Don Bradman smashed 187 in two hours. This photo, however, is from the Worcestershire match on the same tour    Getty Images
Don Bradman smashed 187 in two hours. The above photo is from the Worcestershire match on the same tour Getty Images

On May 15, 1948 Don Bradman s Invincibles amassed 721 in a single day against Essex at Southend-on-Sea. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the highest score ever in a single day in a First-Class match.

In his autobiography, Richie Benaud had advised upcoming commentators to abstain from using words like ‘catastrophe or ‘disaster since they typically refer to events like natural calamities, wars, riots, and the likes. Anything on a cricket ground could not come close in comparison.

It is tempting, though, to use words of the same magnitude while describing the thrashing Australia had dished out Essex 65 years back. A total of 721 in 6 hours is no joke: true, Essex bowled at a rate of 21.3 overs an hour, but it must not be forgotten that the Australians had scored at the rate of 5.59 per over which is phenomenal even by today s standards over a full day. In fact, boundaries became so commonplace in the afternoon that Jack Fingleton was forced to notice that “the afternoon sun was not long on its downward path before boundaries were being received in complete silence.”

The build-up

The Australians were on a roll from the very moment they set foot on English soil. In the traditional opening match, they had beaten Worcestershire at New Road by an innings and 17 runs; they followed it by defeating Leicestershire at Grace Road by an innings and 171 runs, Yorkshire by four wickets at Bradford, Surrey by an innings and 296 runs at The Oval, and the hapless Cambridge University students by an innings and 51 runs.

A medium-fast bowling all-rounder called Trevor Bailey played in that Cambridge match. Though he did not take a single wicket (he was not fully fit), he scored a brave 66 not out in the second innings, standing tall amidst the collapse. Bailey, already a regular for Essex, then took a major decision: “England needed a fast bowler, and I thought that a few wickets for Essex would increase my chances which were one of the main reasons why I played in the Southend fixture.”

To save petrol (post-World War II rationing was still on in England, albeit selectively) Bailey travelled in the same coach with the Australians to Southend-on-Sea. In those days the Essex county side played across eight venues spread across the county. Southchurch Park at Southend-on-Sea was, in Bailey s words, a festival ground: “The ground was set out along similar lines to the modern day festival, and the players took their lunch and tea in an adjacent marquee (none of the modern day fare!).”

Openers consolidate

Tom Pearce s shoulders must have dropped a bit when Bradman won the toss and elected to bat. The crowd cheered, though, in anticipation of being able to watch Bradman bat on Day One on what would be his last trip to England. The packed crowd strength of 16,000 was more than enough for a festival match.

There were a few cheers as Sid Barnes and Bill Brown walked out to the wicket. The batting seemed serene to the eye, and yet runs had begun to accumulate at a menacing rate. There was a minor disruption as Brown was bowled off a no-ball, but other than that, the partnership was merely eventless. The boundaries came with apparent ease, and it seemed that only something horribly wrong on the part of an Australian could bring about a wicket.

The breakthrough came, though, after 95 minutes of play. With his score on 79 and the team score on 145, Barnes tried to cut off-spinner Ray Smith, and hit his own stumps in the process. The crowd cheered for more than one reason for Bradman had arrived at the crease.

Bradman attacks before lunch

The crowd had possibly expected Bradman to play out the remaining 25 minutes till lunch, and then go the same way as Barnes and Brown. As things turned out, Bradman scored 42 runs in those 25 minutes out of 57 scored by the tourists. Finally, with nothing looking to be in his favour, Pearce had brought on Frank Vigar to bowl his leg-breaks.

Bradman saw the first ball go harmlessly to wicket-keeper Frank Rist. The next four balls were all dispatched to the mid-wicket boundary. Pearce tried to bring more and more fielders to stop Bradman from playing the stroke, but the great man managed to go past them off four consecutive balls.

At this point of time, a frustrated Rist asked Bradman, possibly with an intention of sledging in his mind: “Haven t you got any other shots?”

“I ll show you those after lunch,” was The Don s reply, before he played another crisp stroke once again to the mid-wicket fence and told Rist, “I did say after lunch”, and walked back to the pavilion for lunch.

