Frank Tyson scalped six Australian wickets in the second innings to help England win the second Ashes 1954-55 Test at the SCG by 38 runs © Getty Images
Frank Tyson scalped 6 Australian wickets in the second innings to help England win the second Ashes 1954-55 Test at SCG by 38 runs © Getty Images

December 22, 1954. In a spectacular spell of sustained, scorching fast bowling, Frank Tyson decimated the Australian batting at Sydney. Arunabha Sengupta writes about Peter May’s hundred and Tyson’s 10 wickets that snatched a memorable, unlikely victory for England.

The naysayers

The side had got more than their share of askance looks.

As their boat train had snaked slowly out of St Pancras, the England cricketers had passed a rough brick wall against which ashes had been piled high. On the wall, someone had written with an acute sense of occasion, “Bring back The Ashes MCC.”

Yet, the pressmen had not really been comfortable with the team. Len Hutton, the first professional captain of England since those early days of Test cricket, had not yet settled into the seat with universal acceptance. He had won back the Ashes in 1953, but still faults — actual and imaginary — were widely detected in his leadership. Was he not too defensive? Wasn’t there a lack of guidance for the younger batsmen? Did one not find that qualities and characteristics that distinguished his batsmanship were strangely absent in his captaincy?

The impeccable cricket writer Alan Ross argued in the journal he kept for the series: “A good captain needs, as well as an astute brain, to be something like a destroyer captain, a father confessor as well as an object of fear and inspiration. A body of men as disparate as an MCC team requires to be moulded, however unobtrusively, by the personality of its captain, if it is not to sprout a number of warring personalities of its own.” Apparently this curiously esoteric mix of qualities were lacking in Hutton.

It is the age-old obsession of the scribes to condemn or elevate a captain due to imagined intricacies of the job only to be proved embarrassingly wrong down the line. Frank Tyson later attributed it to the cloistered confines of a sailing ship. The Orsova sailed with the England cricket team and countless journalists — each trying to conjure unique stories out of the limited materials of the ocean and the heat.

But, even before the voyage there had indeed been a rather bizarre effort to replace Hutton by the young David Sheppard of Sussex who had led in two home Tests against Pakistan. The attempted change at the top would have kept the enormous assignment of leading an England team to Australia secure in the hands of an amateur. Fortunately for England, better senses and the changing times had prevailed.

But, there were other issues that irked the critics. Jim Laker and Tony Lock, the two men responsible for the triumph at The Oval in 1953, had been omitted from the side. After the announcement of the team, they had responded with 59 and 44 wickets respectively, at a combined average of less than nine runs apiece. Hutton had often been reluctant to bring on his slower men, hence his choice of Bob Appleyard with his versatility with seamers and off-spinners. The final selection in the department, Johnny Wardle, also raised eyebrows. He was yet to prove himself in Test matches.

Finally, there was the other debated pick of the Durham University BA student with thinning hair. Frank Tyson was fast, there was still a question mark over his ability to bowl at the highest level. Jim Swanton called his selection a shot in the dark. It was made an enormous gamble by the fact that he had been preferred ahead of a Yorkshire youth called Fred Trueman.

Another name was somewhat grudgingly accepted. Young Colin Cowdrey had a disastrous 1954 summer, but his earlier 1953 feats had not been forgotten yet.

Finally, Denis Compton joined the side later, after some serious treatment of his dodgy knee.

The disastrous start

The first Test at Brisbane seemed to crystallise all the forebodings of the many wise men into reality.

Hutton won the toss and put the Australians into bat, his hand forced by the selection of four fast bowlers and no spinner in the side. The result was a mammoth 601 for eight, with Arthur Morris and Neil Harvey hitting huge hundreds. Every bowler, including the experienced Alec Bedser and the promising Brian Statham suffered in the torrid heat against the broad blades. Yet the figures of Tyson were by far the most humiliating, with one for 160 from 29 overs. He was plagued by cramps, had to take a break to gulp down salt tablets and beer, and when Richie Benaud finally holed out to Peter May, he was left wondering whether one or zero looked better beside the enormous number of runs he had given away.

