won the lottery.”
With youthful exuberance, Harvey went berserk, hitting Laker for three fours in a row over midwicket and perishing in his attempt to hit the fourth, bowled, missing the ball on the cross-batted stroke. He had scored 112. “I was young and stupid,” Harvey would admit with a wry smile, years later. With Australia still 200 behind, Harvey expected to be roasted on his return to the hut, but Bradman just said: “Well played.” In his autobiography Farewell to Cricket, Bradman would explain his restraint, writing that the dismissal “was a natural end to one of the greatest innings any batsman, old or young, has ever played.”
In the 1970s, when Bradman, Loxton and Harvey were national selectors, Loxton would take that bat which Harvey had never used again for Bradman to sign on. Harvey, the only surviving member of the Invincibles side, still has the bat on which an inscription in fountain pen reads: “This bat is a symbol of a great innings by my friend Neil Harvey in Australia’s greatest ever Test victory, Leeds, 1948. Don Bradman.”
Neil Harvey would go on to play 79 Tests for Australia by the time he retired in 1963, scoring 6149 runs at an average of 48.41 with the help of 21 centuries. His first class career would net him 20,000 runs.
Setting up the greatest chase in the history of Test cricket
The Australian batting in the innings now resembled a relay team – Miller had given way to Harvey’s assault, and now it was Loxton’s turn. He started with a six to reach his 50. He followed it with four more. At 93, he perished trying to “hit a seven” in the words of his teammate Morris. By then the damage to the morale of the English bowlers was non-reversible. Lindwall would pile on the misery, Lindwall making 76 with Australia’s final score on the fourth morning reading 458. But with the pitch wearing, England rather fancied their chances of a win.
Hutton and Washbrook started where they had left off in the first innings, registering a world record as the first Test openers to register two century partnerships in a match for the second time. When they were out, Edrich and Compton took over. One of John Arlott’s most evocative quips came at this stage as he described Compton cutting Lindwall “so late that his stroke was within a sparrow’s blink of being posthumous.” With Evans chipping in as well, when Yardley declared the next morning, Australia was left 404 to score in 344 minutes.
It was an interesting situation. Not only had no team ever scored more than 350 runs to win in the fourth innings of a Test match in the 72-years of Test cricket, no side had won a Test against a declaration in 70-years. A draw was the least likely scenario given the forces at play. Either Bradman’s dream would take a huge step forward this day or it would lie irrevocably shattered.
The previous night Bradman had written in his diary: “We are set 400 to win and I fear we may be defeated.” In the morning, he gathered his team around him in the dressing room and paraphrased the word another Australian, Fred Spofforth had uttered when the first Ashes had been won. Bradman said: “Come on boys, we can win this match, we can do it.”
The Greatest Chase
Waiting for the start, Morris read the headlines of the British press that morning that predicted Australia would be all out by lunch. That strengthened their resolve, already bolstered by Bradman’s stirring speech.
Hassett and Morris started slowly, and when Laker came on, it was clear the ball was turning square on this final day pitch. Uncharacteristically, Evans missed two stumpings that morning, but eventually, Hassett departed to Compton’s occasional chinaman bowling. Bradman walked into a reception he would write about later as “the greatest I have ever received from any public anywhere in the world.” He had not had a great series by his own exalted standards, but this was the kind of big occasion that Bradman truly thrived in.
But this was not going to be easy. A Laker delivery pitched outside off and went past Bradman’s leg stump. Then in a single over from Compton, he failed to spot a chinaman’s googly and edged past slip, then was dropped by Crapp in the slips doing exactly the same, and the last ball of the overwrapped him on the pads, just above stump height. But with Compton only a part-time bowler, and no wrist spinner to support Laker on a turning pitch, Yardley was running out of options. In desperation, he threw the ball to Hutton, a reluctant leg spinner at the best of times.
Bradman and Morris launched into Hutton in a display of savagery that Headingley had not seen in many a year, a spell that would be referred to a distraught radio listener as “those martyred overs”. By lunch, the Australians were 121 for 1 and the crowd had started making their unhappiness felt.
After lunch Compton replaced Hutton and Morris went after him, shielding the uncomfortable Bradman. At the score of 59 Yardley dropped Bradman and Evans missed another stumping off Laker. England was quickly unravelling. A total of eight chances were missed by England in that innings. A feeling of hopelessness swept through the team.
At 3.10pm Australia was halfway home at 200, and at 4 pm they were 250. Morris and Bradman had both reached their centuries. At tea, Australia needed 112 runs in 105 minutes. By 5 pm the crowd had forgotten that the first four days of the Test had belonged to England.
At 615pm, fifteen minutes before stumps, Neil Harvey flicked a ball off his legs for 4 and Australia had completed the greatest chase in Test cricket and won the series.
It was entirely appropriate that the future and present of Australian cricket were together at the crease when the win came. Harvey would, however, lament years later: “It was my fault he didn’t average a hundred in Tests! I hit the four.”
But that is a story for another day. For now, only the last goal remained – Invincibility was within striking distance.
To be continued…….