By Gulu Ezekiel
The Sydney Ashes Test match of February 1971 was one of the most action- packed of all time with plenty of drama on and off the field culminating in England winning back the Ashes after 15 years. Ray Illingworth thus became the first English captain to reclaim the Ashes on Australian soil since Douglas Jardine in 1932-33.
But on the second day he almost became the first captain to forfeit a Test match, something that would occur in England 34 years later.
The drama in fact began even before the start of the Test, which counted as the 7th Test as the third at Melbourne had been abandoned without a ball being bowled and an extra one was added on. England lost prolific opener Geoff Boycott in the one-day game against Western Australia after Graham McKenzie broke his left arm. He had been the leading scorer in the series till then.
The Australians were shocked to discover that their captain Bill Lawry had been sacked and replaced by Ian Chappell. It was also McKenzie’s final series. Australia were trailing 1-0 after losing the fourth Test at Sydney by 299 runs and had to win this final Test in order to retain the Ashes.
The series also saw the debuts of Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell for Australia and England’s Bob Willis, all of whom would serve their nations with distinction throughout the 70s and beyond.
Chappell won the toss and in a bold move that would exemplify his captaincy for the next five years, he asked England to bat.
The ploy worked as they were shot out for 184 on the first day. But by close Australia had lost both openers, debutant Ken Eastwood and Keith Stackpole, their leading scorer in the series, in the 35 minutes of play remaining.
The overnight batsmen, Marsh and Ian Chappell did not last long the next morning and at 66 for 4, it looked like England would be in a position to gain the lead.
But Ian Redpath (59), Doug Walters (42) and Greg Chappell (65) held firm, enabling the home side to gain a lead of 80 runs.
The tourists had felt throughout the series that they had been on the receiving end of several contentious umpiring decisions and things flared up on the second day when number nine Terry Jenner was hit in the face by fast bowler John Snow. He had been England’s match winner, devastating the Aussie batting in the earlier Test at the same ground with second innings figures of 7 for 40.
The Aussie batsmen had been tormented throughout the series by Snow’s pace and hostility and the crowd of nearly 30,000 was already baying for his blood before this unfortunate incident.
Both Walters and Redpath were continuously peppered by bouncers from Snow and Peter Lever and the tension was rising all round.
There were unprecedented scenes for an Ashes Test however after Jenner retired hurt (he was to come back and score a useful 30).
Umpire Lou Rowan issued a warning to Snow for bowling persistently short and this enraged both the bowler and his captain. They contended that the warning was premature at that stage as Snow had bowled just one short-pitched delivery in that particular over. They got embroiled in a heated argument with the umpire who however stuck to his guns.
All this had the crowd in some agitation and it soon spilled over. There was plenty of booing in Snow’s general direction and then at the drinks break, a number of cans were thrown onto the field as Snow moved to his position at deep fine leg. Seeing this, Illingworth called his players to the centre and they sat down and waited till the field had been cleared.
Once play resumed, Snow moved back to his usual position, within touching distance of the furious spectators.
Sure enough, one of them—obviously under the influence of alcohol—reached out and grabbed the fast bowler by his sleeve while verbally abusing him.
The captain and other players rushed to assist Snow but even as they did so, the cans came back at them from the crowd. At this stage Illingworth led his side off the field as he considered it unsafe.
The umpires (Rowan and Tom Brooks) and the two batsmen (Lillee and Greg Chappell) were left waiting in the middle. At this stage the umpires felt they would have been within their rights to have awarded the game to Australia as Illingworth had led the side off without making any comment to the umpires. But they decided to give England an opportunity to resume. In the dressing room they warned Illingworth that they had two minutes to get back on or the Test would be forfeited.
Fortunately for England and the game of cricket itself, there were no further untoward incidents. Snow once again rather provocatively headed to the fine leg fence but Willis chased after him and persuaded him to switch places.
England batted much better in the second innings with all the top batsmen getting good starts. The opening stand between John Edrich (57) and Brian Luckhurst (59) was worth 94—that would prove to be the best in the Test.
Still, a score of 302 meant the victory target set for Australia was an achievable 223. Australia ended the fourth day 100 runs short with five wickets in hand with Greg Chappell and Marsh at the crease.
Unfortunately for England, early in the Australian second innings they lost the services of their strike bowler. Snow caught his finger in the picket fence and broke it while running to take a catch. This was a massive blow and Illingworth now took the decision that he and Derek Underwood would do the bulk of the bowling on a track traditionally conducive to spin bowling.
It worked on the final day as the last six wickets tumbled for the addition of just another 60 runs. England had won the Test by 62 runs, the series 2-0 and finally had the Ashes back in their grasp.