A Fine Bloody Way to Start a SeriesMartin Chandler |
It is certainly true that the MCC were not particularly keen to send a side to Australia in 1946/47, so soon after the war. But they were pressed by the Australian Board and, in light of that and a personal plea from the Attorney-General and Deputy Leader of the ruling Australian Labour Party, they eventually agreed. The series was lost 3-0, and it has somehow come to be thought of as having lacked quality, been one-sided and inevitably lost by an aging and under-prepared England side.
The Australian team was a very strong one, containing the nucleus of the side that less than two years later would become the best the game had seen up until then. There are some who maintain that they are entitled to that accolade still. That much acknowledged it is still the weakness of the aging English team, ravaged by years of war, that is usually cited as the reason why the series was lost. In truth though they really weren’t that poor being, arguably, just a poor umpiring decision, some penicillin and a dropped catch away from bringing the Ashes home.
The English top five were of the highest quality; Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook, Bill Edrich, Denis Compton and Wally Hammond. The first four were all in their prime, around 30 years of age. Hammond was much older, at 43, and had a miserable tour with the bat, but he had topped the First Class averages in the 1946 season, and his travails appear to have been caused at least as much by “non-cricketing” factors as by anno domini. Of the other batsmen, Joe Hardstaff was an established Test player. Laurie Fishlock was a veteran, and an odd choice, but he had been very successful in 1946. Jack Ikin and the batting all-rounders Norman Yardley and Jim Langridge were all reasonable selections.
England’s wicketkeepers were the brilliant young stumper Godfrey Evans, and Yorkshireman Paul Gibb. The latter was the man in possession and began the series with a Test batting average of more than fifty. Gibb was a competent wicketkeeper, but even his most fervent admirers would have to acknowledge he was inferior to Evans behind the stumps. It was the bowling where England were weak, although even then they had two world class performers in Alec Bedser and Doug Wright. The pace bowling contingent was a mere three, Bedser being supported by Bill Voce and Dick Pollard. Voce was 38 and doubtless selected as a result of his stirring deeds in the past. He did not take a wicket in the two Tests in the series in which he appeared. Pollard was 34 and did not feature in the Tests. A huge amount of work therefore fell on Bedser, whose only support came from Yardley and Edrich. The story in the spin department was the same the second leg spinner, Peter Smith, failing to provide any penetration in the two Tests in which he played, leaving Wright very much on his own.
As to whether England were under prepared that is a difficult assertion to support. There had been a full domestic season in 1946, and while the arrangements for the tour were put in place more hurriedly than normal there was still a period of almost two months between the team arriving in Australia and starting the first Test. The truth is that Sir Donald Bradman had it exactly right when he maintained his warning to his team throughout the series; Don’t feel you are so far on top of these boys that you can give them a chance. Give them two more good players and they’d be a difficult lot to topple.
England’s preparations were not helped by rain affecting the matches that led up to the first Test at the ‘Gabba, but the opening day of the series dawned hot and humid. Bradman won the toss and batted. Voce took the new ball and began with a maiden over to Sid Barnes. Morris did not look uncomfortable against Bedser initially, but in the Surrey man’s second over edged him to Hammond at slip where the England captain made no mistake so, at 9-1 it was enter The Don.
After serving briefly in the RAAF Bradman had been a PT supervisor in the Army, but had been invalided out as a result of fibrositis and, ridiculously, poor eyesight. He had also suffered from gastritis, as a result of which he had lost a stone in weight, and had picked up a shoulder injury, so there was very real doubt as to whether he would play at all. At that time his tally of runs in Test cricket stood at 5,093, at an average of 97.94.
All contemporary reports write of Bradman’s slow walk to the wicket, English journalist Bruce Harris described him as accustoming his eyes to the sun as he crawled out to the wicket. An awkward and unhappy Don edged the second ball he received from Bedser just short of Hammond at slip. A few deliveries later he popped the ball up in front of short leg. Agonisingly for England it dropped where Ikin wasn’t, but England smelt blood. The Australian captain did eventually get off the mark, but on his reaching six Bedser had the beating of him again, an unconvincing thick edge bouncing inches in front of Yardley in the gully. Jim Kilburn wrote Bradman’s survival through his opening minutes was close upon miraculous.
