Ashes 1953: England clinch ‘The Test to win all Tests’ at The Oval to end two decades of sorrow
Denis Compton and Bill Edrich make their way through the vast crowd that spilled on to the ground after England beat Australia to win the Ashes on August 19, 1953 © Getty Images
On August 19, 1953, England regained the Ashes after two decades. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a historic day that changed the course of a one-way contest on its head.
It was a very, very wet summer. Looking back after all these years it’s extremely difficult to assess what went through Len Hutton’s mind when the teams were in a deadlock after four Tests. Was he happy to have survived thus far?
England had, after all, not won a single Ashes series since Bodyline. Not only that, they have been mauled by the superior antipodeans since World War II in all three contests. Since Bodyline, Australia’s record read 2-1 in 1934, 3-2 in 1936-37, 1-1 in 1938, 3-0 in 1946-47, 4-0 in 1948, and 4-1 in 1950-51. It had been a complete no-contest, especially after The War.
On the other hand, was Hutton upset by the fact that the weather had denied him an opportunity to reclaim the Ashes for his side? One can only speculate. The Yorkshireman may have wanted to win the urn back desperately.
The Australians began their tour well: Lindsay Hassett, the popular Australian captain, made sure that his players were rotated sufficiently to make sure everyone was in practice. They dominated most tour matches and were strong favourites going into the first Test at Trent Bridge.
Alec Bedser bowled beautifully in a Test where the players had to come off the field due to periodic bursts of rain, and play was completely ruled out on Day Four. In between the gaps Alec Bedser picked up 14 for 99 to bowl out Australia for 249 and 123. England, too, had scored only 144, and time ran out with them on 120 for two chasing 229.
Come Lord’s, and Bedser was in business again, with eight for 182 this time. Hassett and Hutton scored hundreds, and after England were 12 for three while chasing 343 Denis Compton and Trevor Bailey added 163 to help England gnaw back into the Test and the umpires drew stumps with the hosts on 282 for seven.
The Old Trafford Test was a bizarre one: Australia were reduced to 48 for three before Neil Harvey and Graeme Hole added 173 for the fourth wicket. Harvey was dropped by Godfrey Evans off Bailey when he was on 52; he went on to score 122. After rain ruled out play on Day Four England batted on well into the final afternoon and finished with 276.
In less than an hour they had Australia reeling at 35 for eight in 18 overs. At this stage the tourists led by 77, and another session’s cricket may have won the Test for England. As things turned out, it was too late: the Test turned out to be another draw as Bedser picked up seven for 129.
The next Test at Headingley was a contest between the seamers: Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller bowled out the hosts for 167 but Bedser picked up six for 95 to restrict the tourists to a 99-run lead. Some serious attrition followed thereafter: Bill Edrich scored 64 in 245 minutes, Compton 61 in 280, and Bailey 38 in 261 (without a boundary). England eventually scored 275 in 177.3 overs, which turned out to be enough as Australia finished on 147 for four chasing 177.
Australia did a good job in the tour matches leading up to The Oval: the match against Surrey at The Oval was a washed-out affair; Glamorgan managed to avoid an innings defeat by a whisker at Swansea; Warwickshire obtained a first-innings lead at Edgbaston; Lancashire were easily defeated at Edgbaston; and Essex surrendered meekly by an innings and 212 runs at Southend-on-Sea — a match where Jim de Courcy scored 164 and took 28 runs in an over and earned himself a place in the last Test.
The excitement and build-up for the Test was enormous, and tickets were in great demand. There were many who could not get in. “I couldn’t get a ticket [but] heard a tout had some for sale, and rushed up to him eagerly, money clutched tightly in hand, but he looked at me with scorn and named a premium far beyond my means. With wet eyes, I withdrew and had to settle with disappointment for the radio instead,” recalled a kid who was 10 at that time. He went by the rather famous name of John Major.
Everything, thus, hinged on the last Test at The Oval. By mutual consent the Test was decided to be converted to a six-day affair to help force a result after the stalemate. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “the Test to end Tests”. It added: “There is something a trifle absurd in the thought that the picked teams of Australia and England have now flung themselves at each other four times over a period of 20 days without so far achieving a single result. Today, however, all that will be forgotten. On this occasion one may feel that it matters very little which side wins provided that one of them does.”
