PHILIP BARKER on how the Ashes series of 1953 began at an English village cricket club with a £1,000 wager.
There’s usually something special about the arrival of the Australians for an Ashes series. Sixty years ago there was something unusual, when their first match grabbed the headlines because they took on a village cricket club. In 1953 the men in the baggy green caps had their first outing on English soil before a packed crowd at East Molesey CC in suburban Surrey.
They also faced a challenge from a local newspaper. For years cricketers had been trying to hit a six over the trees on to Tagg’s Island in the centre of the River Thames which adjoined the ground.
When it became clear that the Aussies had agreed to the match, the Molesey and Ditton News started a campaign. "Here come some of the world’s greatest cricket players led by big hitter Keith Miller, and here in Molesey, we have one of the most challenging grounds in world. Can Keith Miller or one of his team mates hit the Island? Let us make it worth their while to try," said an editorial one January day.
"Here is a challenge. The Molesey and Ditton News offers £50 to the first man to put a ball on Tagg’s Island without a splash during the course of the match on April 26. The ball must be hit during the match proper and must score six for the batting side. But let us not stop at £50, the Molesey and Ditton News invites any local sportsman or business firm to add to this amount."
The proceeds were to be divided between the successful player, the East Molesey club and the National Playing Fields Association. The paper increased its own stake to £100. They persuaded Sir Pelham Warner, editor of The Cricketer magazine, to stump up another £10. His staff also produced a special souvenir programme complete with pen pictures of the Australian tourists and information about the club and its ground, which dated back to the 18th century. By the time the match had come round the fund had swelled to more than £1,000 – at least £25,000 by today’s values.
The newsreels, BBC Radio, and the cricket correspondent of The Times all clamoured for position and there was a familiar voice on the public address, John Arlott. "The cider and cheese accent gave a commentary that would never have done on the BBC," said the local paper.
The guest of honour was the Duke of Edinburgh, barely six weeks before the coronation. He was welcomed by club patron Viscount Leathers.
The match had come as a result of the efforts of Basil Turner, the Molesey CC president. He had worked for World Sports magazine in the 1930s. After the war. His 'day job' with the Reciprocal Trades Federation brought him into close contact with officials in Australia and New Zealand. The black caps came to East Molesey in 1949, but to the amazement of the cricket press he pulled off the big one in 1953.
"How Mr Turner arranged it I will never know. It was a remarkable piece of statesmanship," said Australia’s captain Lindsay Hassett. Jack Fingleton, covering the tour as a reporter, wrote: "One falls to wondering how this game got into the official programme. Why this London club should get such preferential treatment is not clear."
Miller was more critical in a post-tour newspaper column. "I do not know how this match was arranged, but I believe a lot of strings were pulled." He called the match "unnecessary" and described East Molesey as "this little isolated club". He even used the phrase "tin pot". The club fired off an indignant riposte to the Australian Cricket Board complaining of "scurrilous" comments.
On the Sunday of the game an estimated 10,000 packed into the ground, despite complaints from the Lord’s Day Observance Society. The club’s budget before the event included paying for a police inspector, a sergeant and eight constables, at a total cost of £4.
The home team was bolstered in a 13-a-side match by a few guest players, among them Trevor Bailey of Essex, later a member of the Sports Journalists Association. In that summer of 1953 he was to earn his nickname Barnacle with a match-saving display for England at Lord’s. At Molesey he saved the blushes of the home club, tottering at 23 for 4 before he hit 40. His partnership with Doug Insole helped Molesey to 244. Insole’s innings was ended by a young clerk playing his first match on English soil. His name was Richie Benaud.
Australia batted after a prolonged interval. After all, you cannot hurry the Queen’s husband through his tea, though umpire Jim Broadbent did his best. "We really should be getting out, Mr Hassett," he told the Australian captain within earshot of the Duke. "I’ve never known such a keen umpire," the Duke was heard to remark.
Opening for Australia, Arthur Morris hit the first century of the tour, but it was Miller who came closest to fulfilling the Molesey and Ditton News sixes challenge. His best effort finished in the river only 10 feet short, splashing the shoes of Ted Lovell, paid a crisp £1 note to sit on the island all day and adjudicate.
The match had more serious consequences for the Aussies. Bowler Bill Johnston broke down injured and was never quite as effective again for the rest of the tour. Later in the summer the Australians returned to Surrey soil for a rather more important match. They lost the final Test at The Oval by seven wickets and surrendered the Ashes after 19 years.
This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Sports Journalists Association