“A rainy Manchester day seems greyer than any other, the roofs seen from the hotel windows look wetter, the houses more sombre.” Thus opens Chapter Four of Richie Benaud’s A Tale of Two Tests. Then came August 1, 1961. On that day, Manchester, for Australians in general and Benaud in particular, was simply heavenly.
Not that anyone saw it coming, least of all Benaud. Australia’s captain was in no sort of form. He’d spent most of the tour in pain, sometimes excruciating, mostly the nagging sort that deprived his bowling of “zip”. At the very outset, at Worcester, he ripped a tendon at the top of his right shoulder, potentially crippling for a wrist-spinner. He recovered sufficiently to toss up in the drawn first Test at Edgbaston, only for the shoulder to “go” again, causing him to miss the next at Lord’s.
Led by Neil Harvey, Australia won the so-called ‘Battle of the Ridge’. Benaud returned at Headingley, as did Peter Barker Howard May. Captaining England for the first time since an ulcer truncated his Caribbean tour in early 1960, ‘PBH’ emerged immeasurably the happier. Fred Trueman and his mojo were in complete and irresistible harmony; on a pitch John Arlott derided as a “dusty freak”, the Yorkshire maverick cut his run, dipped into his bag of tricks and pulled out his secret weapon: a devilish off-cutter. In the first innings Australia lost their last eight for 50 (Trueman 5-16 in five overs); in the second they were even feebler, losing their last eight for 21 (Trueman 6-4 in 45 balls, including Harvey, Norm O’Neill, Bobby Simpson, Ken Mackay and Benaud without conceding a run). It was all over by the third evening. All-square with Old Trafford looming – not the most welcome sight for baggy green eyes.
For Australians, Lancashire had long been synonymous with agony and misery. Not since 1902 had they won an Ashes Test there. The 1938 Test was abandoned without a soul taking guard; even Don Bradman’s flame was doused – in four innings his peak was 30. Then, in 1956, came the biggest chiller of all – Jim Laker’s n-n-n-nineteen.
The last week of July 1961 brought no respite. The final day of the fourth Test had barely begun and Australia, to all intents and purposes, were up a creek and paddle-free. Trailing by 177 after an innings apiece, they were buoyed by Bill Lawry’s second hundred of the rubber (“worth at least the Military Cross” reckoned Alan Davidson) and resumed on 331-6, but added just three as David Allen’s off-breaks whisked out Mackay, Wally Grout and Benaud. Given the presence of May, Ted Dexter and Ken Barrington in the home camp, the lead, 157, appeared perilously paltry.
Davidson, whose formidable all-roundedness would take nearly five decades to replace, was joined by Graham “Garth” McKenzie, a nerveless maiden tourist. Encouraging the rangy young quick to give it a go, “Davo” climbed into anything driveable: 20 were clouted off one Allen over, climaxed by a six into the railway wall; Mackay was “amazed the ball didn’t burst”. The last pair piled on 98, swelling the target to a considerably more demanding 256 in 230 minutes. Upon returning to the dressing room, attested Harvey, Davidson was “mobbed”.
This, though, was shaping up as Dexter’s Test. He’d already taken six wickets, his most productive Test with the ball; now he regaled spectators and viewers with perhaps the most vivid demonstration yet of his clean-hitting brand of buccaneering orthodoxy.
Sauntering in at 40-1, England’s lordly No.3 lost no time in opening his shoulders and showing his officer class. In 84 minutes of controlled mayhem in consort with the more sedate Raman Subba Row, he struck 76, 62 in boundaries. “He was in a murderous mood,” Mackay would recollect, “and when he is like that no one can touch him.” Never had the artist otherwise known, sardonically, as ‘Slasher’ seen an Australian attack “flayed like that”. Hailed by Benaud as “one of the best short innings I have ever seen”, there was “no margin anywhere” for error.
Perversely, this worked to Australia’s advantage. Ludicrously, some England players, betraying the conservatism of the age, would blame Dexter for what ensued.
It was a cool, cloudy afternoon, but still Benaud called for drinks. “I wanted a break to regroup. I had a very quick team meeting in the centre of the ground to tell them that, thanks to Ted, there was no way we could now draw the game, it was a case of win or lose.”
