Seventy three years ago, Britain declared war on Germany and cricket vacated the stage for the Second World War. However, the game went on and in its own way served in the war effort.
Arunabha Sengupta traces the fortunes of cricket and cricketers during the six years of madness and mayhem.
Sidelined for the greater game
The day Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, Hedley Verity picked up seven wickets for nine runs at Hove. The other unfinished matches, Lancashire- Surrey at Old Trafford and Leicestershire-Derbyshire at Aylestone Road, were abandoned with no play on the final day.
Neville Cardus later recalled watching cricket at Lord’s that day when two workmen entered the Long Room and removed the bust of WG Grace. In reality, no match was being played at Lord’s, and Cardus himself was in Australia; the episode recounted was poetic and poignant, but, as with many Cardus anecdotes, untrue – a figment of fertile fancy.
On the next day, the four county matches scheduled to start were cancelled as the German blitzkrieg in Poland continued.
On September 3, Germany rejected the Anglo-French ultimatum and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced the declaration of war.
The noble game had to leave the stage for a greater one. Cricketers joined the war effort, turning out with gun and steel in their hands rather than willow and leather.
The cricketers sign up
The drafting had already started making dents into the game. On August 24, Lionel Lister, captain of Lancashire, was padded up at Northampton for the second innings when he was summoned by his territorial regiment. The second innings scorecard recorded “absent 0” against his name.
Now, others followed suit.
Returning from Hove, Captain Hedley Verity, Sergeant-Major Frank Smailes, Captain Herbert Sutcliffe, Sergeant Maurice Leyland and Sergeant Instructor Len Hutton signed up from Yorkshire.
Denis Compton joined the Territorial Army and was posted in India. Keith Miller became a fighter pilot.
Meanwhile, the thick volumes of the yearly Wisden were traded for wafer thin editions for the next five years – but the volumes did continue to materialise.
Because, in its own way, cricket survived and even served the war effort.
Batting for the Allies and adding a spin to the bombs
In the Evening Standard a cartoon by David Low showed Neville Chamberlain as a quivering batsman facing up to Hitler and Benito Mussolini about to bowl a grenade, a huge Rock of Gibraltar placed behind him as the wicket. Tom Webster depicted The British Lion in full cricketing gear, batting for freedom in a giant billboard erected on the facade of the Gaiety Theatre in London.
General Montgomery, who was a gifted enough cricketer to be mentioned in the 1906 edition of Wisden, propelled the Eighth Army to a brilliant victory in Libya, using the immortal words, “Hit Rommel for six right out of Africa”.
Lord’s and other cricket grounds were used for drafting and other war efforts.
The Nursery ground at Lord’s was hit by an oil bomb in 1940. Later, the main ground also came under threat as incendiary bombs ignited the Grandstand roof and the pavilion in one raid, but the flames were fought down by in-house fire-fighters.
Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, remarked, “Australians will always fight for those 22 yards. Lord's and its traditions belong to Australia just as much as England.”
Pelham Warner and other members of MCC remained alert, hosting matches whenever possible, to boost the public morale. Wartime Minister of Labour, Ernest Levine called upon Warner to arrange games to battle the grimness – especially after the trials of Dunkirk.
Often the matches were interrupted by air raid alarms. In 1944, a flying bomb exploded less than 200 yards from Lord’s and pieces of soil fell on the pitch. But, the Public Schoolboys who were playing a Lord’s XI stopped only while the bomb was seen hurtling down, the pause in the game lasting only about half a minute.
Around the world, at different locations, servicemen played the game with great enthusiasm. In the Stalag Luft prison camp of East Prussia, a triangular ‘Test’ series was organised between the captured soldiers of England, Australia and New Zealand.
Stanley Christopherson, President of MCC, told the 300 club representatives that an officer had come to Lord’s, haggard and tired from the action, and had remarked, “To see the green grass and the bat and ball is heaven.”
Not only was cricket for the spirit, but also practical. Sir George Edwards was a skilful leg-break bowler who played alongside the Bedser twins. He was also the foremost authority on the British advancement in aviation. He brought revolutionary changes into warfare by insisting on the importance of backspin in the design of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs used in the Dambusters raids of 1943.
On the battlefield
Some cricketers did suffer the perils of war.
FR Brown, later to become an English captain, revealed in a postcard to Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) that along with him, Bill Bowes, CG Toppin, JW Bowley and H Beaumont of England, and RH Catterall and TWT Baines of South Africa were all in a prison camp in Italy.
In the jungles of Thailand, in another prison camp, EW Swanton found the 1939 edition of Wisden, marked non-subversive, in great demand.
There were riveting stories of bravery and happy endings.
Sir William Becher – a former Sussex second XI captain, was wounded in Libya and was twice captured by the enemy, but managed to escape each time.
South African opening batsman Pieter G. Van der Bijl was badly wounded in Italy and suffered fractures to his ankles and spine, but recovered to command a battalion and was awarded the Military Cross.
Sergeant-Pilot Walter Hamilton Arthur Mailey – son of Australian leg-spinner Arthur Mailey – was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for leadership of 18 Kittyhawk fighters.
And the former Surrey cricketer ATC Geary was in the Channel Islands when they were occupied by the Germans. After several months, his wife’s family in Croydon were relieved to learn that he was safe.
But, not all cricketing stories had happy endings.
The great Hedley Verity died in gunfire in Caserta, Italy in 1943. Ken Farnes, the big-hearted English fast bowler was killed in Oxfordshire.
Other Test cricketers who lost their lives were Dooley Briscoe and Arthur Langton of South Africa, Maurice Turnbull, George Macaulay and Geoffrey Legge of England, Ross Gregory of Australia and Sonny Moloney of New Zealand.
Len Hutton sustained serious injury when he fell in a gymnasium in York. An operation and bone grafts left his left-arm shorter and weaker than his right. When he continued his career after the War, Hutton remained a great batsman – but bowlers tried to exploit his disability with short deliveries, with his hook somewhat impaired by his shortened arm.
There were some curiously happy outcomes as well.
Denis Compton, posted in India, found himself scoring 249 not out for Holkar v Bombay in the final of the Ranji Trophy in 1944-45. Future England batsman Reggie Simpson also made his –First-class debut for Sind in the same competition.
End of War and the Victory ‘Tests’
And finally, two weeks after the end of the saga of death and destruction, after the madness and mayhem had finally come to an end in Europe, a series of ‘Test’ matches were held between the Australian Services and an English national side. These games acted like the crutches of remembered happy times, enabling the public to limp through the devastation back into lives of something approaching normalcy.
The teams consisted of some serious talent. Lindsay Hassett was the only Australian cricketer with Test match experience, but their star player was one Keith Miller, who piled up 514 runs in the five ‘Tests’.
The English side was almost Test class, with Hutton, Bill Edrich, Wally Hammond, Cyril Washbrook, Les Ames and Dick Pollard in their ranks.
The series was tied 2-2. Graham Williams, the main strike bowler of Australian Services, had been released from a German prisoner of war camp just a few weeks before the series. 31 kg below his pre-war playing weight, he had to drink glasses of glucose and water between the overs.
During the fourth Victory Match, Clement Atlee, the Prime Minister of Britain, was present at the ground to watch Miller score 118.
In the final ‘Test’ at Manchester, German prisoners of war were employed to help with the ground conditions.
It was the same match which signalled the end of the War to Jim Swanton, when he tuned in to BBC at a cafe in Kanchaburi, Thailand, to find himself listening to the voice of Rex Alston describing the proceedings from Old Trafford.
(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)