We look back at the 1954/55 Ashes series
Frank was hit on head by bouncer and it proved turning point of series ...
Paul Edwards continues his look into the Ashes archive with an era that England dominated. But it took an incredible display of raw pace from a relative novice to swing the series away from the Aussies who had won the first Test in 1954/5
Who’s the fastest bowler you’ve faced?” It is the tired question asked of every Test batsman doing a Q&A at a cricket dinner. But behind the whiskery enquiry lies a valid and persistent fascination.
We can measure most athletes’ performances yet an accurate speed gun was developed too late for Michael Holding and Jeff Thomson.We have to make what we can from our memories and from evidence such as Holding’s famous over to Geoff Boycott or Thomson’s technicolour destruction of England’s batting in the Seventies.
And what to say about fast bowlers we can only watch on grainy newsreel footage? A few balls have to suffice for Harold Larwood, although they are sufficient to suggest the rich flavour of the Bodyline tour. All the same, some cricketers still felt their prowess was diminished by mere monochrome. “It’s funny how black-andwhite film makes you look slower,” observed Fred Trueman.
The personal impressions of participants are often all that remain to us but they can be remarkably revealing. Take this, for example, from the Australian all-rounder, Ron Archer, on his dismissal in the first innings of the Sydney Test in December 1954: “It wasn’t an edge. The ball was so fast that the force of it turned the bat in my hand. I can remember being able to watch the ball flying to Hutton at slip; he was so far back it was like being caught in the outfield.”
The bowler who accounted for Archer was Frank Tyson, a 24-year-old English Literature student at Durham University. But it was not Tyson’s habit of quoting Wordsworth that caused the Australians most concern on that tour; it was his ability to bowl a cricket ball faster than anyone else on earth.
“Before or since?” you ask. Well, in 1976 when Sir Donald Bradman had witnessed the first flowering of Holding and Andy Roberts, he said Tyson’s bowling in England’s three victories of that Ashes series was the quickest he had seen; and Bradman had faced Larwood in his fearsome pomp. Richie Benaud, who played all five Tests in 1954-5 and was to see more live international cricket than anyone else, concurred with the Don.
“Tyson’s best pace was nothing short of startling to batsmen and spectators alike,” said JM Kilburn. “He represented an elemental force obscuring the details of his technique and the highest tribute he received was the gasp of incredulity frequently emitted by the crowd as the ball passed from his hand to the distant wicketkeeper.”
Tyson himself wrote: “To bowl quick is to revel in the glad animal action; to thrill in physical prowess and to enjoy a certain sneaking feeling of superiority over the other mortals who play the game. No batsman likes quick bowling, and this knowledge gives one a sense of omnipotence.”
But perhaps we should obey the ICC’s current fashion and add some context to all this cultured machismo. Then we might see why Tyson’s 28 wickets in that series – 25 of them taken in the middle three Tests – were so feted, and how their genesis can be traced to an old coach’s advice and an unwise bouncer.
For most of the Fifties there was little doubt as to which was the best Test team in the world. In the eight years following their Ashes defeat in 1950-1 England contested 14 series, winning ten of them and losing none. At the heart of this dominance were three successive Ashes triumphs and the most prized victory of all was the 3-1 victory in Australia in 1954-5. It was an era of supremacy, although the teams led by Len Hutton and Peter May were neither complacent about their superiority nor did they ever regard it as effortless.
Hutton, in particular, knew how difficult it was to win in Australia. Appointed in 1952 as England’s first professional captain since the early, unrepresentative missionary tours in the previous century, Hutton had played ten Tests Down Under since the war and had lost seven of them. That became eight defeats on December 1 1954 after he had invited Australia to bat at Brisbane – the Hussain Gambit – and seen Ian Johnson’s batsmen pile up 601-8 declared, Neil Harvey making 162 and Arthur Morris 153. England lost by an innings and 154 runs. Tyson’s figures were 29-1-160-1.
The Australians, though, were aware of Tyson’s raw pace. He had dismissed Colin McDonald and Graeme Hole in his first over of the season when Northamptonshire hosted the tourists in 1953. The home Press may have been intrigued by Hutton’s famous comment at the beginning of the 1954-5 tour that “we’ve got a chap called Tyson. But you won’t have ’eard of ’im, ’cos ’e’s ‘ardly ever played” but Johnson’s experienced cricketers were unlikely to have been gulled.