Finally, while fielding, Compton broke his hand crashing into the picket fence.

England could manage only 190 and 257 in reply and the hosts were one up — with a crushing win by an innings and 154 runs. The visitors had dropped more than a dozen catches. Swanton went to the extent of proclaiming, “In brutal truth, the game had been bungled by England from start to finish.”

However, that evening the skipper had a sip of excellent Australian champagne with Statham, Tyson, Bill Edrich and Abe Waddington, and voiced his conviction that better catching, less injuries and some help from fortune would see England bouncing back.

Wardle’s charge

On the eve of the Sydney Test, the city was dazzled by lightning and thunder rattled the windows of the Coogee Hotel where the team stayed. The torrential downpour hinted at condensation forming under the covers that were spread over the wicket. The England supporters smiled. Alec Bedser would be unplayable in such conditions.

The following morning, vice-captain Bedser walked out with Hutton to inspect the green-top. However, the bombshell was dropped just fifteen minutes before the start of play. Bedser was omitted from the side. It shocked many, including the great bowler himself, and perhaps it was somewhat insensitive to break the news to him in an announcement made to the team.

In the press box, Bill O’Reilly lamented that Bedser’s omission was an ill-timed blow to cricket lovers who had admired his skill in carrying England’s bowling responsibilities almost alone during the post-War years. However, England under Hutton wanted to win, not to cater for sentimentalities. Besides, the master bowler had not quite recovered from the recent attack of shingles.

Whatever be it, Tom Graveney came in for the indisposed Compton, Reggie Simpson and Bedser made way for Appleyard and Wardle. Young Peter May became the vice-captain.

In the Australian camp, Morris took over as skipper as Ian Johnson was ruled out with injury. With Bedser dropped, and Keith Miller injured, Morris was the only remaining player who had played all the Ashes Tests since the Second World War. He won the toss and, in spite of what had transpired at Brisbane, decided to put England in.

The early events in the match vindicated Morris’s decision. Trevor Bailey — nicknamed ‘Boil’ in Australia and ‘Barnacle’ elsewhere — stuck around for 37 minutes before having his middle-stump uprooted by Ray Lindwall for a duck. May was soon caught at short-leg and it was 19 for 2.

English hopes rose through the collaboration of Hutton and Graveney before the captain glanced a Bill Johnston in-swinger and was miraculously caught by Alan Davidson at leg-slip. Coming into the dressing room, the skipper was piqued: “I thought it was four runs. You can’t leg-glance these days without someone catching you out.”

Graveney followed soon, and the combined seam attack of Lindwall, Davidson, Johnston and Ron Archer had the English batting on the ropes. When Cowdrey, his tactics borrowed from the Rock of Gibraltar, snicked one from Davidson to Gil Langley, England found themselves at 99 for 8. And when Appleyard departed it became 111 for 9.

Now came the phase of some incredible cricket. Statham presented the straightest of bats in the face of the vicious bowling. And at the other end, the maverick Wardle walked down the wicket to the pace bowlers and swung his bat at whatever they offered.

The field was “Carmody”. If Wardle connected it went far and deep. And if he edged with his lusty mashie shots, the miscues cleared the men crouching behind the wicket. Soon, the Carmody pattern was given a new variation with the slips and leg slips retreating towards almost baseball positions. Finally Wardle skied one to mid-on after 35 incredible runs. But, the total had been hauled along to 154. Almost immediately it started raining — as if unable to come to terms with the end of this entertainment, the heavens wept.

Tyson part one

Only a few minutes remained when play resumed. To ensure that the life in the wicket was not wasted in meaningless spraying, Hutton handed the ball to his two most accurate bowlers — Statham and Bailey. It was a wise move, and Bailey managed to make the last ball of the day rise up and Morris fended it into the hands of the skipper at leg-slip.

The next morning was all Bailey. He brought batsmen forward and swung it past their edges, almost at will. Les Favell went at 26. Jim Burke and Neil Harvey remained almost scoreless for long. The infamous Sydney Hill grew restless. One voice rang out, “Burkey, you are so like a statue I wish I was a pigeon.”  Bailey finally got Burke after lunch.

