Until the intervention of Don Bradman, England had every reason to regard The Oval as their lucky ground.
In 15 matches, they had lost just once – the seven-run defeat in 1882 which spawned the legend of The Ashes – and won nine times. However, during his playing years, Bradman led Australia to three emphatic wins at The Oval, with two of them arriving in an Ashes decider.
While the Australian batted at The Oval only on four occasions, despite playing four matches, there hasn’t been another overseas batter yet to score more runs than the great Bradman at the ground – however, Steve Smith will threaten to be that player when he takes the field this Thursday. In his time in Kennington, the little genius compiled a monumental tally of 553 runs, with the highest score of 244, at a remarkable average of 138.25.
Despite the mountain of runs amassed by the Don at The Oval, it is his fourth and final visit to south London that forever remains inscribed in the collective cricketing memory of the world. The occasion arrived a decade after his previous visit to the ground – one in which he had fractured his leg while bowling and was unable to bat in either of the innings – due to the Second World War, which ensured international cricket, along with so many other things, was suspended.
Having suffered a 3-0 drubbing down under in 1946-47, little more was expected from England in 1948, not least with Australia looking even stronger and Bradman overcoming concerns over his health to make a final tour at the head of a side which became known as “The Invincibles”.
They cut an astonishing swathe through the country, not least scoring an extraordinary 721 all out in one day against Essex at Southend.
England’s makeshift side were heavily beaten at Trent Bridge and Lord’s before a wet draw at Old Trafford. Moving across the Pennines to Headingley, England fancied their chances of a victory which would keep the series (and Ashes) alive when they set the tourists 404 to win in less than a day only for opener Arthur Morris (182) and Bradman’s 173no to claim an outstanding victory by seven wickets.
The series was then put on hold for almost a month while London hosted the Olympic Games but, if anything, it only increased the drama of Bradman’s final Test, when he needed just four runs to finish with a career average of 100.
That The Oval was able to stage the match was a miracle. When the war had finished in 1945, the ground was a prisoner-of-war camp – albeit never used – and it was estimated that it would take at least three years to be fit for purpose again.
Groundsman Bert Lock had other ideas and affected a remarkable transformation so that cricket restarted the following season but there were still giveaway signs where bomb damage, albeit remarkably light given the ground’s location, had been patched up.
Despite poor weather in the build-up, Lock and his team got the match started only an hour late, England captain Norman Yardley deciding to bat first on a sodden pitch rather than risk more showers later making it even worse.
The hosts lasted just two-and-a-half hours as Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Bill Johnston wreaked yet more havoc in bowling them out for 52.
Instead of having to wait until the second day to see Bradman, the huge crowd now realised he was likely to start his final innings – and they could be pretty sure there would only be one – on the first.
Openers Sid Barnes and Arthur Morris put on 117 to delay his appearance until shortly before 6pm, Bradman’s arrival greeted by an ovation for the ages and Yardley shaking his hand in the middle and then leading his side (and the crowd) in giving three cheers.
The Australian was not known as an emotional man but even he admitted the occasion moved him and that surely contributed to misreading a googly from leg-spinner Eric Hollies and being bowled by his second delivery, a stunned silence giving way to the tumult which accompanied him off the ground, heading into the pavilion through the doors which have now been named after him with an average of 99.94.