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.
In the fourth Test at Leeds, which would be forever labelled the ‘Greatest Test’, Neil Harvey with a scintillating 112 in the first innings, came of age in his first Test in England and laid claim to be the worthy successor Australia was seeking post-Bradman’s retirement after this tour. Chasing a never before achieved target of 404 for victory, Australia catered home on the back of magnificent tons from Morris and Bradman. Appropriately, Bradman and Harvey, the present and future of Australian cricket were at the crease, and the winning runs were scored by Harvey.
Unfinished Work, Punishing Schedule
The series had been won, the miracle at Headingley achieved, and yet for Bradman the foot could not be taken off the gas pedal, for invincibility was still some distance away.
He was more aware than anyone else that ten years ago in 1938, his team had been undefeated until that point, but had been unable to remain so. Warwick Armstrong’s all-conquering team of 1921 had sustained their drive to invincibility until the last week of the tour when an Argentinian bowler Clem Gibson, part of a ragged team of retired Test and county players under the captaincy of retired English captain Archie MacLaren had almost single-handedly wrought destruction upon the mighty Australians. As Malcolm Knox put it aptly in Bradman’s War, “Bradman was now competing with history.”
In yet another reflection of how much tighter schedules were and the far more challenging environment players of the time faced compared to the relaxed lives of their counterparts of today, the morning after the Leeds Test the Australians had an encounter with Derbyshire, four hours away by train. Morris and Johnson were given leave to go and watch the Olympic Games in London, but Bradman led a strong team into the stadium the next morning at Derby, only a few hours after they had checked into their hotel past midnight.
Winning the toss and batting first, Brown allowed his mates to get a bit of a shut-eye as he led from the front with a century. Bradman, Miller, Loxton added half centuries. With 456 on the board, Derbyshire was dismissed for 240 and asked to follow on. In the second innings, Colin McCool, an early precursor of the Shane Warne style of bowling, sent down his expansively flighted leg breaks and deceptive googlies to take 6 for 77 and precipitated a Derby collapse for 182, handing the visitors victory by an innings and 34 runs.
Once again the visitors embarked on a train journey, this time taking five hours in order to take on county championship leaders Glamorgan the next morning at Swansea in Wales. In a rain-affected match where Bradman himself took a much-deserved break, the county managed a draw against the visitors. Another four hour journey up north to Birmingham and it was time to face Warwickshire the following morning, where for the first time (but memorably not the last) the Australians would face the leg spin of 36-year old Eric Hollies.
All summer England had struggled with its spin bowling, with Laker only enjoying limited success, and the late Hedley Verity’s absence was felt every time the Australians went out to bat. But it was left to the fag end of the tour before a genuine match winner like Hollies would be unleashed on the Australians. In this instance, the fault lay less with the selectors and more at the door of the man himself. Hollies did not like to travel, and between 1935 and 1947 he didn’t play a Test match despite match-winning performances like ten wickets in an innings against Nottinghamshire in 1946. Jack Fingleton was to report that he was informed Hollies liked Test cricket even less than he liked to travel.
In 1948, bowling against Bradman’s boys, Hollies could not prevent the Australians from winning the match against his county by nine wickets, but his 8 for 107 in the first innings, the best bowling figures by an Englishman on the 1948 tour, would have an impact well beyond the numbers themselves or indeed the result of this tour match.
Hollies first dismissed Brown and Morris. Bradman by then had scored 31 but was having trouble reading Hollies even with the years of experience he had had against the great Clarrie Grimmett. Hollies bowled him with a flighted googly and got past Neil Harvey’s defence the very next ball. By the time he took Hassett, his dismissal of the entire top order had booked him a ticket to the final Test at the Oval. It would turn out to be a historic decision by the English selectors.
The Final Test – Oval 1948
While the weather had largely held up with brief interruptions to the tour matches, the few days leading up to the final Test at the Kennington Oval saw incessant unseasonal rains that lashed the length and breadth of England. London was not spared. In the days of uncovered pitches, the perfect batting surface at the Kennington Oval that had greeted Bradman for much of his career was nowhere in evidence when the teams arrived at the ground.
It was not an auspicious start, for not only was this Don Bradman’s farewell Test match, but invincibility beckoned beyond the Surrey clouds, and she was not a forgiving mistress.