Post-lunch

Bradman walked out of the dressing-room, and, well, did keep his word. The strokes flowed to both sides of the wicket, and the runs, already well past the clock, mounted on. Brown reached his hundred, and then his 150, but was paled in comparison to Bradman s single-minded carnage, who had brought up his hundred in just 77 minutes. Eventually, Brown and Bradman added 219 in 95 minutes before Brown hit Bailey to Dick Horsfall at gully. Brown had scored 153 in 140 minutes.

Then, finally, with the score on 364 for 2, and Bradman going strong at one end, Keith Miller strode out to the crease. Miller, famous for his fierce hitting, aggressive style, and destructive strokeplay, could bring any crowd to its feet but was hardly the man the Essex side wanted to see at this moment.

Miller stuns the stadium

Bailey ran in. The crowd, prepared for the carnage, waited with bated breath. This man could take bowlers to cleaners under normal circumstances. He has been averaging 144 on tour till then, with a top-score of 202 not out against Leicestershire, and top-scoring against Yorkshire as well. What would he do with the score on 364 for 2, with Bradman at the other end?

Bailey released the ball, probably hoping that Miller would let the first one go. Let go he did, indeed a straight ball from Bailey, and was clean bowled. It looked so bizarre that there was little doubt left that it was deliberate. “I got sick of the slaughter,” Miller later commented.

Note: This is debated. Some claim that Miller was clean bowled in a proper delivery from Bailey. Some even claim that Miller got out deliberately to rush to the local races. Some even suggest poker.

Indeed, Miller had always been vocal against Bradman s brutal tactics. For him the sport was meant to be fun; tussle between the ruthless and romantic ended this time with the latter refusing to take part in the decimation. It was a message sent by Miller, who thought that The Don should have included more of the younger reserves, given that he already knew that Essex was a weak side.

Note: It was curious that Miller often maintained this I-do-not-care scenario at times, for he despite his “Messerschmitt up your arse” statement, he never hesitated to bowl bouncers.

Bailey later mentioned: “After hitting the stumps, I commented to Bradman, who was at the non-striker’s end, that he had not appeared very interested”, to which Bradman had replied “he ll learn.” In A Farewell to Cricket, Bradman had brushed it off with a one-liner: “strange to say, right in the middle of it all, the one man who might really have created a riot of runs, Keith Miller, was bowled first ball for 0.”

The Courier-Mail (Brisbane) reported: “Miller Shock: Brown’s dismissal set the stage for the biggest sensation of the day Miller’s duck. He is rapidly challenging Bradman as a cricket attraction, and with the bowlers at his mercy there was a buzz of excitement as Miller came in and took block to Bailey. The roar of the crowd as the first ball dismissed Miller shook the rickety stand.”

and Bradman continues

Miller or no Miller, Bradman continued the plunder, with Ron Hammence for company. The 150 came and went (he needed only 3 overs for his third fifty), and he eventually fell for 187 in 124 minutes. He had hit 32 fours (of the 87 the Australians hit in the entire day) and a five, and scored at an incredible 90 runs an hour. It would remain his highest score of the tour. He finished the tour with 2,428 runs at 89.92 with 11 hundreds.

Bradman fell with the score on 452, and Hammence followed, with 498 on the board. This brought Sam Loxton and Ron Saggers the reserve wicketkeeper of the squad together.

Loxton and Saggers

Essex had probably dreamed of bowling out the Australians soon after Bradman s dismissal, and more so after Hammence s. The 500 came up, and though Bradman knew that his side had sealed the game, he still refused to declare. The News Chronicle wrote that it “was all part of his deliberate, merciless, efficient plan, brilliant in its execution, to build up the biggest possible psychological advantage for the Australians over the English bowlers as a whole”.

So Loxton and Sagger s continued. The duo managed to polish off whatever confidence was left in the Essex side with some merciless hitting. Loxton took 76 minutes to bring up his hundred, while Saggers, on his 31st birthday, brought up his maiden First-Class hundred in 94 minutes. It would remain his only First-Class hundred.

The partnership added 166 for the sixth wicket in 66 minutes, flattening the Essex confidence completely. By this time the crowd had stopped cheering, and to quote Arthur Mailey, they were “so surfeited with the slaughter” that they began to leave an hour before the close. The Guardian wrote the next day: “Interest started veering to the microphone announcements of children searching for their aunts and wives wondering about their husbands.”