At the other end Barnes was doing his best to take attention away from his captain’s troubles by keeping the score going but, courtesy of a superb catch from Bedser from a full blooded pull from Wright he went for 31, and the score was 46-2. It took two attempts for Bedser to cling on, but the ball was travelling at such speed and so far above his head that that in no way detracted from the quality of the catch. In the score book how a catch is made is of no import as long as it is held, but in this situation the speed of Bedser’s reactions served only to further galvanise the spirits of his teammates. Bradman was joined by Lindsey Hassett. The Australian captain had scratched his way to 28 when, shortly before lunch, the incident occurred that all Englishmen who saw it, as well as many Australians, were to argue changed the course of the match and the series, as well as Bradman’s career.
By now Voce was back on. Clif Cary, who later published a book on the series, was commentating at the time, watching the action through a powerful pair of binoculars – his words were; The next ball from Voce rises as it goes away and Bradman is out ….. Bradman out, caught Ikin at second slip, bowled Voce, for 28. In his book, Cricket Controversy, he went on; To me there was no doubt about the legality of the catch and when Bradman just stood there looking down at the ground, I was astounded, and at first thought it must have been a no ball, and I had missed the signal. I quickly realised that this could not have been the case and was at a complete loss for words. Seconds went by. Then came the belated appeal and the umpire’s “No”.
Hammond was furious, and at the end of the over he walked past Bradman and made the remark that gives this feature its title. Whether the comment was directed at either or both of Bradman and umpire Borwick, or whether it was merely an aside to his own men is not entirely clear, but it seems likely it was directed at someone. Hammond always regarded the spectre of Bradman as the one thing that England had to deal with if there was to be any prospect of victory, so we can be certain that his disappointment would have been palpable. Later I will make reference to Hammond’s post match comments, which I very much doubt truly reflected his feelings, but nonetheless after the incident he simply left the matter alone, and it must be very much to his credit that he did so.
In his only autobiography, Farewell to Cricket, published in 1950, Bradman wrote …Voce bowled me a ball which was near enough to a yorker. I attempted to chop down on top of it in order to guide the ball wide of the slip fieldsmen. Instead it flew to Ikin at second slip. In my opinion the ball touched the bottom of my bat just before hitting the ground and therefore it was not a catch. Accordingly I stood my ground waiting for the game to proceed.
He went on to describe the reaction to the belated appeal, adding; Without the slightest hesitation umpire Borwick at the bowler’s end said “Not Out”. He was not even sufficiently doubtful to consult his colleague at square leg. Had he done so the result would have been the same, for Scott wrote an article after the tour in which he said “it was a bump ball”.
The incident clearly caused Bradman some discomfort, and he took the unusual step of making his feelings known to the press soon afterwards, and he dealt with it very defensively, and not entirely accurately in his book, one comment being; The broadcasters were quite unanimous in their view that it was not a catch. It is difficult to believe that, four years on, Bradman was unaware of the views expressed by Cary, who it might be appropriate to add was himself a New South Welshman.
Bradman’s irritation came through in the comment he made a couple of paragraphs later, not really very helpful to him, that I can still recall Frank Chester giving Hammond not-out at Lord’s when I thought he had been clearly caught and bowled by Grimmett, which he followed with the tetchy and delightfully politically incorrect observation that; The women who attend Test Matches, and squeal every time a bump ball is held, would give them all out.
The Don’s final word on a subject he didn’t return to again was I think it important to record that at the end of the match Hammond agreed to the reappointment of the two same umpires, and completely clarified his position by saying “I thought it was a catch, but the umpire may have been right, and I may have been wrong”. Given that Hammond was England captain, and as importantly a representative of the MCC, it is hardly surprising that he felt (or perhaps simply was) obliged to make such a conciliatory statement. And I suspect that even the Don’s “women” would have spotted the sub-text in the statement. His role as captain was as much ambassadorial as tactical, and the last thing the MCC would have wanted was a tour blighted by controversy. And they knew only too well, from the last time it had happened, that an open accusation of unsporting behaviour against an Ashes captain would undoubtedly have resulted in that.
What of the non-striker Lindsay Hassett? Bradman’s successor never wrote an autobiography but was the subject of two biographies. The first was published in 1969 and written by former teammate RS “Dick” Whitington. The match is barely mentioned, and it is impossible to discern any opinion. The second was written by Jack McHarg and published five years after Hassett’s death. No particular source is quoted but McHarg is clear that Hassett thought there was doubt, and therefore agreed with Bradman and the umpires.
