David Owen ©ITG

"Unique" is a much-overused word in sportswriting; few happenings so described truly are.

Not even the extraordinary events I am about to describe to you would warrant correct deployment of the much-abused "u-word" today.

At the time the drama unfolded 60 years ago, before a disbelieving crowd of just 4,000 at the Woolloongabba ground in Brisbane, Australia, however, the offending adjective was, for once, justified.

What those spectators witnessed, on December 14 1960, was a true first - the first time in 83 years, and almost 500 matches, of Test cricket that such a contest had ended as a tie.

It is important here to grasp the distinction between the "tie" and the "draw" where cricket is concerned. Draws are 10 a penny, in spite of the game’s sometimes seemingly interminable duration. They signify only that the team batting last has failed to amass as many runs as its opponent while the side fielding last has failed to bowl 10 opposing batters out, hence ending the innings and the match.

For a tie to occur, the team batting last must be bowled out when the respective scores compiled by the two teams over the duration of the match - five days for a standard Test match - are level.

Since teams regularly notch several hundred runs over the course of a Test, this is much more unusual - indeed, unheard of prior to that sunny evening six decades ago in Queensland. Even today, it has happened only twice in Test matches.

I was not among the lucky 4,000 scattered around the arena that day, but I have been familiar with the details of what occurred since childhood. This is thanks to a now battered book gifted to me by a slightly older neighbour. Eight-year-old me assiduously crossed out his name - David Gerrard Williams - inscribed on the fly sheet, and substituted my own. The book has been with me now for more than 50 years.

International cricket was at a low ebb in 1960.

It had yet to be re-energised by ever shorter one-day formats and was in thrall to negative play. There were fears that the sport was stultifying even its staunchest supporters with tedium and might even fade into history.

Frank Worrell captain the West Indian team in the historic tied Test ©Getty Images
Frank Worrell captain the West Indian team in the historic tied Test ©Getty Images

The mood is summed up in the first paragraph of my now much-travelled copy of one of the first books ever to hold me captivated: J.H.Fingleton’s The Greatest Test of All.

"I have titled this book The Greatest Test of All," the former Australian Test player wrote, continuing: "I might equally have called it Cricket Reborn because that greatest of all Tests… breathed new and lusty life into the ailing spectre of a once great game."

The protagonists in this mould-breaking clash were Australia, who had begun to escape the long shadow cast by its greatest player Don Bradman under the astute captaincy of Richie Benaud, and the West Indies.

These were men from across the main English-speaking islands of the Caribbean, as well as British Guiana - today Guyana - in South America, a territory known by philatelists as issuer of the world’s rarest postage stamp, the one-cent magenta.

Their captain was a 36-year-old Bajan called Frank Worrell.

Two things are important about this. First, Worrell, an exceptional leader, was the West Indies’ first outright black captain. Master batsman George Headley had been appointed as one of three captains for a series in 1948, but only ever captained one Test match.

At a time when many of the countries coloured pink on world maps were moving towards independence from the British Empire, this made the comportment of that particular West Indies team a matter of far more than local sporting interest.

As the Trinidadian scholar C.L.R. James argued in his masterpiece, Beyond a Boundary, while the West Indies had a white captain, "the more brilliantly the black men played, the more it would emphasise to millions of English people: 'Yes, they are fine players, but, funny, isn’t it, they cannot be responsible for themselves - they must always have a white man to lead them.'"

However outstandingly he may have batted and bowled, Worrell’s outstanding achievement in West Indies colours was to consign such views to richly deserved oblivion.

Second, Worrell’s team played the game with exuberance, love and unimpeachable sportsmanship. Their batting, bowling and - crucially in the context of this astonishing match - their fielding was often spectacular and audacious.

Many of those who played in the tied Test met 40 years later for a reunion ©Getty Images
Many of those who played in the tied Test met 40 years later for a reunion ©Getty Images

Given the dour, joyless business Test cricket had become - former Jamaican Prime Minister Malcolm Manley talks in his A History of West Indies Cricket of a "siege mentality… induced by the convergence of professionalism and patriotism" - this was always going to win them fans, irrespective of the outcome of their matches.

What the ill-fated Worrell, who died, aged just 42, in 1967, did not do was to turn his team into serial winners. That task would fall to West Indies cricket’s second great on-field leader, Clive Hubert Lloyd, some 20 years later.

It was the final 30 minutes of the 30-hour contest that was the first Test of the 1960-1961 Antipodean summer which ensured that the game would never be forgotten. So that is what we will concentrate on, after a brief resumé of events up to that point.

The visitors batted first and made a thoroughly satisfactory 453.

The innings was dominated by a magnificent 132 by another giant of the game, the left-handed all-rounder Garfield Sobers. James described this knock as "the most beautiful batting I have ever seen".

Eight years later in Swansea, the predatory, feline Sobers was author of another then "unique" cricketing feat, when he smashed all six balls of a single over for sixes.

Australia gave as good as they got, eventually totalling 505. A bang in-form Norm O'Neill made 181, his highest score in Tests, in more than six-and-a-half hours at the crease.

With Benaud tying up one end and left-armer Alan Davidson bowling with pace and intelligence, the visitors found the going much tougher in the second innings, and were all out for 284. Worrell top-scored with his second 65 of the match. This left Australia needing 233 to win in their own second innings.

The hosts were soon in trouble against the blistering pace of West Indies fast bowler Wes Hall. At 57 for five, Worrell and his men must have felt well on the way to a famous victory, only for that pair Davidson and Benaud to dig in with great tenacity, eventually bringing up a century stand for the seventh wicket.

