10 SEPTEMBER 2005, Page 54

Our turn for the Urn


Only twice in history — in 1926 and 1953 — have England regained the Ashes in the final Test match at the Oval. No knowing, of course, if 2005 will be the third time, for this is being written on the eve of this weekend’s nerve-racking conclusion to our heady cricketing summer. In 1893, Dr Grace’s men won back the Ashes by playing out a canny draw in the last Test at Old Trafford, and nine years later the fabled denouement at Kennington in 1902 — Jessop’s match when Hirst and Rhodes got ’em in singles — was, in fact, only a consoling victory because Australia had already retained the urn with victories at Sheffield and Manchester. Nevertheless, the flag-waving frenzies surrounding that match under the same south London gasometers galvanised the nation just as stirringly as it has done 103 summers later. I know, because I once met a man who was there when the irrepressible Gloucester hitter ‘Croucher’ Jessop went to his match-turning century — the twinkling playwright, ancient Ben Travers: ‘As Jessop made his stroke dozens of straw boaters were sent sailing from the crowd like boomerangs. Unlike boomerangs they failed to return to the owners. But who cared? England’s victory caused a sudden tidal wave of public jubilation, in sentiment an echo of the recent unprecedented exultations of Mafeking Night ... When by some means long forgotten I managed to arrive back home from the Oval that evening, there was my father waiting to welcome me in the open doorway, his arms outstretched in mutual rejoicing.’ In 1926, like now, the England team came to the Oval to avenge a string of clobberings, having won only once in 15 Tests. For the decider, they recalled the same Yorkie, Rhodes, now a gnarled, knowing greybeard of 49, to partner with the ball a strapping young Nottinghamshire miner, the gale-force Larwood, just 21. They shared 12 wickets and sent packing in no time the hitherto strutting champions of Oz (Woodfull, Ponsford, Macartney, ‘Horseshoe’ Collins and co) amid so much excitement that football-loving novelist Arnold Bennett was impelled to hurry across the river by hansom from his Chelsea home to log the day for his Journals: ‘16 August 1926. Every maiden over cheered. Women fainting here and there; attendants to look after them. Great roar when Woodfull’s wicket fell. Heat of the crowd. Great difficulty of seeing anything at all, even by tiptoeing and craning.’ It was fully 27 years later that the Oval again staged England’s revivalist Ashes victory, this time after 19 years without them. Compton crowned 1953 by cheerfully clocking Morris to the square-leg gasometers’ scoreboard to cue in commentator Johnston’s intoxicating burble, ‘It’s the Ashes! It’s the Ashes!’ and the big wide paddock was invaded by thousands. Only four of that forever hosanna’ed England XI survive — 87year-old Sir Alec Bedser; Trevor Bailey CBE, 81; MCC President Tom Graveney OBE, 78; and, at 74, the baby of the side, Fred Trueman OBE, who still remembers vividly: ‘On the last day we needed 94 to win. I cadged a lift from the Great Western at Paddington in a car with Leonard [Hutton, the captain]. Outside the gates there was already a huge, excited throng, cheering and milling all around, and I remember like it was yesterday seeing across the road a cockney chap frantically waving at us a newspaper placard bearing a huge drawing of the Ashes urn, surrounded in massive type by just three words: THEY ARE OURS!’