England brought in Peter May and Fred Trueman for Reg Simpson and Willie Watson: it would be Trueman’s first Ashes Test. He managed to get off RAF duties under special permission. He was warmed-up, though: he had routed the Royal Navy for RAF with figures of 10 for 112 at Lord’s days before the Test.
He was, however, dying to have a go at the Australians. Before the Test he had told Mailey: “If I’m picked to play against your fellows I’ll bowl like hell. If I hit them it will be too bad, but while I’m supposed to be a fast bowler I’m going to try and bowl fast. You can tell that to your papers in Australia.”
For Australia Bill Johnston had recovered from his knee injury, and he replaced Richie Benaud in the side, which meant that Australia would go into the Test with four quality seamers — Lindwall, Miller, Alan Davidson, and Johnston — but without a spinner.
The choice would go on to hurt them badly. Bert Lock, the groundsman, had predicted that the spinners would get some help on the track, and added that “the side that wins the toss should make a lot of runs but the bowlers too should have a chance.” Hassett did not bother.
Despite the fierce rivalry, especially from the tough Hutton, players like Hassett and Miller had been quite jovial in their outlook. Trueman recollects an incident in his book Fast Fury: “I was bowling in the nets and he [Miller] had been watching me for some time. I remember him coming up to me when I had finished, patting me on the back, and saying, ‘Keep bowling like that, my old sunshine, and you will be all right.’ Coming from a great bowler those words meant something.”
Day One: Bedser and Trueman lead rout
Hassett won the toss for the fifth time in the series. Hassett recalled the incident: “He [Hutton] was a Yorkshireman and Yorkshiremen are supposed to be a bit tight-fisted. In the fifth Test he produced a crown piece and I won the toss again; Len picked up the coin and heaved it out into the crowd.” The following conversation ensued:
Hassett: That couldn’t have been yours.
Hutton: No, I borrowed it.
Coming back to the Test, Hassett decided to bat on what looked like a placid pitch, and set the tone by hitting a Bedser full-toss for four. It was only the second ball of the Test. The 26,300-strong crowd was yet to settle down properly.
Trueman got a hero’s welcome: this was his first Test since he had humiliated the Indians a year back, and he began with what Wisden called a “lively over”. Arthur Morris, defying all logic, attempted a sweep off the fifth ball and survived a caught-behind appeal. Compton almost pulled off a sensational catch at short-leg the next ball, but somehow, Morris still managed to survive.
Fred Trueman bowling on the first day of the fifth Test at The Oval. He finished the innings with four for 86 runs © Getty Images
It was an engaging contest. Neither the batsmen nor the bowlers were willing to give anything away and yet tried to get on top of the opposition. Hutton replaced Trueman with Bailey, but to no success. Then, with his eighth over, Bedser swung one into Morris: the batsman offered no stroke, and looked even more foolish as he stood with his back to Bedser as the ball thudded on to his pad. The Surreyman had claimed his ‘bunny’ yet again.
Just before lunch Miller padded up to another from Bailey; from 38 without loss Australia had suddenly slipped to 41 for two, but Hassett and Harvey took Australia to lunch at 98 for two. The captain was on 51 and the youngster on 29.
It drizzled during lunch, which changed the conditions substantially, and Bedser and Trueman used the pitch to their advantage. Bedser moved one away from Hassett; the captain edged it and Godfrey Evans did the rest. Hassett had scored 53 in 99 balls with four fours. Without a single run being added Harvey hooked Trueman hard, and Hutton, running towards the fence from short square-leg, took an outstanding catch.
There was another rain interval before Trueman, having beaten de Courcy once, provoked him to flash outside the off-stump for a second time. The resultant edge landed into Evans’s gloves. This was followed by a fighting partnership between Graeme Hole and Ron Archer. Hole played some beautiful strokes and almost got out as the ball flew past Tony Lock at short-leg off Bedser.
