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The Ashes Preview - Part 1
11 Jun 2005
By: Eddie Sanders


With the Aussies in town, the preliminaries well in sight and the main event just the other side of the horizon, there's time to pause for thought and reflect on Ashes contests of the past before we concern ourselves with the events of 2005.

On the first day of August 1989 at Old Trafford, Manchester, Australia won the fourth test match of the summer against England and in the process, deservedly found themselves in an unassailable 3-0 lead in the Ashes series. So drew to a close a period of largely Botham-induced English dominance - at least according to folklore.

In truth, the sides had been more or less evenly matched for the previous two decades with possession of the Urn passing regularly between the protagonists, and rarely defended more than once before bragging-rights moved south or north across the equator. In an era of West Indian dominance, the regular, closely fought contests between the oldest of enemies were a blessed relief from crushing defeats at the hands of the men in maroon caps.

From 1989 through to the present day, the Ashes have been the proud property of Australia - a series of largely one-sided contests that still manage to capture the imagination and pack the grounds on both sides of the world, despite their all too predictable outcome.

Every couple of years or so, the thoughts of cricket writers turn to the main event to come. The captain of England is heard making optimistic noises - there would be something wrong if he didn't - and his words are quoted and misquoted by an over-enthusiastic home press. Inevitably, former Australian test players crawl over one another in their enthusiasm to be the first to predict the near certainty of a whitewash (there has only been one in a series of note, and that was over eighty years ago). Finally, for two months, reality ceases and to all effects the world could stop turning, not that any cricket lover would notice.

So, what's it all about, this contest between leather and willow, Englishman and Australian, roast beef and barbecued prawn?

The Early Years

It started on 15 March, 1877, when Alfred Shaw (from Burton Joyce, Nottinghamshire, England), bowled the first ball to Charles Bannerman (from Woolwich, Kent, England, one of six players born outside of Australia to represent the home side in that first contest) at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Bannerman went on to become the first centurion, the first player to retire hurt and the first player to have a substitute fielder in Test Match history. His total of 165 was a staggering 67% of his side's completed innings, a record that stands to this day.

Three years later, the Kennington Oval staged the first 'Test Match' in England, although there had been unofficial tours beforehand, notable for the number of wickets bagged by the remarkable Fred Spofforth. The 1880 event witnessed three Grace brothers playing together for England for the only time. WG, opening the batting with EM, scored a century, which was instrumental in Lord Harris's side's victory, but for the redoubtable slugger Fred, an anonymous match ensued without him troubling the scorers. Tragically, a month later, he died of pneumonia.

Fred Spofforth was Australia's first truly great fast bowler. He took the first-ever hat-trick in test cricket, held the best match bowling analysis for his country for a century and regularly took 300 or more wickets in a season, although it must be stressed that many games were of a questionable standard, being little more than exhibition games. He was also instrumental in the birth of 'The Ashes' themselves, two years later.

Spofforth's second innings 7-44 was, it is said, to spite WG Grace who is supposed to have employed skulduggery and subterfuge at worst - gamesmanship at best - to entice Sammy Jones out of his ground before running him out. The furious Spofforth was heard to accuse Grace before England went out with a mere 85 to win of being 'a bloody cheat', adding that 'this will lose you the match'. 'The Demon' was inspired, and tore the heart out of the England side for the second time in as many days.

At the end of the week, the famous obituary 'In Affectionate Remembrance of English Cricket Which Died at The Oval on 29th August, 1882', penned by Reginald Brooks, was published in The Sporting Times, and a legend was born.

In one way or another, one Gentleman - WG Grace - inevitably dominated the early days of Anglo-Australian contests, at least from an English perspective. The man was Box Office, guaranteed to put 'bums on seats', and he ensured that a fair amount of the lucre fell his way, despite his amateur status. He even found time to keep wicket for England - in 1884 - and took a catch the very first ball he wore the gloves.

Uncovered pitches were the order of the day, so much so that there were any number of remarkably low scores - in fact, a score under 100 did not automatically consign a team to humiliating defeat. In January 1887, England won a match despite registering a mere 45 in their first innings.

For the most part, England shaded those early encounters, as one would expect from the 'inventors' of the game. Both sides had their fair share of immortals - CB Fry, Ranji, Bernie Bosanquet (the inventor of the 'Bosie' or googly) on one side, Victor Trumper and Charlie McCartney on the other.

