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The 1958/59 Ashes in Australia


Ashes_1958_1959_Series_Australia_England_Test_CricketWhen the ship carrying the MCC tourists to Australia for the 1958-59 series left England sixty one years ago, it contained what the cricketing Press generally agreed was the strongest ever party to leave the country. Having held the Ashes for the past five years, there was a strong expectation that the urn would be retained under Peter May's captaincy.

England's Raman Subba Row, as yet uncapped and on his first tour, was extremely optimistic about the side's chances: "We had strong all round batting and bowling so was fairly confident when we set off."

Keith Slater, another uncapped player but soon to become the first Western Australian to play in an Ashes series, had noted the composition of the tour party and guessed that the home side might be in for a struggle:

"On paper, England looked quite formidable in all departments ...we were very wary and respectful of the English whom we rated very highly. The MCC bowling was in the hands of the fastest bowler in the world at that time, 'Frank 'Typhoon' Tyson; Peter Loader; Fred Trueman; Brian Statham; Trevor Bailey and the world class spin combination of Tony Lock and Jim Laker - a useful group to say the least! The middle order of May; (Colin) Cowdrey and (Tom) Graveney was potentially very good. The wicketkeepers were also strong, with veteran Godfrey Evans and Roy Swetman."

The Australians had gone through an unsettled period, but there were signs that better times lay ahead, according to Slater, as the start of the series loomed:

"Australia were a new look side with some exciting batting machines coming out of the woodwork. Jimmy Burke and Colin McDonald were reliable opening batsmen; the middle order of Neil Harvey, Norman O'Neill, Les Favell and Slasher Mackay was backed up by quality all rounders Alan Davidson and Benaud. Promising young batsmen Bobby Simpson and Peter Burge were also in contention. Norm O'Neill was, in my opinion, technically the best since Bradman - in fact, had he had Bradman's head piece he would have been the equal! Do I make my point?"

Early matches in Perth, against WA and a Combined XI, saw encouraging performances from players on both sides. Graveney's 177* was the highlight for the visitors whilst Slater recalls his own impact for WA:

"In MCC's second innings, a strong south westerly blew in which caused our captain, Ken Mueleman, to change his tactics. At this stage of my career, I bowled quickish off 19 yards; fast medium off 12 yards and off spinners off 8 yards. As Ken put it, when he approached me, he needed some big strong bastard to push up wind with some good line and length bowling and he would let loose his quicks down breeze!

“I accepted the challenge and decided to try and bottle up the problem end with some outswingers. In my third over, the ball for some reason started reverse swinging - I clean bowled Peter Richardson; then May got a good one first ball that hit middle three-quarters of the way up. On the hat trick ball, Cowdrey missed one that was hitting middle - he looked at me, nodded and went to walk! 'Not out', boomed umpire Jack Gillott - I shook my head in disgust! Arthur Milton then went LBW and Graveney was caught down the leg side. At that stage, MCC were 44-4 and I had 4-14."

Three wins and three draws followed, although Subba Row remembers how an injury in the final State game before the first Test caused a potential selection headache for the tourists: "When I was fielding, the ball went into the gap between thumb and first finger. I didn't think that I could play later with a broken bone - this was just after I had made runs earlier in the same match against Queensland."

On the eve of the opening Test, England still seemed to have the stronger side and were favourites to come out on top. They were in for a big shock - heavy defeats in Brisbane and Melbourne, by 9 and 8 wickets respectively, meant that by the third Test they were battling to keep the series alive.

 This was Keith Slater's debut and the first morning is still vivid in his memory:

"It was a hell of a buzz actually being picked to play in Sydney, after being 12th man in the 2nd Test..I was into the attack before lunch on the first day. Talk about a duck out of water - that was me."

In England's first innings, Slater had May and Dexter out to off spinners - by lunch on the opening day, he had figures of 2-5. Straight after the break, without conceding any further runs, he had Swetman dropped at leg slip by McDonald. They would remain his only two wickets in what turned out to be his sole Test.

