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The historic Ashes series of 1946-47

Seventy-five years ago this month, a historic series began.

It included one of the most controversial incidents in Ashes history. That event occurred during its very first session, before lunch on 29 November 1946.

The series marked Test cricket’s recommencement in Australia following a ten-year hiatus. It also began the development of what would become arguably the greatest cricket team of all time.

The Marylebone Cricket Club had accepted the Australian Cricket Board’s invitation to tour in 1946-47 despite fears that English cricket had not yet sufficiently recovered from the privations of World War Two. It has been suggested that the tour was the price to be paid for a reciprocal one 18 months later by a Don Bradman-led side.

The series, and the post-World World One tour of 1920-21, had much in common. Each featured a host country hungry for the return of top-level cricket, and a strong home side led by a ruthless captain and boasting an intimidating new-ball attack. Both were preceded by ‘Victory’ Tests featuring many players who would become outstanding Test cricketers.

Australia had last hosted a series in 1936-37. Post-war, they had toured New Zealand in 1945-46 for what subsequently came to be recognised as the inaugural match between the two countries. England had hosted Australia in 1938 and the West Indies in 1939, and toured South Africa in 1938-39. Post-war, they had hosted the Victory Tests of 1945 and then India in 1946.

The Australian team
Understandably, many pre-war regulars did not return to the side. Missing stars included batsmen Stan McCabe and Jack Fingleton, paceman Ernie McCormick, and wrist-spinners Chuck Fleetwood-Smith and Bill O’Reilly.

The team did include three pre-war batsmen whose peak years unfortunately coincided with World War Two. Don Bradman was aged 38. Colleagues Sid Barnes and Lindsay Hassett also returned, at the ages of 30 and 33 respectively.

Don Bradman. (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Wicketkeeper Don Tallon, off-spinner Ian Johnson and all-rounder Keith Miller had made first-class debuts before World War Two commenced. Leg-spinner Colin McCool, opening batsman Arthur Morris and fast bowler Ray Lindwall played their initial interstate games during the war years. While the side lacked Test experience, its members were still mature and cricket-hardened men.

Australia gave debuts to seven players in the one-off match with New Zealand, and then a further five during the Ashes series. Some would become all-time greats after finally receiving those long-overdue opportunities.

The England team
The tour was the first by England for eight years, and was a long and demanding one. It departed London on 31 August 1946, and returned on 8 April the following year, a period in excess of seven months.

Between the side’s arrival in Perth and the first Test match, more than two months elapsed during which they played no less than ten warm-up games. The overall program featured 29 games in total, concluding with four in New Zealand.

The squad was the strongest that England could possibly assemble. Although experienced, they lacked specialist bowlers and genuine bowling all-rounders.

The visitors relied heavily on ageing pre-war cricketers. Returning players included captain Wally Hammond at the age of 43, and fast bowler Bill Voce aged 37. Both had starred 14 years previously in the Bodyline series. All-rounder James Langridge was aged 40, while opening batsman Laurie Fishlock and leg-spinner Peter Smith were 39 and 38 respectively.

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(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Other established players included batsmen Denis Compton, Joe Hardstaff Junior, Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook, all-rounders Bill Edrich and Norman Yardley, wicketkeeper-batsman Paul Gibb, and leg-spinner Doug Wright.

Post-war, England had debuted just six players against India in 1946. Of them only wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans and medium-fast bowler Alec Bedser would enjoy successful careers.

The Test matches
Playing conditions for the series differed from those both pre-war and today. A once-timeless match would now comprise six days’ play, each lasting five hours. As a result, drawn games were possible for the first time in Australia since 1881-82.

The series began at the Gabba with an overwhelming victory to the home side. They amassed 645 aided by a 276-run stand between captain Bradman and his deputy Hassett. They were the only team members with more than two previous Test caps, and led by example.

England was then caught on a rain-affected pitch and could reply with just 141 and 172, to suffer defeat by an innings and 332 runs. Miller and left-arm medium-pacer Ernie Toshack claimed nine wickets apiece. Off-spinner Johnson didn’t bowl at all, while leg-spinner McCool delivered just one over.

At the SCG in the second match, the Australians recorded another big win. The visitors recorded 255 in their first innings. Australia replied with 8(dec)-659 thanks to a 405-run stand between double-centurions Bradman and Barnes. Despite England improving to score 371, their margin of defeat was an innings and 33 runs.

