I was clearing out some old papers a while back when a small pink slip fell out. Even after 50 years I knew instantly what it was because it had been stuck to my bedroom wall when I was a teenager: indeed the old brown shadows of the tape were still there. It was the ticket for my first day’s Test cricket: the fifth Test against Australia at the Oval on 22 August 1968: Derek Underwood’s match and the game that started a lifelong obsession.
We joined my friend Matthew and his mother – two teenagers, what were we thinking of, taking our mothers? – and caught an early train from deepest Berkshire. London was a big, strange place where we rarely ventured and never as far south as SE11. We were square to the wicket and the players were so distant as to be indistinct, almost lost against the crowd.
The England batting for the Test was almost prelapsarian: Edrich, Milburn, Dexter, Cowdrey and Graveney. D’Oliveira, Knott and the bowling – Snow and Brown, Underwood and Illingworth – was full of experience. Australia had won the one match to finish, at Old Trafford 10 weeks earlier, and had since retained the Ashes, but England had been robbed by rain twice.
What we wanted was to see England bat and build a big score, preferably by the beefy Colin Milburn and Lord Ted Dexter, or the stylish Tom Graveney. What we got was John Edrich, the stocky left-handed opener who no one could accuse of being dashing, holding the batting together all through the long, hot day.
Not long before the end Graveney was out and Basil D’Oliveira came in: 238 for four was not a great return for five hours’ batting in perfect conditions. We knew all about Dolly, a late selection, and that he might be picked for the South Africa tour that winter, but we didn’t realise quite how important the innings was to him, if he was to impress the selectors, nor how determined he was to do so. He announced himself with three crashing drives down the ground: bang, bang, bang. And that was the day: 272 for four. We got home, sunburnt and exhausted at nearly midnight.
D’Oliveira carried on the next day as if his career depended on it, reaching 158; Edrich was finally out for 164 and England ended on 494, from which they could boss the match.
Over the weekend England whittled down the Australians, with the dogged opener Bill Lawry fulfilling the Edrich role. When he had made 135 he nudged behind to Alan Knott, ostentatiously rubbing his shirt when the bowler John Snow appealed. When Arthur Fagg gave him out, Lawry was seen to speak to him. “How was I out, umpire?”
“LBW,” Fagg replied phlegmatically. “I couldn’t have been – I hit it.”
On a sunny fifth morning England closed in on victory: set 352 to win, Australia were 65 for five.
Suddenly, at lunch, a thunderstorm flooded the Oval, ankle deep. It took only a few minutes before the sun came out, but I remember despairing: we had be robbed again. Then the crowd materialised on the outfield helping the groundstaff to sweep away the water and finally the ground was fit for play. There were 75 minutes left: could England take five wickets on a pitch like a pudding?
For 40 minutes, they couldn’t. At home I could not sit still: the opener John Inverarity and the wicketkeeper Barry Jarman held out. Then Cowdrey called up D’Oliveira and he bowled Jarman. The 23-year-old Underwood, with his medium-paced, left-arm spin, became Deadly Derek on a drying pitch. Two were out in an over; another 12 minutes then John Gleeson was bowled. Six minutes left: a straight one, Inverarity’s legs stuck in the muddy crease, LBW. Underwood had four wickets in 27 balls for six runs. England won by 226 runs with six minutes remaining.
It was the school holidays so I followed the play continuously on television and radio. John Arlott’s commentary was concise, lyrical and graphic, even to a 14-year-old: “And McKenzie sweeps that, in the general direction of Batterrseeea …” It was enough: I was hooked.