August 28, 1956. In spite of over two days of playing time lost because of the weather, the Australians just about managed to struggle and limp to a draw on the final day of their dismal tour. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the day that saw Australia play 38.1 overs to score 27 for five as Jim Laker weaved his final bit of magic.
The year 1956 is remembered as the annus mirabilis of Australian sports. In Wimbledon, Lew Hoad defeated Ken Rosewall 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 in an all-Aussie final. The two of them won both their matches and teamed up to win the doubles to triumph 5-0 over United States in the Davis Cup final. Golfer Peter Thomson won his third consecutive British Open. And then there was the little matter of the Olympic Games held in Melbourne, where a succession of medals in the pool and on the track pitchforked the hosts to the third position in the table after the Soviet Union and the United States.
Yet, in cricket, the team that had convincingly conquered the West Indies the previous year stumbled and fell in their battle against their age-old rivals. It was particularly sad for the legendary duo of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller who had set the Caribbean Islands on fire in 1955 with both bat and ball.
As the ocean liner Himalaya had left Fremantle, the 36-year-old Miller had turned to his partner in crime Lindwall, two years younger. “Take a good look, Ray. This is the last time we shall have this view,” he had said. The two heroes of many Ashes encounters desperately wanted to end on a high. But that was not to be. Lindwall missed a Test and looked off colour, but Miller bowled splendidly and fought hard with the bat. Yet, England took the series 2-1.
A brace of all-tens
After four draws in their opening games, the visitors arrived at The Oval in mid-May for their tour fixture against Surrey. That was their first taste of the spin twins Jim Laker and Tony Lock in conditions prepared to perfection for them. The off-spin of Laker had bagged all ten for 88 in the first innings, and the brisk left-arm tweakers of Lock had skittled seven of them for 49 in the second. The county side had triumphed by 10 wickets.
By the time Australia returned to The Oval three months later, they had been tied into knots by the diabolical spin.
Legend has it that when Miller took 10 for 152 in the second Test at Lord’s to put Australia one up in the series, England skipper Peter May confided to Neil Harvey, “Well, Neil, that’s the last pitch you’ll see like that.” Jock Livingston and George Tribe, a couple of Australians plying their trade for the Northants, told the visiting skipper Ian Johnson that May had advised injured paceman Frank Tyson: “We won’t be wanting you from here on, Frank. From now on, they’ll all be spinners.”
And indeed from the third Test, the ball turned with venom from the very first day. At Headingley, Richie Benaud bowled a ball late on the first day that gripped and spun over May’s right shoulder. It rained after that, and on the wet wicket Laker grabbed 11 for 113, and England had drawn level.
Then came the famous Test at Old Trafford. The pitch lasted longer, but even while England piled up 459, the Australians looked with increasing apprehension at the thick coating of marl. Laker ran through them twice, nine for 37 in the first innings and 10 for 53 in the second. Harvey got a pair to him within the course of a few hours. “The pitch was like Bondi Beach when dry and a mud heap when wet,” remarked Colin McDonald, the only Australian batsman who scored some runs in the match.
Angry cables zoomed across to distant Australia, despatched by disgruntled ex-cricketers. Jack Fingleton wrote, “If a team is invited to a series of five-day Tests then the pitches should be prepared accordingly.” His crony Bill O’Reilly agreed, “Let’s have it straight. The pitch is a complete disgrace. What lies in store for Test cricket if the groundsmen are allowed to play the fool like this again?”
A picture of groundsmen sweeping the surface, generating an apparent dust-storm, was circulated around the world, causing raised eyebrows and voiced questions. During the Manchester Test, Johnson overheard curator Bert Flack blessing the growing Suez crisis and Arthur Miller’s marriage to Marylin Monroe. “If it wasn’t for Nasser and Monroe, I’d be on the front pages every day.”
Compton returns without kneecap
So, the Australians needed a victory to square the rubber when they returned to The Oval. The Ashes were already England’s. And the tourists were not really looking forward to facing Laker in his backyard.
For the hosts, however, it was all a merry ride on the crest of fortunes. Cyril Washbrook, recalled for the third Test at Headingley had scored 98. At Old Trafford, David Sheppard had been summoned from the church, and the man of cloth had responded with 113. Now, for the final Test, the selectors decided to bring back Denis Compton.
The previous November had seen the removal of Compton’s painful knee-cap. WE Tucker, the famous orthopaedic surgeon who operated on it, kept it as a souvenir for a while, before donating it to Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) as part of the Lord’s archive. Tim Heald, Compton’s biographer, later wrote that it was like a medium-sized mushroom, honey-coloured and honey-combed. And now, Compton joined captain May at the wicket with the score reading 66 for three on the first morning. Miller and Lindwall, both bowling with five slips in their desperate bid for a win, had accounted for Colin Cowdrey, Sheppard and Peter Richardson.
Compton walked in to a hero’s welcome from the crowd and faced his old friend Miller. And the Australian all-rounder greeted him with the fastest ball witnessed all day on that easy-paced pitch. However, after a few anxious moments, Compton unfurled strokes of old, his trademark sweeps off the legs, delicate late-cuts and superb cover drives. May joined in as well, with some sterling cover drives off the back foot. Between 2:20 in the afternoon to 6:15 in the evening, as many as 156 were added. Compton’s dream comeback stood a stroke away from what would have been a thoroughly deserved century.
