Bill Woodfull. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Bill Woodfull. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Bill Woodfull regained the Ashes on August 22, 1934 exactly four years after achieving the feat. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a man who used to take his birthday somewhat seriously.

Birthdays are special to most people; some of us throw large parties, some prefer a small group, and some others even prefer to celebrate their birthdays in the august company of a book. The general concept revolves around a cake, good food, drinks of various magnitude, and photographs to be shared on Facebook afterwards.

Bill Woodfull had a different way of going about it: he preferred celebrating his birthday by regaining the Ashes.

Four years earlier

England had given Australia one of the worst drubbings in her history in 1928-29; agreed, in two of the Tests Australia lost were by the margins of three wickets and 12 runs; even then, losing 1-4 at home was a serious embarrassment; the solitary victory, too, came in the last Test at SCG when everything was as good as over.

Australia had a new captain in the form of the popular, amicable Woodfull for the return Ashes of 1930. Things had started to look ominous this time as well: England won quite comfortably at Trent Bridge, thanks to two formidable opening partnerships between Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe and quality bowling, especially from Maurice Tate.

Australia hit back at Lord’s despite Duleep’s gallant hundred; a youngster called Don Bradman scored 254, and an outstanding spell from Clarrie Grimmett helped Australia to an easy win. Bradman bettered the performance at Headingley with 334 and Grimmett made England follow-on, but the Test was eventually saved. The momentum had started to shift by now, and Australia held the upper hand in the rain-affected fourth Test at Old Trafford.

It had all come down to the last Test at The Oval, which was supposed to be a timeless Test based on mutual consent. Sutcliffe rose to the occasion again, adding 47 with Hobbs in the latter’s last Test; Sutcliffe eventually fell for 161 as England scored a comfortable 405.

The top eight Australian batsmen all crossed 25 — which included Bradman (232) and Bill Ponsford (110). The most spectacular performance, however, came from Archie Jackson, who scored put up an excellent blend of aggression and defence to score 73. Australia obtained a 290-run lead.

The rest followed in a blur as Percy Hornibrook bowled out England for 251 with a seven-wicket haul. The Ashes was regained on August 22, which was Woodfull’s 33rd birthday. There could have been few better ways to celebrate the occasion.

Between the two birthdays

Two-and-a-half years after Woodfull’s triumph Douglas Jardine brought his team to Australia: some called his tactics atrocious, some called them inhuman, others called them revolutionary. Whatever they were, they helped England regain the Ashes by a whopping 4-1 margin.

Jardine, Harold Larwood, Bill Voce, Eddie Paynter, Woodfull, Bert Oldfield, Plum Warner, and (obviously) Bradman became part of the folklore that was Bodyline. Batsmen were hit, international relationships were torn apart, and by the time Woodfull brought his side back to England in 1934 there was no Jardine, Larwood, or Voce in the side.

Trent Bridge: Spinners give Australia lead

Arthur Chipperfield became the first man to score 99 on his Test debut as Australia amassed 374 at Trent Bridge — the home ground of Larwood and Voce — despite Ken Farnes’ persistent attack. Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly then helped Australia secure a 106-run lead as England lost their last 4 wickets for 2.

After his 29 in the first innings Bradman managed only 25 in the second; Farnes picked up his second five-for in the match but Australia had achieved a 379-run lead when Woodfull declared the innings closed. O’Reilly then routed England for 141 with 7 for 54 (Grimmett took the other three) as Australia won by 238 runs.

Lord’s: Verity helps square series

After Maurice Leyland and Les Ames guided England to 440 Verity won the Lord’s Test virtually single-handedly. With his 105 in the first innings Bill Brown was the only one to put up some fight, but Australia did not stand a chance in front of Verity, who picked up 7 for 61 and 8 for 43.

England won by an innings and 38 runs. For once Bradman, with scores of 36 and 13, seemed to be out of form.

Old Trafford: Leyland comes to party again

The England innings became the first in history to contain 7 fifty-plus scores — a record that has been emulated twice but not eclipsed. Strangely, the other four batsmen managed 8 runs between them. The big innings came from Patsy Hendren (132) and Maurice Leyland (153) as England defied O’Reilly’s seven-for to reach 627.

Once Stan McCabe’s 137 helped Australia avoid the follow-on there was not much interest left in the Test. Australia were bowled out for 491 with Bradman scoring only 30. At this stage The Don’s numbers in the series read 123 runs at 24.60. Cyril Walters and Sutcliffe then played out till close.

