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The Summer of 1948 was a truly unique one.
After the ravages of six years of war and continuing rationing, the stoic English men, women and children welcomed the Australian team with open arms when they crossed the seas for the first Ashes tour since the end of the Second World War.
While a strong Australian team and the prospect of Ashes cricket for the first time in nearly a decade captured the public’s imagination, for the leader of the team, Donald Bradman, who was on his farewell tour, they reserved their unabashed adulation.
People all over England and Scotland braved the vagaries of weather and turned up in their thousands for every one of the 34 fixtures on that tour. And for the 23 in which The Don put in his appearance, the crowds queued up from the previous night, waiting through rain and mist, sitting in the open for hours, waiting for the time when Bradman would bat.
Every time he came out to bat, and every time he went back to the pavilion, the applause and the love for the genius of the man was amply evident.
The love for Bradman was not entirely shared by the English cricket team, and understandably so.
He was a man on a mission in his last series as an Australian captain and player, and determined to come back home without a loss from the almost six-month long series. He was not about to give any quarter and stumble at the last hurdle as his predecessors had done in 1902 and 1921, losing in the final festival match.
Bradman took every one of the 34 matches in that 1948 series seriously, making sure his team did not let up, even when he himself was not playing. And when he played, he ensured the opposition were ground to dust.
The approach didn’t win him many friends, either in the opposition or within his own team.
One of Bradman’s closest friends was Walter Robins, one of the English selectors. Allegations flew thick and fast that Bradman had a hand in selecting the English Test teams to ensure the strongest team did not take the field. Unfounded perhaps, but they would not go away, as the Australians piled up success after success.
Keith Miller, for one, fancied himself as a batsman. But Bradman knew Miller and Lindwall, with their blistering speed and ability to bowl bouncers to Englishmen not used to that kind of pace and bounce, in a series where the ball was replaced every 55 overs, were a far more potent weapon than wasting Miller as a batsman in a team loaded with excellent wielders of the willow.
Being mates with the likes of Bill Edrich and Godfrey Evans from his wartime services in England, and at the best of times a less than taciturn man, Miller made no secret of his discontent, especially when the bowling overload caused his series batting average to be lower than Lindwall’s, a man not known for his batting.
Sidney Barnes, for another, firmly believed himself to be a better batsman than Bradman and was determined to outscore him during the series. The fact he failed in this was never far from his mind.
Notwithstanding these internal and external battles on and off the field, and the debate about how strong the English cricket team was in 1948 after losing a generation of fast bowlers unable to develop in their prime years due to the war, Don Bradman’s team won the Ashes.
They also came away as the first and undoubtedly the last undefeated side to complete such a tour of the British Isles, and irrevocably and for all time to come, earned themselves the sobriquet of ‘The Invincibles’.
But while all this was taking place on and off the field that summer of 1948, an almost unnoticed rivalry was on display between two of the greatest wicketkeepers the world has ever seen.
Don Tallon and Godfrey Evans were separated by team rivalry but joined by their genius behind the stumps.
If there was one thing that Bradman and his 1948 teammate and mercurial all-rounder Miller agreed on, it was that Don Tallon was the best wicketkeeper ever.
Miller’s opening partner, and the fastest bowler of his time, Lindwall, agreed. The Don even included him as wicketkeeper in his all-time XI – a team that stretched across time from Clarrie Grimmett to Sachin Tendulkar.
Writing in Cricket Country, Arunabha Sengupta aptly described Tallon thusly:
“Unusually tall for a stumper, Tallon crouched nearly double as the bowler started out on his run-up and remained motionless until he had seen all that he needed to know from the delivery – pace, flight, spin and swerve. His keeping was characterised by neat and unhurried work, alert and agile, especially superlative on the leg side. Ground was covered with easy movements, catches were made with perfect technique and little fuss, stumpings were carried out with subtle, surgical precision. Indeed, his 131 stumpings in First-Class cricket hardly saw the removal of anything but a dignifiedly flicked single bail.”
