Clockwise, from left: Len Hutton on parade at Army School of Physical Training; a doodlebug lands close to Lord's during a cricket match; Australian troops playing cricket; Denis Compton, a gunner in the army; Cec Pepper and Keith Miller walking out to bat in the Victory Test at Lord's, 1945 © Getty Images
Clockwise, from left: Len Hutton on parade at Army School of Physical Training; a doodlebug lands close to Lord’s during a cricket match; Australian troops playing cricket; Denis Compton, a gunner in the army; Cec Pepper and Keith Miller walking out to bat in the Victory Test at Lord’s, 1945 © Getty Images

“Pressure? There is no pressure in Test cricket. Real pressure is when you are flying a Mosquito with a Messerschmitt up your arse.”

That, dear readers, was Keith Miller, answering a question from Michael Parkinson before one of the Victory Tests played after World War II.

Keith Miller, cricketer, nay personality extraordinaire.

Swashbuckling cricketer, daring fighter pilot, debonair looks put to full romantic effect, and a lover of classical music such that it once prompted him to turn his Mosquito back into the war zone so he could take a detour of Bonn, Beethoven’s birthplace.

His love of music once got him into even greater trouble. He went AWOL to watch violinist Yehudi Menuhin perform in London and was dismissed, but the CO revoked his decision on the condition that Miller play for his cricket team.

A man, always ready to offer perspective. A man who lived life king size, reportedly having a torrid affair with Princess Margaret at one time, but a man who was also a truly caring human being.

Ashley Mallett once wrote about a wartime episode of Miller’s: “For much of the war, Miller was based near Bournemouth. Every Friday night it became tradition for Miller and his mates from the RAF base to meet at the Carlton Hotel in Bournemouth. One fateful Friday night, Miller couldn’t make the regular appointment and when he returned he found the town barricaded after a German raid. A Focke-Wulf fighter bomber had strafed the church next to the hotel, causing the church spire to collapse directly on to the front bar, instantly killing his eight mates. Each year for more than 50 years Miller returned to England and spent time with a relative of each of his mates killed that tragic night in 1943.”

But Miller wasn’t the only one.

Sport has a way of finding characters whose impact goes well beyond the playing fields, and touches the core of what life means. War, and its experiences, unfortunately has sometimes played more than its fair share of a role in shaping such men.

While this is not merely a Keith Miller journey, he is however an important character in our next story.

The year was 1945, the war had just ended in Europe, and everyone was looking for ways to get back to normal life quickly. In this scenario, a series of 5 First-Class matches, called the Victory Tests (the Australian Board refused to accept them as official Tests) were played between the Australian Services XI and England, and the teams met for the first of the three-day matches at Lord’s on May 19, 1945.

England had Wally Hammond, now 42, but still a giant of the game, as well as Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook and Bill Edrich, all freed from active service. Denis Compton was still serving in the Far East and Hedley Verity had sadly not survived the war.

Australia was without Don Bradman, who had missed the war due to a ‘back injury’, and only had the services of Australian servicemen still in Britain.

But players like spinner Reg Ellis and batsman Ross Stanford, who had been the RAAF’s leading batsman in England between flying Lancaster sorties over Germany, were getting their chance to represent their country. And then there was Miller, who had rushed over after finishing his last sortie over Germany, with a few days break spent relaxing in gentler company.

But the most poignant moment of the match came when Australian airman Graham Williams walked out to bat at No. 9 with Miller batting on hundred at the other end.

In an interview years later, Miller was to recall the scene: “He was given a great ovation that compares with anything ever given Bradman, Lillee or Richards. But it was not the sort of clapping and cheering that greets a hundred. This is different. Everyone stood up. They all knew about Graham’s captivity. He was a big fella, but he was gaunt from his experience, and he just walked round for a while as if in a trance.”

He then went to say, “It was almost orchestral in its sound and feeling. Whenever I think of it, tears still come to my eyes.”