The rest of the Australian team were, of course, a long way from the action, as by definition were the press, but interesting perspectives still come from them. Former teammate “Tiger” O’Reilly was famously not a great admirer of Bradman. He did not write a book about the 46/47 series, but did following the 1948 tour of England and he found in that an opportunity to mention the episode and write; As far as the Bradman catch was concerned there was no doubt whatever in my mind. It was a legitimate catch absolutely. Another former teammate turned writer was Jack Fingleton. Like O’Reilly he was something of an agnostic where Bradman was concerned, and again in common with O’Reilly he wrote on the 1948 series but not that of 46/47, but still got his views on the incident into that book; In the calmness of afterwards, when the flurry and skirl of controversy die down, no harm is done in admitting to posterity that Bradman was out at 28.
Bruce Harris was the cricket correspondent of the London Evening Standard. He had travelled with the 32/33 and 36/37 England sides and published books on both series. The fact that the former was entitled Jardine Justified suggests a partisan Englishman – perhaps surprisingly in the circumstances he wrote I must say that from my distant seat I thought the ball came “off the deck”.
Leg spinner Colin McCool was realistic writing later; It may have been a catch or it may not. I don’t know. He followed that with the interesting observation that; Ikin was certain that he made the catch, but with the ball on a flat trajectory, and the bat at an angle, he need not necessarily have known. Keith Miller too, was certain, but as he at the time was sitting next to me in the pavilion that is the biggest mystery of the lot.
By the time Miller came to write about the incident, in 1950, he confined himself to the remark that; Some of the Australian team, who were sitting behind the bowler and had a good view, believed Don to be out. At the time he saw the incident Miller was making his Test debut (the match he had played in against New Zealand the previous season was not given Test status until later) and was due in at the fall of Bradman or Hassett, so it is perhaps understandable that his reaction at the time was somewhat different to his considered position four years on. Miller’s famous bowling partner Ray Lindwall confirmed the division of opinion in the dressing room in his autobiography that was published in 1954, although he added; On his return the Don said he had played down hard on a yorker. There could be no doubt about his sincerity. I was not in a position to judge but, from my long association with him, I would unhesitatingly take his word.
Turning to the England team their ability to comment authoritatively varies with where they were fielding. The man in the Panama hat in the photograph that accompanies this feature is Yardley, so he was perfectly positioned. In his autobiography Yardley unsurprisingly spent time on the subject; I saw that the ball flew up from the top edge of his bat and straight towards second slip. As if anticipating some cross-examination he went on to clarify by adding; I watched the ball bounce from the turf on to the top edge of the bat and from there straight to Ikin’s hands.
Yardley goes on to vividly describe Bradman stood there, head down, awaiting the decision. His conclusion is that the umpire made an error, and while he is at pains to make it clear that he is not questioning Bradman’s sportsmanship it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he actually feels rather differently as he adds; You do not have to play cricket for years to know that a ball chopped down at speed bounces steeply up. It does not travel parallel with the ground at chest height. the only possible implication of that observation being that Bradman must have known what really happened, and that the umpire most certainly should have.
Wright and Compton were at third man and fine leg respectively and therefore, despite their instincts telling both that the catch was good, they were not in the best position to judge. Also behind the wicket were Hammond, as noted utterly convinced that the catch had been completed, and ‘keeper Gibb. It would be fascinating to have Gibb’s take on the incident, but he never went into print and indeed did not play for England again, Evans taking his place for the second Test to begin his long tenure. Evans wrote three autobiographies over the years, and must have been in the pavilion at the time, but the entirety of his reference to the incident was to describe Bradman as having chopped a ball from Bill Voce towards second slip. A confident appeal went up, but it was refused. Perhaps he had doubts.
As for Ikin himself he was 28, relatively long in years but, thanks to the War, short on experience. The game was his third Test and his first overseas. His teammates describe a huge smile spreading across his face when he believed he had the great man, and the absolute conviction that his catch was good never left him. That Ikin was an entirely honourable man was demonstrated later in the same game when he was bowling. Fielding the ball himself he collided with McCool in circumstances where, McCool having lost his balance and fallen, he would have been fully entitled to run him out. In fact he just turned and walked back to his mark in order to allow McCool to recover his ground, and he got a nod of approval for his actions from his captain as well.
Ikin’s county colleague Washbrook was, from the covers, certain too. Not one of the England players near enough to the wicket to see what happened has the slightest doubt that Johnnie took the catch straight from the edge of the bat, were his words in his 1950 autobiography. Hutton, from a similar vantage point, has said little, not even mentioning the disputed catch in his 1949 autobiography, and only doing so in passing in his 1984 book.
Edrich agreed with his teammates, writing in 1948; We heard and saw it hit the upper edge of an almost horizontal bat, adding, after dealing with Bradman’s explanation, every English player thought that it never went within nine inches of the grass. Without elaborating he went on to suggest that the umpire must have been completely unsighted, something it is difficult to picture when second slip is involved.
