Philip Barker

Australian cricket teams have been coming to England for over 150 years but when the class of 2023 arrives in the next few days, they are set to take on a programme which is arguably more demanding than any faced by their predecessors.

It is to to begin at The Oval in South London, where India await in the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Test Championship Final on June 7.

Less than a fortnight later, they begin the defence of The Ashes in a full five Test series against England which runs through June and July.

Seventy years ago, in another Coronation Summer, Australia were also touring.

They had arrived after a sea voyage and their series against England was no doubt equally intense, but the tour began in very different circumstances with a match against East Molesey Cricket Club (EMCC), a village team in Surrey.

EMCC President Basil Turner’s work with the "Reciprocal Trades Federation" had brought him into contact with officials at the Australian High Commission in London.

He had formed EMCC supporters groups in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.

"Following my two recent visits to Australia, you will have learned that my representations to the Australian Cricket Board for a fixture with the Australian touring team have been successful," Turner wrote to EMCC members in January 1953.

"We shall be favoured with the distinguished patronage of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and a considerable company of Coronation visitors from the Commonwealth."

Turner claimed that "some of the Australian players put in a good word for us and I want to thank them for that".

"How Mr Turner arranged it I will never know. It was a remarkable piece of statesmanship," said Australia’s captain, Lindsay Hassett.

In 1953, players were challenged to hit the ball onto the island beyond East Molesey's cricket ground ©ITG
In 1953, players were challenged to hit the ball onto the island beyond East Molesey's cricket ground ©ITG

"The riverside location of the East Molesey ground inspired the editor of the local newspaper.

"The Coronation year should be a big hit in Molesey, and that is what I want to talk about, big hits," a Ditton and Molesey News editorial began.

"Now the great event is only three months away, what we are going to do is make it a memorable occasion, a game to be talked about wherever cricket is played?"

Across the water was Tagg’s Island, one of many on this stretch of the river.

"Here come some of the world's greatest cricket players led by big hitter Keith Miller, and here in Molesey, we have one of the most challenging grounds in world," the editorial continued.

"Can Keith Miller or one of his teammates hit the Island? Let us make it worth their while to try."

The Paper soon laid down a challenge.

"The Molesey and Ditton News offers £50 to the first man to put a ball on Tagg’s Island without a splash during the course of the match on April 26. The ball must be hit during the match proper and must score six for the batting side," it announced.

It invited "any local sportsman or business firm" to contribute to the prize fund.

A souvenir of a unique cricketing occasion in 1953 ©EMCC
A souvenir of a unique cricketing occasion in 1953 ©EMCC

Sir Pelham Warner, editor of The Cricketer magazine, was persuaded to make a donation and produce the official programme.

By the time of the match, the fund had swelled to more than £1,600, in today's money the approximate equivalent of £25,000 ($30,800/€28,730).

Proceeds were to be divided between the successful player, EMCC and the National Playing Fields Association (now known as Fields in Trust) - an organisation of which Prince Philip was Patron.

He arrived by river to be welcomed by EMCC Patron Viscount Leathers. 

Other guests included former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Lord Mayor of London Sir Rupert De la Bère and Australian High Commissioner Sir Thomas White and the Duke of Beaufort, President of the Marylebone Cricket Club and the British Olympic Association.

"We are all very grateful to East Molesey for seeing our Australian friends in this lovely setting," Attlee said.

"I am particularly pleased that the Australians opening match should be in the finest county of all, Surrey."

There was also a greeting from Australian Premier Robert Menzies read by George Gordon Coulter, vice-president of the East Molesey Melbourne supporters branch.

"Please give my greetings to the famous old club and in particular to our President Basil Turner."

Around 10,000 packed into the ground in temporary stands, despite complaints from the Lord’s Day Observance Society, an organisation who campaigned against sport being played on a Sunday.

Even at the 1948 Olympics there had been no events on Sundays.

Trees behind the sightscreen at East Molesey added to the problems of those attempting to hit a ball out onto the island behind©ITG
Trees behind the sightscreen at East Molesey added to the problems of those attempting to hit a ball out onto the island behind©ITG

A police inspector, a sergeant and eight constables were sent "maintaining order inside cricket ground".

Arrangements were also made for catering.

"We are of the opinion that three ice cream sales units can be located, one inside the gate and two either side of the ground," Job’s dairy recommended.

The match programme included a plea.

"Will all those in the stand nearest the pavilion and along the riverside end of the ground be constantly on the lookout for balls, a number of which are likely to fall in or around the stand or among the general public."

The EMCC team featured club stalwarts but was bolstered by the addition of some "guests".

These included Bernard Constable of Surrey, born locally. 

Unfortunately he was out to the third ball of the match for a duck.

The innings tottered at 23 for 4 but England all-rounder Trevor Bailey, one of the guest players, struck 40. 

With help from his Essex county colleagues Doug Insole who scored 52 and Ray Smith who made 69 in only 22 minutes, EMCC totalled 244 for 11 wickets.

George Tribe, an Australian who played for Northamptonshire, had been the first to hit the ball into the river. 

For one over, local schoolboy Tom Duckett, a member of East Molesey, fielded for Australia after fast bowler Bill Johnston was forced off with a tendon injury.

"I just stood there and prayed no balls would come my way," Duckett said afterwards.

The interval which lasted rather longer than scheduled after the players were presented "informally" to Prince Philip.

The seating plan for the teams to take tea with Prince Philip ©ITG
The seating plan for the teams to take tea with Prince Philip ©ITG 

"We really should be getting out, Mr Hassett," umpire Jim Broadbent suggested to the Australian captain.

"My goodness, I’ve never known such a keen umpire," the Prince was said to have remarked.

Star batsman Neil Harvey was dismissed for a duck but Arthur Morris scored 103 including three sixes and 18 fours.

Graeme Hole made 67 and Hassett 45, as the tourists swept past their target. 

Spin bowler Doug Ring hit the winning runs but the Australians continued batting.

Richie Benaud tried a big hit and was caught in the deep for only two but Australia eventually totalled 314 for 9.

As predicted it was Miller, who came closest to winning the prize bounty.

He hit 33 runs which included some big hits and his best effort was described by The Cricketer as a "stupendous drive".

It dropped into the river only ten feet (three metres) short of the island, apparently splashing the shoes of adjudicator Ted Lovell, who paid the princely sum of one pound to sit there all day.

"I think I could do it easily if I had another chance," Miller insisted afterwards.

"If I’d had the wind behind me, the ball would have carried the extra ten feet of that I am sure."

Ray Lindwall, one of the finest Australian fast bowlers of all time, also found the water with his attempts.

"I am very disappointed, I’ll never have the chance to make that amount of money for such a small amount of work," Lindwall reflected.

The Molesey and Dittons News headlined the match as "East Molesey’s Greatest Day".

What followed in 1953 did not prove such a memorable year for the Australians.

They lost the fifth and final test to England by eight wickets and with the series to surrender The Ashes after 19 years.

Yet that match against East Molesey remained in the memory as the Australians returned home.

"One falls to wondering how this game got into the official programme. Why this London club should get such preferential treatment is not clear," asked pre-war Test player Jack Fingleton, now a newspaper reporter.

Miller was more even critical.

"Frankly the team were not happy about this extra match," Miller insisted in newspaper columns and his book Cricket Crossfire.

"Why? we asked one another should this little isolated club be picked out for the distinction of playing a full Australian eleven when there were others with longer more distinguished histories?" Miller pondered.

"I do not know the inside story of this match but I believe a lot of strings were pulled to get it put on."

The hectic schedule of international cricketers in 2023 suggests that such an encounter will never be repeated.