Don Bradman is cheered by spectators as he comes out in the 1938 Leeds Test © Getty Images
Don Bradman is cheered by spectators as he comes out in the 1938 Leeds Test © Getty Images

Leeds 1938. Don Bradman had scored 334 and 304 at Headingley on his last two visits. This time he managed just 103. But it proved to be a match-winning effort. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the Test which was ‘remembered affectionately by all who played in it or watched.’

The background could not have been gloomier. The March Anschluss had seen Germany invade Austria, and a month later an Anglo-Italian treaty had somehow defused possible disagreements in the Mediterranean. From May, events had escalated in Czechoslovakia, with demands for an independent German state in the Sudeten. Things would soon get worse, and within a month of the Leeds Test the British government would persuade the Czechoslovakia to concede autonomy to the Sudeten Germans.  A few days later British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would fly to Germany to negotiate a historic agreement which he mistakenly believed would secure ‘peace in our time.’

Under these gathering war clouds, the Leeds Test produced a match the cricket chroniclers Ralph Barker and Irving Rosenwater both hailed as ‘one of the most thrilling ever played’. Writing in the Yorkshire Post, cramped for space beside columns describing the inflammable political scenario, Jim Kilburn encapsulated the game as ‘a close approach to the perfect Test match, a game full of incident and uncertainty.’

In the battle on the ground, Australia’s heavy artillery fired. Don Bradman scored a hundred as usual, but just 103 this time after the massive 334 and 304 during his previous visits to the ground. However, it proved crucial in the end.

Bill O’Reilly captured 10 wickets, including Wally Hammond first ball in the second innings — considered by many to be the decisive point in the match. Bradman himself considered the game as ‘the greatest Test match of modern times’.

The previous two Tests at Trent Bridge and Lord’s had been drawn, and the Old Trafford match had been abandoned without a ball being bowled. Both captains wanted to win, and not leave the result balanced on knife’s edge for a decider at The Oval.

England were hampered by the absence of Len Hutton and Maurice Leyland, having been struck on middle finger and thumb respectively at Lord’s with balls flying from the infamous ridge.  While Bradman opted for O’Reilly and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith as the spinners, England went in with Hedley Verity and Doug Wright. There remains the conjecture that Wright’s choice was influenced by the voluble Australian verdict that the Kent spinner was the best bowler in England. It was, by all accounts, an Australian predilection for trying to play certain spinners that suited them. And it very nearly backfired.

Day One: O’Reilly rocks England

A crowd of 24,000 assembled, many of them queuing from 6.30 in the morning for the gates to open at 9.15 am. Reportedly an Australian clergyman arrived, intent on spending his vacation at the Tests. Like most others, he was risking the heavy Leeds atmosphere, desperate to draw a momentary blanket of cricketing entertainment over the political climate of Europe.

The pitch was underprepared. Curator Dick Moulton had been forced to change it late, and his prediction rang out, “Bradman won’t get three hundred this time.” It did not augur well for lesser mortals.

Hammond won the toss and England batted. And before the score reached twenty, Charles Barnett was missed twice. O’Reilly floored an easy chance off Ernie McCormick at second slip, and five runs later Bill Brown at the same position ensured that debutant Mervyn Waite would have to wait a month and another Test to claim the only Test wicket of his career.

O’Reilly did not really need long to make amends. The ball turned immediately and coming on from the Kirkstall End, he bowled Bill Edrich with a googly. Barnett helped things along for Australia by running out partner Joe Hardstaff. Shortly after lunch, he himself chased a wide delivery from McCormick. His wicketkeeping namesake Ben held a smart one handed catch and put an end to his miserable tenure at the wicket.

