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“Deadly” Derek Underwood routed Australia to reclaim the Ashes in the famous Fusarium Test on July 29, 1972. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the day when England retained the Ashes — a feat that would take them 39 years to repeat.
Richard L Duble, Turfgrass Specialist at Texas Cooperative Extension, mentioned that Furasium Blight is a disease caused by the fungi Furasium roseum and Furasium tricinctum. The disease usually affects cool-weather grasses but ends up ruining the occasional warm-weather grasses too. If the infection spreads and the disease progresses, the grass dies as the crown and its root tissues are ruined.
There is a reason that the Headingley Test of 1972 is possibly the only one to be named after a fungus.
Ray Illingworth’s side had won the Ashes in Australia, but now the onus was on them to defend it at home. Unlike the dour Bill Lawry, Ian Chappell was an aggressive leader. Chappell was leading quite a few new faces in the side. Illingworth’s side, on the other hand, became the first English side to lose a series against India at home the previous season.
They rose to the Ashes challenge, though: in a Test that tuned out to be a battle between two fast bowlers, the veteran John Snow, the man who was one of the key reasons for Illingworth’s team’s success Down Under, picked up eight wickets at Old Trafford to lead England to an 89-run victory — triumphing over Dennis Lillee who bowled his heart out in vain. The result flattered the Australians: chasing 342 for victory they were reduced to 147 for eight before a defiant 104-run ninth wicket partnership.
The second Test belonged to Bob Massie: the right-arm swing bowler with enviable mutton-chops exploited the conditions to their full and picked up a haul of 16 for 137. It remained a record for a debutant until Narendra Hirwani picked up 16 for 136 in 1987-88. Lillee picked up the other four wickets and Greg Chappell’s hundred resulted in a comfortable eight-wicket victory.
Thanks to Lillee and Massie, Australia had acquired a 126-run lead at Trent Bridge (once again Snow picked up five) and set England a target of 451 in nine-and-a-half hours. Time ran out with England on 290 for four, largely due to an excellent start from Brian Luckhurst and an unfinished 89-run partnership for the fifth wicket between Basil D’Oliveria and Tony Greig. A sixth day would probably have resulted in an outstanding day’s cricket.
The teams headed for the fourth Test at Headingley with the series levelled 1-1. England needed a win in the last two Tests to retain the Ashes.
The Australians had already gained popularity on and off the ground. They even had a superhit music record, which made them immensely popular among the fairer sex in England: Rob McQueen, the man behind the hit record, said that “compared with England’s Dad’s Army, the Australian team are like film stars.”
Before the Test, however, there was a heavy storm resulting in the pitch being infected by Fusarium. Derek Underwood — the man who turned out to be the second-most important creature in the Test — later wrote in The Guardian: “It was damp, entirely grassless and mottled, seemingly perfect conditions for spin bowling.”
Australia dropped John Gleeson, David Colley, and Bruce Francis and replaced them with Ashley Mallett, John Inverarity, and Paul Sheahan; likewise, England left out Mike Smith, Norman Gifford, and Peter Lever for Keith Fletcher, Geoff Arnold, and most significantly — Underwood.
In addition to the Fusarium storm, there was another thunderstorm across Leeds just before the Test, flooding Headingley: the ground was ready for the Test just before the Test. Ian Chappell won the toss and went for the no-brainer: use a light roller and bat first.
Day One: Underwood in business already
Keith Stackpole show began the day in dramatic fashion, hitting two boundaries in Arnold’s first over. Snow struck back, getting Ross Edwards to edge an outswinger in his first over and removing him for a duck. With the seamers not being able to break through Illingworth brought himself on in the ninth and soon got Underwood to join him. Australia, however, went to lunch with just one wicket down.
Stackpole and Ian Chappell batted beautifully, taking the score to 79 with Stackpole looking solid on a 119-ball 52 with six boundaries. It was then that Underwood struck: he was already bowling flatter than usual to make full use of the pitch, and three balls after a fierce leg-before appeal, the fifth ball after lunch pitched outside off-stump took Stackpole’s edge and went to Alan Knott.
Greg Chappell looked uncomfortable against spin. After facing some serious trouble he patted the pitch — only that he did it harder than batsmen usually do: “He moved down the pitch and gave the spot where the ball had dropped a sledgehammer blow with the bat”, Wisden later wrote. Eventually did not stretch forward enough and was struck plumb in line off Underwood.
Then, after having a torrid time, Ian Chappell hit one back to Illingworth with a single run being added: he had faced 126 balls, and to quote Underwood, he “took almost 50 overs to make 26 and stopping them scoring increased their tension.” Australia were suddenly 93 for four.
