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How English cricket survived the Second World War – Almanack

by Stephen Chalke 15 minute read

In the 2010 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, Stephen Chalke recalled how the events of the Second World War impacted English cricket.

The news on Thursday August 24, 1939 was ominous: German threats against the Polish city of Danzig, a treaty between Hitler and Stalin, an Emergency Powers Act passing through parliament. Yet county cricket was playing on: in the words of Neville Cardus, “a haven of peace in an unruly world”.

“We didn’t know a great deal about what was happening,” Northamptonshire’s Dennis Brookes recalled, years later. “We read what Chamberlain was saying, but even then we didn’t think there was going to be a war.” That afternoon at Northampton, the Lancashire captain Lionel Lister was waiting to bat. He received a message from his Territorial Army unit, unbuckled his pads and departed. “It was then we realised there was something afoot.”

Wednesday August 30 was the last day of sunshine. At Lord’s, as the members in the Long Room clapped a Bill Edrich century, a man was removing the bust of W. G. Grace to safety.

By Friday, with children already being evacuated from the cities, county cricket was confined to one venue: Hove, where Yorkshire agreed to play out the last day of Jim Parks’s benefit match. In an eerie atmosphere they dismissed Sussex for 33, won by nine wickets and set off in a hired charabanc through blacked-out towns and villages. “The farther we got from Brighton,” Len Hutton wrote, “the deeper was our conviction that we would be lucky if we ever played cricket again.”

The summer was over: for Hutton, only 23 years old and already holding the world record Test score; for Hedley Verity, the great slow left-armer, seven wickets for nine runs on that last day; for Sussex’s Jack Holmes, no longer to captain England in that winter’s Tests in India; for the in-form Edrich of Middlesex; and for Northamptonshire’s gentle skipper Robert Nelson, who on Thursday evening had slipped away from Taunton ahead of his team. All went their separate ways.

On Sunday morning, 21 years after the Armistice that concluded “the war to end all wars”, Prime Minister Chamberlain announced that the country was once more at war with Germany.

In the First World War little cricket had been played. Lord Hawke, president of MCC and Yorkshire, set the tone, striking from future consideration any Yorkshire cricketer who did not volunteer. At The Oval the Surrey secretary, asked about the nets, replied: “They’ll be up, but I don’t expect our fellows will use them much. They’ll be afraid of being jeered at by the men in the tram cars.”

The Bradford League caused controversy by not disbanding, but by 1917 the mood had changed. “The nation had by then readjusted its life to the state of war,” Wisden recorded, “and no objection was felt to an attempt to stage some exhibition matches in the cause of charity.” In a one-day game at Lord’s, 7,000 spectators saw an England Army XI, led by Captain P. F. Warner, defeat an Australian Army XI.

By 1939 Warner, now Sir Pelham, was 65 years old. When the MCC secretary and assistant secretary volunteered for service, he became deputy assistant secretary, determined that cricket would continue to fly the flag at Lord’s.

Some saw cricket as a distraction – Surrey’s Errol Holmes said it felt “rather like going on a picnic when your home was on fire” – but many recognised its potential to raise morale. As The Cricketer put it, “It takes people out of themselves, and if we are a fortress let us have some fun inside the fortress so long as it does not conflict with military exigencies.”

There was no question of the counties staging more than occasional one- or two-day matches. The players were dispersed about the country, and several of the county grounds found themselves put to other uses. For the Whit bank holiday of 1940 Nottinghamshire played a two-day game against Derbyshire, both teams near full strength, but it was not the serious affair it had been 12 months earlier. When Derbyshire’s Bill Copson failed to arrive, one of the umpires batted in his place.

At Lord’s, a programme of charity matches emerged as the summer progressed. The first, in early May, was between the City of London Police and the London Fire Service. The police brought a band, the fire service displayed 48 of its engines, and in bright sunshine a crowd of 1,600 gathered. Warner planned a great two-day match for the Whit holiday, Over-30s versus Under-30s, featuring 22 of England’s best cricketers. Then Germany invaded Holland and Belgium, and the serving cricketers were summoned. The match was cancelled.

