England v Australia, The Oval, 1968

Slippery when wet

Forty-one years ago rain almost saw an Ashes Test get away from England's grasp

Interviews by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

Australia went into the series as underdogs, but going into the final Test, they were 1-0 up. They couldn't believe they had won the first Test, in Manchester. England for their part couldn't believe the scoreline wasn't 2-1 in their favour, after they were robbed by the weather of what seemed certain victories at Lord's and Edgbaston. But at 86 for 5 at lunch on the final day at The Oval, with only John Inverarity standing tall, things seemed to be going England's way at last. Then a torrential downpour arrived from nowhere and turned the ground into a lake. The players started to pack their kitbags, except for Colin Cowdrey, who believed play would be possible and England would win. In the end it went down to the last six minutes.

One for the album: Inverarity goes, England go up

One for the album: Inverarity goes, England go up © Getty Images

John Edrich laid a strong foundation on the opening day with a stubborn century.

Tom Graveney, England batsman The Aussies had a quite an useful attack, along with the mystery spinner John Gleeson, who was not easy to pick. But John Edrich was in no mood to relent. He was a very good player and always got runs against Australia.
Derek Underwood, England spinner The one thing the Australians always said about John Edrich was that they were more pleased to see the back of him than of Geoffrey Boycott. John would play and miss and act as if nothing had happened. He was a cool customer.

The second day belonged to Basil D'Oliveira, who was picked at the last minute - a decision that would eventually change the face of cricket

Graveney It was only the second time he was picked. He had had a bad tour in the West Indies and later in the first Test in Manchester, after which he was left out. He wasn't in very good nick. The only reason he played at The Oval was because Roger Prideaux, who played in the fourth Test, cried off because of a sore throat. Colin rang me up to talk about who to have in the team. I said that Basil was back to his normal self. Colin picked him because of what I said. He played so well, so powerfully off the back foot, that they couldn't bowl at him.
Basil D'Oliveira Early on that [second] day, I played a couple of bad shots and when I got to [umpire] Charlie Elliott's end, he whispered, "Get your head down." I kept on playing in my usual style and when I reached my fifty, Charlie whispered out of the corner of his mouth, "Well played - my God, you are going to cause some problems." I laughed and wondered what he'd say when I got my hundred; that's how certain I was that this was to be my day.
Underwood On the first evening D'Oliveira started by straight-driving the offspin of [Ashley] Mallett - who was playing in his first Test - for six, and he carried on in the same vein the following day. Dolly was so confident that on the first evening he telephoned his wife, Naomi, and his two sons at home and told them to "just watch the Test match on television tomorrow".

D'Oliveira's 158 helped take England to 494 runs. Just the start they needed. On day three Bill Lawry made 135, the first century in the series by an Australian, but his team ended up conceding a lead of 170.

John Inverarity, Australia opener Bill Lawry often made very big scores in rearguard actions and was the backbone of the innings once again.
Underwood I don't think the cricketing public would exactly have warmed to Bill, because he was real grafter. He believed in occupying the crease and normally took a long time getting his runs. With no chance of wining, Australia's one plan was to drag their first innings out for as long as possible. He began his innings on the second evening and was still at the crease when the fourth morning started. He was given out controversially, caught-behind against Snow. Lawry claimed he played outside the ball, which then went between his arm and body.
Graveney Lawry was a fine player. He did frustrate us. The Redpaths and the Sheahans were youngsters and it was left to Lawry to take the responsibility.

There's life in this dog yet: Cowdrey inspects the wet outfield on the fifth day

There's life in this dog yet: Cowdrey inspects the wet outfield on the fifth day © The Cricketer International

England quickly built on their lead to push for a victory. Towards close on the fourth day they were 351 ahead. Australia had to cope with half an hour out in the middle that evening and they promptly lost Lawry and Ian Redpath.

Underwood The wicket offered assistance to a spinner at the end of the fourth day. Till then it had been a very good wicket. But at the end it was beginning to show some signs of wear. There were three overs each from our opening bowlers before Colin gave me a chance, and in my second over, the last of the day, I had Redpath leg-before when he padded up to my arm ball. Earlier, our main stumbling block, Lawry, was out again that night, taken off bat and pad by Colin Milburn at short leg against the bowling of David Brown.

