The Invincibles chased down a world-record 404 at Headingley on July 27, 1948. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the day when Don Bradman scored his last run and hundred.
“This was the finest Test match it has been my privilege to watch.” — Charles Bray, Daily Herald.
The attendance of 158,000 became a new record for any Test in England.
The 1948 tour was similar to the Ashwamedha Yajna of Hindu mythology where you escort a horse through kingdoms; the person who dares to stop the horse is challenged to a war; if challenger is slain then the horse moves on till it conquers all kingdoms. They are then tagged as The Invincibles. If, however, they lose a single battle they would lose their right to the title.
Don Bradman’s Invincibles had marched on: in short, they had played 20 matches on the tour so far. Of them, they had to bat twice to win against Yorkshire at Bradford and against Hampshire at Southampton. The match against Lancashire at Old Trafford was drawn because rain had reduced it to a two-day affair. Nottinghamshire had managed to fight back and draw the match at Trent Bridge, Yorkshire had managed to draw their second match at Bramall Lane, and the third Test at Old Trafford ended in a rain-affected draw.
Of the remaining 14 matches Australia had won 12 either by an innings or by 10 wickets. The other matches were the first two Tests at Trent Bridge (where they had won by eight wickets) and at Lord’s (where they had won by 409 runs). It was under these situations that they came to Headingley for the fourth Test to clinch the Ashes.
England had decided to leave out the Middlesex left-arm spinner Jack Young — a decision that Wisden called “the biggest mistake”. England went into the Test on a pitch that would crumble as the match would go on with a single specialist spinner in the form of Jim Laker, who would be playing in only his seventh Test. They also brought back Len Hutton and Ken Cranston, leaving out the likes of Doug Wright and Eric Hollies, who could have come handy in the final stages of the Test.
Bradman had to leave out the injured Don Tallon, which meant that the suave Ron Saggers would make his Test debut. Sid Barnes had still not recovered from the grave injury caused by Dick Pollard’s shot at Old Trafford which meant that the tourists needed another opener: Bill Brown would probably have been the obvious choice, but Neil Harvey’s form auto-selected him for the Test: Lindsay Hassett had to open.
Day One: Hutton, Washbrook, Edrich dominate
Norman Yardley won the toss and decided to bat in a Test England had to win to keep the Ashes alive. Without the services of the daring Barnes, Bradman did not put a short-leg, and Hutton and Cyril Washbrook made full use of a placid pitch, a lightning-fast outfield and some uncharacteristically below-par bowling from the all-conquering bowling line-up.
After seeing off the initial overs from Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, Washbrook launched himself into the bowling, being careful not to be lured into playing the hook that had caused his downfall earlier in the series. Hutton’s rock-solid defence did not allow anything go past him, and the runs kept coming. Once he got his eyes in, Hutton played his strokes as well, and it was the second new ball that ultimately did the trick.
Lindwall uprooted Hutton’s stump with a beautiful delivery. The Yorkshireman had scored 81, and the pair had put up a brisk 168 in 187 minutes. Out walked Bill Edrich.
Washbrook continued to dominate the attack and reached a faultless hundred with his team on 189. However, despite being on top, the English batsmen did not show the willingness to score rapidly to give their bowlers enough time on the featherbed to keep the Ashes alive.
Washbrook was eventually caught by Lindwall off Bill Johnston for an excellent 143 in the last over of the day; he had added exactly a 100 runs with Edrich — but the partnership had taken 130 minutes. Yardley sent out Alec Bedser — a night-watchman — to play out the four balls. This was definitely a move too defensive for a captain trying to win the Test desperately. England ended the day on a commanding, if slow, 268 for two with Edrich on 41 and Bedser on nought.
Bradman later wrote in A Farewell to Cricket: “I thought England made a tactical error by not forcing the pace towards the end. We were tired and here was a golden opportunity, but England seemed more anxious to preserve wickets than to get runs, even to the extent of sending in [Alec] Bedser just before stumps.”