Headingley: Bradman’s return to form

After Grimmett and O’Reilly bowled out England for 200 Bill Bowes hit back, reducing the tourists to 39 for 3. Then Bradman joined Ponsford; the pair added 288, Ponsford scored 181, and Bradman got 304 — thus becoming only the first cricketer to score 2 Test triple-hundreds.

England fought out of their skins after a 384-run deficit. Despite the probing attack of both O’Reilly and Grimmett they scored 229 for 6 and saved the Test as four batsmen scored between forty and fifty.

Between the Tests

Australia played Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge four days before the fifth Test at The Oval. There was no Larwood, but Voce was there, ready to unleash his thunderbolts at the Australians. Bradman was rested, Woodfull and Chipperfield were the only ones to put up any resistance, and Voce finished with 8 for 66 as the visitors were bowled out for 237.

The match petered to a draw, but Voce’s spell probably showed what could have been achieved had the Nottinghamshire duo been a part of the side.

The build-up

With the series levelled 1-1 it was decided that the Test would be played to a finish. Australia left out Len Darling and Tim Wall in favour of Alan Kippax and Hans Ebeling (a debutant from Victoria). England dropped Walter Keeton (who had replaced an injured Sutcliffe), Len Hopwood, and Tommy Mitchell; Gubby Allen and Nobby Clark were both included as Sutcliffe made a comeback.

The most intriguing change, however, came when Hendren pulled out of the Test due to an injury. England drafted in the Kent legend Frank Woolley (perhaps because of his steady batting that season); Woolley was 47 and had not played a Test in two years. Woodfull won the toss and batted first on what looked like a batsman’s paradise.

Day One: A record-breaking partnership

Brown and Ponsford negotiated the first spell of Bowes and Allen quite comfortably. Bob Wyatt then tossed the ball to Clark, who ran through Brown’s defence almost immediately. Wisden called it “the best ball sent down all day long.” Bradman walked out to join Ponsford with the score on 21 for one after half-an-hour.

To cut things short, Bradman and Ponsford added 451 in 316 minutesa world-record stand for any wicket. As Wisden wrote, “It would be hard to speak in too high terms of praise of the magnificent displays of batting given by Ponsford and Bradman.”

Bradman eventually fell for a 271-ball 244 with 32 fours and a six; it was an innings as ruthlessly brilliant as any other; he eventually edged to a bouncer off Bowes and the ball landed in Ames’ gloves. Ponsford remained unbeaten on 205 and McCabe on 1; at 475 for 2 at stumps seemed that Australia were advancing towards an unassailable score. They had scored at close to 80 runs per hour.

Ponsford and Bradman batted with such clinical efficiency that Wyatt found it impossible to place a field. In fact, he even used Jardine’s ‘leg-theory’ with Clark as the bowler. Wyatt and Clark placed a field that was, according to the press, “indistinguishable from that used by Larwood and Voce in Australia.”

Day Two: England solid after Ponsford special

McCabe was bowled by Allen early on Day Two but Woodfull dug in; the pair added a cautious 150-minute 96 before Ponsford was hit wicket off Allen for a 422-ball 266 that included 27 fours. There were decent contributions from Woodfull and Oldfield, and Australia were bowled out for 701 with Bowes and Allen picking up 4 wickets apiece.

There was enough reason for the Englishmen to feel demoralised, but to their credit they began well: Walters (59) and Sutcliffe (31) had taken the score to 90 without a fall of a wicket. They were still a mammoth 611 runs behind, and had to go a long distance to save the Test.

Day Three: Australian bowlers take command

England became 117 for 3 almost immediately after resumption: the openers went to O’Reilly and Grimmett; Woolley, making a comeback, holed out to McCabe off O’Reilly. Young Ebeling then came to the party, having Wally Hammond caught-behind, and when Wyatt was clean bowled by Grimmett the score read 142 for 5.

Leyland then came to the party and had an 85-run partnership in less than an hour with Ames before the wicket-keeper had to retire because of a straight back. Ebeling picked up a couple more, and Leyland was last out for a 171-ball 110 with 15 fours and a six.

England were a whopping 380 behind. However, time being not a constraint in this Test, Woodfull decided to bat on more till the wicket started deteriorating and did not impose the follow-on. He was perfectly justified in doing so, sealing the Ashes completely. The British media, however, wasn’t too happy.

The Telegraph wrote: “Instead of putting England in again and finishing off the match the Australians chose to take the next innings themselves in order that the English team, already 380 runs behind, and without their wicket-keeper and one of their bowlers, should have to struggle on against the Australian batsmen and then have the worst of the wicket for a last despairing effort. The decision is perfectly fair, but we may be allowed to feel that the kind of match which timeless cricket produces is not the best.” Woodfull’s team finished the Test in only four days.

