In this series, Arunabha Sengupta relates the tale of the Victory Tests played between England and the Australian Services as a celebration of the end of World War II….
England 267. Australian Services 455.
A lead of 188 for the Servicemen.
The onus on Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrok, Wally Hammond, Bill Edrich and the others was to play out time on the final day. The distinctly more match-fit Australians had to bowl just about as well as they did on the first day.
Hammond, dapper in spite of more than his share of mortal flesh and a more than the troublesome back, inspected the pitch and decided to use the light roller.
On the sluggish, lifeless wicket, Graham Williams began the proceedings by sending down a maiden over to Hutton.
It was easy enough for the great opening duo. Williams and Albert Cheetham were negotiated without trouble. Keith Miller was dealt with. An hour passed without mishaps.
And then loomed the imposing frame of Cec Pepper, the first tweaker. Immediately the two batsmen tapped the wicket with their bats.
Pepper almost struck immediately. A loud shout for leg before against Washbrook turned down by the umpire. There was another vociferous shout in his second over, once again falling on deaf ears. A few spectators in the stands echoed the screamed entreaties with relish.
But then Pepper struck. A ball was pitched at a superb length, turned the wrong way and kept low to beat the great bat of Hutton who played back. The stumps were hit. 52 for 1. Hutton back for 21.
Reg Ellis was put on now. Left-arm slow, ambling in with two fielders close to the wicket on both sides. Washbrook and Jack Robertson played the spinners with respect. Tense moments were witnessed as the slow bowlers baited the batsmen.
And then Pepper’s shout rang out once again as the ball struck Washbrook’s pad. This time the finger went up. 75 for 2.
Hammond walked into loud applause, still the great draw that he was. He looked hesitant, circumspect. Ten minutes passed before he pushed one past short leg to get off the mark. In the meantime, Robertson got underneath a Pepper full-toss and sent it beyond the mid-wicket fence.
As the morning session drew to a close, the batsmen stamped their authority. Lunch was taken at 114 for 2.
The situation demanded cautious batting, but the setting demanded excitement. It was a match to celebrate the end of the war, was it not? Victories and defeats in cricket took a whole new perspective when seen against the backdrop of the London crowd eager to forget the blitzkriegs and the bunkers.
The second ball after lunch was tossed up by Pepper. Hammond jumped out and drove it to the sightscreen. Cheetham was dispatched for fours on either side of the wicket.
Ellis came on for Pepper, relieving the leg-spinner after a long one and a half hour spell. And Hammond, playing forward, missed the line and was leg-before.
149 for 3.
Robertson, till now essaying a brisk innings, went into his shell. Les Ames, the new man to the wicket, looked subdued as well.
Half an hour later Ellis bowled Ames. 175 for 4. Bill Edrich walked out, in some sort of a crisis.
Robertson, looking solid as a rock, carried on. In spite of all the big names in the side, he had been the most successful batsman till now. Edrich was a man for crisis. The lead was polished off, the score was pushed past 200. And just at the stroke of tea Robertson, looking set for a well-deserved hundred, snicked Cheetham.
But at the break England were just five down. Edrich and Walter Robins at the crease. The chances of saving the match looked bright. Especially as both men played extremely well after the break.
Robins, more adventurous, struck the ball hard as usual. Edrich, looking in fine nick, was his pugnacious self. The lead passed 50, and pushed further, close to the psychological barrier of 100. The score read 286 for 5, England 98 ahead, almost safe now, when first Robins and then Edrich got out to unnecessary strokes, within the space of three balls.
The last four men made just 7 runs between them, and looked to be in a hurry. Strange indeed, with England fighting to save the match. The way the last two wickets were lost also underlines the paradox. Doug Wright was run out, trying to rush across for a largely avoidable single. And Alf Gover was stumped, trying to hit Pepper into the stands.
Instructions of the captain or team management? Whatever be the reason, the game that was almost petering out into a tense draw was now transformed into a thrilling chase. An hour and ten minutes remained, and Australian Services needed 107 to win.