And then the Queenslander, Ron Archer, struck. It was a genuine glance and Alan Davidson moved superbly to clutch it at short fine-leg. Compton walked back for 94, to yet another ovation. Lock, sent in as the night-watchman, nudged the first ball he faced down the leg side to Gil Langley. And Washbrook, coming in gingerly in fading light, waited for May to play off an over by Miller before averting the hat-trick. However, that was all he did before falling leg-before to Archer. With Miller trapping Laker LBW, England ended the day at 223 for seven, after having been 222 for three.
Rain and spin
Heavy rains soaked the ground during the night before bright sunshine dried the pitch, leaving it almost unplayable. The next morning May remained unbeaten on 83 as the rest of the wickets tumbled for 247.
The Australians were not too happy to start their innings in such conditions. And even before Laker and Lock could start spinning their web of guile, the visitors were dented at the top. Tyson, recalled for the match, sent one down the leg side and Colin McDonald’s perfect glide was taken one handed by Lock at leg slip. And after five overs by Brian Statham and Tyson, May tossed the ball to the spinners.
Laker flighted the ball and turned it appreciably. He bowled Jim Burke to make it 17 for two. Lock too gained early success, inducing Ian Craig to slice a ball to cover. But, in his enthusiasm, he rushed in faster and faster, bowling at almost medium pace. It was Harvey who batted for two and a half hours for 39, battling the dark arts of Laker and Lock, taking Australia to some sort of respectability. And from there Miller took over, hitting boldly against the lethal pair. Benaud hit hard and frequently to score a breezy 32, and by the end of the day Miller had been joined by his pal Lindwall. A calculated onslaught by the two all-rounders took the score to 198 for eight by close of play. The game was evenly poised.
However, on the second night more rain fell. With the pitch soft and difficult, Miller was out for 61 after the addition of just four runs, and Australia did not score any more. The sun was out yet again, drying the pitch as England batted for the second time. Laker and Lock would have turned batting into a nightmare, but Johnson and Benaud were not the kind of bowlers to revel in such conditions. In fact, Johnson kept bowling Miller and Lindwall. After half an hour, Davidson was used as a spinner and got one to bounce nastily to dismiss Cowdrey. Archer was asked to reduce his pace bowl off-cutters.
Richardson and Sheppard countered with bravado, mixing caution with some attacking strokes whenever the bowlers erred in line. The first one to fall was in fact Langley, struck by a vicious lifter from Archer on the forehead. Harvey put on the pads as the wicketkeeper was taken to the hospital for x-rays.
Eleven minutes after lunch, with the match interestingly poised at 76 for one, a storm broke. And pelting rain followed in its wake, stopping play for the day. Rain continued to pour through Sunday and then all Monday. It was only at ten minutes past two on the final afternoon that the players were able to resume the game.
Laker’s final blows
Conditions were hardly suitable for play. With one side of the run-up wet and muddy, Lindwall bowled round the wicket to maintain foothold. He got Richardson, but the score was 100 by then. Miller accounted for Sheppard, and Compton and May played cautiously till tea. The England captain declared at the interval, leaving the visitors two hours to try and score 228 and square the rubber on a soft pitch and the most sluggish outfield.
During the break, Earl Alexander of Tunis, the MCC President, presented a silver salver to Laker for his feat at Manchester. It was perhaps an ominous sign for the Australians — surviving even two hours against Laker in those conditions would take some doing. Their cause was not helped when Statham bowled the only over before spin was introduced and trapped McDonald leg-before.
By now, the spin twins were taking wickets almost by habit. Harvey battled twenty minutes before Lock snapped him up for one. Burke played 43 minutes before falling to Laker. The score at that stage read five for three. The Australians knew better than to go for the runs.
The state of the Australian mind can be gauged from the account of Ian Craig: “In the second innings, I thought I batted pretty well. I was there 45 minutes and didn’t really play a false shot.” In reality he batted for 36 minutes, and was out caught at the backward short-leg off Laker for seven.
It was a 66 minute resistance by Miller, seven not out, and Johnson, the only one to reach double figures with 10, that saved the side the ignominy of being bowled out within two hours. When bad light followed by rain ended the match ten minutes before time, Australia had crawled to 27 for five from 38 overs and one ball. Laker finished with figures of 18-14-8-3. Lock was not far behind with 18.1-11-17-1.
True, Johnson was criticised, first by the press and later by the players. Not many gave him high marks for his captaincy and his limited value as a player was often highlighted during and after the tour.
Yet, the series had been won by Laker and the battalion of groundsmen across the country. The Australians, haunted by memories of Statham and Tyson during the home defeat of 1955-56, had come prepared to face a barrage of fast bowling. They had no answer to the turning ball. The Surrey off-spinner’s 46 scalps in the series came at 9.60 apiece, a wicket off every 37 balls. Till now only Sydney Barnes has had a better haul in a series — with 49 against South Africa in 1913-14. No bowler with more than 35 wickets in a series has had a better average.
Yes, the made to order wickets were also questioned. But McDonald succinctly summed up the concrete reasons for the defeat. “In truth, though, Australians were poor at playing off-spin on slow turning wickets. They tended to thrust at it with firm hands, where the way to do it was play side-on, close to your body, bat inside pad. They bowled well, we batted very badly.”
England 247 (Peter May 83*, Denis Compton 94; Ron Archer 5 for 53, Keith Miller 4 for 91) and 182 for 3 decl. (David Sheppard 62) drew with Australia 202 (Keith Miller 61; Jim Laker 4 for 80) and 27 for 5 (Jim Laker 3 for 8).
(Arunabha Senguptais 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)