There was a general criticism of the bowlers from the Australian press after the day’s play. Bill O’Reilly wrote, “Not one bowler can be excused from what must be classed as the poorest Australian out-cricket of the tour. Some of the so-called attack was blatantly inaccurate both in direction and length.”
Day Two: England collapse dramatically
More horror lay in store for the Australian bowlers the next day. The seamers started well, restricting Edrich and Bedser to just three runs in the first thirty minutes of play. The next 147 minutes yielded 152, thanks to some exhilarating batting from the duo, especially Bedser. Bradman rotated his bowlers around and even tried Arthur Morris’ Chinamen, but to no success.
Bedser scored his first Test half-century; he eventually went on to score 79 with eight fours and two sixes. It would remain his career-best score. Meanwhile, Edrich scored a grim 111 from 314 minutes. The partnership was eventually broken by Ian Johnson’s off-breaks when Bedser hit one back to him. Three runs later Edrich headed back to the pavilion.
Then the collapse started, and though England were 473 for five at one stage, they collapsed to 496 after the partnership between Denis Compton and Norman Yardley was broken. Sam Loxton was responsible for polishing off the tail with figures of three for 55, and Lindwall and Johnson finished with three wickets apiece.
England struck early as Bedser claimed his ‘bunny’ Morris, caught by Cranston for six. The wicket was followed by a thunderous applause as Bradman walked out to bat in what would definitely be his last First-Class match on the ground. What if he did not bat a second time?
Bradman admitted, “As I approached the wicket, [the applause] rose in a crescendo to a deafening roar which caused me to make a special acknowledgement and certainly raised a lump in my throat.” He also called it “the most terrific and spontaneous welcome ever accorded to me in my long career”. Certainly not very Yorkshire-like.
There were three boys in the crowd whose names would probably remain unknown forever. They had cycled miles, braving the predictions of rain and the stodgy cycles; one of them broke a gear, another broke a mudguard, and they had to push the exhausted third one over the moors. Even then, they felt that it was “well worth it”. The letter narrating their experience reached Bradman the next morning, signed by “one hopeful cricketer, one not so hopeful, and one who cannot play at all”.
Let us get back to cricket, though. Bradman’s earlier scores on the ground read 334 in 1930, 304 in 1934, and 103 and 16 in 1938. It seemed impossible that he could ever fail at the ground. When Neville Cardus had mentioned about law of averages, Bradman had blatantly commented that he did not believe in the concept.
As things turned out, Bradman took command from the very onset and went past the dour Hassett in no time. The 50-run partnership came up just before stumps were drawn. Australia finished at 63 for one, still 433 runs behind, with Hassett on 13 and Bradman on 31. The English seamers, especially Bedser, had bowled tidily, setting up the stage for an excellent contest.
Day Three: Harvey arrives
It had rained overnight, and the Bedser and Pollard used the humid conditions to great effect the next morning. Bedser even managed to hit Bradman once, who later mentioned, “One of these from [Alec] Bedser gave me a nasty crack in a place which, had I been a boxer, would have enabled me to get a foul. In cricket, the injured party gets nothing but sympathy, sometimes not even that.”
Pollard then broke through twice in three balls. A lifter from a good-length took the shoulder of Hassett’s bat and went straight to Cranston at gully. Miller walked out and took a three off the first ball. The next ball pitched on middle-stump, kept slightly low, moved a bit, and felled Bradman’s off-stump.
Bradman had failed at Headingley. The crowd sat silently for a moment, then broke into a loud cheer. Australia were 68 for three, and were definitely at the receiving end.
Harvey made his way to the middle. His last Test innings had fetched him 153 runs, but that was against a rather pedestrian Indian attack at home. This was different. This was his first Ashes Test. His side was trailing by 428. He needed to do something special to lift his side from the hole. This was what he — seven years younger than anyone else in the squad — had always dreamt of.