Australian Dominance

The First World War saw a shift in the balance of power, at least momentarily. Jack Hobbs, the most prolific batsman in the history of the game, proved for once and for all that one man with bat in hand cannot always guarantee success, although a decade later, another was to come close. The 1920/21 series, won decisively by Australia, proved to be the only whitewash worthy of the name in the history of the Ashes.

The likes of Bertie Oldfield, Bill Ponsford, and Clarrie Grimmett held Australia in the ascendancy for a while, but the tide turned once more in the Old Country's favour, albeit temporarily. Hobbs was joined by Wally Hammond and Patsy Hendren and then, in the late 1920's by two players, as different as chalk and cheese, whose names still ruffle more than a few feathers in the antipodes - Harold Larwood and Douglas Jardine.

At the same time, a young man from Cootamundra, New South Wales was forcing his way into the State side at the tender age of 19, and within a year was knocking on the door of a depleted Australian national team. Donald Bradman made an inauspicious start, scoring just 18 and a single in the first Test Match ever staged at Brisbane in 1928, and he was relegated to carrying the drinks by the time the teams had reached Sydney.

Come the Melbourne match at the turn of the year, Bradman had been recalled, but despite registering two centuries in the last three matches of the tour, he was unable to prevent England from taking the series by an impressive 4 matches to 1. A year later, in 1930, the greatest batsman the world has ever seen had scored an unprecedented 974 runs in a series, a world record 334 in an innings, 309 in a day and England were running scared. What Hobbs had failed to do a decade earlier, Bradman achieved just two years into his career - he dominated a series from start to finish.

Bodyline

The following Ashes series, the most famous and infamous of them all, saw Anglo-Australian relations sink to their lowest ebb. Douglas Jardine was given the captaincy of England and the master tactician hatched a plan to nullify Bradman. 'Bodyline', as it became to be known, was seen as the means of exploiting the one perceived weakness of The Don's - the fact that he wasn't all that keen to get perfectly in position behind the ball.

'Fast Leg Theory', as it was initially known, was bowling on a leg stump line to as many as eight men on the leg-side, much as Bill Voce had done for years, but he was a left-arm in-swing bowler. Larwood, his Nottinghamshire partner, was much, much faster and extracted an awful lot of bounce from pacey wickets - an altogether nastier proposition, at least if you were an Australian batsman.

Bradman's form leading up to the first test of the 1932-33 series was patchy to say the least - a double century in domestic cricket hardly tipped the balance in his favour when weighed against half a dozen lowly scores against the tourists, Larwood especially. As it was, influenza floored Bradman and kept him out of the first test that England won at a canter thanks to centuries from Sutcliffe, Hammond and The Nawab of Pataudi together with ten wickets from Larwood, bowling a conventional off stump line.

Bradman emerged from his sick bed to face England for the second test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and was summarily dismissed first ball, aiming an ugly hoik at a short ball from Bill Bowes only to drag the ball on to his wicket. The match was a low-scoring affair with only Jack Fingleton for the home side and Herbert Sutcliffe for the visitors passing fifty.

Australia held a lead of 59 on first innings, and were soon in desperate trouble when they came to bat again. 'Bodyline' as it came to be known, was given its first trial by fire as Bradman strode out to the middle with two wickets down and just 27 on the board - and it failed miserably. Bradman was simply irresistible, backing away to leg an instant before the ball arrived, cutting and carving through the non-existent off side as the five short-legs watched helplessly. The Don's undefeated century came out of his side's total of just 191, and it left the visitors with too much to do as Australia roared back to 1-1 in the series.

England recovered from a desperate start in the third test at Adelaide with Leyland, Wyatt and Paynter dragging them back from 37-4 at lunch to a more than respectable 341. Enter Australia, enter Bodyline for real. Gubby Allen, who throughout the series had refused to bowl in an intimidatory manner, opened the bowling and had Jack Fingleton back in the pavilion without scoring. Larwood, on the other hand, decked Australian slipper Bill Woodfull with one that thudded into his chest.

As Don Bradman looked on from the non-striker's end, Douglas Jardine uttered the immortal words to his talismanic strike bowler which were to have such diplomatic repercussions: 'Well bowled, Harold'.