At that juncture, there was only one winner, much to May’s unease. To him, the target had been unattainable: “Short of a miracle, it was unrealistic to consider it seriously on that pitch.” Dexter’s onslaught changed all that. “We had to go on,” May would acknowledge, the sense of obligation quaint. He also knew that if Benaud could break the second-wicket stand, the rest of the batsmen would be in a bind, “honour-bound to press on but having to take chances on a worn pitch and without time to settle in”. Honour-bound? Fifty years is assuredly a long time in cricket.
Before every session and during every break, Benaud had been having “exercise treatment”; each time the shoulder felt better, stronger, more supple. Confidence was “creeping back”. Being a popular leader was a further boon: he inspired complete trust. This was due in no small measure, scorer Jock Cameron told Gideon Haigh in The Summer Game, to his literal approach to one-for-allness. “Richie had a rule that if we were given anything, there had to be twenty-one of them. For instance, Remington offered him an electric razor and a typewriter but he made sure we all got them.” Indeed, Benaud had set the tone on the outbound voyage aboard the Himalaya, splashing out his entire £50 captain’s tour allowance on a team party.
One memory of England’s last Ashes tour, in 1958-59, moreover, was buzzing away. Seeing the craters left by Trueman’s footmarks outside the right-hander’s leg stump reminded him of the MCC-Australian XI match in Sydney: aiming for Trueman’s imprints, Tony Lock bowled his left-arm slows over the wicket to devastating effect, winning the match. With Dexter in full flow, emulating Lock – ie, as a right-armer, going round the wicket – was a massive risk. Benaud was desperate enough to take it.
As 4pm approached, tea beckoning, England needed 106 at a run a minute and Benaud had sent down 17 fruitless overs. Then, in his second over from that new angle, he defused Dexter: champing at the bit after five dot balls, Milan’s foremost contribution to cricket cut at the sixth, a top-spinner, and Grout snaffled the edge. Here, indubitably, was affirmation of everything Benaud had ever felt about the margin separating glory from ignominy: “If that ball had spun another quarter of an inch or even landed on the seam, it would have missed the edge…and England would have been lionised the next day.”
The captains’ duel was brief and utterly one-sided. Attack, for Benaud, was the sole option: “It was no good trying to keep May quiet.” Landing on leg stump, the first ball was patted back. The chastened bowler scolded himself: “Get it further out, you idiot.” The next found the footmarks; fresh from a commanding first-innings 95 but hamstrung by strategic uncertainty, May, unconvincingly, swept with a vertical bat; the ball nipped back behind his pads and kissed leg stump. For “a terrible fraction of a second” Benaud was as bemused as May, who awaited the official verdict, but when his downfall was confirmed, Benaud – plainly not the retiring sort, on any level – erupted with delight.
Now it was England’s turn to crumble. In eight overs either side of tea, Benaud struck six times as May’s self-fulfilling prophecy was realised. Unsure whether to swing from the hip (Brian Close, unfairly cast as scapegoat) or bite that bottom lip (Subba Row, Barrington), the resistance melted, the last nine wickets evaporating for 51. Brought back after Benaud began to feel the strain of his three-hour stint, Davidson had the final word, castling Statham with just 20 minutes remaining, sealing Richie’s finest hour as player, leader and adventurer.
On as captivating a final day as any Test has ever served up for our delectation, Australia had conjured the rabbit of victory from the black hat of defeat – twice. “More than at any other game I have known, the final day provided revealing material for self-examination as a critic,” confessed the veteran reporter Ron Roberts. “Thrilled” as he was by Davidson’s power, and marvel as he did at Benaud’s enterprise, the Daily Telegraph man found it difficult keeping his allegiance – and dismay – in check. He wasn’t alone.
“I think it was the best Test I played in,” reckoned Davidson, no mean accolade given that, in common with half a dozen teammates, he’d also played in that immortal Brisbane tie against West Indies the previous December. “Go on, Rich, dive in,” exhorted O’Neill as he filled the communal bath. “With your luck you won’t even get wet.”
To Harvey, the comeback “bordered on the impossible”. Three hours later, as they sipped champagne on the dressing-room balcony, he and Benaud recalled the delirium that followed Laker’s triumph half a decade earlier. Toasting “sweet revenge”, they revelled in the golden silence.