At 88 for three, Hammond unfurled his grace and grandeur in its full splendour. Two no-balls from McCormick were dispatched disdainfully and with resounding timing, one to the cover fence and one over mid-off into the stand. He followed it up with two on-driven boundaries and two drives wide of extra cover from consecutive O’Reilly deliveries. When Waite replaced O’Reilly, Hammond launched into a drive straight back, so powerful a hit that umpire Frank Chester had to dive to the ground to save himself. While Eddie Paynter struggled to score against Fleetwood-Smith, Hammond continued to treat the bowling with majestic contempt. Kilburn called the innings, ‘At once joy and condemnation of his colleagues.’

However, at 142 O’Reilly pitched a leg break that drew him forward and went past his edge to hit the off-stump. Hammond walked back for a ‘truly splendid innings of 76’ scored out of 108, with a six and twelve fours.

The rest of the batting did not really last long. Paynter tried an off-drive to chinaman operator Fleetwood-Smith, was overbalanced, and Ben Barnett whipped off the bails. Young Denis Compton tried a fine dab at O’Reilly to be bowled. The great Australian leg-spinner continued to run in, face contorted, wrists cocked enough to brush the insides of his forearm, bowling on a stooped leg producing a disconcerting flight. He got wicketkeeper Fred Price for a duck to make it 172 for seven.

Wright essayed some good pulls and Verity square cut and hooked, according to Barker, ‘as a man unconscious of the sorrows around him’. But Fleetwood-Smith and O’Reilly brought a quick end to the innings for 223.

And the wrist spinners continued to dominate as opener Bill Brown lost his leg stump after trying to swing Doug Wright. Australia finished at 32 for 1.

By the end of a keen day of cricket, the greater game had also been blessed by some encouraging news. An impressive unveiling ceremony at Villiers-Bretonneux, hailed as an ‘act of faith’ had been witnessed in France. Ex-AIF members, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Sir Earle Page, Attorney General Robert Menzies, High Commissioner SM Bruce and Australian Governor-General Lord Gowrie had paid tribute to the 11,000 Australians who died in World War One.

Don Bradman and his Australian team mates take a break for tea on the second day of the fourth Test Ashes match at Leeds in 1938 © Getty Images
Don Bradman and his Australian teammates take a break for tea on Day Two, fourth Test, Headingley 1938 © Getty Images

Day Two: Bradman brilliance

The 37,000 who attended the day’s play had to contend with some slow progress by Jack Fingleton and night-watchman Ben Barnett. Beaten repeatedly by Bill Bowes and Wright, Barnett hung on with steadfast determination. Fingleton was the first man to be dismissed, bowled by Verity as he tried to force a good length ball wide of mid-on against the spin.

Don Bradman came in at 12.55, and almost immediately Verity had him in trouble. The Yorkshire spinner bowled a wonderful length, which enabled him to keep just one deep fielder for Bradman and none for the others. The great Australian also had a lucky moment when a more accurate throw from Hardstaff would have seen the end of him as he came back for the fourth run off a late cut.

But, what followed was a demonstration of absolute mastery on a difficult wicket and poor light. Barnett was caught off Ken Farnes down the leg side after scoring the only fifty of his career, and Bradman went into lunch at 17. The post lunch period saw him play one of the greatest innings of his career. There were just two flaws, an inside edge that flew almost within the reach of the square-leg fielder, and a snick through the slips off Bowes. Apart from that, in ‘perhaps no other innings was his superiority to his fellow batsmen quite so pronounced.’

The light was poor, but according to Bradman himself, “We would make more runs in that light on a dry pitch than in a good light on a wet one.” Hence, even when it became dark enough to stand in the centre and make out the matches struck in the Grand Stand, Bradman batted on.

The rest of the Australians struggled. A strokeless and clueless Stan McCabe was bowled, playing back to Farnes. Jack Badcock played back to a ball from Bowes that pitched on middle and hit off. Young Lindsay Hassett scratched around for over 50 minutes before being caught in the slips off a beautiful leg-break from Wright.