Tyson came off a shorter run. It was the run-up he had used for league cricket back home. During the Brisbane Test, he had bowled off a short run to keep the scoring down till the new ball was due. It had struck as a good idea. The intense heat had a lot to do with the decision as well. And there was a faint shadow of Hutton’s hand in the change as well. During his debut against Pakistan at The Oval in the English summer, Hutton had had commented that his run-up was unnecessarily long.

He bowled all over the place for a while before settling down. And having worked up a rhythm he tried a round arm delivery to Neil Harvey — a trick he had watched Keith Miller perform. It curled up to the shoulder of Harvey’s bat and Cowdrey held it at gully. And then a blistering full-pitched yorker proved too much for Graeme Hole.

The spate of Australian all-rounders now set about getting invaluable runs. Richie Benaud scored 20 before a Statham delivery trapped him plumb. Davidson hit 20 more before Statham flattened his middle-stump.

At the other end, Archer launched one into the Hill to get Australia the lead. As the new ball arrived, he thrashed the bowling about, dispatching it to wide vacant regions around the ground. The merriment ended when Tyson steamed in, Archer swung and the edge was taken by Hutton near his bootlaces at third slip. It was the sort of innings that suggested that had injuries not interrupted and finally derailed his career, Archer would have been spoken of down the years in the same breath as Davidson, Miller and Lindwall.

Lindwall remained, the last of the battery of all-rounders, and Tyson remembered his 64 at Brisbane. A man who had scored 60 in the previous Test could expect a bouncer early in the innings. At least Tyson thought so. He sent one screaming at his head — not the wisest thing to do when the batsman was Ray Lindwall. It did get the great Australian caught behind for 19, but Tyson would eventually pay for his sins.

The last pair was in and Hutton ran up to his fast bowler. The shadows were lengthening, the day was drawing to an end. No England batsman wanted to face Lindwall in the twilight. Tyson’s next few deliveries were bowled behind Bill Johnston’s rump. And Trevor Bailey disturbed Langley’s stumps with just 10 minutes to go. The England openers did not need to come in before nightfall. The teams retired for the rest day. Australia led by 74 after the exchanges. England had bowled only 55.4 eight-ball overs in the day — equivalent of 69 six-ball overs. Professionalism in captaincy was making an impression.

The May-Cowdrey show

The third day brought along 32,000 spectators. One of them, Betty Couchman of Condobolin, was captured by the camera for the front page of Sydney Morning Herald for watching the game with a telescope.

The morning opened with Archer sending down an over of half-volleys to Bailey, which were diligently patted back. Once again, the England all-rounder laboured for 36 minutes, with no apparent objective other than delaying the inevitable. When he was caught behind off Archer, the dapper and elegant Peter May walked in.

Hutton glanced and drove Johnston for a couple of boundaries before checking one stroke and finding the short gully. Graveney came in and flashed an ambitious drive off the fifth ball he faced and walked back for a duck. Three wickets were down and England still trailed by 19. And this made 11-year old Robert Curley of Coogee yell in ecstatic glee. He was another spectator who made the front pages.

This brought in Colin Cowdrey. May and Cowdrey, daring young men Down Under, two dearest friends, one from Cambridge, the other from Oxford. It was the start of many celebrated associations. The cloud of English despair broke to reveal a silver lining. With immense responsibility on their shoulders, the two fresh middle order men demonstrated supreme maturity.

Lindwall bowled seven overs before lunch and seven more after the break, all at a stretch, but could not dislodge the men. One edge went just clear of May’s stumps, and another mistimed stroke wiped out the deficit. But, the batsmen batted on with undramatic and determined display. Benaud was introduced for the first time in the match at 118 for three, but May and Cowdrey remained untroubled.

May pulled and drove the short balls through the on-side with élan. Cowdrey leaned forward and sweetly drove the over-pitched. The next day’s Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “England’s baby cricketers showed their veteran teammates the kind of poised, shrewd and patient batting that can win Test matches. The umbrella fieldsmen, so close together on other days, scattered to distant parts as if they had quarrelled in committee.” Alan Ross made the revival immortal with his words, “May split the air with the noise of his strokes, Cowdrey the field with the ease of his timing. There was little to choose between them in the correctness of technique, the natural assertion of their breeding.”