Baggy green

(Photo by Daniel Pockett – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images )

The home side retained the Ashes at the MCG by setting the visitors an unreachable target to ensure at least a draw. Australia’s innings of 365 and 536 were based on centuries by McCool, Morris and Lindwall. England were asked to score 551 in just four sessions, and their response was 7-310.

At the Adelaide Oval in the fourth match, the visitors again proved competitive to secure a draw. Compton scored a century in each innings, to enable team scores of 460 and 8(dec)-340. Morris and Miller scored centuries in Australia’s first innings of 487. The home side settled for 1-215 in pursuit of 314 in under four hours, with Morris adding a second ton.

The tour concluded at the SCG with another home victory to secure the series by a 3-0 margin. The visitors were restricted to 280 and 186 with the bat, due in part to Lindwall’s nine wickets. Australia conceded a 27-run first-innings lead following leg-spinner Wright’s seven-wicket haul, then overhauled their 214-run victory target with five wickets in hand.

Series summary
Notwithstanding an absence of what could be termed champagne cricket, the tour was a well-supported triumph for the home side. Attendances included 77,221 at the Gabba, 343,675 at the MCG, 137,606 in Adelaide, and 195,253 at the SCG’s first game. The Marylebone Cricket Club made a much-needed profit of 50,000 pounds.

For Bradman himself, it represented redemption and success. He exacted revenge for the national and personal humiliations of 1928-29, then the Bodyline series of 1932-33, and most recently the Oval in 1938.

He relished the opportunity to deploy an intimidating pace attack, Australia’s first since Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald in 1921. A young and impressionable Lindwall had watched Harold Larwood in 1932-33 and bowled with an action very reminiscent to that of the Bodyline star.

Lindwall and Miller targeted an unsuspecting English top order with regular barrages of short-pitched deliveries, and shared 34 wickets. Teammates McCool and Toshack also enjoyed success with the ball.

The home side’s batsmen relentlessly ground down their opponent. They amassed 645 in 11 hours at the Gabba, then 659 in 12 hours at the SCG, and then 536 in more than eight hours at the MCG.

Bradman’s personal contribution with the bat was 680 runs at an average of 97.14, including innings of 187 at the Gabba and 234 at the MCG. Morris scored three centuries and averaged 71.85. Barnes, Miller, Hassett, McCool and Lindwall also scored tons.

Keith Miller

Keith Miller. (Photo by Topical Press/Getty Images)

Prior to World War Two, Barnes and Hassett had been dashing stroke players. Now, they devoted themselves to accumulating as many runs as possible.

The English squad had anticipated a ‘Goodwill Tour’ to herald a return to post-war normality. They quickly discovered that the hosts were being led by a ruthless captain intent on playing hard and winning at all costs.

The visitors did improve during the course of the series, and a number of players did enhance their reputations. However they were ill-equipped to compete on level terms. They also considered many of Australia’s umpires to be incompetent.

Captain and all-time great all-rounder Hammond was clearly past his best. He averaged just 21.00 with the bat with a highest score of 37, and did not bowl. Fellow 1932-33 and 1936-37 success story Voce played just two games for total figures of 0-161.

Compton scored two centuries and Edrich, Hutton and Washbrook one apiece. 1938 triple-centurion Len Hutton was especially targeted by Lindwall and Miller, and did not score a century until the series’ last match.

All of them were constrained by strict instructions to wear down their opponents, rather than take the fight to them. In Adelaide, Evans remained scoreless for a record 95 minutes.

The series’ leading wicket taker Wright paid 43.04 runs for each of his 23 victims. Although Bedser competed manfully his 16 wickets cost 54.75 runs apiece.

Generic Ashes urn

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The big moment
Putting aside the Australian team’s general strategies to defeat their rival, the series had one defining moment. Their central figure was Bradman, just as during the controversies of Bodyline and later World Series Cricket. Hammond, who had been in his shadow since 1930, would again be just a bit player.

Bradman’s participation had been in doubt for some time due to poor health. He had suffered gastritis and a shoulder injury, and lost one stone in weight. It was rumoured, but denied, that a failure in the first Test would prompt his retirement. He eventually played, against doctors’ orders.

The event in question occurred during the series’ very first session of play. It therefore set the tone for the entire summer. Malcolm Knox describes it in his superbly-written 2012 book Bradman’s War:

“At 1/9 Bradman was at the wicket, drained of his old zest. He scratched his way to 28 before chopping a wide ball from Voce to Jack Ikin at second slip. The English team were so certain it was out they didn’t appeal immediately, instead clapping and converging on the bowler and fieldsman.

