In this series, Arunabha Sengupta relates the tale of the Victory Tests played between England and the Australian Services as a celebration of the end of World War II….
6-1-9-7. It was just another day at work for Hedley Verity as he demolished Sussex at Hove on the first day of September 1939.
And when he left the ground, the ace Yorkshire and England left-arm spinner observed, “I wonder if I’ll ever bowl here again.”
With the world tottering on the edge of mayhem, his consternation was shared by many. So was his fate.
The next time Verity, with 144 wickets in 40 Test matches at 24 apiece, turned out for England, it was as a Green Howards Officer, serving in India, Persia, Egypt and finally Italy. He was fatally wounded in gunfire during a terrifying night in the Sicilian plain in 1943. His last words to his men were supposedly, “Keep going.” He was just 38 when he died.
Ashes and Dust
If mankind had not been so intent upon self-destruction, if they had learnt the lesson from the Great War that took place just a couple of decades earlier, England would have travelled to Australia to resume the battle for The Ashes in 1940-41. And Hedley Verity would have been their leading spinner.
Perhaps he would have had another fascinating duel with the 32-year-old Don Bradman, who was in the very prime of his batsmanship. The Australians were hit by the War a bit later. During the seasons that followed the last Ashes series, Bradman had hit 919 at 153.16 in 1938-39 and 1475 at 122.91 in 1939-40. That was just being Bradman.
Opening the England bowling attack would have been Ken Farnes, the 6-foot 5-inch scholar, artist and writer. He would have been 28, with 60 wickets in Test matches under his belt. Perhaps one of the young Australian batsmen facing him would have been Ross Gregory. Especially with Bradman about to come down with fibrositis and Stan McCabe plagued by foot injuries.
As it happened, Farnes died in 1941 when his plane crashed near Chipping Warden in Oxfordshire during a night-flying exercise. Gregory was just 26 when his Boston Bomber was caught in a storm over East Bengal while on a mission to bomb Burma.
In cricketing terms, the lives of many more ended prematurely. For Australia, Arthur Chipperfield, Jack Fingleton, Chuck Fleetwood-Smith, Stan McCabe, Ernie McCormick were some of the worthies who never played for the country again. The great Bill O’Reilly did, but in just one series against New Zealand.
Similarly, for England, great names like Les Ames, Maurice Leyland, Eddie Paynter and RWV Robins disappeared from the international cricket fields. Bill Bowes and Bill Voce both attempted comebacks, but they were fast bowlers who were way past their respective primes.
Speculations are rife with what Bradman could have achieved had he played during the War years. Perhaps he could have taken his tally of runs to unforeseen realms. Perhaps his health problems, which kept him from seeing action, would have hastened early retirement. We can only extrapolate in various ways, depending on which way we decide to lean. However, there were others whose careers had hefty chunks scooped out.
What about Wally Hammond, looking every bit the great batsman at 36 when the guns started to roar?
When he returned as captain of England in 1946, he was but a pale shadow of his sublime self.
Similarly, Len Hutton and Denis Compton had just kicked off their phenomenal careers when the Greater Game interrupted and had those six seasons scooped out of their Test days. Bill Edrich, Cyril Washbrook, Doug Wright, Joe Hardstaff Jr, all of them suffered similar fates.
On the Australian side, there were men like Lindsay Hassett, Bill Brown and Sidney Barnes, all slated to be The Invincibles of 1948, who had their brilliant sagas interrupted at the zenith.
And when we talk of these cricketers, we must not forget the many who had starts to their careers delayed as they spent time serving their nation in uniform. On one side there were Alec Bedser and Godfrey Evans, aged 21 and 19, who would have to wait several seasons before making their respective marks on the game. On the other hand there were the 20-year-old Keith Miller, 18-year-old Ray Lindwall, the 17-year-old Arthur Morris, and 21-year-old Ian Johnson, all of whom had to wait those troubled years till they were well into their mid or late 20s, before the cricket world could finally hear their names.
What of the contests?
In spite of the august presence of Bradman in the batting line up and a similar looming figure of O’Reilly in the bowling department, the last few contests between the two countries had been hard-fought and keen.
Douglas Jardine had led England to a 4-1 victory using those controversial methods now known as Bodyline. After that the 1934 series had been decided 2-1 in favour of Australia, the 1936-37 exchanges had seen a remarkable recovery from being 0-2 down to a 3-2 victory by Bradman’s side. The 1938 summer had seen an 1-1 stalemate.
The 1940-41 series promised to be riveting cricket with plenty of great names in the very pinnacle of their powers. And a lot of youngsters who would go on to be formidable names in the game.
And thanks to Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito the bats needed to be laid down and guns had been taken up.