Another rearing delivery knocked the bat from the hapless Woodfull's hands, and as Larwood turned his attention to Bradman's ribs with five catchers almost inside his hip pocket, Adelaide came as close as it ever has to a full-scale riot. After Woodfull had been dismissed for a brave and painful 22, clean bowled by Allen, he had to receive lengthy treatment in the dressing room. At this time he was heard to remark that 'There are two teams out there - but only one is playing cricket'.

A terrible injury to Bertie Oldfield, ducking into a short ball from Larwood, was the last straw. The Australian Board of Control cabled The MCC in a carefully worded message of complaint, mentioning the word 'unsportsmanlike', and Lord's thrust the words straight back their throat with an air of diffidence. The reply commenced: 'We, Marylebone Cricket Club, deplore your cableā€¦' Nothing remains to be said other than the brave Woodfull top-scored in the second innings with73 not-out, Bradman made 66 and that England won by 338 runs to take a 2-1 lead in the series.

Much politicking went on behind the scenes with accusation and counter-accusation before the fourth test commenced at Brisbane. The boos echoed around the packed stands on the first morning, but with the home side firmly in the ascendancy at 200-1 in the afternoon, the barracking was conspicuous by its absence. Day two saw Bradman 'running away to leg' and Larwood soon had his man, bowled off stump by a ball of good length. Australia collapsed - and so did their hold on the Ashes as England won by six wickets.

With the Ashes as a contest out of the way, the fifth and final test in Sydney was purely and simply Larwood v Bradman - everything else was a mere side-show to the main event - and the public didn't have long to wait.

Australia won the toss and elected to bat, losing Richardson to Larwood in the first over. This brought The Don to the crease and he and the Nottinghamshire paceman continued their own private duel. Larwood strived to register a blow upon Bradman's body, and the Australian destined to become a legend sought to cut the ball from outside leg stump through the sparsely populated point region.

Bradman, his torso unbruised, went in familiar fashion, bowled Larwood, for 48 before lunch on the first morning, Australia eventually amassing 435 thanks to their redoubtable middle order. England made steady progress throughout the second afternoon, moving on to 153-2 shortly before stumps. Out strode Larwood as night watchman - a job he performed quite splendidly.

For the first and only time in the entire tour, Harold Larwood endeared himself somewhat to the crowd as on the third morning he drove and crashed his way to only his second fifty in international cricket, falling eventually on 98, tantalisingly close to a maiden century. His contribution with the blade allowed England to exceed the total posted by the home side by just 19, with Hammond making 101.

The second innings started in ominous fashion, Richardson converting his first innings duck into a pair. Once again battle was joined between the main protagonists, and Larwood's opening salvo was a steepling bouncer which Bradman slammed to the boundary with an extraordinary tennis stroke. Larwood wanted his man - and dismissal was of secondary importance.

Bradman's stance at the wicket owed more to a combination of baseball and boxing than any classical cricketing pose, for this had become a confrontation almost gladiatorial in nature. Larwood, by now struggling with a foot injury, eventually sustained a hit, a painful blow on the arm, but in truth cricket was the loser. Douglas Jardine only let Larwood leave the field once Bradman had been dismissed.

When Hedley Verity finally and anti-climactically administered the coup-de-grace for 71, Bradman and Larwood left the arena together, although in effect heading in different directions. For Bradman, immortality awaited, yet for the man who proved that he was human, test matches would be a thing of the past. The architect of the master plan to recapture the Ashes, Jardine, was rewarded by being asked to captain England again whereas the willing tool who made it possible found himself ostracised from international cricket.

The Dominance of Bradman

It took Bradman a while to get going in the 1934 series in England. The home pace attack bore no resemblance to that which had made so many enemies in the encounter 'Down Under' a little more than a year earlier, and it was ironic that the first match should be held at Trent Bridge, the stamping-ground of Larwood. Arthur Chipperfield fell just one run shy of a century on debut, and Australia ran out easy winners.

Lord's saw Hedley Verity's guile altogether too much for the visitors, and assisted by hundreds by Leyland and Les Ames, England squared the series with an innings victory, while the third test at Old Trafford was a tame draw on a feather-bed with seemingly everyone bar Bradman advancing their averages. Three tests done, all square and the great man hardly able to put bat to ball - memories of 1930 were fading fast.