Trueman then beat Hole by sheer pace; the nick was gobbled up by Evans. As Bedser was brought back Archer hit one straight back at him. It was Bedser’s 39th wicket of the series, and he created a new Ashes record going past Maurice Tate’s tally of 38 wickets in 1924-25. Bedser’s 39 would also be more than what the next four bowlers on the list — Johnny Wardle (13), Laker (nine), Tony Lock (eight), and Bailey (eight) — would manage between themselves in the series.
Lindwall walked out to join Davidson as Australia slipped to 160 for seven. Both were reasonably skilled with the bat, and the runs kept mounting. To quote Wisden, Lindwall “launched a hot attack” to pull off what was “a magnificent display of clean hitting”.
Hutton brought on his spinners — Laker and Lock — and it was Laker who eventually broke the partnership by having Davidson caught by Edrich (after he had dropped a catch of the same batsman).
Lindsay Hassett drives, watched by wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans and slip Denis Compton, during his innings of 53 © Getty Images
England dropped two more catches as Tom Graveney and Alec Bedser floored chances offered by Lindwall and Johnston respectively after Gill Langley was caught by Edrich off Lock.
Lindwall was eventually the last to be out after a magnificent display of strokes, mostly drives, off all five bowlers. He brought up a thousand Test runs when he reached 52, and the 97-ball 62 with eight fours ended as Evans took his fourth catch of the innings (the third off Trueman).
Australia finished with 275 — a total that Bailey thought “would have been considerably less if we held all our catches”: the last three partnerships had added 47, 38, and 30. Trueman finished with four for 86 and Bedser with three for 84.
Lindwall, warmed up after his batting, let go a furious bouncer in his fourth ball. The next ball was brutal: it jumped awkwardly, took the handle of Hutton’s bat, hit his cap, and fell short of the phalanx of five slips. The cap had taken the impact and marginally missed the stumps: Hutton was fortunate not to get out hit-wicket.
Neville Cardus wrote in The Guardian: “Had it [the cap] done so [hit the stumps] [Len] Hutton would have been out, and The Oval would have heard again, from somewhere not of this world, the devilish laughter heard at Kennington Oval 71 years ago this month when [Ted] Peate was bowled trying to drive [Harry] Boyle and Australia won by seven runs.”
Play was called off at 6.17 pm after an over from each of Lindwall and Miller. England finished the day with Edrich having scored the only run of the innings.
Alan Davidson caught brilliantly by Bill Edrich on the opening day of the Test © Getty Images
Day Two: Hutton defies seamers but England sink
Day Two was all about an immovable wall called Len Hutton. The four Australian seamers kept coming back at him relentlessly, using all their ammunition to dent the barricade. They laid siege, they cut down supplies, and eventually the great wall came down crashing. Once that happened, the battalion rushed inside, bayonets in their arms…
The wicket was still playing well, and Hutton and Edrich got off to a decent start. The Australians, however, decided that accuracy with the ball and supreme athleticism on the field were their only way to get back into the match and they did exactly that.
Ray Lindwall (right) in action on Day Two of the fifth Test at The Oval © Getty Images
After a decent opening stand of 37 Edrich fell leg-before to Lindwall. Hutton, of course, was standing like a rock at the other end, and was now joined by 23-year old Surrey batsman Peter May. The two dug a deep trench at The Oval and settled down.
It was now that the lack of a spinner hurt Australia badly. Hassett had to ask Johnston to bowl his left-arm spin, and gave Hole’s off-breaks a chance, but they lacked the class of Benaud. Australia probably required a wrist-spinner to break the partnership. It was eventually Johnston, bowling spin, got rid of May — caught by Archer — after the duo had put up exactly 100 in 140 minutes.
The Times later divided the England innings in two phases — on either side of May’s dismissal: “Once, as the sun was at its zenith, there stood ahead a land of promise flowing with milk and honey. But so swiftly did the pattern change, and now a dusty, hard road points to the future.”
Around this time Johnston and Hole were both getting prodigious turn. Hutton, after being bogged down by the pair, faced a brute from Johnston that pitched on leg-stump and hit middle. The English captain had scored 82 in 185 balls with eight boundaries. England were 154 for three, still 121 runs behind, as Tom Graveney walked out to join Compton, who had already looked very uncomfortable.