Debuting against an English side for a Queensland Country XI at Toowoomba in 1932-33 when he was sixteen, Tallon’s first victim was Herbert Sutcliffe.
Bradman was a fan and wanted him in the 1938 Ashes side but was outvoted at the selection committee meeting and Victoria’s Ben Barnett was chosen instead to sail for England. Tallon had missed his chance.
By the time the Second World War broke out, Tallon had equalled E Pooley’s long-standing world record of twelve victims in a match (it has yet to be beaten) for Queensland against New South Wales in Sydney during the 1938-39 season. He had six victims in each innings, catching nine of them and stumping three.
His prime years were, however, to be spent on the battlefields, away from the 22 yards.
Tallon joined the Australian Army in 1940 and was discharged three years later, afflicted with painful stomach ulcers. A successful surgery thereafter took away a part of his stomach but allowed him to get back to the game he loved.
When cricket resumed after the war, Tallon was a clear leader in the race for the wicketkeeping spot in the Australian team, with Bert Oldfield now retired, Barnett’s four years as a prisoner of war of Japan in Singapore leaving him in no condition to play, and Charlie Walker having been killed by Nazi pilots over Soltau in Germany.
He finally made his Test debut against New Zealand at Wellington in 1946, but it would be a couple of years before he would know it. It was only in 1948 that the match was given Test status. His first dismissal was an “exceptionally smart piece of stumping” off Bill ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly, the great leg-spinner appearing his final Test.
And so on to 1948 and the Invincibles tour.
Wisden said in his obituary a few decades later
“Having made the wicket-keeping place his own against England in 1946-47, and established what was then a record twenty victims in the series, he was an integral part of Bradman’s brilliant 1948 side in England, being equally at home whether keeping to the speed of Lindwall and Miller or the spin of Johnson, McCool and Ring.”
But that doesn’t even begin to tell us about Tallon the man or the ‘keeper.
Quite appropriately, if trifle insensitively, known by his nickname ‘Deafy’, Tallon was a very quiet man, probably due to a lifelong medical condition that affected his hearing. He got his nickname in a county game on that tour when, unusually, he was the only Australian not to appeal for a snicked catch. Ron Hamence said, “What’s the matter with you these days? You must be deaf as well as dumb.”
The name stuck.
His teammate, Doug Ring, said, “All he used to do was grin at you. He hardly said anything to you. He’d gamble: he and Keith Miller used to have bets on who’d hit the next four and that sort of thing. He played cards and he smoked incessantly, of course, but he rarely said anything at all.”
But on the field, under Bradman’s captaincy, Tallon turned into such a vociferous appealer that the English complained that he was intimidating the umpires.
He was also the butt of practical jokes but took it all rather well.
Colin McCool, who had a frustrating series as he rarely got a game due to Bradman exploiting the 55 over rule to the hilt by primarily bowling his pace bowlers, got his entertainment where he could. He was fascinated by the wicketkeeper’s habit of never unpacking.
“He was the only man I ever met who literally lived out of a case on tour. He rarely unpacked when we arrived at a new hotel, and if he wanted a clean shirt he simply rummaged about in his case until he found one, then stuffed the dirty one back in.”
During one of their county games, McCool discovered a hatch in the wardrobe connecting their room to Miller and Lindwall’s. Tallon, as usual, dumped his bags on the floor. The fast bowlers came in and goaded him into unpacking.
McCool describes what followed:
“Slowly he shook out his dress suit, placed it on a hanger, walked over to the wardrobe and hung it on the rail. While we all talked loudly and cheerfully, Lindwall nipped down the corridor into his own room and grabbed the suit through the hatch. Again Tallon advanced on the wardrobe, again he hung up a suit. It was when he went there for the third time that he twigged something was wrong … There’s never been such an expression as there was on ‘Deafy”s face when he peered into that wardrobe and realised that the suits he had hung there half a minute before had all disappeared. Miller and Lindwall were in such a state I thought we might be without a fast attack for the Test match.”
But on the field, Tallon was having a fabulous tour and showing the world what they had missed out on during the war years. He was blossoming fully in the narrow window of opportunity that life had given him.
