It was much to the amusement of his press-box colleagues that not so very long ago, John Woodcock, the eminent former cricket correspondent of The Times, began a piece with the words: “As recently as 1936 …”
So there are no apologies for going back a little further still now, to the Ashes of 1934 and this very ground, where in the first innings of a drawn match “Tiger” Bill O’ Reilly, the great and abrasive Australian wrist spinner, sent down 59 overs to finish with figures of seven for 189.
From that early pre-war July day until shortly before tea on this, 82 years on, no one had conceded more in an innings of a Manchester Test. Then with the last ball of his 51st over, Yasir Shah wearily dragged an attempted leg-break into the pitch, Jonny Bairstow, on it like a flash, lacerated the long-hop to the midwicket boundary, and Tiger Bill had been toppled.
What a difference a week can make in international cricket. At Lord’s, Yasir was feted to the rafters for his 10‑wicket match-winning performance, his name emblazoned on the honours board, with elevation to the top of the International Cricket Council rankings as well. Would England be able to unravel the code? They brought wrist spinners into their practice sessions and Adil Rashid into the squad. Out came Merlin, the wizard spin machine that produces bespoke deliveries. Beyond that, though, was the enlightened thought that if batsmen do not try to hit square of the wicket against a bowler who essentially targets pads and stumps, and instead look to play defensively back down the pitch, there was a significant chance of increasing life-expectancy at the crease. Neither Alastair Cook nor Joe Root wavered on the first day, with the latter relentless on his way to the third highest score ever made in a Test on this ground.
It was a clinical deconstruction of a bowler who had been at the peak of performance and confidence. He did manage a wicket, that of Chris Woakes, who lobbed a gentle return catch from a half‑tracker at a time when it appeared he would breeze his way to a nightwatchman’s hundred. But by then Yasir was already into his 39th over. It was his only success, too, and by the time Cook pulled the plug on the innings with the dismissal of Bairstow he had conceded 213 runs.
Only three bowlers – Chuck Fleetwood-Smith, the Australian left-arm wrist spinner, who took the sole wicket of Wally Hammond at a cost of 298 at The Oval in 1938, when Len Hutton made his world record 364; Bishen Bedi, India’s languid left arm spinner, with six for 226 at Lord’s in 1974 (ask Bumble about that game); and Ian Botham, three for 217 against Pakistan at the Oval in 1987 (keep quiet about that one to Beefy, though) – have conceded more runs in a Test innings in this country. “Consider the lilies of the field,” St Matthew said, “they toil not, nor do they spin.” That, Yasir might think, is all very well for lilies but a bit of lateral movement might have been nice.
Well as he did toil, however, he had scarcely broken sweat compared to the efforts here in 1964, when one of the dullest of all Tests was played between England and Australia. The two scores in excess of Root’s came then: 311 for Bob Simpson, his maiden Test century, and 256 for Ken Barrington. Over the match 656 for Australia played England’s 611 and the third innings barely got under way.
For England, Tom Cartwright, a medium-pace bowling metronome, got through 77 overs. When England batted, the off-spinner Tom Vievers went way beyond, sending down 95.1 overs, or 571 deliveries, exceeded in Tests only by Sonny Ramadhin, who went 17 balls better for West Indies at Edgbaston in 1957. Ramadhin, one of the first “mystery” spinners, was never the same after that match, destroyed by the front pads of Peter May and Colin Cowdrey. A subsequent change to the lbw law and the adoption of DRS might have told a different story these days.
The sorriest tale though must belong to Arthur Mailey, a fine Australian leg-spinner who once took 10 for 66 in a Sheffield Shield innings and titled his autobiography after Sellar and Yeatman’s comic history book.
Playing for New South Wales against Victoria at the MCG over Christmas of 1926, he sent down 62 eight-ball overs as Bills Woodfull and Ponsford made 133 and 352 respectively, followed by 100 from Stork Hendry and 295 from Jack Ryder. Victoria made 1,107 all out, and Mailey finished with four for 362, the most runs ever conceded in a first‑class innings.
It served him well on the dinner circuit in later years, though. He remembered his figures well, he always said: Hymns Ancient and Modern 362 – Art Thou Weary, Art Thou Languid, Art Thou Sore Depressed. It is 348 in the Revised edition, but why spoil a good tale.
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