Similarly, News Chronicle wrote: “If victory, and victory alone, is to be considered, it is no longer cricket that is being played, but a grim struggle for a fantastic kind of pre-eminence, for which the public is as much responsible as the players.” The English would, strangely, take a similar approach four years later at the same ground.

Bowes had to undergo a minor surgery (fistula) and could not bat. However, he surprised everybody by taking field and opening bowling. Wyatt soon took Allen off and handed the ball to Clark, who bowled with fire in the second innings and eventually used a leg-trap; he Ponsford fairly soon as the ball flew to Hammond. He had also removed Brown earlier that afternoon.

England were also crippled by Ames’ reassuring presence behind the stumps — and the gloves were taken over by Woolley, the oldest member of the side despite the fact that Woodfull, being the man he was, made a magnanimous gesture by offering England the services of Darling. “It was pathetic to see Woolley endeavouring to keep wickets against Clark’s leg-side attack,” wrote The Age.

Bradman was apparently suffering from a bruised, slightly swollen right hand and an injured left thumb. Despite that, he took on Clark’s vicious bowling with ease, as did McCabe. As Bradman wrote in A Farewell to Cricket, “Both Brown and Ponsford were caught in the leg-trap in our second innings, but McCabe and I attacked the leg-side bowling with such vigour that Clark  was forced to abandon his tactics.”

Even Trevor Wignall wrote in Daily Express: “I wonder if it is true that Bradman complained about Clark’s four overs of semi-leg theory on Saturday. The man who told me does not circulate wild yarns. Bradman was so completely master of all the bowling he was called on to massacre on Saturday that it is difficult to credit that that he had a single grumble in his system.”

Jardine’s played a completely different tune in Evening Standard: “Clark, from the Vauxhall end, and did not utilise the leg-side in full, being content with two square-legs. The wind from the end from which he was bowling was slight, though it was all against his causing the ball to swing into the bat, and since Allen apparently could not bowl from that end, which would have helped him to swing away, Wyatt was compelled to bowl his fast bowlers at what looked like wrong ends.”

Australia finished the day on 186 for 2 with Bradman on 76 and McCabe on 60; they were 566 ahead, and the Ashes was all set to be lost. There was one question left, though: could Woodfull do an encore on his birthday? Again?

Day Four: Woodfull’s double

Verity bowled the first over of the day before Bowes, still not fully recovered, took the ball from the other end; possibly with the intent of scoring quick runs, Bradman played across the line, and his leg-stump was uprooted. The great man had added just a single to his overnight score. After his poor start he eventually finished with 758 runs in the series at 94.75.

The crowd was disappointed as the ‘birthday boy’ walked out. 200 came up in 145 minutes and McCabe celebrated it with a glorious cover-drive off Clark. Almost immediately, he attempted an encore and the ball went to Walters; the ball was timed well, but the opening batsman from Glamorgan took an outstanding low catch.

Almost immediately afterwards Bowes unleashed a yorker to remove the Australian captain; there were murmurs among the English regarding his getting out on 13 was an ill omen; it meant nothing to the Australians, though.

Till this period Clark was bowling with five men on the leg-trap and added a sixth in the form of Walters at long-leg. The Australians seemed remotely concerned. Chipperfield chipped one (if you mind the pun) over the leg-trap and got away with a single, but when Kippax attempted a similar stroke he was caught by Walters.

Bowes struck next; a ball left Oldfield only slightly and landed into Hammond’s safe hands at second slip. Chipperfield took a guard just outside the leg-stump; being a very strong off-side player he played everything from Clark to the off, and let the wide ones go. Clark was forced to set a ‘normal’ field against him.

The ploy worked: Chipperfield tried yet another expansive drive; the ball lifted a bit more than expected, and the ball hit the shoulder of the ball and was caught by Woolley, giving Clark the first five-for of his Test career. Grimmett, in a completely different frame of mind, slashed at Bowes and got two boundaries next over as the ball flew over the slip; he was caught splendidly by Hammond at second slip the same over.

Australia were 272 for 9 as O’Reilly walked out to join Ebeling. With Bowes and Clark bowling beautifully it seemed only a matter of time before England would walk out. They had taken 7 wickets for 91 that day and also fielded well: they had every reason to be confident, even though they were already 652 runs behind.

Ebeling immediately lofted Bowes for a boundary, and O’Reilly, in his characteristically unorthodox fashion, played two strange strokes for boundaries against Clark. The last pair had set out to break whatever little confidence the English camp had gained that day.

300 came up soon, and when a desperate Wyatt brought on Verity for the last over before lunch, Ebeling pulled the fourth ball of the over hard for four more; at lunch Australia were 307 for 9 with Ebeling on 26 and O’Reilly on 13.