The wet wicket meant changes to the team had to be made. Ian Johnson was replaced by the now fit Sidney Barnes to strengthen the batting. Toshack who was injured was replaced by legspinner Ring for his first Test, and Don Tallon, one of the greatest of Australian wicketkeepers came back from injury. With more rain on the cards, on an overcast afternoon, Norman Yardley chose to bat first on winning the toss. He thought the pitch might be wet enough to hamper the bowlers more than the batsmen. Bradman admitted later that like at Nottingham, he was happy to lose the toss and have the decision taken out of his hands.
Less than an hour after the delayed start, Yardley’s decision was already being questioned. With Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall, both fit together for the first time in Tests that summer and proving almost unplayable on a wet pitch in humid conditions, England found themselves four wickets down with the score reading 23. More worryingly, John Edrich and Denis Compton, two of England’s more consistent batsmen in the series were among them.
Bradman the tactician was in his elements. As Compton faced up to Lindwall, the captain moved Morris to square leg. Compton hooked the next ball from Lindwall straight to Morris who held a brilliant low catch. Bradman rushed up to Morris and said: “Well caught Arthur. You know why I put you there now. I remember he played that shot in 1938.”
Len Hutton stood like Marius among the ruins of Carthage, watching in dismay as Lindwall scythed through the batsmen picking up 6 for 20 to skittle the English out for a scarcely believable 52. England’s innings had lasted for all of two hours and ten minutes. Hutton’s contribution was 30. Neville Cardus, never one to hold back on prose, called it “an innings of noble loneliness withstanding one of the finest pieces of fast bowling of our times.”
Lawrence Kitchin, then a young boy, wrote in Len Hutton – Cricketing Lives, about watching Lindwall bowl that day: “When he turned and began his long, gradually accelerating run, the uncomfortable silence of the crowd was so complete that we seemed to hear the beat of his footsteps from the terraces.”
When the Australians walked out to bat three hours later, it looked like they were doing so on a different surface. John Arlott would write: “If anyone retained any suspicion there was life in the wicket, Barnes and Morris at once removed it.” Sid Barnes and Arthur Morris would put on an opening partnership of 117 and it looked like the capacity Oval crowd would have to come back the next day to watch Bradman bat. But little did they know there was another twist in the tale to come.
The Most Famous Ball in the History of Cricket
Eric Hollies, the reluctant Test bowler who had been drafted into the England squad at the Oval, almost hadn’t shown up for the game, unwilling to miss two matches for his county Warwickshire to play in a Test where the rubber had already been decided. The Warwickshire Committee had finally prevailed upon him to play, a move that would change the course of cricketing history.
It all started at the stroke of six when Sid Barnes on 61 stepped out to Hollies, was beaten by a leg break and Godfrey Evans held on to the edge. Jack Fingleton captured the atmosphere as Barnes walked off and the small athletic figure of Bradman walked down the steps, the public enthusiasm bordering on the masochistic:
“Hundreds of people had queued all night. They had slept on wet pavements so that they could see the final appearance of Bradman, and his reception could not have been bettered. Though he had flayed them over the years with his bat, England’s cricketing representatives still wanted more of Bradman. Like London during the blitz, they could take it!”
Yardley had two messages in the middle. To his team, he said: “We’ll give him three cheers when he gets on the square.” Then he turned to Hollies and said: “But thats all we’ll give him – then bowl him out.”
To get the context to this conversation we need to go back to the Australian encounter with Warwickshire where Hollies had run through the top order. In the second innings of the match, with only 41 to get for a win, Bradman had walked out to the middle because he wanted another look at Hollies. The wily bowler was, however, no novice and knew better than to give the great man what he wanted. When he was thrown the ball, he first walked up to Test discard and teammate Dollery and captain Ron Maudsley to tell them that he was not going to bowl the googly. “I know I can bowl him with it, and I’ll give it to him the second ball at The Oval.”
Bradman describes in his Farewell to Cricket the next few moments as he faced up to Hollies:
“That reception had stirred my emotions very deeply and made me anxious – a dangerous state of mind for any batsman to be in. I played the first ball from Hollies though not sure I really saw it [It was a leg break he played off the back foot]. The second was a perfect length googly which deceived me. I just touched it with the inside edge of the bat and the off bail was dislodged.” Hollies had delivered on his promise.
