Ashes 1938 Postscript: The Amazing Test Match Crime

The Ashes 1938 series was shared between Wally Hammond’s England and Don Bradman’s Australians. And the next Ashes Test would be played only in 1946-47, after the last bullet of the Second World War had been fired. However, one further Ashes encounter was played during this interlude, on the fictitious pitch of a hilarious novel written by Adrian Alington published in 1939.  Arunabha Sengupta describes the book which should be in the collection of every lover of literature and cricket.
The 1938 Ashes series was over. It had witnessed the sensational 232 by Stan McCabe at Nottingham, Don Bradman batting out of his skin to win it at Leeds, and, finally, England grinding Australia to dust by piling up 903 for seven at The Oval.

The series shared, Bradman’s men had left for the Antipodes. Neville Chamberlain had travelled multiple times to Germany to drill reason into Adolf Hitler. The machineries of war were being oiled, rolled and fine-tuned. Bats would soon be exchanged for bayonets. There would be no further Ashes series till 1946-47.

However, in 1939, yet another Ashes encounter was played amidst more than edge of the seat excitement, albeit on fictional turf. A complete Oval Test match was depicted in one of the most hilarious comic novels ever written.

Seldom has cricket, satire and fiction overlapped to produce such a delightful concoction. And sadly, this gem of a book has since then been drowned under the ceaseless flow of mad time and the sound and fury that surround the worlds of cricket writing and literature.

The Amazing Test Match Crime

Adrian Alington was born in 1895 and played in the Minor County Championships for Oxfordshire in the 1920s and early 1930s. With a highest score of 41 not out, and a total bag of 11 wickets, he did not really set the grounds on fire as a cricketer. So, he proceeded to do exactly that — almost literally — as a novelist.

Once Alingon had turned to writing novels and screenplay, his experiences of the noble game stood him in wonderful stead as he penned this superb and side splitting cricket novel. The Amazing Test Match Crime stands tall in the sparsely populated intersection between cricket and fiction. It will not be too much of a stretch to say that Arlington’s gem is without doubt the most delicious prize that has come the writer’s way as a collector of books, with a compulsive fondness for cricket literature.

A novel of mystery, romance, crime, espionage, political satire and cricket all rolled into one, it is an uproarious comic tale written entirely as a spoof. Within the tale, Alington caricatures almost every section of the society. Several of his contemporary writers are mercilessly parodied. His satirical pen dwells on political ideologies, old cricketers, all kinds of journalists, the British society, fictional genres, the police force and the cabinet. He is as remorseless in poking fun at the Gentlemen-Player divide as he is in mocking hard-boiled crime novels, as nonchalantly at home in satirising sensational press reports as he is in pointing out the farcical aspect of Timeless Test matches.

The novel, as the title suggests, deals with a crime attempted during a Test match. Obviously, is an Ashes Test — the decider at The Oval, to be played to finish. However, throughout the novel, the Australian team is referred to as Imperia.

As a typical Englishman of his era who witnessed the blade of Bradman staring at him for days at end, Alington quite obviously paid homage to the great man — creating the character of the Australian captain, the mighty batsman Lethbridge. He is almost infallible as a batsman and one can see the shades and strokes of The Don in his exploits. And the chief spinner of the England side is named Truth, in a clever transliteration of Hedley ‘Verity’.

The structure of the book is of course built around the crime, but a thread of romance running through it forms the heart of the story. And both are pricelessly funny from the cricketing point of view.

There is the great master criminal called Professor, a European genius with a huge forehead, who hatches the conspiracy of striking at the heart of the British Empire. He divines that the only way to do it is to deal a murderous blow at the curious game of cricket, and thus plans to create havoc during the deciding Test match at the Oval.

The tone of the book is set by the reaction of one of his henchmen Ralph, a hardened English criminal steeped in a life of murder and mayhem. This ruthless man rebels at the thought of such an unpardonably heinous act: “Heaven knows I am not a pukka fella … Mine has been a life full of shame … I was ready to join in assassinating the President of Guamelia and in blowing up the National Bank of Gloritania. But, to interfere with a cricket match and in particular a Test Match — no, Professor, low as I have sunk, I am not as loathsome as that.

But, nevertheless the plan is carried forward, and the Professor prepares for the great day by reading up Principles of Sound Batsmanship by L.E.G. Glance.

There is, as mentioned, a quaint subplot of romance. Joe Prestwick is a young professional googly bowler yet to make his Test debut. He is smitten by the Vicar’s daughter, Monica, after the latter gifts him a cricketing belt in order to impress a major doyen of English cricket during a village game.

However, there is the Amateur Professional divide at play. The England captain, hilariously named Norman Blood, also has his sights on Monica. “It says much for the stability of her character that she was able to jeep her mind upon the service in the church. Not many girls, having received amorous glances from two First-Class cricketers upon one day, would have been able to do so.