The new ball was due, but Hassett decided to wait till tea to have a go with after Lindwall and Miller had got their rest. Johnston and Hole bowled beautifully in this period of time and England were 165 for three going into tea. The maverick Compton had crawled to an hour-long 16, while Graveney had managed to scavenge two runs after half an hour’s batting; Johnston went into tea with figures of 10-5-14-2 and Hole with 7-4-8-0.
Hassett decided to bring his ace seamers back after tea but still held back the new ball. Compton’s torture ended when he was caught brilliantly by Langley off Lindwall with the old ball. Hassett claimed the new ball and Miller caught Graveney brilliantly at first slip off Lindwall two balls later.
England were 170 for five when Evans joined Bailey. Miller bowled a hostile spell to Evans, but the Kent wicketkeeper seemed unperturbed, and smashed the two fast bowlers to bring England back into the Test. After he had scored a quickfire 28, one of his strokes was stopped brilliantly by Davidson at square-leg. He attempted a single, only to be sent by Bailey. He slipped on his way back and Langley took the bails off.
After Evans’s departure, Bailey hit a few strokes, but lost Laker just before stumps as the Surrey off-spinner edged one to Langley off Miller. England ended the day with 235 for seven, still 40 runs behind, with Bailey on 35 and Lock on four.
Australia had missed Benaud sorely. Cardus complained after the day’s play: “If I had been told in [Warwick] Armstrong’s and [Arthur] Mailey’s and [Clarrie] Grimmett’s period that I would live to see the day when an Australian team would take the field at The Oval without a bowler commanding authentic finger spin, I could no more have believed the prophecy than I would one day have believed I would hear the Fifth Symphony of [Ludwig van] Beethoven played without cellos.”
Day Three: Bailey builds, spinners wreck
Lindwall removed Lock with the first ball of his second over: the ball hit Lock’s glove and he was caught at short-leg by Davidson. Trueman walked out.
Bailey, obdurate as ever, seemed unfazed by the proceedings. Trueman, meanwhile, received a nasty bouncer from Lindwall: “Ray Lindwall violated the truce that exists between fast bowlers and let me have a bouncer. It hit my shoulder-blade so hard that I thought someone had stuck a knife in it, but I didn’t let him know he’d hurt me.”
Trevor Bailey in action in the England first innings © Getty Images
The partnership added 25 runs in 35 minutes before Trueman was cleaned up by Johnston. It took England 20 more minutes to get level with Australia’s score. More defensive bowling and fielding followed after that, but Bailey and Bedser went on to add 44 for the last wicket in 70 minutes.
Cardus wrote that Bailey batted “as if the idea never occurred to him that any way of removing him from the crease existed in law or custom.” He added that “He [Bailey] is not only an anchor for England: he barnacles the good ship to the floor of the ocean.” It was after this comment that Bailey earned the nickname Barnacles.
Bailey’s 222-ball essay of 64 with seven fours came to an end when Archer hit his stumps just before lunch. England had acquired a 31-run lead; Lindwall finished with four for 70 and Johnston with three for 94.
Hassett and Morris got off to a fluent start, scoring 19 from the first five overs. Then, in the sixth over of the innings, Hutton replaced Trueman by Lock, and brought on Laker the next over. Laker, bowling round the wicket, beat Hassett twice, and then trapped him leg-before. 23 for one.
Hole was promoted to first-down. He bludgeoned a few, but Hutton plugged the gaps to keep the flow of runs in hold. Equipped with a deep cover and a long-off Laker had Hole out LBW. 59 for two.
The unerring Lock then choked down Harvey and induced him into playing a false drive; his off-stump was pegged back. Miller was caught beautifully by Trueman at short square-leg, and Morris’s 62-ball vigil ended when he missed the line trying to play Lock from the crease and was adjudged LBW. Australia had lost four wickets for two runs in 14 minutes and were now 61 for five.
Hassett asked Archer to go after the bowling. He began well with de Courcy as his partner, but when Archer played one from Lock to Bailey at mid-wicket de Courcy attempted a run. He was sent back by Archer, and fell short as Lock removed the bails from an accurate Bailey throw. Australia were 85 for six and led by a meagre 54.