The Great Hiatus
No further action on the First-Class grounds after 1939 in England. And by the end of 1941, Australia had also found it impossible to go on with the normal game.
Cricket came to a grinding halt.
Well, not quite.
A quarter of a century earlier, the playing of sport in wartime had been considered unpatriotic. It had been actively discouraged.
However, times had changed. Views now were more progressive, more enlightened.
As expressed by Dr Herbert Vere Evatt, Australia’s new Attorney-General, sports could “actually assist in protecting the morale of the country”. Grade and minor competitions were carried on in Australia, special matches arranged around Christmas.
Similar views were aired in England where cricket was used to give the populace a flavour of normalcy. Matches were held at Lord’s and the other grounds, keeping the chin up, and the spirits high.
Military men skilled and not so skilled at the game arranged matches around the world. ‘Test’ matches were played around the globe. English army-men played Australian Imperial Forces, New Zealand servicemen squared up against the South Africans.
It was in one such match that we came across the headlines: “Laker skittles Australians” for the first time. The banner, seen in the early 1940s, screamed from the sporting columns of Egyptian Gazette. In the newly-opened El Alamein Stadium of Cairo, young Corporal JC Laker had taken 6 wickets for 10 runs in 29 deliveries. The Australian Servicemen had been bowled out for 60.
Especially the second Australian Imperial Forces played with zest and gusto. Lindsay Hassett led the side, New South Wales all-rounder Albert Cheetham, former Victorian batsman Horrie Hunt, Queensland medium-pacer Alec Hurwood, and the South Australian opening batsman Dick Whitington were some of the members. Later Flying Officer Keith Miller joined the forces. As did Cec Pepper, the New South Wales leg-spinning all-rounder.
In the notorious Changi camp after the fall of Singapore, commentator EW Swanton reported of some excellent matches with the Australians. He also reported a ‘Test’ between England and Australia at Nakom Paton in Thailand in the end of 1944.
By the autumn of 1944, the tide had turned in the War. D-Day landing had been successful and liberation and repatriation was underway.
Combining the AIF and Royal Australian Air Force sides, the Australian Services team was formed. Led by Hassett, they included Keith Carmody, AG Cheetham, Cec Pepper, Keith Miller and others.
By then there were calls for Test matches between Australia and England as soon as the fighting had ceased. The principal voice was of Australian Prime Minister John Curtin, who apart from being a cricket nut sincerely believed that such a series would effectively demonstrate to the world “the characteristics of the British people”.
When Curtin visited London in 1944, he discussed post-war plans … with MCC’s Plum Warner and with the old wicketkeeper, Major Bert Oldfield, as his advisor.
Later it was decided that the Australian Services side would contest in a series of ‘Test’ matches against a hand-picked England team. The Australian cricket authorities were fully willing to celebrate these victory matches by deploying their Services team to represent them. However, they did not nod favourably to the proposed Test status. After all, a squad drawn from 1500 servicemen was hardly the representative Australian side. Especially given that the English side was close to full strength.
The groundwork was laid. At the beginning of May, the Russians had more or less conquered Berlin and the fall of Nazi Germany was just a formality.
And reportedly Winston Churchill asked Warner to arrange major fixtures for the war-weary British people as soon as things returned to normalcy. Some of the German Prisoners of War were in fact put to use to get the grounds, Lord’s especially, in working order for the game.
Hence five ‘Tests’ were arranged, to be referred to as the Victory Tests. The first was held from 19th May at Lord’s.
Hassett with four Tests under his belt was the only Australian cricketer with experience at the highest level. Carmody, Cheetham, Miller, Pepper, Simsey, Whitington and Graham Williams were the established First-Class cricketers in the side.
Other than that Christofani, Roper, Stanford and Eddie Williams had played a few First-Class matches for their states.
The England side was a roll-call of greatness.
Wally Hammond was to lead. Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook were to open. Les Ames would keep wickets! Robins and Wright would bowl spin. Alf Gover would spearhead the attack. Bill Edrich would bat in the middle order. Laurie Fishlock and Jack Pollard would come in down the line.
At first, all five Tests were scheduled at Lord’s. But then Lancashire and Yorkshire committees pressed their claims. One was held at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Yet another at Old Trafford. The rest remained at the headquarters.
After years of air raid sirens, blackouts, gnawing fear and shattered faith, the Londoners had a taste of normalcy. On May 19, 1945, 106 days before the official end of the Second World War, Hammond and Hassett walked out of the red-brick pavilion of Lord’s for the flip of the coin. The onrush of crowd had been so heavy that the attendants manning the Grace Gates had been forced to close them on the public.
The willow was about to strike leather again and England were playing Australia.
And the public was treated to some sublime cricket.