The shot that keeps on giving
The photograph of the last ball of the 1968 Oval Ashes Test reveals something new every time you look at it
During the recently concluded Ashes Test series in England, there were giant photographs on canvas of key moments from this series as well as some from the past displayed along the perimeter of the various venues. For the final Test, with the contest already decided 3-1 in favour of England, the pictures celebrated England regaining the urn. There was Ben Stokes leaning back, letting out a primal appeal; there was Mark Wood celebrating the wicket of Nathan Lyon that sealed the contest at Nottingham; and there was Joe Root imperiously cutting through backward point. From the past, there was Andrew Strauss pulling off a one-handed blinder in the slips at Trent Bridge in 2005; Andrew Flintoff striking the Jesus pose in 2009; and so many others. There was one particular canvas that caught my eye, displayed right outside the media centre at the Kia Oval ground, the venue of the final Test. It was from the 1968 Ashes Test at the same venue.
At first glimpse, the simplicity of the photograph is what grabs you. Then you quickly realize the picture is quite busy and contains a lot of players—a lot more than in usual cricket shots. It dawns on you that there are actually 14 people in the picture, including an umpire, both the batsmen and the entire English side. On every one of the four days this year’s Oval Test lasted, I would pause briefly every time I walked past the canvas till a new aspect of the picture came to light.
Let’s first figure out the players. The two Australian batsmen were John Inverarity, who was dismissed LBW, and Alan Connolly, at the non-striker’s end, who remained unbeaten, as England won the Test and drew the series 1-1. Even though England romped home, the urn was for the Aussies to keep. The bowler is ‘Deadly’ Derek Underwood, a left-arm orthodox spinner. The umpire is Charlie Elliott. The rest of the England players, going from left to right, are: Ray Illingworth, Tom Graveney, John Edrich, Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey (C), Alan Knott (WK), John Snow, David Brown, Colin Milburn and Basil ‘Dolly’ D’Oliveira.
Sawdust. Copious amounts of sawdust on either end of the pitch is clearly visible in the picture. With England coasting to victory on Day 5 (27 August), as Australia had lost five of their 2nd innings wickets for just 85 runs, still behind by more than 260, the predictably unpredictable English weather intervened. While the players were on the lunch break, a rain storm flooded the ground. When it finally relented, the groundsmen, with generous help from the crowd, mopped the ground with brooms and blankets. By the time play resumed at 4:45pm, England needed to take five wickets in just over an hour to level the series. They just about managed to do it, with 6 minutes to spare.
All the players can be seen wearing shirts with full sleeves, but they are all rolled up to the elbow. Nowadays, teams wear figure-hugging half-sleeve shirts; only in colder conditions and on bowlers with dodgy actions do long sleeves make an appearance. The shirts in the photograph are completely devoid of any insignia; there are no sponsor logos, and only the sweaters worn by Edrich, Snow and Brown show England’s three lions crest. The stumps are naked too, with no logos or of course the stump-cam, which entered cricket only in 1977 through Kerry Packer’s World Series of Cricket. Simpler times, when commercialization hadn’t yet found its way into cricket. Wisden Almanack recorded that the total attendance for the Test was 84,905 and the gate receipts were £64,681. That’s less than £1 per person to watch a day of cricket at The Oval!
A few things that catch the eye: The umpire, Elliott, is standing right up to the stumps, almost straddling them. The non-striker, Connolly, is holding the bat in the wrong hand and is well out of the crease, even though a cheeky run would have done nothing for Australia’s cause with just 6 minutes to the close of play. Inverarity, who, in only his second Test, had almost carried his bat through the innings, valiantly resisting everything England had thrown at him during his 56, had padded up to an arm ball from Underwood and was adjudged LBW, and yet he is in a funny position where his back is turned to the umpire.
While the fast bowlers look slim and fit, some of the top-order batsmen, including Cowdrey, Milburn and Graveney, seem a bit thick around the waist. You’d be hard-pressed to find a modern Test cricketer—save for Rangana Herath—that doesn’t have a well-toned, gym-built body. Knott, who must have begun outside the outside off stump before the delivery, is seen standing right behind the stumps, appealing with both his hands up while looking firmly down at the ground. His movement to a position behind the sticks indicates that the ball delivered from around the wicket by Underwood was headed for the stumps, an arm ball. While 10 England players are busy appealing, the ever watchful Illingworth has got to the ball at short point and is ready to throw it underarm to the non-striker’s end, where Connolly has backed up too far. Only Brown’s trousers seem to be dirty at the knees while every other player’s pants seem pristine white. It’s possible that Brown got them dirty while taking two catches at leg slip off Underwood, for the seventh and eighth wickets. None of the England fielders except for Captain Cowdrey is wearing a cap. Modern cricketers could almost never be seen in the field without a hat, and sunglasses on the back of their head.
Here’s the biggest thing hidden in this picture. The happenings in this Test match would directly lead to a massive change in the cricketing world. Dolly, standing at almost a leg gully, partly hidden by Milburn, was picked for the Test as an injury replacement. He scored 158 in the first innings, which, after a few false moves by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), got him into the side for the tour of South Africa when it still had its abominable practice of Apartheid in place. D’Oliviera was of Indian and Portuguese descent, and a mixed-race player like him wouldn’t have been allowed to play alongside and against the White players on an even footing in the South Africa of those times. Umpire Elliott, who could see the political troubles the selection of D’Oliviera might cause, told him as he reached a landmark, “Well played. My god, you are going to cause some problems.” After a prolonged controversy that came to be known as “the D’Oliviera affair”, the MCC canceled its tour to South Africa. That led to South Africa’s eventual international cricketing isolation for 21 years. They were only reinstated in 1991, after the Apartheid mechanism was dismantled.
It is said a picture is worth a thousand words. The black and white photo of the final delivery of the 1968 Ashes series is worth a few thousands more for all the things it reveals and hides within itself.