Doug Walters was cleaned up by Illingworth, and Marsh, trying to clear the infield, ended up mistiming one off Underwood and Illingworth caught the skier. Then Underwood ended Sheahan’s misery as Illingworth caught him brilliantly at second attempt at silly-point: the Victorian had scored a 29-ball duck. Australia had slumped to 98 for seven. It was not until the 62nd over that the Australian score went into three figures.
Inverarity and Mallett showed some mettle, putting up a defiant 47-run partnership in 78 minutes. Underwood was almost impossible to score off during his spell, and Illingworth provided excellent support. To quote Underwood, “Illy [Illingworth] was a great bowler to have on at the other end because he was as mean as I was.”
Illingworth eventually brought back the seamers, and Snow and Arnold picked up the last three wickets for the cost of a single run. Australia were bowled out for 146 in 86.5 overs after some serious attrition: Underwood finished with 31-16-37-4 and Illingworth played the perfect foil with 21-11-32-2. Even Snow returned figures of 13-5-11-2 — and Arnold also picked up two for 28.
The pitch was already turning square. Australia, however, did not complain of England ‘tampering’ with the pitch — something they would end up doing after the Test. Underwood recalled: “Australia were obviously distrustful of the pitch and there was speculation later that it had been deliberately done, but there was no conspiracy theory at the time.”
While Australia were in visual discomfort against Underwood and Illingworth Jack Fingleton, reporting for The Age, sought out the Yorkshire Secretary Joe Lister and complained about the pitch. Lister responded with the words “wait until you see the Englishmen bat.”
Fingleton responded: “That’s hardly a fair comparison. We have no [Derek] Underwood or [Ray] Illingworth.”
An agitated Lister replied: “I don’t like the inference of that.”
Later, Fingleton told Lister, “We will see how [Bob] Massie and [Dennis] Lillee bowl on this.”
Brian Luckhurst and John Edrich batted confidently for the last hour of the day adding 43 runs before stumps. Luckhurst remained unbeaten on 18 and Edrich on 21 as they returned to the pavilion, their side trailing by only 103.
Day Two: Mallett and Inverarity, Illingworth and Snow
It was Australia’s turn to strike back on Day Two: Mallett removed Luckhurst before a single run was added, and Lillee removed Peter Parfitt after a painstaking 21-ball two. Mallett also trapped Fletcher leg-before, and when he ended Edrich’s resilience 101-ball resilience of a well-made 45, England were 76 for four, still 70 runs in arrears.
As D’Oliveira and Greig settled down Ian Chappell opted for Inverarity’s left-arm spin to go with Mallett’s off-breaks. Runs came in a slow trickle, and suddenly England were in a position similar to Australia’s the previous day. Mallett then clean bowled D’Oliveira and had Knott stumped for a duck. Inverarity then claimed Greig, and England were 128 for seven: they still trailed by 18 runs, and had to bat last on the track.
The Australian body language had changed by now. In less than two-and-a-half hours they had England by the scruff of their neck, and now needed to go through only the bowlers. How long would Snow last? He had, after all, been averaging only 14.72 with the bat before the Test.
It was probably the inexperience of the Australian spinners that stopped them from finishing things off. At this stage Underwood and Illingworth had played 80 Tests between them: Inverarity and Mallett had 16. Though the shrewd Inverarity stuck to a strict line and length, Mallett experimented a bit too much instead of leaving things to the pitch. As a result, Illingworth and Snow got their eyes in.
It took time, but the duo piled on the runs. They went past the Australian score, and then extended the lead to 25 and then 50. Things had started to look ominous. Illingworth looked confident at the crease, but the surprise resilience came from the usually mercurial Snow, who showed tremendous grit in the century partnership.
The partnership reached 104 in 177 minutes before Snow was eventually stumped off Inverarity: he had scored an invaluable 155-ball 48 with six fours, and the partnership had virtually decided the Test in England’s favour. Underwood hung around as well before Inverarity snared him, and Arnold frustrated the Australian bowlers by batting till stumps, allowing Illingworth to score his fifty. England finished at 252 for nine with Illingworth on 54 and Arnold on nought.
Day Three: ‘Deadly’ submission for Australia
Illingworth and Arnold added a further 11 runs before the former was Lillee hit the English captain’s pads. His 276-minute innings had resulted in a 252-ball 57 with three fours and two sixes; more importantly, it had given England a comfortable 117-run lead.
Illingworth later said: “I have had to graft a lot for runs on slow turning pitches for Yorkshire, so it didn’t trouble me greatly.” Mallett finished with five wickets (out of the top six) but leaked a few runs, finishing with five for 114. Illingworth was all in praise of the off-spinner, and called him ‘the best finger-spinner Australia had produced.” Inverarity had had figures of 33-19-26-3 and Lillee picked up two for 39. The 20,000-strong crowd waited in anticipation for Underwood to bowl Australia out.