That Bradman put a strong Yorkshire side to the sword on the eve of the fourth test at Headingley should have been ample warning for all and sundry - either the drought at last was over or that all good things come to an end, dependent upon your viewpoint. Firstly Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett had England all in a spin for just 200, and at stumps on day 1 the visitors themselves were in dire straits on 39-3.

The next wicket fell shortly before stumps on day 2. In the interim, Bradman and Bill Ponsford made hay in the July sunshine, putting on a massive 388 for the fourth wicket before Ponsford fell, more to tiredness than any demons in the arm of Hedley Verity, treading on his stumps. Bradman went on and on to amass a quite splendid 304 before he too succumbed, and after he departed the rest of the side folded. England were saved as the weather closed in, and with a solitary match to go, the Ashes were still, tenuously, in the hands of the home side.

The first five hours of the fifth and final test at The Oval settled matters in no uncertain fashion. Edward 'Nobby' Clark rearranged Bill Brown's timber early on, then Ponsford and Bradman rearranged the smiles on English faces as they gave the fielders the run-around in a partnership of no less than 451 for the second wicket. The carnage was only ended when Bradman (244) gave Les Ames a catch off the bowling of Bill Bowes shortly before stumps.

Day two saw Bill Ponsford dismissed hit wicket once again, but not before he had taken his tally on to 266, a patient, grafting innings yet every bit as valuable as that of the swashbuckling Bradman. Australia went on to finish on 701, and there was still time for England to progress to 90 without loss before the close.

A depleted England capitulated on the third day, and their total of 321 would have been far less if it hadn't been for the innings of Maurice Leyland (110) which held the middle order together. The Australians made 327 in their second innings, leaving England the small matter of 708 to win, or an eternity to bat for a draw, this being a 'timeless' test. Clarrie Grimmett made sure that the Urn was changing hands again as England were skittled for just 145.

The winter tour of 1936-37 saw Bradman captaining Australia for the first time, but it was England who got off to a flyer in the series, with Gubby Allen and Bill Voce skittling Australia for just 58 at Brisbane and 80 at Sydney, where Wally Hammond finished undefeated on 230.

The tide turned with the changing of the year at Melbourne, yet as Australia declared on 200-9 on a rain-affected pitch after winning the toss, it looked more than likely that England would be sailing home with the Ashes once again. Morris Sievers and Bill O'Reilly had other ideas, and this time it was England's turn to fail to make it to three figures.

Bradman's inspired captaincy by declaring and forcing England to bat with the wicket in an almost unplayable condition could easily have backfired if Gubby Allen had reciprocated, but that is hindsight speaking. As it was, England batted through the worst of the conditions and Hammond's painstaking 32 was described as one of the greatest he had ever played.

More Bradman brilliance was to follow as the wicket continued to behave erratically as it dried. In a move calculated to buy time, he sent in tail-enders O'Reilly and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith to open the innings, soon to be followed by Frank Ward. The Don himself went in at seven, and he and Jack Fingleton flayed England all around Melbourne and the home side won by 365 runs to keep the series alive. Bradman's 270 stands out in the scorebook as the reason for Australia's win, but it was the leadership and quick thinking of the man which won the day.

Yet another Bradman second innings double-hundred dragged Australia from behind at Adelaide, and with Fleetwood-Smith bagging ten wickets in the match, the sides went back to Melbourne all square, yet in fairness England were a spent force. They had thrown everything at Australia in their bid to achieve that which Jardine had managed a few years before, but this time in keeping within the spirit of the game, and had been repulsed time and time again by one man.

Predictably, that man, Bradman, led from the front again at Melbourne, falling early on day two but not before he had plundered another 169 runs at the expense of England's shell-shocked attack. With McCabe and Jack Badcock contributing hundreds of their own, England were routed by an innings and the Ashes remained firmly in the grasp of Bradman.

1938 was a year of flat tracks, runs, runs and more runs. It started with England winning the toss and batting at Trent Bridge, accumulating a mammoth 658-8 with no less than four hundreds including an undefeated double by Eddie Paynter. Australia's reply would be irrelevant if not for Stan McCabe. In what has been described as one of the top 10 innings ever played in the history of the game, he tore England to shreds in the second half of his innings, last man out on 232 made out of just 411.