Hundreds of thousands of British troops escaped from the beaches of Dunkirk, Paris fell and Britain stood alone, awaiting attack.

The former England captain Gubby Allen was at the Air Component base in Folkestone, where the Dunkirk evacuation was co-ordinated. His brief diary reveals how his life then went on:

4 June Air Component disbanded
7 June Saw Gone with the Wind
8 June Eton Ramblers v XL Club at Lord’s – took nine for 23
10 June Italy declares war
14 June Paris captured
15 June Sandhurst v MCC, stay Percy Chapman at Worplesdon
17 June France asks for Armistice

The leagues in the Midlands and North continued, though as in the First War the Bradford League stood out, the only one still to pay its professionals. With each team allowed four professionals, and with military duties causing much coming and going, more than 100 first-class cricketers appeared in Bradford during the war, 36 of them Test cricketers. The most popular was Learie Constantine, the electrifying West Indian all-rounder.

Learie Constantine, circa 1940

In the South, two new clubs were formed in 1940: London Counties and the British Empire XI. London Counties emerged from a meeting in Andrew Sandham’s cricket school in south London. Its primary purpose was “to augment the depleted income” of professional cricketers; they played clubs around outer London, and Jack Hobbs was their president. The club’s philosophy, never to let up against weaker opposition, led to some one-sided contests, but much money was raised, some of it passed on to local charities. Travel was difficult; some players came from night duties in the police or fire service, but – as Somerset’s Frank Lee put it – “it augmented our meagre salaries and prevented us from going rusty.”

The British Empire XI began in early May with a hastily arranged match, played for a barrel of beer, against Rosslyn Park. It was a great success, and by the end of the summer they had played 37 games. The brainchild of the 19- year-old Desmond Donnelly, it was a more idealistic venture than London Counties. They played as amateurs, aimed to entertain, raised money for the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance, and hoped to create international fellowship by picking sides that drew from all the cricket-playing countries. Donnelly, fresh from public school on the Isle of Wight, was a tea planter’s son, and he listed himself as D. L. Donnelly (Assam). Other regulars included Bertie Clarke, the West Indian leg-spinner and medical student, Ray Smith, the Essex all-rounder and farmer, and Robert Nelson, the Northamptonshire captain, an officer in the Royal Marines. Pelham Warner became president, and four times that summer they played at Lord’s.

Donnelly enlisted in the RAF the following year. After the war he took his idealism into politics, standing in the 1945 election for the Common Wealth party and then serving for 20 years from 1950 as an independently minded Labour MP. But arguably the British Empire XI was his greatest achievement. In the six years of war it played 243 matches, raising £15,000 for charity.

Trevor Bailey, the leading schoolboy cricketer of the early war years, played occasionally, and he recalls “the sessions in the bar after matches, the girls who liked cricketers, and the autograph hunters. I can’t remember any of the games, just the fun.” The person who made the biggest impression on Bailey was Bertie Clarke: “the first black West Indian whom I got to know really well. I was fascinated by his enthusiasm, ability and unfailing cheerfulness.”

In August, while the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over south-east England, cricket continued at Lord’s. Playing for Sir Pelham Warner’s XI, Essex’s Reg Taylor, freshly decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, was cheered all the way to the wicket, bowled for nought and cheered all the way back again. “It is hard,” Warner wrote, “to remember any cricketer receiving a greater reception.”

On Saturday September 7, with the German blitzkrieg intensifying, air-raid sirens seemed to have ended the day’s play at Lord’s. Then an all-clear brought the players back, and the last four wickets fell in seven balls. In the evening, Warner stood at the top of the pavilion, watching the fires blazing in the London docks. Sirens, gunfire, shell-splinters, smoke: there would be no more cricket that summer.

Wisden called it “a strange and dramatic end”, though – with its offices suffering extensive damage – the almanack did not appear till December 1941, 15 months later. Less than half the size of its predecessor, it nevertheless followed tradition and listed the fixtures for 1941.