Loxton fell first, for 120, and suddenly the rest of the wickets fell in a heap. Peter Smith ran through the rest of the wickets picking up 4 for 193, and from 664 for 5 the Australians collapsed to if that is the word 721 (leaving Saggers unbeaten on 104), with less than 10 minutes remaining on the opening day. Amazingly, there were only 9 extras in the innings. The Essex openers were saved from batting on the day. Not that it helped.

Rumours ran that the Essex scorer had lost track of the score, and the scorebook had to be updated later with a lot of corrections. The scorecard on the ground ran out of options once Australia reached 700, since the Hundreds column only had numbers from 1 to 6.

Thus, as the Australians walked back, the team score read 21. The apologetic Essex secretary later confessed: “I didn’t expect we would ever need a seven on the hundreds reel.”

Bailey, who had never conceded over a hundred runs in an innings till then, and had removed Brown and Miller in consecutive deliveries, broke his left index-finger while stopping a pull at short-leg. Though he was unfit to bat, he bowled on, and returned figures of 2 for 128. This became one of Bailey s favourite anecdotes in later years.

There were criticisms that the bowling was weak, and that the ground was small and hence 721 might not be a total as big as it looked on paper. Bradman responded with “the ground was of average size and the most certainly larger than some we played on”.

About the attack, Bradman mentioned that Bailey was “rated the best bowler in Cambridge and one of the most promising fast-medium bowlers in England”; Ray Smith was “a very useful fast-medium who bowled in-swingers to a leg field, a type of bowling hard to score from”; Peter Smith was a Wisden Cricketer in 1946 and had visited Australia in 1946-47; and Eric Price, an ex-Lancashire player who had topped Lancashire s bowling averages two seasons back.

They finished with the following figures: Bailey 21-1-128-2; Ray Smith 37-2-169-2; Peter Smith 38-0-193-4; Price 20-0-156-0; and additionally, Vigar 13-1-66-2.

Essex s batting

Essex had time to heal their wounds on Sunday, which was a rest day. However, on Monday, which was also the Whitsun Bank Holiday, they once again took field in front of 16,000 spectators. In a short burst of hostile bowling, Miller picked up 3 wickets, leaving Essex reeling at 13 for 3, got bored, and was taken off.

Ernie Toshack, brought on first-change, routed Essex for 83 (Bailey did not bat) with 5 for 31. Miller had 3 for 14.

A stunned Essex went out to bat again, and a clearly disinterested Miller was taken off after 2 overs. This time Ian Johnson reduced them to 46 for 6. The amateur captain Pearce, a dour batsman and a popular character, hung around grimly with Smith for company, and added 131 for the seventh wicket, both batsmen scoring fifties.

Johnson finally broke the partnership when he had Pearce caught-and-bowled, and Barnes, of all people, trapped Smith leg-before for 54, mopping up the innings for 187. The Australians had won the match by an innings of 451 runs in two days. Johnson finished with 6 for 37.

What followed?

– This was this match from which the Australian juggernaut really took off. Bradman wrote: “Here, it seemed to me, was the first really tangible sign that we possessed a team of exceptional batting strength, one which would scourge any but the best bowling.” Charles Williams wrote in Bradman s biography: “They collectively announced their true intentions. Opponents were there to be defeated; and were, whenever possible, not just to be defeated but to be annihilated. The purpose was to establish a psychological ascendency over any and every opposition to carry through to the Test matches.”

– The Australians remained undefeated on that tour, and went on to be tagged as The Invincibles in the annals of cricket history. They won the five-Test series 4-0. On the entire tour they topped 350 on 24 occasions. They bowled out their oppositions for below 200 on 37 occasions (7 of them for below 100, including bowling out England in a Test for 48). Outside the Tests, no team managed to score 300 against them.

– Bailey had his revenge 16 years later on the same ground. Though it was not exactly 721, led by ‘The Boil , Essex scored 425 for 6 on the opening day of the tour match against Bobby Simpson s Australians. They made the Australians follow-on, and eventually won the match by 6 wickets.

Brief scores:

Australians 721 (Don Bradman 187, Bill Brown 153, Sam Loxton 120, Ron Saggers 104 not out, Sid Barnes 79, Ron Hammence 46; Peter Smith 4 for 193) beat Essex 83 (Ernie Toshack 5 for 31) and 187 (Tom Pearce 71, Peter Smith 54; Ian Johnson 6 for 37) by an innings and 451 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 on Twitter @ovshake42)