Two weeks before this match, Williams had been freed from a German POW camp after 4-years of captivity. He had been captured early in the war when his plane crashed in the Middle East, and had survived on starvation rations. He was 31 kg below his pre-War bodyweight, when he walked out to the middle at Lord’s.

He was so weak that he had to be given glucose between overs.

He was to score 53 runs at a-run-a-ball and take 2 wickets bowling 40 overs in that first match.

After the Victory Tests, Williams never played First-Class cricket again. He received an MBE for his commitment to teaching blind prisoners Braille during the war, which he had done through the 4-years of captivity. Williams passed away at the age of 67 in 1978.

A picture of the Australian Services Team walking out to field in the first Victory Test, with a tall gaunt Williams bringing up the rear on the extreme left of the photo, was always the one which adorned the best wall in Miller’s home for as long as he lived. He called it the most memorable moment of his life.

In a life as colourful and accomplished as Miller’s, that was quite a statement.

When the First World War (or ‘Great War’, as it was called at the time) broke out and England joined on August 4, 1914, First-Class Cricket continued to be played for a few weeks until WG Grace wrote to The Sportsman encouraging cricketers to enlist: “The time has arrived when the county cricket season should be closed. It is not fitting at a time like this that able-bodied men should be playing day after day, and pleasure seekers look on. There are so many who are young and able, and still hanging back. I should like to see all first-class cricketers of suitable age set a good example, and come to the aid of their country without delay in its hour of need.”

Heeding this call and perhaps feeling the patriotic urge in any case, 210 of the 278 professional cricketers registered in England, enlisted for the war. By the end of the war, nearly a sixth of them were dead, and at one stage, Wisden was printing obituaries in the space reserved for match reports.

One of those who enlisted was Lionel Tennyson, the 24-year old grandson of Lord Alfred Tennyson, who had just returned from a successful tour of South Africa in March 1914 as a part of the last pre-war England Cricket Team.

In the best traditions of the family, he kept written records of his experiences which he later penned in Diary of the Great European War.

Despatched to Le Havre with the Rifle Brigade in August 1914, he wrote: “Told to march downhill at once to the station and push off to the front as fast as we could. The English had had a severe defeat and heavy casualties and we were wanted in the firing line as soon as possible.”

He was to remain on or near the front lines for the next four years, and experience all the horrors of war his grandfather so eloquently described in his Charge of the Light Brigade. He was wounded thrice and twice mentioned in the despatches for his gallant or meritorious action in the face of the enemy.

In his 1933 autobiography From Verse to Worse, Tennyson was to recount his return to the front from his second war-wound thus: “I have never liked travelling light and so, though the amount of kit I arrived with may, in fact have aroused a certain amount of astonishment, I was quickly forgiven by my commanding officer as well as by everyone else, when they found out that it included, among other things, a case of champagne.”

More sombrely, and no less eloquently than his grandfather, the younger Tennyson was to write of his war experiences, “The bits of men, clothes, rifles etc. in the trenches, men dead and dying, are better left unthought of.”

Unlike Major Booth (who caused some confusion in the Yorkshire regiment to which he was assigned given the fact that he was actually a Second Lieutenant) and Colin Blythe, both teammates from that pre-War England team, Tennyson was to survive the war, and despite being left with one good hand, was to go on and captain the England Test team.

Tennyson captained Hampshire from 1919 to 1932. In 1921, after England lost 6 successive Tests to the Australians led by Warwick Armstrong, he was recalled to the England side for the second Test, which England lost. But Tennyson scored a gritty 74 in the second innings against Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald at their fastest.

In no small measure for the grit he showed, he was appointed captain for the remaining three matches of that series. That was the high point in Tennyson’s career, as indeed it would have been for anyone given the ultimate honour of captaining one’s country.

English and Australian cricketers were however not the only ones whose careers and lives were impacted by the wars.

Pieter van der Bijl of South Africa, a very large man, made his first sporting mark in college as a heavyweight boxer. And as EW Swanton was to write in his obituary for The Cricketer many years later, he “was a cricketer who surprised his friends, and undoubtedly himself, by playing with distinction for his country after a modest University career.”