Australia followed on with defeat very much a possibility, but centuries by Brown and Bradman saw to it that the sides would be level when they got to Lord's, where Hammond for England and Brown for Australia made double hundreds. Australia were set an impossible 315 to win, or two and a half hours to bat for a draw, and contrived to lose six wickets in amassing 204, with Bradman contributing precisely half.

Manchester was a washout, so on to Leeds, where on a dreadfully difficult wicket Bradman mastered the conditions once more with an inspired 103 to help his side to a five-wicket victory and with it, secured the Ashes once more.

The final contest before the world was plunged into chaos was held at The Oval, and featured more records than you could shake a stick at - the small matter of 364 for Len Hutton, grinding way past Bradman's own record, 903 runs for England and 335 overs bowled by Australia. There was also the remarkable analysis of 1-298 for the unfortunate Fleetwood-Smith - and that was just the first innings.

Australia lost by an innings and 579 runs, having to do without Bradman and Fingleton in either of their innings. Thus the last Ashes series of the short peace following 'The War to End All Wars' ended as so many others had - with little to choose between the sides.

Battle Rejoined

It would be eight long years before the cricketers of England and Australia were to resume their own private battle. At this point it is worth mentioning that Ashes veterans Ross Gregory, Kenneth Farnes, George Macaulay and Hedley Verity were killed on active service during World War II.

A certain Donald George Bradman was waiting when England sailed for Australia at the end of 1946 - and within an over of the start of the first game at Brisbane, it was as if nothing had changed. The England bowlers were flayed as if the 903 rattled up in the sides' previous encounter was a ghost that had to be laid post-haste. Bradman's 187, together with contributions from Lindsay Hassett, Ernie Toshack and the great all-rounder Keith Miller, placed the Old Country firmly in their place, Australia winning by an innings and 332 runs.

Bradman's hunger for runs showed no sign of abating by the time the teams reached Sydney. Ian Johnson and Colin McCool had England in a spin, all out for 255, then Bradman and Sid Barnes both tamed the demons in the wicket, each making 234. Going into the sixth and final day, England were 247-3 with Bill Edrich going strong, but McCool picked up five second-innings wickets as Australia once again triumphed by an innings.

Australia had the better of things in the third and fourth games of 1946-47, both of which ended in draws, before ramming home their superiority when the sides returned to Sydney for the fifth and final test. On this occasion, Ray Lindwall was the hero, picking up 7-63 in the first innings, although if Len Hutton had not been struck down with tonsillitis on the second day when undefeated on 122, the outcome of the game might have been different. As it was, England returned home once again without possession of the sacred Urn.

On to 1948, and Bradman's last tour. Possibly the strongest Australian side to date are pitted against an England team which is beginning to show some promise, having seen off South Africa the previous year, although they had been well beaten in the West Indies during the winter.

England made a disappointing start to the series at Trent Bridge, failing to make 200 against Lindwall, Miller and Johnson, before the inevitable hundred by Bradman followed by a similar contribution from Hassett put the home side under immense pressure. Denis Compton, who went on to win an FA Cup winners medal with Arsenal two years later, mastered a tricky surface before he was dismissed by Miller for 184. Australia had little trouble in making the 98 required for victory.

England were routed by more than 400 runs at Lords before rain spoiled an intriguing encounter at Old Trafford where Compton's first innings century had put the home side firmly in the driving-seat, then all eyes turned to Headingley for The Don's farewell appearance at his favourite ground.

England made a wonderful start through Hutton and Cyril Washbrook before first Bill Edrich then night watchman Alec Bedser joined the run feast. At one stage, England stood on 423-2 before collapsing to 496. Opening bowlers Bedser and Pollard made early inroads into the Australian batting line-up, including the prized wicket of Bradman, before the middle order restored normal service, thanks largely to Neil Harvey, leaving England a mere 38 ahead with two days to go.

A solid if unspectacular batting performance by England on day four left Australia with the small matter of an implausible, if not impossible, matter of 404 for victory on a turning track, a feat they achieved with ease following the early setback of the loss of Hassett to Compton.

Arthur Morris and Donald Bradman took advantage of numerous fielding errors to add an amazing 301 for the second wicket before Morris was caught off the bowling of Yardley for a quite brilliant 182. Bradman, meanwhile, continued until the job was complete, ending on 173 not out and with a Headingley average in excess of 190.