However, after reaching his fifty, Cowdrey retreated into a Bailey-like shell of introspection. May urged him to continue, but perhaps he was tiring. He went down the track to a Benaud googly but could not get hold of it and was caught at long-off.

Veteran Bill Edrich, emboldened by the resistance of youth, started by hooking Johnston for four and then off-drove him for another. May followed, hitting Johnston wide of mid-off and then mid-on. The field dropped back and the batsmen pushed for singles. According to Ross, “This was champagne when one had prepared for indigestion tablets.” The day ended at 204 for 4, May on 98.

My God, Lindy, you’ve killed him!

Day four started with Lindwall’s opening over followed by a drizzle. After an impatient delay, May pushed the second ball he faced for two to reach his century.

And now the Australians availed the new ball. Lindwall’s first two deliveries were out-swingers followed by a sudden in-dipping yorker, which went through the solid defence of May to hit his wicket. The great innings ended at 104, scored in 5 hours, with 10 hits to the fence.

Tyson should have known what to expect from Lindwall after his audacity of the last innings. The bouncer came searing and the fast bowler turned his back to the bowler and ducked into it. The ball thudded into the back of his skull. As Tyson collapsed in a heap, Edrich cried out, “My God, Lindy, you’ve killed him!” The express bowler floated in and out of consciousness and was led off the field by two ambulance men.

After lunch, Edrich played on trying to leave a ball at the last moment. During the break, news had filtered in that Tyson was unlikely to bat or bowl in the rest of the match. But as Edrich walked back, he emerged, pale but composed. As noble applause greeted him, he drove Johnston for four past extra-cover. Lindwall put an arm around him and sent down no more bouncers, but nevertheless bowled him soon after that.

England were just 176 ahead when Wardle was leg-before, bringing the last pair together. And once again Statham was a determined No 11, this time unleashing a few strokes as well. He smote Lindwall straight down the ground and cut him past gully. And then repeated the strokes off Davidson. At the other end Appleyard showed application and the proven merits of the straight bat. Invaluable runs were added.

It was a wild swing at Johnston that brought an end to Statham’s cameo. But, the last pair had added 46 and Australia needed 223 to win.

Tyson part two

Going by the manner in which May and Cowdrey had batted, the ask was not expected to be too demanding. However, the general consensus down the ages is that Australia would have won had Lindwall not bowled the bouncer to Tyson.

According to his own confession, the bowler, who mumbled verses of William Wordsworth while walking back to the bowling mark, was in a foul mood. He was so sore that he pledged that the Australians would not win.

Statham bowled into the wind, ‘up the cellar steps’ according to Swanton, and had Favell in all sorts of difficulties in the initial overs. One appeal for leg-before looked tantalisingly close. Morris also flirted with danger. Tyson beat him outside the off-stump on multiple occasions. He was soon out to an adventurous swing down the leg-side the penultimate ball before tea, the stroke, according to O’Reilly, “suicidally wild … a shot borrowed unspoiled from kerosene-tin cricket.”

And with his fifth ball after tea, Tyson got the edge of Favell’s bat and Edrich held it head high at first slip.

Burke and Harvey held out till the end of the day and the score read 72 for two. Burke, in his 87 minutes for 13, had been hit on the upper leg and groin by Statham and on the stomach and heart by Tyson. But he had carried on gamely. At the other end, Harvey had edged Tyson precariously, but had ended with a sweep and an off-drive for boundaries in the last over of the day bowled by Wardle. Australia needed 151 to win on the last day.

The first few overs of the final morning were played by both Harvey and Burke with the middle of the bat. The sun beat down and the pitch looked superb. A slight wind blew across the ground. Australia looked clear favourites.

And then Tyson sent one searing yorker that went almost through Burke’s blade to crash against the off-stump. Given that Burke had minimum backlift, it is likely that he hardly moved before the ball had rattled the wicket.