Even the flamboyant Miller was taken aback when the teenager walked up to him and remarked, “What’s going on out here, eh? Let’s get into them.”
‘Get into them’ they did — and how! In Bradman’s own words, they “proceeded to unwind a veritable avalanche of beautiful scoring shots”. Watching the duo bat together was an experience worth it: Miller, dashing and flamboyant, stretched his left leg forward and the booming drives rocketed to the fence or soared over it. The diminutive Harvey, on the other hand, played the full array, often going back to square-cut Laker or the seamers in the most exquisite fashion.
It was too good to last for long — but it did. The partnership added 121 in just over an hour and a half — way faster than England’s rate at any given point of time. Miller eventually fell in the most unfortunate of manners when Yardley’s ball brushed the back of his bat, hit Evans, and flew in the air for Edrich to complete a full-length diving catch.
The fun, however, had just begun. Harvey was definitely happy to see his friend Loxton walk out. With Miller gone, he now assumed the role of the accelerator, and brought out the hooks and pulls and drives. Yardley and his bowlers were reduced to helplessness as he simply went on picking boundaries with ridiculous ease.
When he scored his hundred on Ashes debut, (it was also his second consecutive Test hundred) Loxton almost got run-out in his eagerness to leave the crease and congratulate “the baby of the side”. Alan McGilvray, with the microphone in his hand, recollected that he had imagined Harvey’s entire family all huddled up in front of the radio set; when the youngster was stuck on 99 McGilvray’s voice spread across Australia, “Don’t worry, Mrs Harvey, Neil [Harvey] can do it. He’ll be okay.”
Harvey eventually tried to pull one from Laker that was a bit too full and was bowled for a 112 that Bradman called “one of the greatest innings any batsman, old or young, has ever played”. He mentioned that Harvey’s innings reminded him of Archie Jackson, the man with whom The Don had shared his early days in Test cricket. On his return to the pavilion, Harvey showed tremendous cheek in asking a surprised Bradman “they were half volleys, weren’t they?”
It was 294 for five now, and Loxton took charge. In contrast to the fluent Miller and the elegant Harvey, Loxton was a brute with the bat. He had begun slowly, but once he got set, he thwacked the English bowlers all over Headingley. As Cranston pitched one marginally up, Loxton’s bat came down in a mesmerising arc and the ball flew over the bowler’s head into the crowd. Cardus later wrote that he had got a crick in his neck trying to follow its trajectory.
Johnson perished as he tried to hit one from Laker high, only to be caught by Cranston at square-leg. The batsmen had crossed, and Loxton hit the next two balls for sixes over mid-off. He eventually fell for 93 with eight fours and five sixes. Disgruntled at missing out on the hundred, he returned to the pavilion, threw his bat, and uttered “there goes the old man’s axe through the radio”.
It was Lindwall’s turn now. He lost Saggers, but carried on with Johnston for company, adding 48 for the ninth wicket. When Johnston was eventually claimed by Bedser, it was Ernie Toshack’s turn to come out. Toshack was suffering from a swollen knee, and Yardley had allowed a runner for him. It was decided that Johnston would stay on.
Johnston seized this opportunity to create a drama. He carried on talking and arguing animatedly with the umpires and fielders, sending out the impression that he was challenging his dismissal. The crowd booed him and then broke into laughter when Toshack eventually emerged.
Toshack’s arrival turned out to be valuable; the duo added 54 and went to the pavilion with the score on 457 for nine. Lindwall was on 76 and Toshack on 12, and Australia had managed to bring the lead down to 39.
Day Four: England capitalise on lead
Lindwall fell to Bedser after a single when play resumed after the rest day. His 77 had helped Australia reach 458 from 355 for eight. Bedser finished with three for 92 and Laker with three for 113, while Pollard and Yardley claimed two wickets apiece. Australia had scored their runs at 3.35 compared to England’s 2.58.