Australia's first innings ended slightly awkwardly for Slater: "Going out to bat, Richie said to me 'Tell Griz (Wally Grout) to get on with it, Spud.' Message relayed and almost next ball Wally is out going for a big hit... not really keen to throw my wicket away, I play six balls from Laker before pushing one to mid wicket for a single. Mecko (Ian Meckiff) goes for a big hit and is caught - innings over. I came in and Wally immediately confronts me with 'you tell me to get on with it and what do you do - play down the line - no jack system in this team, Spud.’”

A draw was followed by two thrashings in Adelaide and Melbourne, by 10 and 9 wickets respectively - the weary and battered tourists had lost the Tests 4-0 to a rejuvenated Australian side that had completely dominated the highly controversial series.

So what went wrong for the tourists?

A surprise announcement before the series even began proved to be a masterstroke for the home side - Neil Harvey was expected to be named as the new captain, but the selectors opted for an attacking alternative whose approach inspired team mates - as Keith Slater relates:

"Australians are always better when well led and in the 58-59 series they were splendidly led by Richie Benaud, assisted by Neil Harvey. The two of them tended to intimidate the opposition with their 'coolness'."

In contrast, May was often criticised for his caution and the tourists' overall management style was seen as aloof and autocratic.

England's struggles against hostile fast bowling, often delivered by players with suspect actions, had severely dented confidence after the first two Tests and would continue to cause resentment throughout the tour. The events of the series would eventually instigate longer term action from the authorities over the whole issue of 'throwing'.

Keith Slater acknowledges that "…the series was tarnished by the throwing controversy... England was shell-shocked to say the least. The Poms were not happy with the selection of Ian Meckiff who, I must admit, was bowling very confidently - having got 6-38 in Melbourne. It would be fair to say that Mecko's action was, on occasions, 'doubtful'. According to the England batsmen, Mecko hit the bat very fast - unusually fast!

“My action was a little doubtful when bowling off 19 yards, according to friends, but a clean skin when bowling my off spinners - my main method of bowling at first class level."

Four Australian bowlers had suspect actions, whilst the issue of 'dragging' further aggrieved the tourists - speedsters Gordon Rorke and the recalled Ray Lindwall dragged their back feet excessively after landing in the delivery stride. To add to his dubious action, Rorke would often be unplayable after delivering the ball from only eighteen yards away at times - Colin Cowdrey apparently joked that, when facing Rorke, he was scared that the bowler would tread on the batsman's toes. Raman Subba Row confirms the difficulty: "The bowlers drag was indeed a nuisance and caused problems for all of our batsmen."
Injuries also hampered the tourists, with two-thirds of the party injured at one time or another - this had a significant impact on England's batting prospects when losses of form could not be covered by others. Keith Slater recognised a major problem: "England had a glaring flaw in their makeup - opening batsmen! Peter Richardson and Arthur Milton just did not measure up, forcing the selectors to promote Trevor Bailey to open when injuries and form prevented an alternative."

Unhappiness over what was perceived as biased home umpiring led to a number of disputed decisions - Colin McDonald sportingly giving his wicket away in the fourth Test after his clear run out was wrongly reprieved the previous ball. By this time, the tourists were almost completely demoralised and offered little resistance from then on.

Whilst there were various problems for the tourists, they cannot be used as excuses for the comprehensive defeat. They were simply outplayed by a resurgent home side that was well led; bowled superbly; made enough runs to put constant pressure on the opposition and fielded brilliantly.

For some of the ageing England players, it was the end of the road for their Test careers and a period of rebuilding was about to start. Nevertheless, the Ashes were back with Australia after a gap of nearly six years - England's wholly unexpected series defeat meant that it would be twelve long years before Ray Illingworth's side wrested them back in the 1970-71 series.

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A cricket-loving teacher who has written articles on the game for various media outlets. Years in t...

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