Slow-footed by nature but hugely courageous and often dour in his approach, van der Bijl was selected to make his debut in the first Test of the 1938-39 series. He distinguished himself with scores of 125 and 97 in the famous “Timeless Test” at Durban, which, despite the best effort of both teams for a result, had to be abandoned as a draw on the 10th playing day, when England were 42 runs away from what would have been an astonishing fourth-innings winning total of 696.

Pouring rain, and England’s necessary departure to catch the mail-ship they were booked on for the passage back home, ensured the match could not carry on, and Hammond’s offer of a draw was gratefully accepted.

In his innings of 125, van der Bijl took 45 minutes to get off the mark and five hours to complete his century, but between his dour defence on and outside the off-stump, the big man did have one exceptional over off Doug Wright when he scored 22 runs with 5 fours.

Those 5 Tests were, however, all van der Bijl was to play in his career. Despite a batting average of 51, the onset of the war ensured the end of his career.

He signed up for the army and distinguished himself fighting in North Africa. In 1942, he took the decision to run his jeep out under fire to bring back half-a-dozen men lying wounded in the heat.

He saved the lives of the men but was severely wounded himself, and would never wear cricketing flannels again.

Pieter van der Bijl devoted himself to teaching, and for a brief period was a South African Test selector.

His son Vintcent van der Bijl was perhaps the best South African fast bowler never to have played for his country because of the ban for apartheid.

Pieter van Der Bijl passed away in 1973 at the age of 65.

And then there was Bob Crisp, a South African cricketer born in Calcutta, about whose life Gideon Haigh said, “Many lives in one, all of them worth living”, and Andy Bull, in The Guardian, labelled  “the most extraordinary man to play Test cricket.”

So what was it about Crisp that was so special?

Crisp is the only Test cricketer to have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice. One of the stories that have gone into folklore is about Crisp climbing Kilimanjaro when South Africa announced their squad for a Test series with England.

On his way back, near the foothills, he met a friend who had never climbed the peak. On hearing this, he made up his mind to climb the peak again, this time with his friend in tow. When they had almost made it, his friend broke his leg; so Crisp carried him up and then all the way down.

Crisp played 62 First-Class matches, taking 276 wickets at 19.88. He remains the only bowler to take four wickets in four balls twice in First-Class cricket. Nine of these First-Class matches were Tests for a weak South African side, in which he captured 20 wickets at 37.35 — all within one year.

Andy Bull wrote: “Crisp was a fast bowler, who had the knack of making the ball bounce steeply and, when the weather suited, swing both ways.” One imagines, in the days of scantily covered pitches, he was quite a handful in the course of his relatively short career.

But then, like the rest of our heroes, Bob Crisp went to war.

Ben Thompson, in his weekly blog Badass of the Week, summed up Crisp’s war years thus: “During the action in the Balkans, Bob Crisp managed to have three tanks (tanks!) shot out from under him (he bailed out and survived with minor burns/shrapnel wounds all three times), fired a .38-caliber revolver at a German Mark IV Panzer on more than one occasion, blasted a dozen enemy tanks, and miraculously shot down a twin-engine Henkel Bomber with a cupola-mounted .50-caliber Browning machine gun right as it was about to make a bombing run on a British Armoured Column.”

Crisp described his own elevation within three short months to Captain and Tank Commander far more modestly: “I owed this entirely to the fact that I played cricket for South Africa and my commanding officer had once played county cricket for Hampshire.”

Crisp’s luck, however, was too good to last forever and he was hit by shrapnel in the skull while commanding his tank in the desert.

Crisp recounted years later: “My knees started to buckle under immediately and, at the same time, I knew I had been hit in the head. My first emotion was astonishment. Almost coincident with the explosion was this feeling of great surprise: ‘I’ve been hit. Well. I’m damned.’ It was a few minutes before I went unconscious. I was only out for 20 minutes. From the first impact I had felt no pain at all. Yet my skull had been fractured, a piece of metal was touching the brain, and half my ear had been torn off. I spent six hours, conscious, in the bottom of that tank before they could get me out, but the agony came not from my head but from my legs. They were crunched up awkwardly underneath me without circulation, and I was too heavy and the space too confined for anybody to move me. It was excruciating.”