In many ways the most interesting views expressed by an England player are by Bedser. In 1951 he wrote Don obviously thought the ball scraped the end of his bat onto the ground and then went to Jack Ikin, and the umpire agreed that it was a bump ball, and that was the extent of his reference to the matter. After a lifetime in the game Bedser published another autobiography in 1986. He said rather more this time, prefacing his remarks by confirming that he was fielding at short leg, in his words a perfect position to judge. This time his view was I thought the edge was a straightforward legitimate catch. He added the interesting rider that nonetheless he thought Bradman’s reprieve was the best thing for cricket in the long term. But it is worth noting that those were not Sir Alec’s last words on the subject. Shortly before his death he spoke to Huw Turbervill who was researching his book The Toughest Tour. He quotes the great man as saying; It was debatable, I saw an identical incident the other day on television, and that was given not out.
Was Ikin’s catch a good one? I think the answer to that must almost certainly be yes, but then as McCool pointed out in his 1961 autobiography; What everybody seemed to overlook in the furore is the part played by the umpires. In law there has to be only the slightest doubt in his mind and the batsman stays, which must be right, and rather nails that one.
The next question is whether Bradman knew he was out, and if so was his behaviour unsporting? I think he possibly did think he was out, but I am quite prepared to accept that he wasn’t certain, in which case I can’t see that his sportsmanship can be brought into question. The accompanying image is relevant to this question. As everyone who has ever held a bat in the middle knows if you get an edge the instinctive reaction is to look back to see if the chance has been held. There can be no doubt that the image shows a man looking in the direction of mid off rather than second slip.
If Bradman did believe he was out, or that he probably was, another factor becomes relevant. As Washbrook pointed out in his book there was a different culture in those days in the way Australian players regarded umpires and the way that English ones did. In England First Class umpires were ex-pros, eking out a not particularly good living from a none too easy job. The convention grew up, and in those days was almost universally observed, that a batsman didn’t make the umpires job harder by making him adjudicate unnecessarily. The relationship between umpire and player in Australia was different. Neither umpire nor player was reliant on the game for his living, and the imperative to assist the umpire, and the feeling that all were “in it together” was not the same. Another interesting comment made by Washbrook, and not one I have seen noted elsewhere, is that Australian umpires would rarely consult over decisions such as this anyway, and that the failure of Borwick to even look at Scott, which attracted some adverse comment amongst the England scribes and players, was nothing unusual.
If Borwick’s finger had gone up Australia would have been 74-3. Hassett would have been joined by a debutant and there would have been no specialist batsmen to come. As it was the two experienced men batted for the rest of the day, and Bradman was unbeaten on 162 at the close, all the old majesty having slowly returned as his innings wore on. Next day he took his score to 187 before being dismissed and the all-rounders then took their side to 595-5 at stumps. The third day was rain interrupted, Australia adding 50 more before England closed on 21-1. That night the heavens opened and, caught on a drying wicket, England lost by an innings and 332. Had Bradman gone and England made inroads they could easily have had time to bat for a day and a half themselves on a benign wicket, before condemning Australia to bat again when it was at its worst. In short they might have won the Test.
Another question is what Bradman would have done had he gone for 28 after looking so unconvincing for so long. Many believed he might have retired, but that does seem improbable, and a suggestion that McCool dealt with colourfully, but surely accurately; I know Bradman pretty well and I can’t think he would ever have pulled up his swag and cleared off just on the strength of one failure. In the event he went on to score 234 in the next Test and a half century in each of the next three. Against India the following season he averaged 178.75. And then it was a last hurrah in England as “The Invincibles” rampaged through the mother country. Bradman averaged a mere 72.57, and missed a career average of 100 by a solitary boundary, but 99.94 remains, probably, the most iconic number in the game.
Going back to 1946/47 had England won at the ‘Gabba there might well have been everything to play for in the final Test at 1-1. As it was it was 2-0, and England lost that game by 5 wickets, but Doug Wright had the match of his life. He took 7-105 in the Australian first innings which gave England a narrow first innings lead of 27. Australia’s victory target was 214 after illness prevented Hutton from batting in England’s second innings. Bradman led them home with 63, but when he was on 2 a straightforward slip catch from Wright’s bowling was put down by Edrich. Had England had the Ashes in sight, rather than a consolation victory, perhaps it would have been held. No one will ever know of course, but the lost opportunity is undoubtedly why “the catch that never was” has retained its place as one of the more controversial incidents in the history of the long running sporting soap opera that is “The Ashes”.