Before Mike Atherton’s 10 hour and 43-minute vigil at Johannesburg, or Jack Leach’s valiant 1 not out at Headingley, the epitome of dogged, backs-to-the-wall English resistance was Trevor Bailey and Willie Watson at Lord’s in 1953.
It was 20 years since England had won an Ashes series, and a 4-1 defeat on their 1950-51 tour of Australia had offered little hope that the post-Bradman era would mean a pause in Australian domination. Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller still led the Australian attack and memories of the ‘Invincibles’ tour of 1948 remained fresh. But far from being dominated by Australia, the series turned out to be one of the tightest, most hard-fought ever played out between the old rivals.
England would probably have won the first Test at Trent Bridge if rain hadn’t washed out the fourth day’s play and most of the fifth. They had staged a stunning comeback after conceding a 105-run lead on the first innings, bowling Australia out for just 123 to set up a chaseable target of 229. Len Hutton was 60 not out and England well-placed on 120 for 1 when the match finished. In the second match of the rubber at Lord’s the action also swung this way and that, but bat had the edge over ball, and for much of the game a draw seemed the likeliest outcome before the last four sessions of the game delivered high drama.
Australian captain Lindsay Hassett led the way with an innings of 104 as Australia posted 346 in their first innings. His opposite number Hutton responded in kind, making 145 as England edged ahead with 372. Australia then made 368 in their second innings, leaving England three and a half sessions to chase 343 or, more likely in those days, bat out for the draw. When Lindwall and Bill Johnston ripped out England’s top three for the cost of just 12 runs before the close, neither eventuality looked particularly likely.
Denis Compton and Willie Watson dragged the score up to 73 on the fifth morning before Compton fell lbw to Johnston. It was 12.40pm, hours left for Australia to claim the last six wickets, when all-rounder Trevor Bailey coming to the crease. Watson later recalled going up to Bailey during their partnership and asking if they should go for the win: “Trevor just turned his back on me and walked away.” Bailey had been known as an attractive strokeplayer, but today he was a different cricketer. Wisden described him offering “a deadbat pendulum stroke to every ball on his wicket.” His dogged determination to stick to the crease later earned him the nickname of “The Barnacle” from fellow Test Match Special commentator Brian Johnston.
Bailey made 71 from 224 balls, Watson 109 from 351, his only Test hundred. The pair were not parted until 5.50pm, with the score 236 for 5. It was Watson who fell first, even the Australians joining in the applause that reverberated around Lord’s. England’s tail held out for the draw through a tense final hour. “If we get another Test Match like this, I shan’t be able to stand the strain,” commented Don Bradman, watching from the press box. By the end of the summer, plenty of nerves were shattered as the series see-sawed through draws at Manchester and Leeds before England at last regained the Ashes with a convincing win at the Oval.