Tallon’s 21 Tests brought him 50 catches and eight stumpings. During the Invincibles tour, the Australian team strategy of primarily depending on pace bowling saw Tallon make 12 catches and no stumpings during the Tests.
However, Bradman rested his lead pace bowlers, Miller and Lindwall, during the tour games to save energy for the Tests and allowed the spinners do more work so that, overall, Tallon took 29 catches and 14 stumpings for the tour. A stunning record.
A couple of remarkable catches on that tour did no harm in building Tallon’s legend.
In the second Test at Lord’s, Washbrook inside edged a Toshack full toss directly downwards at Tallon’s ankle. Bradman described the catch as “miraculous” because Tallon had to reach so low, so quickly, in order to take the catch.
Neil Harvey’s account was more detailed as he was substituting for Lindwall at cover-point:
“Tallon was standing up to the wicket. Toshack bowled a full toss, which was very foreign for him. Washbrook couldn’t believe his luck. He shaped up to whack it past me. He went back, got an edge, and Tallon caught it on the full at his boot-tops. I’ve never seen a catch like it. He was a freak behind the stumps. From Toshack’s hand to Tallon’s gloves, no pitch was involved. Fantastic catch!”
The Tallon legend was forever sealed in the final Test at the Oval, when England had a horrible outing, getting all out for 52. The score would have been far less but for a dour, dogged 30 in 130 minutes with one four from Len Hutton. And the only reason Australia was able to dismiss Hutton was because of Tallon.
Lindwall bowled an inswinger that Hutton leg-glanced. He might, Bradman said, “reasonably have looked for a boundary. Instead, he saw Tallon move across with uncanny anticipation, scoop the ball in his outstretched left glove as it sped towards earth, turning a somersault but serenely holding the ball aloft. No greater catch has been seen behind the wickets.”
Tallon missed the 1949-50 series against South Africa due to stomach ulcers and a bout of unemployment, but was selected for all the Tests at home against England. He had a decent series, and while few could dispute his supremacy with the gloves, Tallon was fast losing his hearing. This was to cut short his career further.
He went to England with the 1953 side, but was a pale shadow of his former self. He played the first Test at Trent Bridge, but was then replaced by Gil Langley for the rest of the Tests and never played for Australia again.
His opposite number Godfrey Evans described him as the “best and most nimble keeper ever”. His teammate and all-rounder, Alan Davidson, paid him the ultimate compliment, calling him the “Bradman of ‘keepers”.
Godfrey Evans held 816 catches and carried out 250 stumpings in his first-class career – a total of 1,066 dismissals, all this from 465 matches, including 219 in Tests (173 catches and 46 stumpings).
He was also a reliable batsman, with 14,882 runs (average 21.22), including 2,439 in Tests (average 20.49), and two centuries.
At the crease, he was perhaps best known for his stand against Australia in Adelaide in 1947, when he batted for a record 97 minutes without a run as he stoically helped his partner, Denis Compton, score a century and save the match.
What made Evans’ reputation as a ‘keeper stand out even more is the fact that he was playing for Kent, which produced both Les Ames and Alan Knott, and despite that, Evans was widely acknowledged to be the best of the three.
David Foot, writing for the Guardian, put it very eloquently:
“Many keepers cloak their skills in anonymity, judged by an efficiency that is missed by the naked eye. Not Evans. He possessed an innate theatricality, never too irritating or counter-productive, evident in the marvellous way he hurled himself for those legside catches with those red gloves that seemed slightly too big for him. He was perpetually bobbing around on his toes, bracing himself to chase in front of the stumps in search of a run-out; or standing up, intrepid and reliable, to wily medium-paced bowlers. He was so nimble, so intuitive, that a great many of his legside dismissals were more like optical illusions.”
Evans was a perfectionist. He hated letting byes through. Writing an obituary on the death of his friend, Frank Keating was to say:
“In a rain-ruined match on a difficult Oval pitch , India scored 331 in their only innings – and Godfrey let through a solitary bye. He would remember it to his dying day 53 years later: ‘Do you know, I still wake up sometimes cursing myself for that wretched, idiotic little bye. Jim Langridge, twirly left-arm, Sussex, remember him? He floated down this silly little blighter outside off stump; it might have kept a bit low, but I took my eye off it for a fraction and it scuttled through. I didn’t half swear at myself. Still do.'”