Hutton and Washbrook began soundly again, scoring at a much more rapid pace than in the previous innings. Soon they brought up their second century partnership of the Test. They became the first pair in the history of the sport to achieve this feat twice — they had earlier done it at Adelaide in 1946-47.
Both scored fifties in rapid time and both fell with 129 on the board. The onus then fell on the Middlesex twins to score some rapid runs, and they responded with a brisk 103-run partnership, both of them scoring fifties as well. Jack Crapp scored a few quick runs and even after Compton’s departure, Evans swung his bat wildly.
Bedser came to the party yet again with a quick 17 with four fours and England ended the day at 362 for eight with Evans on 47 and Laker on 14. The pitch was already crumbling. The lead was exactly 400.
The following numbers came to the forefront:
- The highest successful chase at Headingley was 186 for five against South Africa in 1929. On English soil it was 263 for nine by England at The Oval in 1902.
- The highest successful chase for Australia was 315 for six at Adelaide in 1901-02. It was also the highest successful chase against England.
- The highest successful chase till date was 332 for seven by England against Australia at MCG in 1928-29.
All these records needed to be overhauled by a significant margin. That night Bradman wrote in his diary “We are set 400 to win and I fear we may be defeated.”
Yardley surprised the 30,000-strong crowd by deciding to bat on the next morning. Some thought he wanted to cut down the Australian batting time, but the general consensus was that he wanted to crumble an already disintegrating pitch further. The Courier-Mail (Brisbane) correspondent wrote, “The wicket had stood up remarkably well to four days’ wear and tear, but [Norman] Yardley noticed a couple of doubtful patches which he expected the roller would enlarge.”
Surprisingly, Evans and Laker did not try to hit out in the five minutes England batted and Yardley called them in after three more runs were added in two overs. Johnston finished with four for 95. Australia needed 404 in 345 minutes.
Morris and Hassett began cautiously after Bradman did not use any roller before the Australian innings. Yardley brought Laker after just three overs of Bedser and Pollard. The off-spinner was taken for three boundaries in his first over.
Then Evans committed his first blunder of the day when he missed a stumping of Hassett off Bedser. Then, as the partnership looked settled after Yardley had tried out all options he brought on Compton to bowl his Chinamen. Writing for Examiner Arthur Mailey mentioned that Yardley had “tried a gamble”.
Whatever it was, it paid off. Unlike the erratic Laker, Compton bowled accurately and turned the ball viciously from the very onset. He almost had Morris as soon as he came on. He had Morris out of his crease, but Evans could not gather the ball properly; however, he was soon rewarded as he caught Hassett one-handed off his own bowling. The opening pair had put on 57 in 74 minutes. Australia required 347 in 271 minutes now.
Once again Bradman walked out at 1.00 pm among tumultuous applause. He was a bit dazed: “My thoughts weren’t altogether clear. We wanted to win. We didn’t want to lose. What should I do?”
With Bradman comfortable and Morris well-set, Yardley seemed helpless. Compton was bowling well, but Laker had gone awry throughout the first session. He threw the ball to Hutton to try out his leg-breaks. Unfortunately the local hero could not have an impact on the duo. Morris hit him for three successive boundaries to bring up his fifty in 85 balls. Hutton almost had Bradman, though, when in a moment’s lapse of concentration he almost hit Hutton to Laker at mid-on.
Compton bowled beautifully. Jack Fingleton recalled his seventh over in Brightly Fades the Don. He had considered the over “worthy of close description because I think it ranks as [Don] Bradman’s most uncomfortable over in his whole Test career.” Bradman edged twice in that over; one flew past Crapp in the slips for four (it probably counted as a chance) and the other — a sitter — was dropped by him. The last ball hit him on the pads and he survived a loud appeal.
He could not read Compton’s googlies at all. The stunned reporter for Goulburn Evening Post (New South Wales) wrote, “[Don] Bradman displayed an irresolution so unnatural that the vagaries of the pitch had to be blamed”.