Woodfull refused to declare even after a 687-run lead. Ebeling edged a boundary and then off-drove so hard that the ball as good as went through Clark. He on-drove Bowes for another four to bring up an outrageous fifty-partnership in half an hour; it was only the second fifty-partnership of the innings.

Just when it seemed that Ebeling would reach a fifty on debut he pulled one from Bowes hard, and Allen took an excellent catch at square-leg. It was Bowes’ fifth wicket; Australia had scored 327 at a run rate of 4.77; England were left to score 708 against O’Reilly and Grimmett in a timeless Test on a pitch that had showed the initial signs of wear-and-tear.

The worst part was possibly the 50 extras (37 of these were byes conceded by Woolley; it still stands as a world record). The Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “Sundries were mounting steadily. Strudwick, the official Surrey scorer, must hate scoring them, almost as much as he hated them in his great days with the gloves.”

Disaster started almost immediately after England walked out to bat at 2.45 PM. McCabe brought back the fourth ball of his second over back a long way and bowled Walters. Woolley walked out amidst a huge standing ovation, and he decided to attack in the same fashion that had made Neville Cardus a worshipper of him.

That over passed by safely, and after another over from Ebeling Woolley stepped out and tried to loft McCabe out of the ground. The ball, unfortunately, gained more altitude than distance and came to Ponsford’s waiting hands at mid-on. Woolley had fallen for a duck and England were three for two. The spinners were yet to bowl.

Hammond eventually took a run off McCabe (whose figures had read 3.1-3-0-2 at the point of Woolley’s dismissal). Woodfull brought on Grimmett with the score on 11, and Hammond welcomed him with a four. With the score on 17 Woodfull introduced O’Reilly as well.

Both spinners found turn immediately. Grimmett bowled with two slips (Chipperfield and McCabe), while O’Reilly added a silly mid-off to the lot. However, they were bowling to Sutcliffe and Hammond — two of the greatest batsmen the world has ever seen. It was a treat.

Sutcliffe was the first to attack: he swept Grimmett for two boundaries in the same over. Immediately afterwards Hammond on-drove O’Reilly for a furious boundary that made the forward short-leg duck, but otherwise both batsmen preferred to counter the bowlers by solid defence.

Then suddenly all broke loose; Sutcliffe hit Grimmett for two boundaries; Hammond, not willing to play second fiddle, hit O’Reilly for two more, and then lofted him for a very straight six. Shortly afterwards he missed one and should have been stumped, but the ball spun so viciously that even Oldfield could not reach it.

The 64-run partnership (from 73 minutes) was eventually broken when Grimmett turned one a bit more than expected; the ball took Sutcliffe’s edge and went to McCabe at second slip: Grimmett’s strategy of bowling with two slips was justified. At tea England were 85 for 3 with Hammond on 43 and the in-form Leyland on 10.

Immediately after lunch Leyland lofted Grimmett for a boundary. Then came the big wicket: Hammond tried to hit O’Reilly down the ground and the champion leg-spinner took an outstanding left-handed catch. Wyatt walked out with the intention to blast out, and hit a no-ball in the same over for six over long-on.

In the same over he tried to hit O’Reilly for another six; Ponsford at mid-on tried to hold on to the extremely difficult skier but could not. Thus reprieved, Wyatt pulled one for four. Then Leyland cover-drove as hard as possible, but the ball was not placed along the ground; Brown ran for the ball and caught it brilliantly in the second attempt.

Allen came out next in the absence of Ames. Wyatt, the only specialist batsman standing, tried an off-drive against Grimmett: the ball did not turn as expected, took the inside edge, and Ponsford from mid-on ran in to take yet another brilliant catch. At 122 for 6 England did not seem likely to last the day, especially with Ames ruled out of the Test.

Verity walked out and on-drove O’Reilly for successive boundaries. Then, with 45 minutes left for the close of play Grimmett bowled a leg-break that took the shoulder of Verity’s bat and flew to McCabe for a sitter. Soon afterwards, Bowes gave another easy catch to Bradman at mid-wicket, this time off O’Reilly.

It was down to Allen and Clark now; the Ashes was regained — once again — on Woodfull’s birthday when Allen swung one hard off Grimmett, his bat made contact with the air, and Oldfield whipped off the bails. England were bowled out for 145 and lost by the humongous margin of 562 runs. It still remains the second-largest margin of victory in Test cricket.

