I remember this episode well. I was following it in Bulawayo, not at all happy with the turn of events. But it's not my memory of it I bring you here today, it's my series batting partner Bob's - his cricketing awareness then taking shape in a village in Warwickshire:
Some of England's most famous Ashes victories could easily have turned out differently. The 2005 series is an obvious example, and Botham's 1981 series is another. In both cases England were 1-0 down and might have gone 2-0 down. The 1956 series was somewhat similar. Australia won the second Test thanks to Keith Miller, who took 10-152 in the match, and Richie Benaud, who scored 97, and the third Test began badly for England.
I was seven at the time and not yet a serious cricket fan. I didn't really follow the Tests, and I was better informed about the Warwickshire team, which I had seen (Gardner, Horner, Hitchcock, Townsend, Spooner, etc), than about the England team. However, some things penetrated my consciousness. I heard about Laker's 19 wickets in the fourth Test, and I heard about Cyril Washbrook's innings in the third Test. There were Washbrooks in my village, so it was good to see a Washbrook playing a crucial innings for England.
Washbrook had been brought back into the England team at the age of 40 after a break of five years. He came in to join Peter May when England were 17 for 3 on the first morning. The pair stayed together until just before the close, when the score was 204 and May was out for 101. Washbrook just missed his century the following morning, but England reached 325 and went on to win the match. Laker was the star of the series, but without Washbrook's innings the series could have been very different.
From the accounts of that 1956 series:
Fortunate to win the toss, England looked bound for defeat at the end of the first hour when their first three wickets had fallen to Archer for 17 runs, but a century by May, their captain, and a fine innings of 98 by Washbrook brought about a recovery... The England selectors were severely criticised for choosing Washbrook, one of their own members, who had not appeared in a Test since the 1950-51 Australasian tour, but after his long rest Washbrook returned refreshed to big cricket and his experience was invaluable... May and Washbrook came together at 12.35 and they were not separated till 6.25, five minutes before stumps were drawn when May hit a high full toss to fine leg where Lindwall held a brilliant catch near his boots. Their partnership of 187 was the best for England against Australia since the war. - Wisden 1957
The selectors' logical argument was that a man of solid experience and proved temperament was required... They had this type of person on their own committee and though I know that Washbrook was far from keen on the idea of returning to Test cricket he accepted his colleagues' decision with the remark: "One doesn't refuse to play for England." - A.E.R Gilligan, Australian Challenge
Three gone for 17! Had a side ever begun so badly and gone on to win? And even before lunch arrived with the score at 51 for 3, there was a breathless moment when Washbrook, beaten all ends up, must have been all but lbw to Archer. - Denzil Batchelor, The Picture Post Book of the Tests 1956
[W]e could not have come closer to dismissing Washbrook early. All those in reasonable line with the stumps thought Ron Archer had him l.b.w. plumb when he had scored only a single. But the umpire had the best view of all, he gave Cyril the benefit of the doubt, and the batsman certainly made good his narrow escape. - Ian Johnson, Cricket at the Crossroads
Out of the wilderness of forgotten men Cyril Washbrook brought to the England team all the Selectors asked of him – solidity, stability, and endurance; and in playing the greatest innings of his career showed quality, judgement, temperament, and technique of a kind that is rarely seen in present-day Test cricket. It was all unexpected. Few people thought he would succeed, especially after being so long out of the England-Australia scene. But he did. - Norman Cutler, Behind the Australian Tests 1956
Thus it was that at 17 for three Washbrook made his re-entry to the Test scene to a warm, long burst of applause in which encouragement and fervent hope were equally blended. He was soon off the mark with a flick off his legs, and from the beginning batted with a confidence which the situation and the circumstances of his return made all the more remarkable - E.W. Swanton, The Test Matches of 1956
Washbrook must have remembered how, in 1948, he had fallen just on time after batting all day, and was doubly determined not to be trapped again. At close of play he was not out 90, and England were 204 for four - not a strong position, but infinitely more comfortable than had seemed possible at the black hour of 12.30. Washbrook's magnificent innings was a triumph of character, and none who saw it would have suspected that he had not played Test cricket for five years. - Rex Alston, Test Commentary
What a day's cricket this was - three English wickets down for a beggarly 17 runs, then a recovery by Peter May and that veteran whose Test career had long seemed over, Cyril Washbrook. - Bruce Harris, Defending the Ashes 1956
L.b.w for 98... so near and yet so far! It was sad that by this one fatal misjudgement he should be robbed of an honour he had so richly deserved, and I should be surprised if the Australian team did not feel the same. But, hundred or no hundred, nothing could take away his glory. - Peter West, The Fight for the Ashes 1956
This was Washbrook's finest hour and his departure was acclaimed by friend and foe alike. - Pat Landsberg and Arthur Morris, Operation Ashes
[For links to the other posts in this series, see here.]