Alan Davidson, born June 14, 1929, was one of the greatest left-arm fast bowlers of all time and batted well enough to be counted among the game’s legendary all-rounders. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who was instrumental in Australia’s dominance in the late fifties and early sixties.
A tale of two ships
In 1938, Don Bradman’s Australians left for England on board the Ontores. A black and white photograph captured the waving cricketers as they departed for their long summer of Ashes. An elderly gentleman in Lisarow, Gosford, showed this picture to his nine-year-old grandson. The young boy, a healthy farm lad of the country, replied, “One day, grand-dad, I am going to do it.”
Twenty-three years later, another ship carrying the Australian cricketers to England was sailing near Cairo. On board was the inimitable Brian Johnston, filming for BBC Television. In a chat with the Australian captain Richie Benaud, the ace commentator mentioned that England had an advantage over the tourists because of the relentless accuracy of Brian Statham. Benaud responded, “I’ve got a bloke just as good as that.” So saying, the skipper summoned our boy of 1938, now a full grown man and established Australian cricketer, to bowl on the deck, wearing a pair of sandals and swimming trunks. Three stumps were set up and Benaud asked him to knock over the off, leg and middle in that order. Alan Davidson did exactly as he was asked, using a run-up much shorter than his usual 15 paces, turning his left-arm around and generating eye popping speed as the stumps went down in the order requested. It achieved the near impossible of keeping Johnston quiet for a while.
Of course, Davidson was fresh from 33 wickets in four Tests during that sublime series against Frank Worrell’s West Indians, the contest that was crafted in the cricket heaven, recreating the romance that surrounds the noble game. For good measure he had scored 212 runs at an average of 30.28 in the Tests. In the greatest Test of all, the epoch making Tied encounter at Brisbane, he had captured 11 wickets, scored 44 in the first innings and taken Australia to the brink of victory before being run out for a magnificent 80 in the second innings. He had become the first player in the history of Test cricket to score more than hundred runs and take more than 10 wickets in the same match.
But, perhaps the Englishmen were still not convinced. They say first impressions influence our opinions the most, and Davidson’s initial stint in the Ashes had been insipid. He had made his debut at Trent Bridge, in 1953, and had played second — or even third or fourth — fiddle to the supreme bowling attack of Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall and Bill Johnston. His haul of eight wickets in five Tests had hardly been impressive, and although a hard-hitting 76 at Lord’s had been the little redeeming factor, Australia had lost the Ashes and Davidson had done little else of note.
When Frank Tyson had pulverised Australia in 1954-55, Davidson had managed just 71 runs and three wickets in three Tests. And when he had toured England again in 1956, a chipped bone in the ankle had restricted him to two rather unimpressive Tests.
And even though he had captured 24 wickets and scored 180 runs at 36.00 against Peter May’s much hyped English team of 1958-59, the exploits had perhaps been drowned by the furore over the suspect actions of Ian Meckiff and Gordon Rorke.
Hence, when the Ashes campaign of 1961 started with one for 130 at Edgbaston, and was followed by a bout of back injury, the English public had all but concluded that Davidson would never succeed in their country.
Davidson’s first few years in international cricket had been a prolonged story of disappointing performances and debilitating injuries. Some of the indispositions were laced with his famed brand of hypochondria, but others were real enough. He went all the way to West Indies in 1954-55, injured his ankle in an early match against Jamaica, and did not play in a single Test.
There were some glorious performances in the lesser matches, and in domestic cricket. But they never managed to be repeated when the stage was elevated to the highest level.
With illustrious Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller away on national duty in South Africa, and Ernie Toshack suffering from injury, Davidson made his debut for New South Wales in 1949-50, and proceeded to knock over the stumps of Bob McLean with his second ball. Some excellent performances got him included in the Bill Brown led Australian Second XI to New Zealand. In a non First-Class match at Wairarapa, he captured all 10 wickets for 29 and went on to score 157, the first person to achieve this feat since EM Grace in 1862.
