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Great Test Matches XVIII: England v Australia, Old Trafford, 1961: Gulu Ezekiel
by Gulu Ezekiel
Jan 30, 2009
Australia held the Ashes when they toured England in 1961 under the captaincy of the colourful Richie Benaud. The team was short on experience but had a few promising players who found themselves at the start of wonderful careers-opener Bill Lawry and fast bowler Graham McKenzie both made their debuts in the series.

The series was played just a few months after the epochal contest Down Under where Australia had beaten West Indies 2-1 with the first-ever tied Test still the talk of the cricket world.

For Benaud it was a chance to avenge the humiliations of the previous tour of 1956 when Jim Laker had run through the side in a sensational manner at Old Trafford.

But the tour began on a painful note for Benaud who suffered a severe shoulder injury in the opening game. After playing in the drawn first Test at Edgbaston, he was forced to miss the next two-at Lord's where Australia won by five wickets and then at Headingley where England leveled the series.

Neil Harvey led the side in his stead but when the teams arrived at Old Trafford for the fourth Test, Benaud was fit to play. And it would be his presence that would prove to be the decisive factor.

Benaud won the toss but his batsmen with the exception of Bill Lawry (74) and Brian Booth (46) let their captain down. With Brian Statham capturing 5 for 53 and Ted Dexter polishing off the last three wickets with his medium pacers, a total of just 190 left the Aussies vulnerable.

In response England ran up a healthy lead of 177 runs. Captain Peter May led the way with 95 and almost all the other batsmen chipped in with useful scores.

Benaud went wicketless. It was the occasional leg spin of Bobby Simpson though that was to prove ominous for England's batsmen-he grabbed four wickets from 11.4 overs including that of Ken Barrington (78).

Australia's fight-back began with a century opening stand -the first of many more to follow-between Simpson and Lawry. Lawry, the young left-hander had scored his maiden Test century at Lord's. Now he followed it up with another as the Aussie batsmen fought grimly to overcome their first innings failures. Simpson scored 51 while O'Neill contributed 67. They finished the fourth day at 331 for 6, leading by only 154 runs.

The next morning off spinner David Allen quickly snapped up Ken Mackay, Benaud and Wally Grout and the score had subsided to 334 for 9. England were now well on top.

When last man McKenzie scrambled out to join Davidson, the veteran had one piece of advice for the rookie, "Just play straight and we'll see what we can do."

What they did was to add 98 electrifying runs for the last wicket to swing the game round once again. Davidson went after Allen and after clouting him for 20 runs in one over, May decided to remove him from the attack.

In desperation he turned to the occasional left-arm spinners of Brian Close. McKenzie struck him for three boundaries as his confidence began to grow.

Debutant medium pacer Jack Flavell finally ended the agony for England as he bowled the last man for 32. Davidson remained unbeaten on a sterling 77. Now they would be back on the field in minutes with ball in hand instead of bat. The target of 256 was certainly manageable, given England's powerful batting line-up. They had to score at 67 runs an hour.

The day before at close of play with England strongly placed Benaud had met Ray Lindwall in the bar and picked his brains. The discussion centred round the deep footmarks which Benaud hoped to exploit by bowling round the wicket to the right-handers when England batted last. The legendary fast bowler thought it might work but warned Benaud he would have to be deadly accurate "otherwise they'll kill you."

England's batsmen certainly started the chase in a killing mood with Ted Dexter leading the slaughter.

Once opener Geoff Pullar was out for 26, Dexter took charge and brought England to the brink of victory with what Benaud would describe as the finest short Test innings he had ever witnessed.

With the majestic batsman clobbering both Davidson and McKenzie out of the attack, England needed just 130 more runs in two hours with nine wickets in hand.

At this stage Benaud considered his options which were limited at best. He knew if he were to go for victory then all out attack was the only way out. He was backed by both his trusted seniors, Harvey and Wally Grout.

The leg spin of Simpson was introduced with Dexter promptly carting him for 21 off one over. But still attacking fields were being maintained.

England's pace bowlers had created the rough which Benaud now sought to exploit just as planned the previous evening. There were five left-handers in the England batting line up but the main stumbling blocks would be Dexter and May.

Benaud figured if he could tie down Dexter, the batsmen might be induced into making a foolish stroke. After failing to score off the first five balls, Dexter tried to cut the sixth of the over only to feather a catch behind. Grout leaped in glee, Benaud whirled round in appeal, all the Aussies in the field went up in joy. They knew they had made the first breach-Dexter c. Grout b. Benaud 76 (14 fours and one 6 in 84 minutes) at 150 for 2.

May defended the first ball he faced from Benaud's next over but was bowled round his legs from the rough from the second while attempting a sweep-out for a duck and Benaud now raised Aussie hopes sky-high.

Brian Close was another batsman whom Benaud feared could take the match away. The left-hander decided the best way out would be to go for all-out attack and he carted Benaud over long on for six. A quick 20 could turn the match England's way. But Close got carried away and he top edged the rampant Aussie captain to be caught at square leg for 8 at 158 for 4.

At the other end, opener Raman Subba Row was grimly hanging on. But one short of his 50 and the ball before the tea break he too fell to Benaud who had now taken four wickets in 19 balls. At the interval England needed 93 runs in 85 minutes, but with only five wickets in hand. The Aussies had now taken the upper hand.

England's hopes rested with Ken Barrington and wicket-keeper John Murray. Ken Mackay, bowling in pain with a leg injury trapped Barrington in front shortly after the break and then Benaud snapped up Murray.

England's tail was not allowed to wag and when Davidson knocked out Statham's off stump with just 20 minutes of play left, England had collapsed to 201, the last nine wickets going down for 51.

Benaud finished with 6 for 70 and with Australia leading 2-1 and just one Test to go (it would be drawn), the Ashes would stay with Australia.

It was just reward for the captain's courageous tactics on the final day when he never once wavered from his plan.
 
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