Bradman and Morris had added 64 in half an hour before lunch. Australia were 121 for one with Morris on 63 and Bradman on 35 on one of the hottest days of the summer.
Morris took over after lunch, being especially ruthless against Compton, who had bowled so well. He hit seven fours and took two singles from two Compton overs. Chronicle (Adelaide) called it a “dazzling burst of scoring”. Mailey wrote, “[Arthur] Morris’ superb artistry and vigour almost overshadowed [Don] Bradman’s precise attack.” The West Australian (Perth) wrote, “He [Morris] completely overshadowed [Don] Bradman, who, however, scored 50 in just over an hour.” That was saying something.
He raced to his fifth Ashes hundred — the fastest of the series — in 127 minutes with a streaky four off Bedser. He later recalled, “Suddenly you get that perverse feeling that you want to stop them (the hopeful English press) and, before you know it, you can take on the world. They weren’t bowling all that badly but, when you’re batting well, you make your own rubbish, and we just kept going. [Norman] Yardley, he had to go for a win, so the field was always in, and I hit 20 fours in my first 100.”
Bradman later wrote, “I take my hat off to Arthur Morris” when recalling the superlative effort.
Bradman, meanwhile, was dropped again as Cranston was brought in. He cut Cranston hard, but Yardley dropped a high chance at backward-point. The target had now come down to 192 from 180 minutes, which, as Tom Goodman wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald, was “well within the side’s (Australia’s) capacity”.
When in the 70s, Bradman suffered from a “twinge in his left side” and looked uncomfortable, but still kept on scoring runs at will. “I felt very fit until I pulled [Ken] Cranston for four. When I turned round after completing the stroke the pain ripped me”, said Bradman to a post-match interview with The Advertiser (Adelaide).
Denzil Batchelor wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald, “The peaceful pastoral scene was disrupted by the sight of [Don] Bradman collapsed on the grass — temporarily overcome by his exertions in belabouring Cranston.” He was treated at tea and was diagnosed with an acute recurrence of fibrositis.
He eventually brought up his 19th Ashes hundred with a delicate late-cut amidst huge ovation at 4.10. It had taken him 147 minutes. As always, Headingley had not let him return empty-handed. The partnership was already worth 207 and the batsmen had been scoring at roughly a-run-and-a-half a minute.
Laker bowled well at this stage, but let too many loose ones. As O’Reilly wrote in The Advertiser (Adelaide), “Whenever [Jim] Laker pushed the ball purposefully, and that was seldom, he had [Don] Bradman groping forward uncertainly, but his occasional good balls were sandwiched between long-hops and full-tosses which the captain [Bradman] banged around at will.” Bradman himself recollected, “Jim Laker bowled me more than one ball which pitched well outside the off-stump and clearly passed outside the leg-stump.”
Bradman took his chances and way out of his crease when Evans’ horror day continued as he missed another easy stumping off Laker when on 108. In the next over, Laker himself dropped Morris at square-leg off Compton. The batsman was on 136 then.
Morris soon reached 150 — and the Test aggregate crossed 1,601 in the 1929 Ashes Test at Lord’s, setting a new record for Tests on English soil. Australia reached 288 for one at tea, left to score 116 in 105 minutes.
The English shoulders begin to drop. Ray Robinson wrote in The Daily News (Perth), “By tea England’s bowlers were so dispirited and the fielding so ragged that the huge crowd was resigned to England’s defeat.” O’Reilly mentioned, “At this stage England was fielding, bowling, and even looking like a well-beaten side.” Batchelor wrote: “Pitiable bowling — the great-hearted [Alec] Bedser exempted — and inexcusable fielding were all that England had to offer in an hour when the wicket and the situation were hard-floored for the attacking side.”