They had to wait. Perhaps warmed up by his batting, Arnold struck twice before Australia had settled in: he pitched one first up to Edwards, who, trying to leg-glance it, could only snick it to Knott; he scored a golden duck and had registered a pair in the Test. Ian Chappell lasted three balls before he edged a beautifully pitched late outswinger from Arnold to Knott. Australia were seven for two — still 110 runs behind.
The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “[Geoff] Arnold took his jumper after five overs. He had done England proud.” The stage was now set for Underwood —perhaps the most lethal bowler in the world on a pitch of this kind. He was nicknamed ‘Deadly’ for a reason – and on this day at Headingley the Kent spinner set out to prove himself.
Greg Chappell had hit two boundaries off the seamers, but the sight of Underwood somehow made him look nervy: he ended up providing a dolly catch to D’Oliveira (if you mind the pun) at mid-on off Underwood’s fourth ball. “It was a shot unworthy of such a player”, wrote The Sydney Morning Herald.
A frustrated Stackpole resorted to sweeps, and 10 minutes before lunch, he swept one too many as Underwood found his pad. The batsmen tried to amble across for a leg-bye only to find out that David Constant had raised his finger. Stackpole had fought 76 minutes for his 28 but with his departure the chances of saving an innings-defeat looked bleak as lunch was taken at 51 for four.
Twenty minutes after lunch, Walters received an unplayable delivery from Underwood; the ball pitched on leg-stump, kicked off from a length, and brushed Walter’s glove on its way to Parfitt at first slip. Marsh’s slog-sweep ended up in Knott’s gloves, and the Inverarity gave Illingworth a simple bat-pad catch the very next ball. Underwood had picked up five, was on a hat-trick, and Australia were on a hopeless 69 for seven, still requiring 48 runs to save the innings defeat.
Mallett padded the first ball away to deny Underwood a hat-trick. Mallett hit two boundaries before Illingworth ran through his defence. Underwood foxed Lillee with a straight delivery, hitting his off-stump with Australia still requiring six runs to make England bat again. To his credit Massie hung around with Sheahan to achieve the task.
After tea Massie decided to hit out and managed to hit a couple of fours and a six before Australia were bowled out for 136. Sheahan was left-stranded for a 135-ball 41 scored from 154 minutes, and England were left to score 20 runs. Underwood had picked up six for 45, giving him match figures of 10 for 82. Illingworth had four for 64 in the Test to go with his priceless 57, and Arnold finished with four for 45.
Australia opened with Lillee and Mallett, and though the fast bowler trapped Edrich leg-before in his third over, Luckhurst and Parfitt helped England reach the target in exactly ten overs. They had gone 2-1 up in the series, which meant that they had succeeded in retaining the Ashes.
The Age headline ran “Pitch wins, with England close second.” Fingleton lashed out against the batsmen: “Once again Australia has been caught with its cricketing pants down.” However, he later added: “Some of our batsmen abdicated yesterday with not much dignity, but this was a tough pitch for them against [Derek] Underwood and [Ray] Illingworth.”
Even Charlie Elliott, who stood as an umpire in the Test, said in an interview with The Age: “[Derek] Underwood and [Ray] Illingworth are the two best spinners in the world to exploit the right conditions. On that pitch they would have bowled out any team in the world fairly cheaply — even this England team. It wasn’t a good Test pitch.”
- Australia won the last Test at The Oval by five wickets, levelling the series 2-2. Lillee took 10 wickets in the Test and the Chappell brothers both scored hundreds, adding 201 for the third wicket. They were 171 for five chasing 242 before Sheahan and Marsh bailed them out. Despite the conditions not stacked in his favour Underwood still managed to show his class, picking up six of the 15 Australian wickets to fall.
- To celebrate the victory at The Oval Marsh, to quote Greg Chappell, “jumped up on the dressing-room table and gave his famous, joyous, ringing rendition, guaranteed to flush the face, stand hair on end, and make dry eyes brimful.” The words of the sung have since become a part of cricket folklore:
Under the Southern Cross I stand
A sprig of wattle in my hand
A native of my native land
Australia, you f**king beauty!
- England would not retain an Ashes till Andrew Strauss won the Ashes at home in 2009 and then in Australia in 2010-11.
Australia 146 (Keith Stackpole 52; Derek Underwood 4 for 37) and 136 (Paul Sheahan 41 not out; Derek Underwood 6 for 45) lost to England 263 (Ray Illingworth 57, John Snow 48, John Edrich 45; Ashley Mallett 5 for 114, John Inverarity 3 for 26) and 21 for 1 by 9 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/
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