Soon, there was a repeat. The fourth ball faced by Hole sent the middle and off stumps in a synchronised tumble before the batsman had completed his backlift. It was 77 for 4 and the balance had shifted. Tyson was sending down yorkers at will, his strides were long and rhythmic, pace unbelievably fast.

Benaud came in and held on to one end with a lot of grit. Harvey stroked the ball with consummate ease. Appleyard was introduced and Benaud found relief from the relentless pace by thumping him past mid-off.

However, just after 100 was reached, Benaud swept Appleyard. The top edge went high up at square-leg, and Tyson, remain out of action, found himself under the steepling catch. The ball veered in the breeze, and Tyson himself misjudged it. At the last moment he got down on his knee, stretched awkwardly, and by some miracle held on to it inches from the ground. In the dressing room, manager Geoffrey Howard was doing a Dervish dance of delight.

The lunch was taken at 118 for five. Harvey was in with Archer — the hero of the Australian first innings. No one dared a wager on the result.

At five minutes to two, with the score on 122, Tyson pitched short. The young Queenslander’s eyes lit up in anticipation of his favourite square cut. However, the ball broke back off the seam, cramping him for room and passed between bat and body into the stumps.

By now, Harvey was being kept off strike, the balls bowled at his ribs, with three men a pitch’s length away on the leg side. Davidson scored five before Statham pitched one on the leg-stump and brought it back, angling across the left-hander. The edge flew towards the second slip and Godfrey Evans flew like a swooping eagle to hold it in his extended glove.

In came Lindwall and Tyson charged in. He wanted to hurl a bumper, Lindwall expected a bumper, everyone on the ground expected a bumper. And finally Tyson kept it up. Lindwall was bowled trying to cut a half-volley. Tyson had 5.

For some reason, at this juncture the scoreboard displayed the name of Dr F Rosati. There were so many people who were wanted at the Member’s Gate, just announcements were not sufficing any more. However, Gil Langley was the next man in. Statham hit the base of his off-stump with a scorching in-swinger. With 78 runs still to win, last man Bill Johnston emerged, bat in one hand, and the other bearing the stump to replace the one just broken. Helpful voices from the crowd reminded him of the time when he and Doug Ring and beaten West Indies at Melbourne with a substantial last wicket stand.

Harvey, till now content with delicate glides, started clouting the bowling and farming the strike towards the end of the overs. Johnston faced very few balls, offering a one handed scoop to the balls that were not straight. Tyson and Statham were tiring. A hook off Tyson flew to long-leg off the top edge of Harvey’s bat, cleared the outstretched hands of Bailey and reached the boundary on first bounce.

At last Harvey was kept at the other end. Tyson got to bowl to Johnston at the beginning of the over. Two balls were hurled down fast and straight. Johnston stopped them. The third was on the leg-stump, and it was dispatched to fine-leg with a one handed scoop. And now Statham approached Tyson. “Try one a little closer to the body and a little shorter, Frank.”

Tyson did exactly that. Johnston went for his scoop, what Tyson called ‘The Victorian palais glide’. All he got was an edge and Evans held on. The English shouts were as much in relief as triumph. They had won by 38 runs. Tyson’s figures read 18.4-1-85-6. Harvey walked back, heroic, undefeated, in a lost cause — 92 not out, an innings to go down as the stuff of legends.

It had been a magnificent game. England had come back in the series. Hutton had taken all the bold decisions and his men had delivered. Swanton did write somewhat churlishly: “The Ashes would have gone up in smoke and Hutton’s captaincy would have been written off as a failure (if May and Cowdrey had not done the star turn)” However, Hutton had backed Tyson and played him ahead of Bedser. The Northamptonshire speedster had won the game.

England celebrated. Corks popped, plates and glasses clinked, the band played on. By a happy chance, one of the greatest Test match triumphs had almost coincided with Christmas.

Brief scores:

England 154 and 296 (Peter May 104, Colin Cowdrey 54) beat Australia 228 (Jim Burke 44, Ron Archer 49; Trevor Bailey 4 for 59, Frank Tyson 4 for 45) and 184 (Neil Harvey 92*; Frank Tyson 6 for 85) by 38 runs.

(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://twiter.com/senantix)