Bradman's farewell was possibly the greatest anti-climax in the history of the Ashes, if not the whole of test cricket. Rain intervened, turning the wicket at The Oval into a pudding and England sank without trace for just 52 with Hutton first in and last out for 30.

As the weather improved, Australians Barnes and Morris found the going easier before Barnes departed with the total on 117. Bradman was applauded all the way to the middle in this, his final game at the highest level, a fortnight before his fortieth birthday. He blocked his first ball and was bowled by the second, delivered by leg-spinner Eric Hollies. There was to be no second chance, no farewell hundred. Morris made 196, England capitulated for a second time and an era had drawn to a close.

Bradman was knighted for services to cricket a year later, having scored 6996 runs in 70 completed innings, an unprecedented average of 99.94. He had been bested only once, and that by debatable tactics employed by Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood. Who's to say that, given a second opportunity to play against 'Fast Leg Theory', he wouldn't have mastered that too?

The Post-Bradman Era

The second half of the twentieth century started in the same way that the first half had ended - with England beaten and bewildered by a vastly superior Australian outfit, although the sides were separated only marginally in terms of ability. A truly awful wicket at Brisbane, destroyed by the inclement weather, saw the last 27 wickets fall for 231 runs with the home side winning by 70 runs.

At Melbourne, another desperately close, low-scoring affair saw Australia again emerge victorious as England failed to master the first 'mystery spinner', 35 year-old John Brian 'Jack' Iverson, playing his only season at the highest level. Iverson had originally started out as a pace bowler, but after a protracted layoff from the game owing to military service, he started playing cricket once more, but this time as a spin bowler.

Iverson's style was unusual to say the least as he gripped the ball between thumb and index finger, a technique which allowed him to bowl leg-breaks, off-spin and top-spinners with no discernible change in his delivery action

An undefeated century by Keith Miller was largely responsible for Australia enjoying a first-innings lead at the SCG in the next game. Once again it was Iverson who put the skids under the visitors in their secord innings, taking 6-27 in the second innings as Australia moved into an unassailable lead.

A double hundred by Morris was the difference between the two sides when they reached Adelaide. It is possible that Australia would have gone on to record only the second ever whitewash in Ashes series but for the freak accident which befell Iverson as he trod on the ball and injured his ankle - an injury which eventually ended his career.

Although Iverson was able to play in the final test at Melbourne, he was largely ineffectual, this despite the fact that the pitch was affected by rain which washed out the second day. England had Reg Simpson's undefeated 156 in the first innings to thank for only needing 95 for victory, a feat they achieved with some ease.

Iverson's mercurial career had lasted merely five matches, between December 1950 and February 1951, during which he took 21 wickets at an average of just 15. Two decades later, his technique would be emulated by John Gleeson, but with little of the success.

The series of 1953 was overshadowed somewhat by the conquest of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, vying for the headlines alongside the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. As far as the Ashes were concerned, though, two men held sway - Alec Bedser and Trevor Bailey.

Lindsay Hassett's Australia won the toss at Trent Bridge and elected to bat, overcoming the early loss of Graeme Hole for a duck to march past 100 without further setbacks before Bedser struck twice in quick succession to have the visitors rocking on 127-3. Hassett and Miller added more than a hundred for the fourth wicket in increasingly difficult light before Bedser (7-55) and Bailey came back with a bang, grabbing the last seven wickets for just a dozen runs, the last six going down for a handful.

Australia's meagre total of 249 swelled to epic proportions in comparison with England's first innings, as the home side crumbled to 144 all out before the pace of Ray Lindwall. The visitors themselves fared no better when they came to take their second knock as once again Alec Bedser proved to be unplayable as he bettered his first innings performance to take his match aggregate to 14-99.

Whether the rain saved England or Australia is debatable. The fourth day and half of the fifth was washed out before England, chasing 229 to win, crawled to 120 in a little under 60 overs as the game petered out into a tame draw.

Lord's was the venue for the only match of the series where the bat held sway for much of the game. For Australia, skipper Hassett again led by example, grafting his way to a century on the first day. His opposite number, Len Hutton, countered with a big ton of his own and with Lindwall countering Bedser's nap hand with one of his own, the sides were proving closely matched in all departments.