Soon after tea, Morris went into a flurry of boundaries, hitting three in a row to reach 169. When he reached 145, Bradman reached an incredible 5,000 runs against England. It is easily a world record till date — way ahead of Jack Hobbs’ 3,636 against Australia.
Australia brought down the target to 65 from 75 minutes. The onslaught still continued. Then, with 46 to get from 54 minutes Morris holed out to Pollard at mid-off off Yardley. He had scored 182 in 291 minutes with 33 fours, and the 301-run partnership had settled the Test for Australia. It was the record second-wicket partnership at Headingley — a record subsequently surpassed by Ken Barrington and John Edrich when they added 369 against New Zealand in 1965.
Miller began with a four, and with some ferocious hitting from Bradman the target came down to 17 in 30 minutes. Miller fell leg-before to Cranston with eight runs to score, and with Bradman four short of his 7,000 Test runs, Harvey hit the winning stroke off Cranston. Bradman remained unbeaten on a 255-minute 173 scored off 292 balls.
He had hit 29 fours, and his average — that had fallen to 99.85 after the Old Trafford Test — rose to 101.39. Would he bat once more, he would require only four runs to maintain an average of 100. He also finished with 963 runs from four Tests at Headingley at 192.60 — a record bettered only by Javed Miandad’s 661 at 330.50 from four Tests at Arbab Niaz Stadium, Hyderabad (Sind), if we use a 500-run cut-off.
Harvey remembered later: “I wasn’t used to hitting winning runs in Test matches and was totally unprepared when the crowd invaded the pitch at the other end. As [Don] Bradman hared past me to avoid their clutches I cried out, ‘What do I do now?’ He replied, ‘Son, we get out of here.’”
It was an impossible victory, clutched from the jaws of defeat. It was a rare occasion when Bradman himself looked jubilant. Cricket writers all over the world flooded the newspapers with phrases like “Australia’s performance was glittering with brilliance”, “nothing can dim Australia’s glory”, “it was a batting machine scoring as it wished, never ruffled, never panicking”, and “a grand performance by two very great cricketers”.
On the flip side, Brian Chapman slammed England in Daily Express: “Nothing can assuage the shame of England’s lacklustre exhibition. Some of the ground-fielding was under the standard of a decent club side.” News Chronicle wrote, “Half the side were too slow off the mark and couldn’t bend to reach the ball. The sooner something is done about all-round fitness the better.”
The final word should be Bradman’s though: “Post mortems were in plenty, but even the most rabid English supporters freely acknowledged the magnitude of our win.”
- Lindwall took six for 20 to bowl out England for 52 in the last Test at The Oval as Hutton carried his bat with 30. Barnes and Morris both outscored England, the latter scoring 196. England lost by an innings and 149 runs and conceded the Ashes 0-4.
- Bradman never got those four runs, being bowled for a second-ball duck by Hollies in the only innings at The Oval. He finished with a near-perfect average of 99.94. The runs and hundred scored at Headingley remained his last.
- As the season proceeded fatigue crept in and Bradman rested his key players. This resulted in some matches being drawn. However, among other wins the Australians still had innings victories against Derbyshire at Derby, against Kent at Canterbury, against Gentlemen of England at Lord’s, and against Somerset at Taunton. They also beat Scotland twice by an innings at Edinburgh and Aberdeen — both by an innings — and left England as The Invincibles with their heads held high.
England 496 (Cyril Washbrook 143, Bill Edrich 111, Len Hutton 81, Alec Bedser 79; Sam Loxton 3 for 55) and 365 for 8 decl. (Denis Compton 66, Cyril Washbrook 65, Len Hutton 57, Bill Edrich 54, Godfrey Evans 47*; Bill Johnston 4 for 95) lost to Australia 458 (Neil Harvey 112, Sam Loxton 93, Ray Lindwall 77, Keith Miller 58; Alec Bedser 3 for 92, Jim Laker 3 for 113) and 404 for 3 (Arthur Morris 182, Don Bradman 173*) by 7 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.)