July 1941. Even in the battlefield of Mount Carmel, Palestine, Lindsay Hassett’s wit reined supreme. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day when he elated his fellow soldiers with his repartee to an irritating young subaltern.
Biographer Dick Whittington observed that the A in AL Hassett should have stood for ‘Anecdote’ rather than ‘Arthur’. Some years after Hassett called it a day, his friend and fishing companion, the Australian fast bowler, jeweller and jester Ernie McCormick lamented, “I haven’t heard an anecdote about any modern cricketer for the last ten years. Isn’t it rather significant?”
Not only was Hassett a fountain of wit on the cricket field and off it, his gift of the repartee punctuated the months and months of insufferable regimental strain and boredom of the Second World War with hilarious moments of mirth.
July 1941 saw Hassett as a gunner in the Fourth Battery, 2/2 Australian Anti-Aircraft Regiment, stationed in Mount Carmel in what was then Palestine. Apart from Hassett, in the battery was the New South Wales bowler Ted ‘Swanny’ White.
Hassett, who had played Test cricket before the outbreak of the War under Don Bradman, was now afflicted with leadership of a very different kind. The leader of Mount Carmel’s ack-ack defences was an immaculately dressed young English officer, of fair complexion and strong Anglo-Saxon features, obsessed with his new found authority. He also had some pretentions towards being a batsman in the army cricket matches.
The mood in the division was just about relieved. Of the two Nazi bombers that had recently approached, one had been riddled with ack-ack fire and was homing to its base in Libya. The other was lying in flames beside the historic hills. The success of the gunners was fifty percent — ‘Not bad for a bunch of amateurs,’ according to one disgruntled member of the squadron. They were just happy to be alive.
And it was in these circumstances that the commander summoned an inspection parade. Hassett reluctantly grasped his Lee Enfield rifle and fell in line with the others.
As the future Australian skipper stood with a wistful look at the green hills of Galilee, the irritating subaltern crept in on him and grabbed his rifle with a disdainful scowl on his face, the nose twitching in elaborate dismay. “If you took the trouble to clean your rifle, Gunner Hassett, you might just manage to become a good soldier in a long war,” he said with biting sarcasm.
Hassett’s face remained as straight as his bat, the sense of timing as impeccable. His comrades hung on to his words, knowing that they would rocket into the vanity of the man bent on turning a tyrant. And the entertainer he was, Hassett did not disappoint.
The reply shot through the covers of military decorum, “If you cleaned and oiled your cricket bat for twenty years sir, you’d never score a run.”
According to Whittington, for his fellow soldiers: “It had been fun shooting down that Heinkel bombers. This was even better. This was ecstasy.”
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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