Hammond claimed the new ball at 205 for six, and immediately Bradman appealed for bad light. After a brief interruption, the Australian captain carried on the mix of judicious attack and defence, manipulating the strike, staying ahead of any rain that might make the pitch a demon. Jack Hobbs wrote in the

London Star, Bradman is in such form that he could have played by candlelight.” Plum Warner went further, saying that he would have made a hundred in a blackout.

Waite fell at 232, and Bradman raised his century with a single, in 170 minutes. Eight minutes later, he was bowled trying to drive a delivery from Bowes that moved away from leg. Only 153 had been scored while he was at the wicket, and Bradman had got 103 of them. It was 240 for eight and the Australian innings inched ahead by only another two runs before coming to an end.

Bradman’s innings as usual left several landmarks littered in its luminous path. It was his sixth successive hundred in Ashes Tests, amounting to over 1,000 runs in the last 6 Tests played since the third of the 1936-37 Ashes series. He also became the first Australian batsman to score 5,000 runs. At 29, he was the youngest batsman to get there, ahead of Hammond who had reached the milestone at 33. It had taken him 56 innings, while Jack Hobbs had achieved it in 91 and Hammond 97.

England ended the day strongly enough, having reached 49 without loss, and led by 30 runs. While all this on-field drama was taking place, Field Marshall Goering had arrived in Elsinore in Denmark to watch a German cast present Hamlet at Kronborg Castle. At the same time, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler had left Berchtesgaden to visit the naval installations at Kiel.

However the teams spent the Saturday evening being entertained at Harewood House by the Princess Royal and the Earl of Harewood. According to Yorkshire Post, cricket was not discussed during the evening. Perhaps the players marvelled at the historic first ascent of the north face of 13,038 foot Eiger in Switzerland — a feat achieved on that day by two German and two Austrian climbers.

Day Three: O’Reilly again

After Sunday’s rest, the cricketers arrived at the ground with the crowd building from early in the morning. It eventually amounted to 39,000 by mid-morning.

There were a lot of opinions in the press. Neville Cardus was a bit apprehensive about facing O’Reilly on a dry pitch, but Kilburn reported that the wicket never misbehaved. Sitting in the stands and writing his own news column for Yorkshire Post, Wilfred Rhodes remarked at the end of the day that England lost because of their deplorable batting tactics that day. “Why don’t they play the ball?” Rhodes asked uncomprehending. However, it must be noted, that Rhodes never faced O’Reilly.

Spin came into operation later. It was McCormick’s pace that struck first, getting Barnett caught by his wicketkeeping namesake.

The dry wicket saw dust raised wherever McCormick pitched the ball. Bradman had seen enough to take his pacer off and introduce O’Reilly, with Fleetwood-Smith bowling from the Kirkstall Lane end. This move ultimately proved to be match-winning.

An express O’Reilly delivery pitched on Hadstaff’s leg stump and took his off-bail. In the view of umpire Chester, the ball moved so quickly that no one would have been able to stop it.

Hammond came in. And in came Brown and Fingleton, placed in double leg trap, a field O’Reilly had successfully employed during the South African tour of 1935-36 under Vic Richardson. At that moment Hammond averaged 86 for the season, far ahead of any other English player. According to the Cardus chronicles of 1938, O’Reilly had been played ‘almost with ease’ — implying that the leg-spinner had become just another brand for the Hammond burning. However, writing in the 1966 Wisden, Cardus remarked that Hammond experienced only two major frustrations, one of them being that whenever O’Reilly’s leg-stump attack confined him in ‘sweaty durance’ his batting became ‘sullen, a slow but combustible fire, ready to blaze and devour.’

In any case, O’Reilly sent in a googly on leg and middle. It ran up Hammond’s half-cocked defensive bat, lobbing towards Brown at backward shortleg to complete the catch a yard from the bat. As the captain walked back, there followed a silence that could be felt. According to Chester, it was obviously the turning point of the match.

With several fielders breathing down his neck, Paynter saved the hat-trick. But it would take a lot more to save England. Almost immediately Edrich was stumped off a Fleetwood-Smith googly. It was the third wicket to fall at the same score.