“Only when Bradman remained, looking to umpire Borwick, did the Englishmen find it necessary to ask the obvious. Bradman stood, uncertain whether he had jammed the ball into the turf. Borwick looked to Jack Scott at square leg. The South Australian umpire, the same who had refused Pepper’s appeals in Adelaide, said he could not give it out. To the Englishmen’s outrage, Bradman was reprieved.

“Hammond waddled up to Bradman and growled, “That’s a bloody fine way to start.

“The English players were crestfallen, not simply because they didn’t get Bradman out cheaply, but because he had snuffed out all hopes of a new, Victory-Test spirit. Compton said the entire series was damaged by Bradman’s not walking.”

Australia ended the day’s play at 2-292. He and Hassett added 276 runs for the third wicket. Bradman was eventually bowled by Edrich, but only after scoring 187 from 316 deliveries.

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(Steven Paston – EMPICS/Getty Images)

The innings then reached 5-596 early in the third day’s play, before ending at 645 all out. Just after the visitors’ reply had begun, torrential rain forced the abandonment of play.

For the remainder of the match, batting conditions on an unprotected and drying pitch were extremely difficult due to the impact of more thunderstorms between periods of strong sunshine. Hailstones were reported to be as large as golf balls. The stumps floated away across an outfield that resembled a lake. The floodwater’s level approached the top of the ground’s picket fence.

Unsurprisingly, Australia’s bowling was often unplayable. Lindwall’s deliveries regularly rose head high, while others skidded through low. Edrich displayed great courage and technique, yet was struck repeatedly. The visitors duly lost their final 19 wickets for 292 runs.

England had commenced the series in the worst possible way. An incorrect call at the toss was followed by what they considered an incorrect umpiring decision favouring the world’s greatest batsman, further compounded by the vagaries of Brisbane weather. They duly lost the match by an innings and 332 runs.

Clearly Bradman had a long memory, and a view that revenge was a dish best served cold. When the two sides had last met, at the Oval in 1938, England batted for three days and humiliated Australia by a record innings and 579 runs. And in each of their previous three encounters in Brisbane, England had been similarly dominant.

In 1928-29 they made a rare declaration in a timeless Test solely to take advantage of a wet and therefore spiteful Exhibition Ground pitch. Australia was dismissed for just 66 in pursuit of a mammoth 742 for victory. Debutant Bradman’s contribution was a duck, after which he was dropped from the side for the only time in his entire career.

Australia's best-ever Don Bradman

Don Bradman. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Then in the fourth Test of 1932-33, Douglas Jardine’s team regained the Ashes in Brisbane by defeating the home side by 322 runs. Bradman fell twice to Harold Larwood, who claimed seven wickets for the match.

Finally in 1936-37, during Bradman’s very first game as captain, Brisbane’s capricious weather struck again. Australia chased 381 for victory, and on a wet pitch were dismissed in just 12.3 overs for 58. His share was a second-ball duck, while Voce claimed figures of 6-41 and 4-16.

The legacy
Within 12 months the Australian side was further strengthened by the addition of batsman Neil Harvey and left-arm fast bowler Bill Johnston. The team quickly earned the title ‘The Invincibles’ following their undefeated tour to England in 1948.

Between 1945-46 and 1951-52 the side played all five then-opponents in a total of 31 matches. In the first 25 of them, they were undefeated. They won 24 of the games, and lost just two. Bradman, Morris, Harvey, Miller, Tallon and Lindwall are regularly selected in all-time first and second XIs. Barnes, Hassett and Johnston also feature regularly in discussions.

That side had no weakness except the absence of a wrist-spinner the equal of Bill O’Reilly or Shane Warne. Their strengths more than compensated, like the West Indies’ dominant teams of the 1970s and ‘80s.

England’s team rebuilt relatively more slowly. After the touring party eventually returned home from the Antipodes, five of their members never played Test cricket again. The side lost to the West Indies in both 1947-48 and 1950.

However the team gradually strengthened. They recovered the Ashes in 1953, and dominated opponents for the remainder of that decade. Beaten tourists such as Bedser, Compton, Evans and Hutton played key roles in those subsequent successes.

While the 1946-47 series helped to reinvigorate cricket after World War Two, the often attritional nature of their matches predominated for two decades. Eventually attacking Australian, South African and West Indian teams, and the rise of new opponents and formats, assisted Test cricket’s eventual evolution into its current state.



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