The county clubs encouraged members to pay their subscriptions and, with little expenditure, most of them reported small annual profits. Yet no maintenance work was undertaken, and the scars of war were ever more visible. At Edgbaston several hundred seats were taken to local air-raid shelters, the scorebox damaged, and the “Shed”, where players took lunch, destroyed. At Old Trafford there was extensive damage to pavilion and stands, as well as a bomb crater in the middle of the ground.

The Oval spent the war first as a barrage-balloon site, then an assault course; then a prisoner-of-war cage was erected. There was damage to the Surrey Tavern and to the terrace in front of the Long Room. The secretary worked from his home in Wimbledon, organising teams to play around the county, but it was hard to keep track of the players. He would have wanted the young Bedser twins, but at the start of June 1940 they were on the Belgian border.

“We got issued with a Colt revolver and six rounds of ammunition,” Sir Alec recalls. “That was all we had when the Germans came.” The twins ran across a cornfield as the planes approached, dived for cover and felt the spray of shots between them. “It was all over in seconds. You thought, ‘Thank God for that,’ and just got on with it.”

The Bedser twins, 1946

In the rush to the coast, they were stranded on a roadside when a van pulled up. The driver was a Surrey member from Wimbledon. “We can’t leave you two behind,” he called out.

Others were not lucky: Robert Nelson died that October in an air raid on his marine unit in Kent; Ken Farnes, the England fast bowler, was killed in a plane crash in Oxfordshire; Gerry Chalk, the Kent captain, was shot down over France; and Maurice Turnbull, Glamorgan’s secretary and captain, was killed while trying to halt advancing tanks in Normandy.

In July 1943 Hedley Verity, a professional cricketer who had risen to the rank of captain in the Green Howards, was shot while leading his men against German fire in Sicily. At Lord’s, on the Saturday following the announcement of his death, his Yorkshire captain Brian Sellers stepped out to toss for the Army against the National Police. In his blazer pocket he found a note from 1939, from the scorer at Hove: “6–1–9–7” – Verity’s last bowling figures.

Bill Edrich was a bomber pilot, flying low-level missions into Germany and winning the DFC. One Saturday his squadron, stationed in Norfolk, was due to play at Massingham Hall, but they were called away in the morning to attack German ships near the Dutch coast. Two of their planes were shot down and, before taking the field that afternoon, replacement cricketers had to be found.

“It was a hard and exciting game,” he wrote. “But every now and then one’s mind would flicker off to the briefing, and to joking with a pal whose broken body was now washing in the long, cold tides, and one saw again his machine cartwheeling down, flaming from nose to tail. Then a ball would roll fast along the green English turf, and in the distance the village clock would strike and the mellow echoes would ring through the lazy air of that perfect summer afternoon.”

His younger brother Geoff spent three years as a prisoner of the Japanese. Even in the Far East his battalion had sports equipment, and in Singapore, on their occasional rest days, they staged cricket matches, complete with typed scorecards. Edrich scored centuries in three such games, then at Changi he played in the famous “Tests”, beating Ben Barnett’s Australians 2–1.

“We were prisoners no longer,” he said. “It was a Test match between England and Australia. We forgot everything else.”

They were moved to Thailand, and there was no more cricket: only long days of work, meagre rations, dysentery and cholera. “We were in tents on bamboo slats. I looked out one morning, and I saw this boy from the 5th Norfolks. He was a skeleton. I thought, ‘How’s he walking?’ You had to have a bit of luck, and will power. A lot of the boys died of a broken heart. They couldn’t see the end. There was one march, when we moved camp, maybe 20 miles, when some of us were ready to pack in. And if you dropped out, that was it – you got a bayonet through you from the guards. But ‘Keep going,’ my friend said. You had to have one or two decent chaps with you to get through.”

More troops were posted overseas. Cricket was played in the relative luxury of the Gezira club in Egypt, where a young Jim Laker learned to bowl off spin on the matting, and Wally Hammond, passing through, hit two centuries. With victory in the Desert War, makeshift pitches sprang up all over North Africa.

Cricket was also played in the Pentangular tournament in Bombay, where by 1944 the Europeans included Denis Compton, Joe Hardstaff and the young Reg Simpson. The Bedsers played twice on a hastily created ground in Italy, where they persuaded their Surrey team-mate Arthur McIntyre to become a wicketkeeper. Also in Italy, in a prisoner-of-war camp, Bill Bowes and Freddie Brown played with improvised balls till the Red Cross sent supplies.

