No one in the pavilion on the sixth morning of the third timeless Test of 1928/29 was prepared to give odds on an England victory. A thunderstorm had broken over Melbourne in the wee small hours and another heavy shower had fallen at eleven-thirty. Now the sun was shining fiercely, cooking the wicket into the consistency of glue.
The banter was raucous as the crowd waited for the home side’s second innings to resume at 347 for 8, already giving them a surely untouchable 328 runs lead over England.
The odds on offer that morning were ten to one against England getting 200 on that wicket and fifty to one against anyone scoring a century. The old firm of Messers Trumble, Hill, Armstrong and Darling in their accustomed seats made it known that, as far as they were concerned, an England score of 80 would be on the steep side.
A week before, to the day, the England Captain and Uppingham Rover, Percy Chapman, had called heads. Seeing it fall tails, Australia’s Ryder, said he would have a bat. An hour or so later with his score at 57 for three the decision looked to have been brave, but centuries from Kippax and Ryder himself took the score to 282 for five. Bradman with 79 before he hit over a yorker from Hammond help his side grind out 397 in a little under two days.
In England’s first innings Hobbs fell early, then, Sutcliffe and Hammond put on 133 for the second wicket. Scoring almost exclusively through the off-side, Hammond, carved out his second double hundred in consecutive innings and, with a painstaking 62 from Jardine, England posted a 20 run lead after four and a half days cricket. The match had become another war of attrition.
In Australia’s second innings Woodfall and Bradman made centuries, so that when Oxenham and Grimmett finally took the field on the second Friday of the match and surveyed the damp and drying gluepot it seemed to matter little how many more they scored. As the remaining three batsmen wore blows to the head, shoulders and neck in adding but four more to the overnight lead their sacrifice served only to remind the 60,000 spectators that the result of this match was a forgone conclusion.
Ryder led his men out to deliver the coup de grace. At their heels, from the pavilion into the fierce sun, emerged Hobbs and Sutcliffe not dishevelled by their time in the field, not downcast and beaten, but with a quiet confidence, relaxed and immaculately turned out in their splendid white hats, crisp shirts, creased flannels, whitewashed pads and devoutly sanded bats.
"Why not Bert?" "One ball at a time Jack."
Had those confident Australians turned to watch this extraordinary opening pair, they may have had an inkling of what was to come, but they did not. Fired-up the opening bowlers, a Beckett and Hendry, speared each delivery into the spiteful morass and, along with their team mates, saw only red and revenge for Brisbane and Sydney.
Hobbs dropped his hands and took a blow. Sutcliff used the same defence. After two overs they inspected the pock-marked surface, which yielded like rum flavoured ginger cake as they replaced huge divots and made things as tidy as they could.
“Why not?” murmured Jack leaning over the same crater as his partner.
“We have only to play one ball at a time,” answered Bert, gently tapping, gently tapping.
Twice Hobbs was let off, and once his cap was knocked flying by a ball that spat like a camel and kicked like a mule, but soon each batsman realised that the length and tactics the Australians were pursuing were wrong.
“Don’t think they really know how to use the conditions, Bert.”
“Well, if you’ll forgive me, Jack, I’m not about t’ tell them ‘ow.”
The pair reached their first target, the replacement of a Becket and Hendrey with Grimmett and Blackie.
Their plan was coming together. Get to tea. And so unbelievably they did; 78 for 0. Get to stumps and allow the morning roller to take out all the lumps and the sun to bake it hard and flat.
But could they really steer the ship to so distant and so rock-ringed harbour? They thought they might but now developed a contingency plan to share with their captain.
Hobbs called for a new bat. Half a dozen were brought out to him. Was it that old friend Mead who brought them? Did the three old pros talk things over together while Jack tested each blade in turn before returning all of them to the dressing room, along with a message to his captain.
Did Mead report thus: “Mr Chapman, Mr Chapman, Jack says, ‘we’ll get through to nightfall and you might think of holding Wally back ‘til tomorrow and send in Mr Jardine if anyone’s needed today.’”
“Thank you Phillip,” said Chapman warmly, then whispered to himself in the quiet of that hushed dressing room, “Good man, Jack,”
“Doougie, it’s kilt, pipes and pads for you, my Bannock Burn. Wally stand down, dear boy, and gird yourself for the ‘morrow. If Jack and Bert think we shall do it, then so we shall, so we shall.”
Bruised, battered but eventually beaten by Blackie for 49, in an opening partnership of 105, Hobbs returned to the pavilion and nodded in turn to the applause and disbelief of Messers Trumble, Hill, Armstrong, Darling and 60,000 other Australians who could not but put aside their passionate patriotism to acknowledge that they had seen something very special that afternoon.
Herbert Sutcliffe enjoying a more familiar wicket in 1930
Jardine joined the by now modestly confident Sutcliff and, each taking their share of corporal punishment, saw the day through: 171 for 1.
And on the Seventh Day, though there was still much to do, Sutcliffe made victory certain. England were just 14 short of their gargantuan target of 332 when he was finally out for 135 and, although three more wickets tumbled quickly after him, Geary picked up a shot ball from Ryder for the winning shot, sending it to the boundary just yards ahead of a frantically pursuing Bradman.
It is difficult to conceive of a heavier blow than this that Sutcliffe, Hobbs and England had struck. Chronologically the seven days of this Test spanned the years 1928 and 1929, but its ramifications reach down to us even as the two old foes prepare for their first encounter in the 2010 series – though 82 years of cause and effect, de-selection and selection, attack and counter, innovation and answer, humiliation and revival link Strauss and Ponting, Pietersen and Clark, Andersdon and Johnston with the ghosts of Hobbs and Woodfull, Sutcliffe and Grimmett, Larwood and Oldfield.
1928/29 begat 1930, 1930 begat 1932/33, 1932/33 begat …2010/11.
This Test was indeed timeless, it’s karma enduring.