In a wonderful gesture, Allen grabbed one of the stumps and passed it over to Kippax. The crowd flooded the ground, and both Wyatt and Woodfull were cheered when they reappeared. “The other English players did not come out, and the crowd satirically called for Larwood, Voce, and the selectors,” wrote The Age.

The Australians visited the English dressing-room almost immediately afterwards the Test was over — a gesture that is long-forgotten. The teams — led by the two of the most amicable characters in the history of the sport — celebrated the end of the series together, which was even more commendable after the ill-feelings over Clark’s use of the leg-theory. Contrasting the celebrations with the end-of-match IPL parties leaves one with a lump in the throat.

HD Leveson-Gower, the President of Surrey Cricket Club, wished Woodfull good health and congratulated him for the ‘birthday encore’. “Happy birthday, Mr Woodfull, but please don’t try the hat-trick,” said Leveson-Gower.

Woodfull’s team celebrated an impromptu birthday party for their captain. The man responded to Leveson-Gower’s scare, assuring him that he would retire that November. This was followed by the customary For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. The crowd in the Australian enclosure, meanwhile, had started a fund to purchase a testimonial gift for the retiring captain.

The aftermath

The Australians were lauded and the English criticised by all and sundry. CB Fry wrote in Evening Standard: “Our predicament was not due to missed catches, though these assisted, but to bad length and the recurrence of that bitter fatuity, leg-theory. All that was necessary to incommode the Australians was straight, fast bowling at and over the stumps. Most of them would have supplied leg-theory for themselves. That’s the way they bat, except Bradman, who is a genius. The use of Larwood, had he consented to play, would have been fire down straight, good-length fast stuff.”

Writing for Daily Telegraph Warner wrote: “In a match with no time-limit, Chapman in 1928 and Woodfull today [the day before] were right not to force a follow-on. There is always rain to be considered. The Australians, in contrast with our men, made no fielding mistakes. Bradman and Brown were conspicuously good, but one of the English substitutes, [Thomas] McMurray, of Surrey, gave a magnificent exhibition, causing regret that so few of the English Test players have reached his standard.”

Wyatt said in his post-match interview to The Age: “Australia was the better team at The Oval. They took full advantage of one of the easiest-paced wickets I have known. Easy-paced wickets have been against us throughout this tour. I am naturally sorry we have not retained the Ashes. I congratulate Australia on winning on her merits.”

Harold Bushby, the Manager of the Australian team, said: “We are delighted we won. We are extremely sorry at England’s bad luck and injuries. I think England did very well in the circumstances. Luck is all in the game. You can’t say which way it is going to strike. Winning the toss made a considerable difference. From the first day the game went our way. We brought the best available team, and it delivered the goods.”

Jardine wrote about the one-sidedness of the contest in Evening Standard: “It was in many ways the dullest Test match ever played. That Australia proved superior to England’s XI at every point of the game cannot be disputed. Bowes did a gallant service despite obvious pain. Grimmett’s bowling in the last innings was magnificent.”

FC Robertson-Glasgow wrote on the same lines in Morning Post: “Australia deserved her victory. The batting was immeasurably better, while the fielding made England’s appear clodhopping. Only in the fast bowling could England hold her own.”

News Chronicle, however, voiced a slightly non-trivial opinion about the series: “The Tests are over, and a service will be done to cricket if the recriminations are over too. It has not been a very cheery encounter. It is a consolation to know it is finished.”

Joseph Lyons, the Australian Prime Minister, offered his congratulations: “On behalf of the Government and, I feel sure, the people of Australia, I send you and your team the heartiest congratulations upon regaining the Ashes for Australia. Your win was meritorious, and Australia is proud of you. The Australians admire the courage displayed by Bowes, and regret the misfortune that befell the English team.”

Wishes also poured in on behalf of George V: “The King has followed with close interest the five Test matches, and offers to Mr Woodfull and the team his warmest congratulations on their remarkable success in winning the rubber after such a keen Test. His Majesty feels sure that such a brilliant display of batting as that such a brilliant display of batting as that seen in the final Test will appeal to all cricket-lovers, and will ever be remembered in the history of this great game.”

Brief scores:

Australia 701 (Bill Ponsford 266, Don Bradman 244, Bill Woodfull 49, Bert Oldfield 42*; Bill Bowes 4 for 164, Gubby Allen 4 for 170) and 327 (Don Bradman 77, Hans Ebeling 41; Bill Bowes 5 for 55, Nobby Clark 5 for 98) beat England 321 (Maurice Leyland 110, Cyril Walters 64; Hans Ebeling 3 for 74, Clarrie Grimmett 3 for 103) and 145 (Wally Hammond 45; Clarrie Grimmett 5 for 64) by 562 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and can be followed @ovshake42)