His sustained fast bowling and hard hitting left-handed lower order contributions with the bat spoke of immense potential, but the first few years remained a tale of unfulfilled promise. When the Test cricketers returned, it was difficult for him to hold on to his position in the side. When he did fight his way through, Test success refused to come. With the presence of legendary Lindwall and Miller, the emergence of another promising all-round talent Ron Archer, Davidson’s performances with both bat and ball remained minimal for long. The story was almost the same for his good friend and fellow all-rounder, Richie Benaud.
In his first 12 Tests, Davidson had captured 16 wickets at 34.06 with his best bowling figures reading two for 22. With the bat he had managed 317 runs at 18.64 with just one half century.
The South African rejuvenation
It all changed during the 1957-58 tour of South Africa. Miller had retired and Lindwall had been left out. With Ian Johnson also calling it a day, Davidson was pitchforked into leading the pace attack and Benaud handed the reins of spin.
For a while the Davidson story seemed to follow the familiar plot. Some impressive performances in the tour matches raised ardent expectations, but in the first Test at Johannesburg, he took just one wicket for 115 in the first innings. And with Australia finishing 102 behind on the first innings, he courted off-field disaster. Manager Jack Norton had imposed a 10.00 pm curfew, and ignoring the stipulations, Davidson and roommate Les Favell went off on a sightseeing spree. They returned to find room keys confiscated and a note asking them to report to the team management. The two went to sleep with some of the fans who had hosted a dinner for the team on the previous day.
On verge of being dismissed from the tour, Davidson returned with figures of six for 34 in the second innings, his maiden five wicket haul. The match ended in a draw, and their hosts conveyed to Norton that Davidson and Favell had stayed the entire night at their home. The two were let off and the curfew was revoked.
In the next Test at Cape Town Davidson was a part of an Australian victory for the very first time. He bowled well without taking too many wickets, but this match is memorable for another facet of his character — continuous injury complaints. He spent so long on the massage table that his teammates attached a plaque that read: “The AK Davidson Autograph Treatment Table.” All through his bowling spells, he complained to captain Ian Craig about various ailments dogging him before running in to send down another impeccable delivery of scorching pace and diabolical swing.
He continued to enjoy a superb tour, scoring 62 in the fourth Test and taking nine wickets in the fifth. His 25 scalps in the series, along with the consistent excellence of Richie Benaud, marked them out as the torchbearers of the Australian bowling for a long time to come. The tour matches were immensely successful as well, and witnessed four of Davidson’s nine First-Class hundreds.
The tour remade Davidson the cricketer. From the South African tour to the end of his career he reigned supreme as an all-rounder, capturing 170 wickets at 19.26 and scoring 1011 runs at 27.32.
The good years
In 1958-59, Peter May brought over an English team considered to be the strongest ever. And Davidson was one of the main architects behind the 4-0 demolition meted out to them. Yet, as mentioned earlier, much of his saga of heroics were drowned in the clamour about chuckers.
In a scintillating battle of pace bowlers in the second Test at Melbourne, Davidson with six wickets in the first innings, and Ian Meckiff with six in the second, won it for Australia against Brian Statham who captured seven in the first innings. Davidson took 24 wickets in the series at 19.00 and in the only Test in which he did not capture too many, he hit 71. According to Gideon Haigh, during that Australian summer Davidson seemed to have the ball on a string.
Now, it was the time to tour India and Pakistan — marked as dangerous destinations after food poisoning had plagued the Australians hard on the1956 tour. An apprehensive Davidson approached selector Don Bradman, hesitatingly wondering if it was compulsory to go on the voyage. Bradman responded in his squeaky voice, “You haven’t retired, have you?”
Hence, Davidson bowled on the docile, unresponsive pitches — across three Tests in Pakistan and five in India. He came back with 41 wickets, including 29 in India at 14.86. The dry track of Kanpur, in scorching heat reaching 38 degrees on the centigrade scale, saw him pick up a career best haul of 12 wickets. He punctuated five for 31 and seven for 93 with an entertaining 41. In the second innings he bowled unchanged in the furnace like conditions for 57.3 overs, and confessed that he felt like a ‘bloody zombie’. He lost a huge amount of weight with his superhuman toils. But his own foot marks and those of Ian Meckiff were ideal for Jasu Patel to land his off-breaks and rip through the Australian batting. The Kanpur Test ended in defeat, but Australia took the series 2-1.