Desperate for some runs now, both Archer and Davidson hit a few lusty blows: Archer on-drove Lock for a six, and Davidson glanced Laker to long-leg for a four, followed by a brutal pull for a six. At tea Australia were 131 for six, exactly a hundred runs ahead.
Leonard Hutton (left) and Alec Bedser lead the English team out on the penultimate day of the final Test © Getty Images
The end came quickly. Davidson was cleaned up by Lock, which was followed by the big wicket: Archer was dismissed by Lock, caught by Edrich. He had scored 49 in 65 balls with seven fours and a six. Lock removed Langley to claim his first five-for in Tests; Lindwall hit a six off Laker, was dropped at slip, and was caught near the fence by Compton as he tried to go for another six.
The Times wrote: “In a word, Australia crumpled up before spin on a dusty surface made for men like [Tony] Lock and [Jim] Laker. As the day’s sun took its warming effect, the pitch cried out with open arms to be caressed and used to the full. England were able to answer that call.”
Australia were bowled out for 162, just 131 runs ahead. Lock had picked up five for 45 while Laker supported him with four for 75. Surely England could score these runs with Australia having left out Benaud?
In the 50 minutes they had to bat on Day Three Hutton and Edrich began aggressively. With the score on 23, however, Hutton hit Miller to run for a single; however, when Courcy fumbled, he ran back for a tight second run, only to fall short of a tight throw. A crestfallen Hutton returned to the pavilion. Cardus called the error a “deplorable mistake”.
Hutton did not opt for a night-watchman and sent May instead. England finished the day at 38 for one with 94 still to be scored; Edrich remained unbeaten on 15 and May on six. Cardus wrote: “We may surely lay out the red carpet and get the bell-ringers ready without tempting providence. [Lindsay] Hassett simply hasn’t the right bowling at his command to exploit the wicket.”
The Mirror wrote: “Breathe deep, Englishmen — the scent of victory is in the air. We caught these Aussies in a dustbowl and we rubbed their noses in it. We have watched the Ashes dribbling out the Australians’ cricketing boots.”
The Times wrote: “The pitch remains a dusty, arid strip, full of practical jokes for those able to induce them. Australia, one suggests, have chosen the wrong weapons for this final bout. They have relied on the broadsword of all-round pace rather than upon the rapier of spin.”
Day Four: Ashes regained
Till then the BBC television coverage of home Test matches had been limited to 15 minutes before lunch and the full final session every day. Now, giving in to public demand, BBC had been forced to reschedule their television programmes, ensuring live coverage of the entire last day’s play.
Australia toiled as hard as possible to prevent England from scoring the remaining runs. England, on the other hand, set up tent at the wicket, with neither Edrich nor May willing to let their dream slip through their fingers. Johnston, bowling spin, bowled virtually unchanged from the Vauxhall End, often making the ball turn and bounce sharply.
The runs kept coming at a snail’s pace, but they did come. Lindwall supported Johnston suitably, and after trying all his methods out Miller resorted to bowling off-breaks. He had May caught by Davidson at short fine-leg. England were 88 for two and needed only 44 at this stage.
Bailey recalled: “Tom Graveney suggested that if a wicket should fall I should go in ahead of him, as I had batted and bowled against them more than anybody else. In fact I played in ten matches against the tourists that summer.” The comment probably showed the faith England put in Bailey.
Once again the pressure was enormous as Lindwall and Johnston gave nothing away. Then Edrich broke the stranglehold by hooking two consecutive Lindwall bouncers for boundaries. Then, with nine runs to score, Hassett came on to bowl his military-medium pace “like a gallant opponent who chivalrously chose to be the first to present the laurel wreath.”
He almost dismissed Edrich, conceded only four, and threw the ball to Morris. Morris bowled his Chinamen “reprehensibly, as befits an opening batsman,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported. Edrich ran a single. Compton swept the next ball, only to be stopped by Davidson.