Making his debut in England’s first post-war series against India in 1946, Evans was in fine form and richer by a significant amount of experience by the time the Invincibles came to town.
The magic of Godfrey Evans was visible from the very start of the series.
In the first Test at Nottingham, with Bradman walking in to bat on an English Test ground for the first time in a decade, Barnes, who was on 62 and looking for his century, went back to Laker and under-edged a cut. It struck Evans’s thigh and looped over the keeper’s head in the direction of fine leg.
Malcolm Knox, writing in Bradman’s War, provides four eyewitness versions of what occurred in the next two seconds:
Bradman: “Evans’ catching of Barnes [was] one of the most miraculous feats of recovery as well as acrobatics one would see in a long time.”
Jack Fingleton: “Evans dived back like a rugby winger going for the line in an international …”
Bill O’Reilly: “… a corkscrew backward dive, sizing up to Olympic Games standards.”
Godfrey Evans: “I just saw this little blob in the sun and dived towards it instinctively and caught it one-handed.’
Knox says, “So astounding was Evans’s effort, umpire Cooke couldn’t decide if it was a catch. He referred it to Chester, who gave it out. Barnes said to Evans: ‘I didn’t believe you had caught me –I didn’t think you COULD have caught that ball.”
As was exemplified by Keating’s words on him, Godfrey Evans hated making mistakes, whether it was letting a bye through or dropping a catch. One of his enduring frustrations was that he never caught or stumped Bradman while keeping to more than 1400 runs off his bat in Australia and England.
When the Test series was over, and the Australians were playing Kent at Canterbury and Bradman was in his fifties, he chopped down on a ball from Eddie Crush. Evans stifled an appeal.
Later, Bradman said, laughing, “You are a fool, Godfrey; you’ve been trying to get me all these years and you threw away the perfect chance out there.”
“Did you hit it then, Don?”
“Of course I did … I hit it hard. There was your chance, and when you got it, Godfrey, you didn’t take it.”
The regret was to live on to the end of his days, for that was the last first-class match he would play against Bradman.
Evans did not particularly like Bradman’s ruthlessness, but as a man, he was big-hearted, and the war had taught him the value of looking at things with a larger lens than one’s own narrow perspective.
When Eric Hollies bowled Bradman for nought in The Don’s last innings, among all the chest beating and remonstrations, from behind the stumps his take was philosophical: “What is a nought in such a fabulous career, even such a nought at such a time?”
Evans played on for another decade until his last match against India in 1959 and was one of the the mainstays of an English team which rose from the post-war ashes to once again decisively capture the cricketing crown from an Australia sans Bradman in the 1950s.
In later life, Evans was the resident expert for the bookmakers Ladbrokes, reassessing the odds at each twist and turn of a Test, usually getting it right, but, at Headingley in 1981 when he offered England at 500 to one, he famously got it wrong thanks to Bob Willis’ 8 for 43. Ladbrokes, we understand, forgave him for that one overenthusiastic call.
A more exuberant wicketkeeper and human being has not been seen on the cricket field, before or since. David Frith perhaps described him best, when he called Evans “biologically incapable of being downhearted.”
The England bowler Mike Selvey, now a Guardian cricket correspondent, played with him when Evans was 56 years old in a fun seven-a-side game at The Oval.
“My experience was an education. Late out-swing just whispered into his gloves. I slipped in a full-length in-swinger on leg stump – the most difficult to take – and there he was, down the leg side as if by telepathy, flicking the bails away as the batsmen changed feet.”
Selvey said he had never seen a better display of wicket-keeping.
Don Tallon and Godfrey Evans: two gloved geniuses with vastly different personalities who shared centre stage and reached the peaks of their prowess behind the stumps during a magical summer of post-war cricket that would forever remain a part of cricketing lore.