And cricket was played in Afghanistan and Uganda, in Iraq and Sierra Leone, in the moat of a Polish castle, on the lava-strewn rock-like ground of Reykjavik and on the beach at Salerno. One officer in the Middle East described how his men carried everywhere a rolled-up cricket mat: “On several occasions we’ve played an innings during an evening, then finished the match on the following day on the same mat – perhaps 200 miles away.” Wherever there were British servicemen, it seemed, there was some sort of cricket.

In the spring of 1941, Double British Summer Time was introduced, and Lord’s often extended play till 7.30. For servicemen in uniform, entry was free: “The gates of the temple,” declared the Manchester Guardian, “are open nowadays to all who serve their country.” Civilians, meanwhile, could “forget the war for sixpence”.

Father Time was dislodged by a barrage balloon cable, the Pavilion bell was rung only for air-raid warnings, and the scorecard carried information about local shelters: “Spectators are advised not to loiter in the streets.” The RAF based an air-crew reception centre at the ground, forcing the two teams to change out of the same dressing-room, and on Saturdays the members’ lunch room became a makeshift replacement for the shattered local synagogue.

No bomb ever landed on the field of play at Lord’s – unlike Folkestone where in 1942 a fielding soldier was killed – but in July 1944 a flying-bomb cut out overhead, causing the players to throw themselves on the ground. The bomb exploded in Regent’s Park and, when two balls later Jack Robertson hit Bob Wyatt for six, the large crowd burst into song:

There’ll always be an England, and England shall be free,
If England means as much to you, as England means to me.

Most fixtures were one-day contests, though no one considered limiting the overs. One team would bat, then declare; if the second team overtook them, their innings would go on until the close. If both were out before then, a second innings would be started. Captains, on winning the toss, tended to field.

In June 1941 at Lord’s, in front of 15,000 spectators, the Army and RAF played a six-and-a-half-hour match in which 98 eight-ball overs were bowled and 523 runs scored. Kent’s Les Ames, in his first game of the summer, hit a century that included three sixes into the Pavilion. It was, according to Robertson-Glasgow, “not first-class cricket, but it was first-class fun.”

A new audience was gathering. At the Varsity Match the spectators around the Tavern jeered the Cambridge team’s brand new caps, considering the expense “a failure to take the war seriously”. Then in July, when Frank Lee opened for London Counties, The Times reported that “he was not considered by a section of the crowd to be sufficiently exuberant; apparently it is considered that only the ‘hit or miss’ technique is suitable to one-day cricket.”

Such cricket continued through 1942 and 1943. Edgbaston shook off its wounds sufficiently to stage a cricket week in 1942. The Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, thought it would lift the spirits of local munitions workers, and in six frantic weeks the ground was restored from its desolation. For August bank holiday 1943, Lord’s staged a two-day match between England and the Dominions. Admission was now a shilling for all, and over 38,000 paid. They were treated to 940 runs and a thrilling England victory minutes from time.

The Duke of Gloucester meets the England team during the fundraising match against The Dominions, August 2, 1943

Two new teams were created in 1944: a Royal Australian Air Force XI, featuring a young Keith Miller, and a West of England XI, formed by the Gloucester club cricketer George Elliott, and consisting mainly of county cricketers stationed in the west. In that summer of D-Day and the liberation of Paris, Elliott’s task of raising teams was never-ending: “Either a bowler was posted overseas or a batsman to the North of Scotland. More phone calls, taxis, crowded trains, and one more player, hot and sometimes bad-tempered, was propelled on to the field almost too tired and bewildered to hold up his bat.”

When after the war Leicestershire advertised for a new secretary, one to sort out the loss of their home ground in Aylestone Road, Elliott’s skills in crisis management won him the job.

The war in Europe ended in May 1945, and five three-day Victory Tests between England and Australia were staged. They were not official Tests – too many cricketers were still elsewhere – but the cricket was dynamic, and a total of 367,000 people watched the 15 days. It was the first first-class cricket in England since 1939.