The problem at Brisbane was that Tyson’s 30-yard run-up did nothing for his rhythm while quickly exhausting him in the Australian climate. The solution was suggested by Alf Gover, at whose famous indoor school Tyson had trained. Gover told Hutton two days into the Brisbane Test that his fast bowler should return to the shorter run-up he had initially used in England but that he should maintain his forward momentum in the delivery stride.
Tyson tried out his old run-up in the game against Victoria. He took 6-68, bowling five batsmen, splitting McDonald’s thumb and hitting Neil Harvey on the pad so ferociously that the batsman had to remove it to restore feeling. It was as if England had suddenly found the way to remove a pin from a grenade.
Tyson took 4-45 in the first innings of the next Test but Australia gained a 74-run lead. Peter May’s first Ashes century and his 116-run partnership for the fourth wicket with Colin Cowdrey then gave England some hope of setting their hosts a demanding target. However, the tourists’ chances of victory seemed slight when Tyson, who had previously bowled two bouncers at Ray Lindwall, was knocked unconscious by another bumper, the great Australian fast bowler graphically reminding him that the fast bowlers’ unwritten code of conduct could not be flouted with such impunity. It was probably the turning point of the series, although not in the way Tyson’s colleagues feared. Let us allow Hutton to take up the story.
“We watched horrified as he went down like felled timber and lay inert and still. There was a hush around the ground, and it took some time to get him onto his feet to the dressing room, where he was stretched out on the massage table, surrounded by medics and anxious teammates. When he came out of the concussed state I swear there was a new light in his eyes as if a spark had been kindled deep inside him. I am not given to fanciful imagination, and the fact is that when he resumed
I can remember the ball flying to Hutton at slip; he was so far back it was like being caught in the outfield - Ron Archer
bowling the next day he was a yard, maybe a yard and a half faster than before.” In the modern era of wise medical protocols Tyson may have been prevented from bowling for weeks. On December 21, 1954, he had a hospital check-up, resumed dismissed batting the Les same Favell afternoon as Australia and later began their pursuit of 223. The next morning Tyson bowled Jim Burke through the gate, yorked Hole and, a little to his own surprise, caught a skier at square leg to remove Benaud. In the afternoon session he bowled downwind for 90 minutes, taking three further wickets, including that of last man Bill Johnston, to finish with 6-85 in the innings and 10-130 in the match. England won by 38 runs but the tension as Harvey and Johnston added 39 for the last wicket tested the prose of the journalists. “Harvey played like a genius,” said John Woodcock, rising to the occasion. “Women grew hysterical, and the spectator in front of your correspondent mistook his dark glasses for his pipe.” Yet if Tyson’s ten wickets grabbed the headlines over Christmas 1954, England’s new hero remained anxious that sufficient credit should be paid to his new-ball partner, Brian “George” Statham, a fast bowler whose Test career seems to have been spent bowling into the wind. “There would have been no victory without George,” wrote Tyson, “He was indefatigable.”
Statham was a fast bowler in his own right and one who moved the ball off the seam rather more than Tyson. He took 18 wickets in the 1954-5 Ashes series and was as accurate as his partner was fast. When Tyson took nine wickets in England’s 128run victory in the third Test at Melbourne, the whippet-thin, whippet-fit Statham chipped in with another seven as England took a grip on the series. Noticing Statham sitting in the bar of a hotel one evening, Bradman said to Hutton: “I do hope that man gets the credit he deserves.” Yet perhaps it is Arthur Morris’s comparison of the fast-medium bowling of Trevor Bailey to that of England’s
new-ball bowlers that gives one a true sense of Tyson’s pace. The shrewd Morris said the difference between facing Tyson at one end and Statham at the other was the same as the difference between facing Statham and Bailey.
Frank Tyson rarely recovered the rhythm of his great summer. The remainder of his career was blighted by a heel injury and he only played nine further Tests after he returned from the New Zealand leg of the 1954-5 tour. In 1960, like Larwood a decade previously, he emigrated to Australia and eventually became a respected coach, welcomed and honoured in the country whose cricketers he had once humbled.