On the final day, at lunch Australia were in a perilous state at 86 for 5 till their best friend that series, the weather, arrived to their rescue once again…or so it seemed.

Underwood The following morning I got Doug Walters with a ball that didn't turn or bounce. It made me realise that we had got plenty of time to get the remaining wickets - we really were in with a great chance to win really comfortably. Then the heavens opened. After half an hour most of the grass had disappeared under an inch of water.
Graveney We had an enormous amount of rain for sometime. At lunchtime the Aussies thought they had won the Ashes.

Barry Jarman, Australia wicketkeeper We never believed play would resume.

England's captain, Cowdrey, was an optimist and was instrumental in getting play to resume.

Jarman The crowds should have got a medal for winning the game. They put their blankets on the ground, soaked up the water, dug holes with their knitting needles or whatever was available to get rid of the water. Also, the bowler's run-ups were covered in those days, while the poor old batsmen had to put up with the ball jumping around on a wet wicket. With John Snow and Underwood bowling, it made it a bit more difficult for us.
Underwood We thought we would not play again, but Colin Cowdrey thought all along that we would play and he was right. People just rallied around rather than just sitting there, and they helped out. It was quite amazing.
Inverarity The thinking between two and three in the afternoon was that there was no possible chance for play to resume. But we did resume, at close to 5 o'clock. Colin used his great charm to get the ground staff and a lot of spectators to dry the ground out.

England were racing against time, while the Australians were playing for it. Inverarity and Jarman couldn't be dislodged so easily. Forty minutes went past, as Cowdrey switched his bowlers around.

Inverarity The outfield was very wet, as was the wicket. Underwood was the most difficult. He had already picked up three of the first five wickets before lunch. It was a fifth-day wicket, a bit warm, and it was a turning a bit, and facing him was difficult. When we resumed play the wicket turned sloppy and wet. For most of the time the wicket was easy, but just towards the end the variations started.
Underwood What was interesting was, the ball didn't really do that much. It didn't turn, was very slow, and just went through. The wicket itself was still saturated.

The innings that changed cricket: D'Oliveira during his epochal 158

The innings that changed cricket: D'Oliveira during his epochal 158 © Getty Images

Thirty-odd minutes remained when D'Oliveira asked his captain to give him the ball.

D'Oliveira I started pestering Colin for a bowl. I just felt I could break the stand. At 5.25, Colin relented. In my first over I bowled Jamran with one that just clipped the top off his stump as he tried to leave it alone. I'd done my stuff.
Jarman First ball Cowdrey bowled, I shouldered arms. I put my pad out, the ball flicked the top of the pad, came back and just touched the side of the off stump, and as the off bail wobbled and dropped. But I thought the rest of the fellas would hang around. We fancied our chances still. We had it under control till I got out. I didn't misread him. I was just having a good look at it. It wouldn't have hit the stumps if it had not hit my pad.

In the end it all came down to the wire. Six minutes were left on the clock when Inverarity, who had stood his ground from the previous evening, finally got distracted.

Inverarity I knew there was another over to go, but I was trying to compute how to take most of the strike, as Allan Connolly was a real No. 11. The rules then were that you couldn't be given out lbw if the ball hit you outside the line, whether you played a shot or not. So in defending in the rearguard action, there was a bit of pad play. The error that I made to the arm ball, which Underwood bowled from round the wicket, was that I allowed it to hit my back pad. I was disappointed that I got out with five minutes to go.
Underwood John had played beautifully, looked in no trouble. I think it was the pressure that built up by putting fielders round the bat. We had nine fielders round the bat. He misjudged the ball that went with my arm, and up went Elliott's finger to end his gallant stand and give England the victory. There is a wonderful picture of when Inverarity got out, depicting the ring of fielders.

The Aussies retained the Ashes but even in defeat they left the field with heads held high

Underwood One of the commendable things that happened in the match was the Australians didn't use time-wasting tactics, which was very good.
Inverarity My feeling has always been, if possible you get out and complete the game. England were right on top and for us not to go out there and resume would be wrong. We certainly didn't resist playing despite the wetness of the ground. It was not uncommon to slow over-rates down or waste time but there were absolutely no attempt by either team.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo. Basil D'Oliveira quotes from Time To Declare, An Autobiography (Basil D'Oliveria with Patrick Murphy, JM Dent, 1980)