And that was the end of Crisp’s war. Given his injuries, he never bowled again.

This did not however prevent him leading an incredibly colourful post war life supported by his work as a journalist. That is a story well told by Andy Bull and Abhishek Mukherjee in their respective articles on this incredible cricketer and war hero, and well worth a read!

The fine line and deep connect between sporting courage and personal valour does not, however, belong exclusively to the game of cricket. The onset of the World Wars meant that all sport and the men and women who played them, were impacted.

The case of England Rugby International and First World War flying ace, Cyril Lowe is a case in point.

Cyril Lowe was a diminutive 5ft 6in and at 50kg a relative lightweight, but with immense courage and tremendous speed, off and on the rugby field. His favourite statement through his life was, “If you set your mind to do something, you can do anything”. He won 25 consecutive caps, scored 18 tries on the wing and brought home 4 Grand Slams. His first Grand Slam was in 1914 and the fourth in 1923.

Between his trophies, he fought a war.

As a RAF ace, he saved numerous lives through his quick reactions, and had a significant number of successes in the air. Once he brought down nine German planes, but was wounded and his plane caught fire. Those were the days when parachutes existed but were not allowed because, hold your breath, “the presence of such an apparatus might impair the fighting spirit of pilots.”

Lowe used every bit of his skill and survival instinct to get safely back over the lines and survived the ensuing crash.

Or take the incredible story of Irish Rugby player Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne. As Brough Scott, writing in The Telegraph in the early part of this century, would narrate: “Mayne, who had been the star of the Lions’ 1938 South African tour, was a quietly spoken, poetry-reading lawyer until he was roused.”

He first saw action in June 1941 as a lieutenant with 11 Commando during the Syria–Lebanon Campaign. Mayne successfully led his men during the Litani River Operation in Lebanon against Vichy French Forces.

His leadership on the raid had attracted the attention of Captain David Stirling who recruited him as one of the early members of the Special Air Service (SAS).

As Major, Mayne was appointed to command the Special Raiding Squadron and led the unit in Sicily and Italy until the end of 1943. In Sicily, Mayne was awarded a bar to his DSO. In January 1944 he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and appointed Commanding Officer of the re-formed 1st SAS Regiment. He subsequently led the SAS with great distinction through the final campaigns of the war in France, the NetherlandsBelgiumGermany and Norway.

During the course of the War he became one of the British Army’s most highly decorated soldiers and received the DSO with three bars, one of only seven British servicemen to receive that award four times during World War 2. Additionally, the post-War French Government awarded him the Legion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre.

Just the narration of even one episode of his war years is sufficient to explain why he was such a decorated hero.

One of his men was killed in an ambush near Poppberg, North-West Germany, in March 1945. Mayne, the poet, not easily roused, was roused now.

He got the others out of the jeep and took a Bren and a Tommy Gun. Then he drove flat out at the Germans’ house, kicked the door in and literally shot everyone inside. For speed, daring, effect and ruthlessness there has seldom been anything to match it in any field of war, much less in a sporting arena.

Tragically for the sport in Ireland, his daring exploits during the War were to leave Mayne with permanent damage to his back. He worked as a solicitor on his return to Ireland, but the severe back pain that was now chronic, would never again allow him back to the rugby field, not even as spectator.

The sad truth of the matter is that long as there are humans on this earth, we shall fight each other, on the playing fields, and on the battle fields.

So while we rejoice in the sporting victories of our heroes in peace time, let us spare a moment or two of thought for those heroes like Verity and thousands of others who conquered the sporting fields only to perish in the killing fields.

And those, like the Millers, Tennysons, Lowes and Maynes, who came back heroes of another kind, in many cases, to carry on where they had left off, as if nothing had changed.

But of course, everything had changed.

As the bomb that fell on Lord’s in 1941 showed, the line between the playing field and the killing field had just blurred.

A lesson in history we would do well to remember.