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……
178 ahead. 7 wickets in hand. Last day’s play. Len Hutton batting on 49.
Going purely by the scoreboard, England were ahead. Yet …
Wally Hammond was still suffering from lumbago. The condition has improved from the previous day, but hot water bottles and hot towels were still in full use. He was in no state to bat.
And Cyril Washbrook tried to move his thumb gingerly as he watched his great opening partner resume his innings alongside night-watchman Jack Pollard.
John Dewes was already dismissed. Two more debutant teenagers were in the ranks, waiting tentatively for their turns at the crease. Did the side have enough depth to challenge the fighting Australian Servicemen?
Charging into bowl, with a casual toss of the head to reset the dangling lock, was Keith Miller.
For a while, Hutton kept Pollard away from Miller’s pace, with some expertise. But then, in the third over of the day, he could not protect him any longer. The stumps were rattled. 122 for 4.
Luke White, one of the teenagers, fended Miller through the slips, an uppish stroke that went for two. Twice he tried to flick him off his legs, but failed to middle the ball.
At the other end, Bob Cristofani was sending down his leg-spinners. And one of them straightened and trapped the youngster plumb. White gone for 4. 127 for 5.
Donald Carr nudged a single and then went for glory off Cristofani. Big Cec Pepper held the catch. 129 for 6. England had had a horrible 10 overs in the morning. It was some relief to watch the stolid form of Washbrook walk out, his thumb bandaged in an apparatus that looked more suited for pugilism.
In the pressbox at Lord’s, scribes were already seeing shades of Bill O’Reilly in Cristofani. Given an eventual First Class career of 48 wickets at an average of almost 33, that was ridiculously wishful thinking. But it happens when one great moves away from the game and someone with similar methods step in. Eternal phenomenon.
Hutton, in the meantime, was scoring way too slowly. The first 40 minutes of the morning had seen him add just six runs. And with the batting in disarray, the Australians were perfectly happy to focus on the other end as they kept the great Yorkshireman in check.
Washbrook winced at every stroke that required force. He was obviously in agony. Across 14 painstaking overs, scoring mostly in singles, the two men, normally collaborators at the top of the order, added 21 runs.
Things looked just a shade brighter when Miller pulled up in the middle of an over, clutching his back. He ended with three deliveries bowled off a shorter run.
The whispers of ‘flying accident’ did rounds. Miller, the self-mythologist. Yes, there had been a flying accident, but not in active engagement in battle. After his squadron had been disbanded, Miller had impetuously made an unnecessary flight. For unwanted practice. The starboard engine had caught fire, and Miller had managed a bad landing. According to the squadron log book, the aircraft was wrecked but no one was hurt.
Miller had strained his back through this avoidable misadventure.
Ross Stanford, with a way, way more distinguished War record, took his place in the field.
However, this minor advantage in the course of events did not result in English ascendancy. Hutton tried to cut Cristofani and Stan Sismey held the resulting snick behind the stumps. The stalwart walked back for 69 and it was 150 for 7.
The very next over saw Reg Ellis bowl William Roberts. The end was hastening.
Doug Wright walked in and pulled Cristofani for four. The first boundary of the day had taken its time to come. With the situation more and more perilous, Washbrook forgot his painful thumb and swung Ellis to the fence.
And then Cristofani got one to pop up and Wright was held at short leg by skipper Linsday Hassett. Hammond was still in no condition to bat.
164 all out. 29 and a half overs in the morning had seen England score 46 measly runs in exchange of the six remaining wickets. Cristofani, who ended with 5 for 49, had figures of 14.3-5-17-4 in the session.
The Cricketer lamented that the collapse had nothing to do with the wicket. Press Association observed that apart from Hutton and Edrich, the English batting looked woefully weak.
By one o’clock, the Australians were all set to begin their chase. 225 to win from five hours. Exciting contest on the cards, especially given the inconsistency of the batsmen of either side. Lord’s filled up in anticipation of a great finish.
Pollard started with one of the most brilliant of overs. The first delivery saw Dick Whitington beaten through and through, but the ball just about missed the stumps. The next went the other way and the snick was held by Billy Griffith.
Stan Sismey, yet another Australian promoted beyond his abilities to fit into the Number 3 spot, walked out to join James Workman. Pollard steamed in again. The ball took the edge and fell just short of Edrich at second slip.
