Cricketers flung themselves on the ground as the doodlebug zoomed in on Lord's    Getty Images
Cricketers flung themselves on the ground as the doodlebug zoomed in on Lord’s Getty Images

World War II had hit England hard, hitting both her economy and morale. As was often true for the Mother Nation, her people and their heroes turned to cricket to keep the nation going. Wartime matches were infrequent, but drew attention whenever they were played. During one of these contests, between Army and RAF at Lord s on July 29, 1944, a German bomb marginally missed Lord s. Abhishek Mukherjee re-lives.

There were sandbags everywhere, and the Long Room was stripped and bare, with its treasures safely stored beneath ground, but…one felt that somehow it would take more than totalitarian war to put an end to cricket. HS Altham, Wisden 1940.

The ghastly years that ripped the world apart did not spare the cricket. Hedley Verity and Maurice Turnbull, Ken Farnes and Ross Gregory, World War II claimed them all. By the time the Australian and New Zealand Services Teams toured England, The War had taken away more than half a decade of cricket, and had hurt the core of the sport even worse.

Some, like Bill Bowes and EW Swanton, were taken Prisoners of War. Others, like Denis Compton, Keith Miller, Bill Edrich, Joe Hardstaff Jr, Reg Simpson, Bob Crisp, Jim Laker, and Lindsay Hassett, took active part in The War, playing cricket whenever they found time.

Several grounds were declared unusable during The War. The Oval, for example, became a Prisoner of War camp. Thankfully, despite been shortlisted for wartime activities, Lord s was spared, and hosted several wartime matches.

Plum Warner founded the British Empire XI, while politician Desmond Donnelly started the London Counties XI. The sides often involved some of the superstars, both of yesteryear and the young generation. Some matches were played to raise money. Some others, to help revive the spirit of the English, for what better way was there to boost one s morale?

A galaxy of stars

The match in question, at Lord s in 1944, was a one-innings affair, and attracted a crowd estimated at 3,100 an excellent count given that a World War was on. Both sides boasted of stars: while Army was represented by Gubby Allen, Godfrey Evans, Maurice Leyland, Dick Pollard, Jack Robertson, and Charlie Palmer, RAF included Wally Hammond, Simpson, Bob Wyatt, David Townsend, Les Ames, Charlie Barnett, and Edrich.

The match started at 2 PM. Army openers Robertson and Harry Halliday batted grittily. Halliday hailed from Pudsey, that birthplace of Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton, but on this occasion he did not do much to help build reputation of the place. Austin Matthews, the Glamorgan seamer, ran through his defence when Corporal Halliday was on 12.

Sergeant Charles Harris of Nottinghamshire joined Robertson. The score reached 57 for 1. Flight Officer Wyatt was bowling to Lieutenant Robertson. Then it happened.

Paradise, lost nearly

The noise was unmistakable. Both sides had heard the noise many a time on the field. It was almost certainly a German aircraft that had managed to enter British airspace, and was hovering somewhere behind the clouds. It was designed to fall and explode the moment its engine was cut off.

The players flung themselves on the ground. The crowd took cover to the extent they could. The clock ticked along, players and spectators alike having their hearts in their mouths…

There was a whistling sound as the aircraft descended. For a moment it seemed it would land on the practice ground. Andrew Ward mentioned that according to a source the aircraft fell 200 yards short, on Albert Road. Wisden, on the other hand, claimed that it landed in Regent s Park.

According to Andrew Ward, the aircraft crashed at about Albert Road, but Wisden reported that it fell on Regent Park    Getty Images
According to Andrew Ward, the aircraft crashed at about Albert Road, but Wisden reported that it fell on Regent Park Getty Images

Paradise regained

The players heaved a sigh of relief. Play resumed, but a gloom hung in the air. That was lifted when Wyatt bounced the second ball after the break, and Robertson hooked him for six. And Lord s basked again, in the glory of cricket, of the greatest invention of man…

Robertson eventually scored 42, while Townsend top-scored with 52. A 44-year old Wyatt claimed 5 for 81, and Army declared at 211 for 8. Unfortunately, they had played too safely, leaving RAF a mere 105 minutes to chase them down.

Flight-Lieutenant Barnett began in style, but though the first three batsmen played cameos, the middle-order collapsed suddenly against Dick Pollard, though it must be admitted that Len Wilkinson s caught-and-bowled dismissal of Hammond was a spectacular effort.

Ames and Wyatt defied the Army attack. They resorted to Leyland, the man who slipped in the odd Chinaman during his spells of finger-spin. He took out both set batsmen in a single over, and though RAF lost two more wickets, Army could not force a win. RAF finished on 129 for 9 in the end.

The men walked back, exhausted but exalted, not only because the bomb had missed Lord s, but they also gave the nation what she needed more in those troubled times: cricket.

Brief scores:

Army 211 for 8 decl. (Jack Robertson 42, David Townsend 52; Bob Wyatt 5 for 81) drew with RAF 129 for 9 (Dick Pollard 4 for 33).

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)