Boxing Day Blues

In The Ashes by Bill Ricquier

Image: Mitchell Johnson bowling a bouncer to Graeme Swann at the WACA during the 2013-14 Ashes in Australia. By Dan Heap (Mitchell Johnson – bouncer) lincensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of all the things that have gone wrong on England’s disastrous 2013-2014 tour of Australia, none has been quite so bizarre and unprecedented as the mid-series retirement of their highly accomplished off-spinner Graeme Swann. His fall from grace was spectacular. Having been the leading wicket-taker in the previous Ashes series which concluded only weeks before this one started, and having been a thorn in the Australians’ side in two previous successful Ashes campaigns, his inability to make an impact now was a significant factor in England’s losing the first three Tests. That said, his precipitate departure was also a factor in England’s astonishingly, almost transcendentally, inapt performance in the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne. It also left a nasty taste in the mouth; rarely has the time-worn analogy of rats and sinking ships seemed more appropriate.

Given the length of cricket tours in the distant past, it is odd that Swann appears to have been the first cricketer to have retired in the middle of one. They used to take so long that it would not have been at all surprising if a player had written a three – volume novel or joined the Foreign Legion or had a sex change operation while on tour.

When Len Hutton’s MCC tour party went to Australia and New Zealand in 1954-55, they sailed from Tilbury on the S.S Orsova on 15 September 1954. On the 28 September they played a notch in Colombo. They arrived in Fremantle on 7 October. They then played one “country” game and six four day first-class games before the first Test started at Brisbane on 26 November. One feels that our own pampered heroes would have been prostrated with exhaustion by this time. On the face of it England did not look in great shape. Hutton won the toss and put Australia in. (If one can be certain of anything, it is that Nasser Hussain’s “analyst” in 2002-03 – whoever he, she or it was – was unaware of this fact.) Australia made 601 for eight and won by an innings.

But this was just the beginning. In one of the greatest of all Ashes series, Frank Tyson demolished and demoralised the Australian batsmen in much the same way that we have seen Mitchell Johnson doing to the English this time round. England won three Tests. The fifth Test, at Sydney, ended in a draw on 3 March 1955. But that was not the end of the tour. That night the party flew to Christchurch for a tour of New Zealand. They played two Tests, in the second of which, at Auckland, New Zealand were bowled out for 26. That notch ended on 28 March, two days early. The players went home the pretty way by way of Fiji, Honolulu, San Francisco and New York. The whole experience took almost exactly twenty nine weeks and they were back pretty well in time for the English season.

Of the five Tests played on that Australia tour, two were played at Sydney – the second which took place between 17 and 22 December (Sunday was a rest day) and the fifth. The third Test at the MCG was played between 31 December and 5 January. Although the MCC played Western Australia at Perth, the WACA did not gain Test status until the MCC toured under Ray Illingworth in 1970-71: until then in a five Test series either Sydney or Melbourne would host two games. That 1970-71 series became a six-match series with two matches at Melbourne, the scheduled third Test having been abandoned without a ball being bowled. The sides played a one-day match instead, which set something of a trend.

None of the Melbourne games mentioned so far started on Boxing Day. The traditional Boxing Day fixture was far more visceral than a more international match: it was Victoria’s home Sheffield Shield game against New South Wales.

There was a certain amount of confusion in the Channel 9 commentary box on Boxing Day 2013 when it emerged that a record attendance figure had been set. Ian Healy declared that it was a record crowd for a Boxing Day Test beating the figure previously set in the famous series between Australia and the West Indies in 1960-61. Bill Lawry quietly – or at last, not especially noisily – pointed out that that record had been set in February. (There were two Melbourne Tests in that series neither of which involved Boxing Day.) Nobody really cared; what the hell, it was still a record. There was so much to celebrate if you were an Australian. Or if you were Mark Nicholas who seemed in danger of succumbing to spontaneous combination doing some of Johnson’s more exciting spells.

The first Boxing Day Ashes Test was in 1974-75. It was a remarkable game. England were two down after two Tests so it was vital at least not to lose. They made 242 in their first innings and Australia responded with 241 (Bob Willis five for 81). Second time around, England made 244 and Australia finished on 238 for 8. England’s bowlers performed heroically on the last day. Mike Hendrick had left the field injured after failing to complete his third over in the first innings. Willis, Tony Greig, Derek Underwood and Fred Titmus bowled throughout the final day and only lost control temporarily when Mike Denness took the second new ball. There were concerns about Titmus because he had been hit on the inside of his knee by a ball from Jeff Thomson while batting, but he bowled 29 overs and took two wickets (Greg Chappell and Ross Edwards) for 64.

Before the arrival of Swann, Titmus could reasonably have claimed to be the best English off-spinner since Jim Laker. Titmus has something else in common with Swann. He made a sudden and unexpected departure from a major tour. It was the MCC tour of the West Indies in 1967-68 under Colin Cowdrey. Titmus was vice-captain. After the second Test he lost four toes in a boating accident. He did not, however, use this traumatic mishap as a reason – excuse? – opportunity? – to retire immediately from all forms of cricket. (He probably did not have as many job offers as Swann.) In 1968 he played 29 matches for Middlesex, scoring 884 runs and taking 111 wickets. And he just carried on. But his selection for Denness’s Ashes squad in 1974-75, at the age of forty-two, came as a surprise, even though he had had outstanding tours of Australia in 1962-63 and 1965-66.

As a reintroduction to Test cricket it could not have been tougher. Thomson – as fast, they say, as Tyson, and certainly faster than Johnson – and Denis Lilleewere at the height of their powers. Dennis Amiss and John Edechboth had fingers broken in the first Test. Cowdrey, also forty-two, was flown out as a replacement for the second Test at Perth, where David “Bumble” Lloyd was famously pole-axed by Thanson. Brian Luckhurst, a success on Illingworth’s tour, failed in those first two Tests and never played for England again. Denness dropped himself for the fourth Test; Edrich captained the side and suffered two broken ribs.

Titmus was picked for the second Test and top second in the second innings (61 out of 203 batting at number eight).

Then there was the draw at Melbourne but Australia won the next two and the six-match series finished four-one with England winning the final match where Thomson did not play and Lillee bowled only six overs. There were some fine performances particularly by Greig and Alan Knott but England were never really in it. They were outclassed.

But, goodness, they tried hard.

This article was published in The Island:

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