Keith Miller and Arthur Morris seemed to have put the game firmly within Australia's grasp with fine knocks and when England were reduced to 20-3 in search of 343 to win by the end of the fourth day, an Australian lead seemed certain. Willie Watson and Trevor Bailey had other ideas though, holding firm for over four hours before both perished, although the tail held on in order to scramble an unlikely draw.

Manchester lived up to its reputation as the rain capital of the Northern Hemisphere, it taking more than two days for Australia's first innings to be concluded. Neil Harvey's hundred was the only innings of note by either side. England took a whole day in scoring 276 before an extraordinary final hour of the game saw Australia disintegrate to 35-8 in their second innings.

On to Headingley with the series still level, the Yorkshire weather proved to be as inclement as that on the other side of the Pennines. Australia enjoyed by far the greater share of the spoils with both bat and ball in the first innings, taking a lead of 99 despite Bedser's best efforts. When Lindwall et al had reduced England to 171-5 in their second innings, a lead of only 72, victory in the match and retention of the Ashes seemed assured.

They reckoned without Trevor Bailey, who batted for more than four hours in scoring 38. Jim Laker, too, signalled his intent to be a major thorn in antipodean sides with a priceless 48 of his own. Still, it seemed too little, too late. Australia set off in search of the 177 to win with gusto, racing past 100 in little more than an hour. Bailey then endeared himself still further to the Australians, bowling a negative line and slowing the over rate down until the draw was assured.

The decider at The Oval saw a fearsome paceman make his Ashes debut, having utterly destroyed India the previous year. Fred Trueman had made his test debut at the same time as Alec Bedser, but failed to consolidate his place in the England side despite his prodigious talent, although this was probably due to him having even less respect for authority than he ever had for batsmen. His first day of combat against the Old Enemy was rewarded with figures of 4-86 as Australia were bowled out for 275.

England edged things on first innings scores, despite Lindwall's best efforts, before Jim Laker and Tony Lock gave England a great chance to take the series in the second innings, picking up nine wickets between them. A grinding half-century by Bill Edrich saw England home with a day to spare and with it, a first Ashes series victory for more than two decades.

A Short Period of English Dominance

Brisbane, 1954, saw England receive the rudest of awakenings, and all it took was the toss of a coin and a questionable decision. Almost half a century later, Nasser Hussain would make precisely the same mistake at the same venue, and he has yet to live it down.

Hutton called correctly, put Australia in and England had cause to reflect, as they chased the ball for over two days, upon what was a questionable decision at the best of times but with an all-seam attack, one verging on the insane. Big hundreds by Morris and Harvey saw Australia pass 600, then a solid bowling performance by the evergreen Ray Lindwall together with backup from Johnson, Johnston and Richie Benaud put Australia one up.

England came back from the dead at Sydney in the second test. Conversely, Australia won the toss and put the opposition in, but on this occasion it was arguably the correct decision as only a stubborn last-wicket stand of 43 between Johnny Wardle and Brian Statham dragged England up to 154. Australia made 228 despite the best efforts of Bailey, Statham and Frank Tyson before a fighting ton by Peter May in England's second innings left Australia with a tricky 223 for a 2-0 lead, but not before Ray Lindwall had felled Tyson with a bouncer.

Tyson tore in on the final day and produced some of the fastest, most hostile bowling seen in Ashes contests since the days of Harold Larwood. Australia were simply blown away by Tyson and the nagging Brian Statham, with only Neil Harvey able to withstand the onslaught, ending undefeated on 92 as England squeezed home by 38 runs to square the series. 'Typhoon' Tyson finished with 6-89 in the innings and 10-144 in the match.

When battle resumed in the New Year test at Melbourne, England won the toss and batted, recovering from an awful start to a far-from-respectable 191, thanks almost entirely to a maiden test century by Colin Cowdrey. Keith Miller and Ron Archer were the destroyers-in-chief, taking seven wickets for virtually nothing. Australia fared little better, struggling to 231 as the series hinged in the balance.

England had cause to thank Peter May (91) and 'Barnacle' Bailey, who played a legendary innings of 24 in a little under four hours at the crease, for having 240 runs to defend. It was plenty, for Tyson was developing a taste for Australian batsmen. As the wicket went from bad to worse, Tyson was simply unplayable, picking up 7-27 in just 12 overs.