The fourth ball were nearly unplayable. Sismey hung his bat out in vague hope. It hastened past and thudded into Griffith’s gloves. The crowd appealed vociferously.
The fifth almost yorked the Australian keeper. And the sixth was somehow kept out of harm’s way and trickled through the slips for a single.
One for one after one over. And what an over.
From the other end ran in Bill Edrich, all enthusiasm and speed, but very little quality as a fast man. Most of the five slips that stood crouching would have been more suitably placed elsewhere in the field, but attack was the watchword.
Sismey stole a few singles. Workman blocked manfully, living up to his name. The end of the solitary over by Wright signalled lunch, and it was 23 for 1.
In the dressing room, Miller was lying on the massage table, getting all the treatment necessary to make an appearance if required.
After the break, Sismey drove and pulled with confidence that belied his potential. Wright failed to get the same amount of turn as Cristofani, and as Workman settled down to play a few good strokes, the score moved along.
They were sniffing the target. As Sismey tickled Wright fine and the fielders chased the ball, the batsmen ran four. Off the next ball, it was almost tip and run. The Australians in the crowd did not quite like the tension and pleaded with the batsmen not to do that. Meanwhile Australian soldiers in attendance, in their army slouch hats or air force blue headgear, urged Griffith, the stand-in captain, to take Pollard off.
Roberts replaced Pollard eventually. Sismey crashed him to the leg boundary. Australians were fast getting on top.
But now, after that one solitary over, Roberts was taken off and Wright bowled again. Workman missed the line, the wicket was uprooted and Griffith caught the off-stump as it flew backwards.
82 for 2. Workman went for 30.
Sismey, now joined by his captain, marched nonchalantly to his fifty. And with the score on 104, he missed a straight one from Pollard and walked back for 51.
Miller did come in now. Hassett was batting well as usual. And the all-rounder started middling the ball from the start. The bowlers were not able to make much of a headway. Tea was taken at 136 for 3. 89 more required.
England needed wickets. Wright tried to buy one on resumption. The flighted ball was inviting. Hassett drove but did not middle it. It went quite far from Edrich. But the brave man flung himself from silly point and held a stunner with his left hand. 151 for 4. Hassett had spent one hour at the crease for 24.
Pepper was in. This was the partnership to break. A few runs were scored and then Pollard ran in and bounced.
Miller hooked. The ball climbed on him a bit more than he expected. It went off the top edge, over the square leg umpire, and from deep square leg, Dewes sighted it. But he also had the sun directly in his eyes. The crowd’s roars turned to a simultaneous groan as the catch went down.
Pepper celebrated this stroke of Australian good fortune, slamming a six into the member’s stand. It took the bounding Edrich, brought back for a spell of wayward fast stuff, to trap him leg before for 18.
Keith Carmody did not last long. Edrich caught him close in off Roberts. Albert Cheetham was in and it could still be anyone’s game. The score was 193 for 6. 32 runs to get, and the new ball due at 200.
But the shine and hardness only accelerated the pace of scoring. A Pollard over went for five, and then Edrich was taken for seven.
11 were needed now. Pollard ran in to start a fresh over to Miller, the charismatic all-rounder by now playing a vital innings.
The first ball was driven down the ground and the batsmen scampered three. Pollard continued to keep it up, but pitched a bit too much on the leg. Cheetham glanced him fine and another three were run. A no ball followed, and Miller hit it high in the air for two.
The next ball was close to the off-stump and the bat came down in a neat little arc, late-cutting it for another brace.
The scores were level.
Pollard, running in with quite a bit of frustration, banged it down. It almost struck his own feet. Miller ducked. So did wicketkeeper Griffith. It sailed through for byes, fielded finally by a London policeman in front of the sight screen.
Australia had won and were now 2-1 up in the series. Miller ran back, the hero of the match, unbeaten on 71.
Had playing three youngsters, with a rather limited bowling attack, backfired on England? As Plum Warner, one of the men who had selected the team, confessed, “Dewes, White and Carr are all under 19 and naturally lack experience and especially against fast bowling.”
Perhaps that was true. A bit more experience in the side could have changed things. But the outcome could also have been much different had Hammond been able to bat.
It was former captain Lionel Tennyson who summed up the hero of the Test match, who had taken six first innings wickets and made the difference with the bat in the end: “Keith Miller, in my opinion, is the best all-rounder now playing. He is splendidly alive as batsman, bowler and fielder.”