What no one on the ground had realised was that coming in to bat, Bradman had been four runs short of 7000 runs and he had been dismissed sixty-nine times in the past. The addition of those four runs would have taken his average, over the twenty years since his debut, past 100. The most untimely duck in the history of cricket was fated to immortalise the number 99.94.
Bradman was cheered all the way back to the pavilion. No duck in cricket had roused more emotion. Godfrey Evans reflected: “What is a nought in such a fabulous career, even such a nought at such a time?” A bemused Eric Hollies turned to Jack Young and mouthed: “Best f-ing ball I’ve bowled all season, and they’re clapping him!”
There was dead silence in the dressing room when Bradman walked in. No one wanted to look him in the eye. Sid Barnes walked up to him and said: “Got your whole innings on film, skipper.” Bradman laughed. It was the end of an era, and no dramatist could have scripted it better.
Completing the formalities at the Oval
Resuming on a Monday morning at 153 for 2, Australia batted on through the day. The man in charge was Arthur Morris, steady, determined, imparting lessons on how to play off the back foot. His confidence grew as the overs went by, often despatching pitched outside off to the leg side, forcing bowlers to change their line, even taking Hollies to the cleaners. The innings ended the only way it could – with Morris being run out trying to shield Tallon from facing Hollies. His brilliant innings of 196 ensured Australia finished at 389, leaving England in deficit by 337 in the first innings.
From the moment Hutton and Dewes walked into bat, the English had their backs to the wall. Other than a fighting, defiant 64 from Hutton there was little to speak of in England’s second knock. Long before the innings folded up for 188, the result of the Test match had been painfully obvious to one and all. Now only the formalities remained.
In the post-match speech, Bradman confirmed this would be his last Test and Yardley made a gracious reply reflecting the thoughts of his countrymen: “Future Australian sides will seem strange without Don Bradman. The only people who can be happy about his Test retirement are those who face the task of getting him out.”
The Tryst with Invincibility
The Test series was over, invincibility beckoned, but she was yet an untamed tigress, and no one knew that better than Don Bradman. With five first-class and two second-class matches to go, for the 1948 team, there would be no let-up.
After a rare day off, the team travelled to Canterbury to play Kent. Over two Ashes series, Godfrey Evans had stood behind the stumps while Bradman scored over 1400 runs, and not once had been involved in a dismissal of the great man. Against Kent, batting in his fifties, Bradman edged a ball, and Evans failed to appeal. After the day’s play, with a laugh, Bradman told Evans: “You are a fool, Godfrey; you’ve been trying to get me out all these years and you threw away the perfect chance out there.”
When Kent batted, Evans’ teammates teased him that they would at least get more than 52. As it turned out, they got 51. Australia won by an innings and 186 runs. Over the next few days first, the Gentlemen of England and then Somerset were disposed off, each by an innings. The match against the South of England ended in a rare draw.
And then came the Scarborough Festival Game, the last first-class game of the tour and one that had spoilt the records of Warwick Armstrong’s 1921 team and Bradman’s own 1938 side. As far as the Australians were concerned, it was a trap waiting to be sprung. Laveson-Gower chose a team with six players from the current England side and the rest were retired English Test players. Bradman countered with a full-strength Australian Test team.
As things turned out, Bradman need not have worried so much. Lindwall ran through the batting, the hosts scoring only 177. The Australians replied with 489 for 8 declared, Bradman gifting his wicket away at a personal score of 151 and running into the pavilion as the catch was taken in the outfield. The weather ensured that the match ended in a draw.
While no one would have grudged the invincibility label after this match, the last one in England, Bradman was not one for unfinished tasks. He played in the last two matches in Scotland, his team winning both by an innings, and Bradman sealed the win in the final fixture, his last match in Britain, with a brilliant 123.
For the first and indeed last time in the history of the Ashes, an Australian team had gone undefeated through an entire tour of the British Isles. It had not been easy, but employing great determination, courage, undeniable talent and ruthlessness when required, Don Bradman and his 1948 team had truly earned the sobriquet that would remain exclusively theirs – The Invincibles.