It is always a pleasure to come across an unsung achievement in Test cricket, and occasionally a search through the byways of cricket statistics uncovers a hidden gem. This happened when I was looking into the area of the fastest half-centuries by Australians in Test matches. The leaders in this area would be a surprise to many.
The fastest fifty by an Australian in an Ashes Test, in balls faced, was by Graham Yallop, who reached 50 off 35 balls on the way to 114 at Old Trafford in 1981. While a notable innings, it was not, on the face of it, the stuff of records. It is surprising that Adam Gilchrist or the other modern Australian heavy hitters have never surpassed it, not to mention the lions of the Golden Age (see footnote*).
In all Tests, there have been more than 40 half-centuries as fast or faster than Yallop’s, half of them since the year 2000. However, only one was hit by an Australian, and again, we must look in a surprising direction.
In 1977/78, Australia toured the West Indies with a team decimated by the Packer World Series split. Worse still, Bob Simpson’s tyros came up against the first generation of the West Indian pace barrage that would dominate cricket for more than a decade. After being beaten and bruised by an innings and 105 runs inside three days on a ferocious wicket at Port-of-Spain, the Aussies ventured to Barbados, where they sought to make a stand.
As it happened, Graham Yallop played a role here too. He came to the crease in the first full helmet ever seen in a Test match (helmets had first appeared in World Series matches a few months before), and showed enough mettle to add 92 in 29 overs with Graeme Wood. But then wickets started falling under an intense bumper barrage. Bruce Yardley, batting at Number Eight, came in at 6 for 149, and soon lost Steve Rixon, who had already been dropped twice before he fell to a Joel Garner “sandshoe crusher” that took him out lbw and landed him in hospital for X-rays.
That left Yardley with Jeff Thomson, with only Wayne Clark and Jim Higgs to follow. Clark was coming off scores of 0, 1, 0, 0 and would bag another pair in this match, while Higgs had famously failed to score a single run on a tour of England in 1975; between them they would score 16 runs in 14 innings in this series.
So it was Yardley and Thomson against Garner and Roberts at full throttle. Toujours l’audace was the response. In his first two overs from Garner, peppered with bouncers, Yardley took 27 runs, hitting 44600444 off consecutive balls. The six was square cut over point. Yardley had already been struck heavily on both elbow and chest (near the throat). After an over of spin from Parry cost 14 runs, Yardley lost the strike, and Garner cleaned bowled Thomson for 12 and then Clark. Higgs, though, held the fort long enough for Yardley to reach 50, by hooking a Garner bouncer heading for his nose for another six.
Yardley had faced either 29 or 30 balls for his 50 – there is an ambiguity in the scorebook** – which remains by a comfortable margin the fastest Test half-century by an Australian. (The figure is not given in the scorebook or any contemporary source; it was obtained by detailed ball-by-ball re-analysis.) Higgs resisted long enough for Yardley to reach 74 off 48 balls, with nine fours and 2 sixes, before Garner got his man. During Garner’s spell, Yardley hit 42 runs off the giant fast bowler; if you subtract Yardley’s runs, Garner’s final spell was four wickets for one run.
Was there ever a more spectacular and gallant response to truly fearsome fast bowling? If there was ever a greater yet unsung innings by an Australian batsman, it remains well hidden.
*Victor Trumper’s fastest 50 in Ashes Tests was 39 minutes at Sheffield in 1902. Balls faced is unknown, just possibly faster than Yallop, but not Yardley. Reports that Trumper hit a 50 in 22 minutes in Johannesburg in 1902 are erroneous; the actual figure was 45 minutes.
**The oddity in the scorebook is that Garner’s 13th over is given as 2W000W, the wickets being Thomson and Clark, yet the two runs are credited to Yardley, who had hit a four off the last ball of the previous over. It seems almost certain that the runs should go to Thomson, and the scores should have been Yardley 72 and Thomson 14.