Compton pummelled three boundaries, but in attempting a leg hit off O’Reilly was struck on the glove by a kicking wrong ’un and was caught at the wicket. Fleetwood Smith now dismissed Price leg before and got Verity and Wright off successive balls. And O’Reilly got Farnes and Bowes off the last two balls of the innings. England were all out for 123, their lowest total since Trent Bridge in 1921. O’Reilly had got 10 for the match, including Hammond and Compton twice. At the end of the match the great leg spinner stood at 99 Test wickets.

Bill O’Reilly in action on the 1938 tour of England. O’Reilly took five wickets in each innings of the 1938 Leeds Test to help Australia win by five wickets © Getty Images
Bill O’Reilly in action on the 1938 tour of England. O’Reilly took five wickets in each innings of the 1938 Leeds Test to help Australia win by five wickets © Getty Images

The afternoon was increasingly thunderous with spreading darkness and gloom and gathering storm as Australia set to score 105 runs for victory. Brown was leg before to Farnes at 17. Bradman, fearing a wet wicket once again, asked batsmen not to appeal for light. He was almost yorked in the murky light and survived a loud shout for leg-before off Farnes.

Verity replaced Farnes and had Fingleton lbw, but conceded as many as 14 runs next over. It was already 48 when Hammond called up Wright. Some critics do maintain that Hammond was late in bringing Wright on, but it must be remembered that Wright’s tendency to bowl a poor ball every now and then made things awkward for every captain.

Now Bradman edged Wright between Hammond and Verity in the slips for two. The next ball was pitched up, Bradman went for a drive and was caught in the second slip. At 50 for three and McCabe the only remaining batsman with some experience, it was tense for the visitors. Bradman, going into the dressing room, could not bear to watch the play. He wrote in Farewell to Cricket of ‘consuming copious supplies of bread and jam augmented by a liberal quantity of tea’ he paced the dressing room as others bore the burden that so often had been his lot. O’Reilly, padded up himself, also paced and sipped from cups.

Young Hassett, in only his third Test, on drove the first ball for four and was missed the next ball as Verity at slip had moved to the right too soon. McCabe was caught at mid-wicket, going for a pull off a long hop, but Hassett threw caution to the winds and played a blistering innings. His 36 ball 33 with five fours was almost as crucial as the Bradman hundred in the first innings. Wright’s two wickets had come in three expensive overs, and Hammond was on the verge of asking ‘What price success?’

Jack Badcock missed one from Wright and it shaved the varnish from the stumps, and in response Hassett pulled the leggie for four. Hammond had to bring back Bowes. And the young man hooked the Yorkshire quick for four, on drove Verity and pushed him off the pads for two more boundaries.

The rain was getting heavier now, and Badcock continued to defend. Hammond, in a last throw of the dice, brought Wright back once more. And Hassett lobbed a catch to silly point, having scored 33 of the 41 scored while he was around. Barnett pulled Wright for four and with nine runs to go, rain pelted down. The players retired before returning shortly before four, and the rest of the runs were obtained without fuss.

A fantastic match had ended. At long last Bradman could take a peek at the proceedings yet again. The end result of victory five wickets in no way reflected the closeness of the encounter. It had been touch and go throughout, the balance shifting this way and that, before the final few blows by Hassett clinched the issue.

The Ashes was retained. The Australian team held a celebratory team dinner at Harrogate Hotel. A visibly relieved Bradman let himself go to an extent, scoring 202 at 53 an hour in his next innings against Somerset at Taunton, all the runs scored well under a day, with as many as 32 boundaries.

Brief scores:

England 223 (Wally Hammond 76; Bill O’Reilly 5 for 66) and 123 (Bill O’Reilly 5 for 56, Chuck Fleetwood-Smith 4 for 34) lost to Australia 242 (Ben Barnett 57, Don Bradman 103; Ken Farnes 4 for 77) and 107 for 5 by 5 wickets.

(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)