In a thrilling Test to usher in the Sixties, Richie Benaud turned in one of his greatest performances to thwart a strong England side and put his team in pole position to claim the 1961 Ashes.
Two superb sides were level at 1-1 when the captains Richie Benaud and Peter May strolled out to commence the fourth Test at Old Trafford.
England had Trueman and Statham sharing the new ball, with Dexter, May, Close and Barrington comprising a charismatic middle-order. Australia boasted a rock-solid top order of Lawry, Simpson and the great Neil Harvey at three, and with the ball, young Garth McKenzie and the left-armer Alan Davidson. Benaud ran the team with great panache – he was so in control that he even promised McKenzie’s mother that he would protect her “very good-looking” son from the temptations of English life.
England took the early exchanges as Australia were bundled out under leaden skies for just 190. By the close on the second day, England were just three runs behind for three wickets lost, with Peter May, that statesmanlike artist at number four, 90 not out.
But May went early on day three, and it was left to Kenny Barrington to steer England to a sizeable 177-run first-innings lead. It would take an immense effort for Australia to claw their way back into the match, but they had immense personalities to call upon.
The fourth day was Australia’s. Having weathered the new ball the previous evening, Bill Lawry and Simpson ploughed on, putting on 113 for the first wicket, Lawry’s blunting century laying the foundation for a 270-run day for the loss of just six wickets. At the close, Australia were 154 ahead, with the game poised and the pitch crumbling.
The final day was, in Benaud’s typical tone, “one of the more exciting days of cricket” he could remember. After a withering display of hitting by Davidson in a last-wicket partnership of 98, an infuriated England side were left to chase 254, and Benaud, after struggling in the first innings with the foot-marks at the Warwick Road End, had a new plan to combat the problem.
After chatting in the Old Trafford bar the night before with the old fast bowler Ray Lindwall, Benaud had decided to go around the wicket to the right-handers. “It was something new in those days,” Benaud later recalled, “and it won a Test match.”
The key moment came in the afternoon, when Ted Dexter, having flayed Australia for a magnificent 84-ball 76, edged behind to Benaud’s around-the-wicket line. When May was clean bowled two balls later by Benaud, England, having raced to 150-1, were suddenly on the slide.
Either side of tea, Benaud was irresistible. Brian Close was the danger man, but he holed out on the square-leg boundary (the shot leading to a pointed and long-lasting stand-off with the England selectors). With 20 minutes left, Davidson knocked back Statham’s off-stump to clinch a sensational victory, the win sparking “plenty of jubilation” – Benaud’s phrase – in Australia’s dressing room.
A tough draw in the final Test would give Australia the Ashes, and for Benaud himself, probably the most popular of all Australian skippers, the second of his three consecutive Ashes series wins as captain.
First published in 2010