That the Australians were going for it was made evident by the sight of Dick Whitington being accompanied by skipper Lindsay Hassett to the wicket. The latter was on his way to becoming one of the legends of the game, the former would become his biographer.
Gover and Stepehnson started the attack, and the latter had Whitington leg before for a duck. The man who walked in at No 3 was Keith Miller. Whitington would write this legend’s biography as well, and collaborate with him on several books. At the present moment, it showed that the Australians meant business.
Hassett played a stinging square cut off the last ball of the same over, and Miller tried to race back for the second. Washbrook’s low return from the boundary was taken by Billy Griffith and the stumps broken. 11 for 2.
Now there was another surprise. The new man in was Pepper. Even two early wickets had not taken the spirit out of the Australian chase.
But, in spite of best intentions, and some hefty blows from Pepper, they fell behind the clock. The field was placed deep. After 51 minutes of batting the score was 63. Hassett, on 37, hit Gover hard and high. Hammond, fielding unusually at long off, sprinted across for the catch. His cap fell off, but he grasped the ball, reminding the world that he was still one of the best fielders of the world. 63 or 3. 44 runs needed from 19 minutes.
Pepper hit a couple of boundaries. The 16000 strong crowd roared their approval each time the big all-rounder belted the ball. And in the mad confusion, Cheetham was run out. 31 needed from 12 minutes.
As Ross Stanford sat in the pavilion, perhaps to save the match if wickets tumbled, Charlie Price was sent in.
At 6:55, with at most two overs remaining, Australia wanted 13. Eight men stood on the boundary as Stephenson bowled.
The first five balls were accurate, brought only two singles. And off the last ball, Pepper hit out. In the words of Bob Crisp, “He heaved his great shoulders in a vast swipe, connected, and the ball sailed high up on to the stand for one of the biggest sixes seen at Lord’s.”
As the ball was retrieved, the clock in the tower above the Mound Stand showed one minute remaining for six o’clock. Australia needed five runs. The umpire indicated there was time to start a new over. And Hammond rushed his fielders around to get the play going.
Gover ran in for his 12th over on the trot, with the minute hand about to move into the position to signal seven o’clock.
Price swung at the first ball and missed. Umpire Archie Fowler shifted a cardboard counter from one hand to the other. Umpire Bert Beet pocketed one of the blue marbles in his right hand.
The second ball was connected and the batsmen stole a single.
The following ball was on length. Pepper swung wildly. The top edge sent it up. From the deep mid-wicket, Doug Wright sprinted like a madman. But the ball slipped from his grasp as he raced full tilt. The batsmen crossed over for two.
Gover walked back to his mark to begin his run. Pepper waited. The crowd was in a state of frenzy.
And now, in ran Gover. The ball was pitched on the leg. Pepper swiped again, wildly. It went somewhere on the wide spaces in the country, from some part of the bat far from the middle. Hutton and Washbrook, the two openers, ran for it. But the batsmen ran two.
Australian Services had pulled it off with two balls remaining. Pepper was the hero, with 54 not out from 50 balls with four fours and a six. According to Sydney Morning Herald he was suffering from boils. “He was so tired when he reached the dressing room that he declared he could not run another run.”
67,660 attended the match in all. Of the £ 3383 gate money, £ 957 went in entertainment tax, and expenses accounted for £ 491. The remaining £ 1935 went to Red Cross and various Australian charities.
The Cricketer recalled: “A draw would have been something of an anti-climax and praise in which the Australians were unstinted is due to Hammond and his men for never wasting a second.”
Hammond, moody, churlish and downright nasty according to many, has gone down in the annals of history as not the ideal man to know. There are plenty of stories about his sullen, surly attitude.
Yet, he knew what he was playing for.
A month later, in the weekly column which he lent his name to, he disclosed, “At 5:15 PM on the third day I asked Edrich and Robins, who were playing comfortably, to hit out. I am quite confident that Robins and Edrich could have batted easily for another half hour but that would have meant a drawn game … but the public cannot hope for such cricket in official Test matches. There is then too much at stake.”
Yes, the Victory Tests showed many in a new light.