The greatest series of all
The scene shifted to Australia for perhaps the greatest series ever played. Davidson showed a glimpse of things to come as he hit 88 and took four for 26 against Worrell’s men for New South Wales.
And then came the first Test at Brisbane, a miracle of a match in which Davidson’s brilliance were captured on the gilt edged pages of history. It is well known that he scored 44 and 80 and took five for 35 and six for 87. It adds to the grandeur of the tale when we consider that on the eve of the match, Davidson had broken the little finger of his bowling hand. According to Gideon Haigh’s The Summer Game Australia in Test cricket 1949-71 Davidson decided to play the match only after a stirring speech by Bradman on the morning of the game.
The saga of his heroics during the game has been oft repeated. The Davidson-Benaud collaboration on the final afternoon, that carried the score from 92 for six to 226, came close to a fairy-tale ending for our man. However, with seven runs required, Davidson looking unconquerable on 80, Benaud hit one to Joe Solomon and came scampering down. Finally the rigours of the match claimed its victim and Davidson failed to beat the throw. Wes Hall bowled the last over and the match ended with scores level. Australia did not pull it off, but the result ensured the immortality of the men involved in the match. In his autobiography, Wes Hall refers to the Australian all-rounder as ‘The Magnificent Davidson’.
The magnificent man continued to take five wicket hauls in three of the six other innings of the series as Australia clinched the series 2-1. By the final match, he had completed his double in Test cricket —crossing 1000 runs to go with his 139 wickets.
And in those days before direct telecasts, perhaps the Englishmen were still not convinced of his abilities — especially after his failure in the first Test of 1961.
The final England tour
With the back injury – yet another among innumerable that he was plagued with – Davidson looked unlikely to play at Lord’s. Yet, once Richie Benaud had to opt out due to a shoulder injury, the left handed all-rounder agreed to produce a special performance for the stand-in skipper, his friend Neil Harvey.
Powered by huge doses of capsulin, which flowed into his lower body and put his ‘backside on fire’, Davidson used the famed ridge of Lord’s to full effect to rip the heart out of the English batting with five for 42. Australia triumphed to take the lead in the series.
In the following Test at Leeds, Davidson took five wickets in the first innings yet again but Fred Trueman replied with his own brand of pace and the series was levelled.
Next came the famous Old Trafford Test, another magnificent game of cricket. The start could not have been more inauspicious, with the visitors totalling 190 and conceding a 177-run lead. And when the wicket started taking turn, David Allen captured three quick wickets to reduce them to 334 for nine in the second innings. Davidson was joined at the wicket by Garth McKenzie with the game virtually in England’s bag. Having failed with the bat in the series, according to his own admission, the all-rounder was “shaking like I had Parkinsons.”
Now, Davidson proceeded to play perhaps the most important innings of his life. Allen had bowled 37 overs till then with 25 maidens, having taken four wickets for 38. Davidson launched into him, off-droving him for six, pummelling him through the covers for four and then hitting him out of the stadium onto the Manchester railway tracks. Twenty runs came off the over and the off-spinner did not bowl again in the match. Davidson continued to attack, not even sparing Fred Trueman, and finished on 77 not out when McKenzie was finally dismissed. The last wicket stand was worth 98. With a target of 256, England’s start was on track, but they were derailed by Benaud bowling round the wicket, pitching on the bootmarks. Finally, Davidson sent Statham’s off-stump cartwheeling to secure victory and retain the Ashes.
It was Davidson’s last tour for Australia and he ended with 23 wickets at 24.87 and 151 runs at 30.20. He was named one of the Wisden cricketers for the year 1962. The same year, he was awarded an OBE. At long last, the Englishmen had to acknowledge that Alan Davidson was very special indeed.