When the final half-hour arrived, they were still in situ, with the score on 206 for six. The fearsome Hall, however, was readying for one last burst - and, once again, he had a shiny, red new ball in his hand.

Richie Benaud went on to become a much-loved commentator ©Getty Images
Richie Benaud went on to become a much-loved commentator ©Getty Images

As in tennis, only much more so, the periodic replacement of old balls can have a decisive influence on the balance of advantage in cricket matches. The new projectile is harder, tending therefore to be travelling faster when it arrives at the striker’s end; the proud seam and smooth surface, moreover, make it easier for the bowler to induce some variety of bat-befuddling deviation.

At 34 paces, Hall had one of the longest and most menacing run-ups in the history of the game. Benaud went on to become a peerless cricket commentator. One wonders how he would have set the scene as the muscular paceman prepared for a final do-or-die barrage.

A new ball, however, travels faster to the boundary-rope too. And, with the well-set Davidson chancing his arm, this initially is exactly what happened.

Two missed run-out chances and a top edge from Benaud that did not fall to hand would have sapped the visitors’ spirits further. With 10 minutes left, the deficit had shrunk to just eight.

But calamity for the home team was just around the corner. The scene was set for the craziest finale in Test cricket’s long history, which had begun all the way back in March 1877, when England squared up to Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, destined later to be used as the main stadium for Australia’s first Olympic Games.

In theory, Australia could have got the few remaining runs they required in singles, entailing little risk. When Benaud pushed into the leg side and attempted to do just that, however, one of the less celebrated members of the West Indies XI was too quick for him.

Grasping the ball and releasing it with one smooth movement, Joe Solomon threw down the stumps at the wicketkeeper’s end with Davidson well short of his ground. It was to prove just the break that the visitors needed.

Australia still had three wickets in hand as Wally Grout, their popular wicketkeeper, came out to join his captain, and the pair quickly scrambled another couple of singles.

Hall had embarked on what everybody knew would be the last eight-ball over of a gripping match. Summoning what remained of his strength, he unleashed a bouncer at Benaud, who was on 52.

His concentration perhaps broken by the preceding run-out and extraordinary tension, the Aussie skipper got a touch which was pouched gratefully by West Indies’ Gerry Alexander behind the stumps.

Five runs were now needed with six balls remaining and only Australia’s tail-enders, the team’s least accomplished batsmen, to come.

Norm O'Neill takes evasive action following a fierce Wes Hall delivery ©Getty Images
Norm O'Neill takes evasive action following a fierce Wes Hall delivery ©Getty Images

Fingleton describes next man in, Ian Meckiff, as "walking in slowly as if to make sure his arms and legs all stayed with him" - and little wonder.

The pressure of a knife-edge finish does strange things to the brains, even of usually clinical professional athletes.

A dot ball and yet another harum-scarum single left four more runs to get off the last four balls.

At this point, the gutsy Grout tried to hit Hall for what would have been the winning runs had he connected sweetly. Instead, the ball went spinning high into the air.

This time, a West Indies fieldsman was stationed underneath it. It looked a sure-fire catch - until a second West Indian appeared on the scene, and the chance was fluffed.

Yet again, the visitors must have felt that their goose was cooked, as the score inched up to 230.

There then ensued the most astonishing moment of all.

Meckiff, perhaps inspired by his team mate’s robust approach, swung at a delivery of ferocious pace. He connected with a satisfying clunk and the ball flew away, seemingly to the boundary, and victory. A photograph taken immediately after the shot seems to show Meckiff smiling.

However, there was yet another twist. As Fingleton relates: "Because of some oversight, the grass in the outfield had not been cut and a ball that looked all-over a boundary lost pace and was picked up on the verge of the boundary by [Conrad] Hunte, who had chased it as if in the Olympic 100 metres."

The batsmen, though, had already completed two runs, to bring the scores level. They turned for the third, decisive, run, with Grout sprinting towards the danger end.

More often than not, he would have made it. But, on this occasion, Hunte’s throw from the distant perimeter arrowed in so fast and so true that Alexander was able to break the wicket fractionally ahead of the batsman’s unavailing dive.

David Owen's well-travelled copy of J.H.Fingleton’s book on the first-ever tied Test match ©David Owen
David Owen's well-travelled copy of J.H.Fingleton’s book on the first-ever tied Test match ©David Owen

Poor Lindsay Kline, Australia’s last man, now had to come out to face the music with the scores level, two balls remaining and his wicket alone in hand.

To his eternal credit, he managed to get bat on ball. But as he and Meckiff sprinted desperately for the elusive winning run, that man Solomon again swooped and, scarcely believably, threw down the wicket a second time to secure the historic tie.

A total of 3,142 balls had been bowled and 1,474 runs scored over five days, yet these two fine teams could not be separated.

This was just the first rubber of a five-match series, however, and in the end Australia did prevail by two Tests to one, confirming themselves, albeit unofficially, as world number one.

For Fingleton, the true significance of those mesmerising December days of long ago extends far beyond such trivialities as the international rankings.

"From something which seemed inexorably headed for the text books of the antiquarians," he wrote, "international cricket emerged from that breathless, spine-tingling Test as a game that can be played as a game - for the enjoyment of the players themselves and the enormous delight of the cash customers".

There is something else. From the moment Melbourne turned out en masse to bid the visitors farewell, for once, the team who were ultimately vanquished have not been forgotten. Far from it.

As Manley put it: "Although the world usually forgets the one who comes second in a photo finish, on this occasion the losers were credited with transforming Test cricket at a moment when it seemed headed for the kind of doldrums which envelop any encounter that is dominated by the fear of defeat. 

"The lion’s share of the credit for this went to Worrell and rightly so."

On cricket, as on politics, Manley knew whereof he spoke.