Fielding at long leg during a county game just before the Test match, Joe drifts off trying to compose a poem to Monica’s charms — “I’d rather wed thee Parson’s daughter/ Than bowl out Lethbridge  with a snorter.” And so his puny attempts try to hew masterpieces in the literary landscape, and as a result he bungles a skier. It is even more comical when he proposes to the girl, by giving her a cigarette card bearing his own picture and confessing he had missed the catch by trying to compose a poem to her. “Oh Joe! You mean you missed the catch because of me?” Monica is perplexed. But, her answer to the proposal is positive: “Here, Joe, is a chance that will certainly be accepted.

The couple is happy, but there is a hitch. Monica’s father, the Vicar, must agree to the union. And due to the difference in their social standings, and the fact that the England captain also fancies Monica, the father demurs. He is moved only when it is mentioned, “Joe may play for England at The Oval.” He agrees to give his consent if Joe does indeed make it to the Test side.

It satisfies the young suitor. “We are in the hands of the Selection Committee.” The Vicar agrees,
May Providence guide them rightly in their decisions … Beating Imperia is of supreme importance.

And Monica is happy too — she saw herself upon the county ground, watching her man bowl — even her adoring heart could not shirk the fact that Joe’s batting was of a primitive kind.

However, mischief is at hand.

Even as 17 of the huge battalion of old cricketers and other journalists in the press box furiously scribble “the wicket resembles a billiard top“, the forces of evil make their way into the game.

After a great scoreless period, the two English openers suddenly fall asleep at the wicket. They have been ingeniously drugged. And the confused cricketers of the past struggle to find explanations … “It’s this new fangled off-theory and leg-theory. I always knew a man would go to sleep one day.

“It’s these timeless Tests.” “It’s these modern craze for averages. Men start doing mental arithmetic at the wicket and this is what happens.”

The Scotland Yard sends a team of six supreme detectives — named ‘The Big Six’.

And the discussions that follow between the police and the old cricketers in charge of English cricket should have many rolling off from their chairs. Some samples are given here:

“Anything to say?”

“Only that I shall thank Heaven with my last breath that this did not happen at Lord’s.” This makes the policeman suspicious.

“Why not at Lord’s?”

“Because my dear fellow Lord’s is the Mecca of cricket.” “What is this Mecca, anyway?”

“Frankly, I do not know. I have always imagined it to be a very large cricket ground somewhere in Asia.”

And it goes on…

“Who are these gentlemen with you?”

“These are popular and genial veterans of the cricket field. They are not, however, doyens. I am the only doyen present.”

“What is a doyen?”

“Good heavens. I never knew anyone ask so many foolish questions. A doyen is an old and very distinguished cricketer with a white moustache.”

The nation is scandalised by the crime … And the events that follow are uniformly uproarious.

The papers report the crime in various ways, based on their leanings, USP and pedigree. The Prime Minister has a most congenial meeting with the Colonial Secretary, discussing the appropriate diplomatic way to deal with the crime. They come to harmonious agreement about every important aspect, finalising who will appear at The Oval and at other press conferences. Everything is hunky dory until they disagree about who should have been the second spinner for England. This leads to insults, a violent war of words, disagreement, withdrawal of support and the next day the more sensational papers scream, “Cabinet Split.”

The issue of the Test match is taken up in the Parliament as well after one Imperian batsman is bowled off a donkey drop. Mr Gumbridge (Lib) puts forward the suggestion that in future, Test matches should be played at Geneva under the aegis of the League. Mr Hunterbotham (Lib) asks if the Government had considered the effect of the Bill on Truth’s bowling average. Mr. Croak (Soc.) says that if you wanted to win a match, you had to use any means you could.

And after many rib-tickling adventures, during the final moments of the game an aircraft flies low over the ground and opens fire on the cricketers. As the players dive for cover, Mr Beltravers in the commentary box continues to describe the scene on radio, “All the players are lying full length on the ground, Blood at cover, High at mid-off, Crigh in the gully …” One old cricketer comments, “Something of this kind was bound to happen sooner or later when they raised that foolish cry about brighter cricket.

There are many, many more nuggets of delight — from incredible poems mimicking: “My Hornby and my Barlow long ago“, to description of contemporary hardboiled detective fiction: “Sense of late/Is out of date/It is enough/ To be tough.”

A certified reader of humorous fiction, brought up on the hard school of devouring PG Wodehouse while attending sombre university lectures, I have found myself chuckling — even guffawing — loudly while digging into this one. In busy subways, I have been rewarded with startled, suspicious glances while reading or even remembering certain sections.

This is a riot, a must-have masterpiece — recommended for the shelves of every book collector, every aficionado of satire, humour or mystery.

(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)