Farewell to cricket
At the start of the 1962-63 season, Davidson announced that the forthcoming Ashes series would be his last as an Australian cricketer. He took five wickets in an innings twice in the Tests, including four for 54 and five for 25 in the third Test at Sydney to engineer an Australian win.
He was in prime form throughout, and in spite of tearing his hamstring in the fourth Test, managed 24 wickets at 20.00 apiece. With his last ball in Test cricket, he had Alan Smith caught at slip by Bob Simpson. Later that year, with his final delivery in First-Class cricket, Davidson bowled Garfield Sobers in the Sheffield Shield game against Queensland.
Davidson’s final figures read 186 wickets at 20.53, and 1328 runs at 24.59 in 44 Tests. A superb close in fielder, he also pouched 42 catches. Of all the bowlers who plied their trade after the First World War, only Johnny Wardle has taken more than 100 wickets at a better average.
The difference Davidson made
Davidson’s role in reshaping Australian cricket makes remarkable reading if we take a look at the numbers. After he became the frontline pace bowler of Australia from the South African tour of 1957-58, he missed just one game for the country.
Of the 32 Tests he played in this period Australia won 16 and lost just four. In the 33 Tests played from 1957-58 till the 1962-63 Ashes, Davidson and Benaud combined to pick up as many as 333 wickets, Davidson 170 and Benaud 163. The figures are especially remarkable if one considers that in the first four years of Davidson’s career, Australia won none and lost seven of the 12 matches he played in.
The contribution of Davidson takes on even more striking proportions when one remembers that after his retirement, Australia won six and lost eight of the next 30 Tests.
Davidson was a master of pace, swing and cut, and yet controlled and accurate enough to end with an economy of less than two.
According to the analysis of Ted Dexter, “Unlike the moderns who rush through the crease, Davo made a full turn, getting his front foot close to the stumps and then making a full body rotation. Swing and cut were a natural result. So he had good control, which accounts for his excellent career stats.”
One of the main reasons of his rather ordinary figures during the initial part of his career was perhaps limited opportunity to swing the new ball with the likes of Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall around.
He learnt his cricket the hard way. As a kid of twelve, he used a shovel and a mattock to level a small patch in the side of the hills into a cricket pitch. He proceeded to bowl there as the sun went down, after having performed all his chores of chopping wood, feeding th chook and milking the cows.
It was the farm life that kept him fit, carrying heavy bags of wheat being one of the invaluable exercises. Later it was left-arm pacer Bill Johnston who taught him how to swing the ball. He placed his thumb on the bottom of the ball at different angles to control the direction of his swing.
According to Dexter, Davidson could have been a frontline Test batsman as well, possessing all the strokes and a good technique. “Not the man you wanted to see coming in at No. 8 when the bowlers are tired.”
Finally, his incredible reflexes and agility made him an acrobatic and dangerous close in fielder. It was Keith Miller who gave him the nickname ‘Claw’, when he dived from the second slip to pluck a catch off his boot even as Miller was on his way down from the first slip. Legend has it that as a boy on the farm, Davidson used to throw green oranges as high as he could before running after it and catching it. If the orange hit the ground it would have squished and burst – and the desperation to prevent that is supposed to have made him into a superlative catcher.
Richie Benaud did not have any doubt that Alan Davidson was one of the greatest all-rounders in the history of the game. Neither did too many others. Along with Wasim Akram, he is the greatest of all left-arm pace bowlers who have graced the game of cricket.
While the world has perhaps not rejoiced in Davidson as much as his feats deserved, he remains an icon in his own state. Davidson has lent his name to grounds across New South Wales which host cricket, Australian football and rugby. The schools in New South Wales compete for the Alan Davidson Shield. He was inducted into the International Cricket Council Hall of Fame in 2011.
It was Don Bradman who perhaps paid him the finest compliment. In the foreword to Davidson’s autobiography Fifteen Paces Bradman wrote, “Great players are either performers or entertainers. Davidson was both.”
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)