Three of the Tests were played at Lord’s, the others at the war-ravaged grounds of Bramall Lane and Old Trafford. For the Manchester game, Lancashire employed German prisoners of war at three farthings an hour to repair and paint the ground.

The fifth Test at Old Trafford took place the week after Victory in Japan. The sight of packed Manchester omnibuses labelled “Cricket Ground” and gates closed at mid-day added to the general euphoria. When Bill Edrich hit the winning runs, levelling the series at 2–2, The Times declared it “as good a game of cricket as the heart of man could throb for.”

Bill’s brother Geoff, down to six stone, was now in Japan, and he woke one morning to find his guards all gone. The war was over at last, and he arrived back in England in November, gradually rebuilding his strength with pints of ale. In the years of county cricket that followed, he was a great team man, he never lacked courage, and he walked when he was out. He was haunted at times, but the lessons of his war never left him.

Many cricketers had had easy wars as physical training instructors, but others – such as Trevor Bailey driving past lines of emaciated prisoners at Belsen – had seen sights that would never leave them. They had lost important cricket years but, as Alec Bedser says, “The war made men of us. It toughened us up. After that I was never nervous when I played cricket.”

Sir Home Gordon in The Cricketer noticed a greater acceptance of umpires’ decisions: “I have seen a few shocking verdicts, but none of the pre-war disgruntlement on returning to the pavilion.” He attributed this to “the widespread inoculation of obedience and discipline.” “You had a better attitude,” Bedser says. “You learned just to get on with things. You didn’t ask questions.”

The war did raise questions, however, not least in social attitudes. In 1943 Learie Constantine booked into the Imperial Hotel, Russell Square, but on arrival he was called “a nigger” and told that his presence would be unacceptable to their American guests. He took the hotel to the High Court and won his case. Then in August 1945, the only black man in the side, he captained the Dominions against England at Lord’s. It could not have happened in 1939.

Wisden questioned the sustainability of the amateur–professional divide. By the late 1930s, it argued, few of the county captains were genuine amateurs, and those few were “survivors of an almost lost society”. The war accelerated the demise of that society, and by 1952 England had a professional captain, Len Hutton. “If someone who had risen from the ranks was good enough to lead an army regiment in the field of battle,” he wrote, “professional cricketers could be good enough to lead England in the field of sport.”

Questions were raised about the shape post-war cricket should take, with MCC setting up a special committee in late 1942. Rival entertainments, such as cinemas and ice-rinks, were growing in popularity, and there was a view that the county game would need an injection of cricket’s wartime spirit. There were calls for a one-day knockout cup, for Sunday play, for “natural pitches”, for a two-day, one-innings county championship. The committee voted in favour of the one-day cup but, with the problem of the drawn game unresolved, the idea was shelved. The 1939 experiment with eight-ball overs was dropped; otherwise the first-class summer of 1946 differed in only minor respects from that of 1939.

There were few new players when the counties once more took the field. Somerset and Glamorgan had an average age of 38, Surrey and Yorkshire 36. “Once the initial freshness had worn off,” Frank Lee wrote, “we found it all far more strenuous than we anticipated.” “I was always hungry,” Bill Edrich said. “I had to renew a lot of cricket gear so the coupon situation soon grew difficult.”

Lancashire appealed for £100,000 to create a modern Old Trafford with a capacity of 40,000, but donations fell well short of even half that sum. Surrey relaid its entire field with tens of thousands of turfs brought from Gravesend marshes, employing shilling-an-hour volunteers from the local flats. There was little money even to heat the pavilion, but the county could not bring itself to accept a proposal to host greyhound racing.

The next summer, 1947, was a golden one, the hottest since 1911, and the crowds that flocked to the grounds, crowds who lived with bombsites and ration books, were uplifted by the devil-may-care batting of Denis Compton and Bill Edrich.

Brian Castor was secretary of Surrey. A prisoner of war under the Japanese, he wanted nothing more than to return to the England of the 1930s. Yet in his heart, when he surveyed the packed Oval that summer, he knew the reality: “It won’t always be like this,” he said. English cricket would soon need to adapt. For now it was proud to have survived the war.

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