England's powerful attack was altogether too much for Australia at Adelaide as the series was duly wrapped up and posted home. For the third game in succession, the home side were well in the contest until the second innings when a combination of Statham, Tyson and speedy spinner Bob Appleyard put paid to their hopes.

Three days of rain put paid to any realistic hopes of a result at Sydney, but the shell-shocked Australians almost contrived to lose in the remaining two, beguiled by the spin of Johnny Wardle. Thus a series which started in embarrassing fashion for England ended with them making off with the small Big Prize.

And so to 1956, the year of Jim Laker.

In mid-May, Laker had claimed all ten Australian wickets on the first day of the match between Surrey and the tourists. On the second day, Tony Lock took seven wickets himself - just to remind them that great bowling sides hunt in packs.

The first match between England and Australia at Trent Bridge was all but ruined by the weather, however a series of sporting declarations salvaged a little of the contest as Australia, faced with 258 to win on a sticky turner, opted for safety. Lock and Laker wheeled away for three hours hardly conceding one run per over as the elements eventually claimed the game.

Keith Miller put the visitors in a strong position at Lord's, picking up five wickets in each innings, but it was Richie Benaud with a splendid 97 who put the game out of England's reach, Australia eventually winning by 185 runs.

Headingley, for so long the happy hunting ground for Australia in the Bradman era, became a dress rehearsal for the rest of the series. Peter May and Cyril Washbrook, adding 187 for the fourth wicket, rescued a disastrous start by the England upper order, then Lock and Laker got to work, reducing Australia to 81-6 by stumps on day 2.

The third day was washed out but with the wicket turning square, Australia were routed twice by the Surrey Spin Kings to lose by an innings. Laker finished the match with figures of 11-113 - but he was only warming up.

Manchester, 1956, was Jim Laker's Finest Hour - and yet it nearly never was. England won the toss and elected to bat, and Peter Richardson (104) and Colin Cowdrey (80) gave them an excellent start, adding 174 for the first wicket. When Rev. David Sheppard chipped in with a hundred of his own, England at one stage were 288-2. Perseverance by Ian Johnson and Richie Benaud pegged England back to 459, but what followed was surreal.

Statham and Bailey turned their arms over to take a little shine off the ball, and McDonald and Burke seemed to be in little trouble. Suddenly, Laker started to cause problems. He removed McDonald and Harvey in the same over before Lock grabbed his own piece of history by having Jim Burke snapped up by Colin Cowdrey, although no-one knew it at the time.

The next half an hour was purely and simply a procession as Laker bemused, beguiled and finally bagged the last seven Australian batsmen in four overs to end with a breathtaking 9-37, the greatest piece of bowling in test match history - so far. There was neither rhyme nor reason for such a capitulation on a second-day wicket. As if to prove the point, Australia had little difficulty, following on, in negotiating the period to the close of play for the loss of Harvey, caught first ball by Cowdrey off Laker following the temporary departure of McDonald.

The fickle Manchester weather permitted just a quarter of an hour's play on the Saturday - sufficient time for Laker to pick up Jim Burke, ironically caught by Lock at short leg. The Monday was just as bleak, during which less than an hour's play was possible which McDonald and Craig negotiated unscathed.

The weather finally remitted on the last day yet the wicket seemed devoid of demons - at least until the afternoon when the sun came out. As if a switch had been flicked, Laker whipped out four in quick succession - first Craig, trapped in front for a defiant 38 made in a Bailey-like four hours, closely followed by Mackay, Miller and Archer, all for ducks.

The seemingly indefatigable McDonald found a stubborn soul-mate in Richie Benaud and the pair held England - and Laker - at bay for another hour. Then, immediately after tea, McDonald's marathon came to an end a mere 11 runs shy of an unlikely ton. Half an hour later, Benaud was bowled, then Lindwall was caught by Lock giving Laker the first nine, before a shout for leg before wicket against Len Maddocks was upheld.

Jim Laker had taken all ten wickets to fall in an innings of a test match, the first time such a feat had ever been performed, and it has only been equalled once since. Furthermore, his match analysis of 19-90 and 17 wickets in succession are unlikely to ever be beaten.

Australia salvaged a draw in the final game of the series at The Oval thanks largely to the vagaries of the English climate, scraping their way to 27-5 in two hours against Lock and Laker, who took his series tally to 46 wickets. England had successfully defended the Ashes again - the last time they would achieve the feat for another decade.

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