He swept the next ball and made better contact. It was 2.53 pm, and Brian Johnston’s voice boomed over the country via BBC’s radio coverage (Test Match Special would take four more years to commence): “Is it the Ashes? Yes! England have won the Ashes!” He had been made to wait two decades, after all.
Denis Compton hits the winning runs to help England win the Ashes © Getty Images
“Spectators flooded the pitch, like spilt ink across a page, and cheered outside the clubhouse as each England player came out in turn,” recalled Simon Burnton in The Guardian.
The Brisbane Courier-Mail wrote: “The English are not only on top of the world after this fifth Test — they are half-way to Mars. Their elevation is prodigious, their exultation phenomenal. Alamein did not lift their spirits this far, nor did Everest.”
For Bailey the celebrations were bittersweet: “The crowd swarmed across in a spontaneous expression of joy which in that more restrained era came as a surprise. When the spectators were requested to avoid the square they obeyed automatically, and there was not a policeman in sight, while the balcony appearances of the players brought applause but no chanting. Times have changed.”
Len Hutton acknowledges the applause of crowds gathered outside the pavilion at the end of the fifth Test and final match between England and Australia at The Oval on August 19, 1953 © Getty Images
Among others, the crowd consisted of a 14-year old boy. He had boarded the last bus from Sittingbourne to London the previous night and had slept outside The Oval. As things would turn out, Brian Luckhurst would hit the winning runs in Australia when they would regain the Ashes close to two decades later.
The 1953 England team after winning the fifth and final Test at The Oval and with it the Ashes. Standing (from left): Trevor Bailey, Peter May, Tom Graveney, Jim Laker, Tony Lock, Johnny Wardle and Fred Trueman. Sitting (from left): Bill Edrich, Alec Bedser, Len Hutton, Denis Compton and Godfrey Evans © Getty Images
- Hutton became the first professional captain to win the Ashes for England.
- The ever-popular Hassett never played another Test.
- Writing for Sydney Morning Herald, Bill O’Reilly saw the brighter side of the defeat: “England’s win is sure to do a lot of good for Australian cricket. Here in England I have been gladdened by the absorbing interest in the game, especially amongst the schoolboys. That is, unfortunately, not the case in Australia, where interest has waned alarmingly. Well played, England. You deserved it, and the Australians will not begrudge you the thrill of it, but I hope that you do not hold on to the Ashes too long. Australia did, and has cause to regret it.”
- Hutton would retain the Ashes a year and a half later by a 3-1 margin thanks to Frank Tyson, and May would retain it again in 1956 by 2-1 margin — a series famous for Laker’s 19-wicket haul.
- Benaud, however, had his revenge when he regained the Ashes in 1958-59 following a 4-0 rout.
- Trueman could not celebrate that night. He took a train from King’s Cross, reached Lincolnshire, took a bus, and walked for two miles to be greeted with the following words at the camp: “Back off leave, Trueman? I’ll sign you in.”
- He would, however, have his revenge. He recalled the incident in Ball of Fire: “He [Lindwall] faced up to me in the second Test at Melbourne in the 1958-59 series and I gave him one which reared up, struck his bat handle, clouted him between his eyes, and flew up in the air to give a simple catch. Ray came to me after the match to complain and started going on about his age, so I told him I didn’t squeal when he did me at The Oval. ‘Christ!’ he said. ‘Do you remember that?’ I said that I certainly did. ‘Okay, come and have a drink on me,’ he said.”
Terrence Rattigan wrote a script based on the Test. The 84-minute movie was called The Final Test, and it featured Hutton, Compton, Bedser, Evans, Laker, and Cyril Washbrook with a voiceover from John Arlott. The movie was revolved around the story of Sam Palmer who is about to play the last Test of his career. The 1954 movie was directed by Anthony Asquith.
Australia 275 (Ray Lindwall 62, Lindsay Hassett 53; Fred Trueman 4 for 86, Alec Bedser 3 for 88) and 162 (Ron Archer 49; Tony Lock 5 for 45, Jim Laker 4 for 75) lost to England 306 (Len Hutton 82, Trevor Bailey 64; Ray Lindwall 4 for 70) and 132 for 2 (Bill Edrich 55*) by 8 wickets.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42.)