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…..
On the eve of the ‘Test’ arrived the cable from the ailing Australian Prime Minister John Curtin, addressed to Stanley Christopherson, the president of MCC:
“I wish the Victory Test match every success. I would be particularly grateful if you could convey to Sir Pelham Warner and the respective captains Mr Hammond and Mr Hassett my sincere good wishes for this reopening of a series which I hope will never again be interrupted.”
That was May 18, 1945. A mere 10 days after the Nazis had formally surrendered to the allied armed forces.
The next morning there was the following snippet in The Times: “It is surely a rather remarkable achievement that so soon after peace has come to Europe a three-day cricket match should be begun today a Lord’s between England and Australia – not a Test match in the proper sense to be sure, but between two very good teams for all that.”
Indeed, it was remarkable. Japan was still entrenched in War, and quite a lot of fighting was still on in the Pacific. In that sense, peace had not yet dawned on the world. The official end of the Second World War was still a few months away.
But the Victory Tests were already about to get started.
After all the game had been actively pursued by the public and servicemen all through the atrocities. It had been part of the War effort. Plum Warner had been appointed wartime secretary at Lord’s and organising cricket matches, where people could snatch a few moments of cricket away from work and war, was his responsibility. As he later wrote: “If Goebbels had been able to broadcast that the War had stopped cricket at Lord’s it would have been valuable propaganda for the Germans.” In other words, the game being played uninterrupted at Lord’s was as good in terms of propaganda for the British.
And the Australian army-men had been at it all the time. Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Imperial Forces. Once it was reported that the only difference with the Australian Test teams was that the Air Force side wore blue airman caps rather than the menacing baggy green.
Besides, throughout the War cricket had been used in various ways … other than in actual games of willow and leather. General Montgomery had declared his intention to ‘hit Rommel for six out of Africa’. John Curtin had pledged to fight for the 22 yards in Lord’s because it was as much Australian as British. And when the news of Mussolini’s death filtered into the British intelligence, the cryptic message was sent to the headquarters: “Ponsford is out, but Bradman is still batting.”
Stanley Christopherson sent the Australian PM the following reply: “Your cablegram is greatly appreciated by myself, Sir Pelham, both captains and all at Lord’s. MCC hope always to maintain the great tradition of the game which means so much to both England and Australia. We and those who had the privilege of meeting you last May have the happiest recollection of your visit to Lord’s. We appreciate warmly your wish that never again the matches be interrupted. We all wish you a rapid recovery.”
Curtin passed away from his heart problems and failing health on July 5, 1945. That was between the second and third Victory Tests.
The Day Dawns
As the response from MCC was being composed that evening, rain swept across London. Yet, thousands of Londoners queued in the night for the gates to open the following morning, to glimpse a serious cricket match at long last, to get that elusive reassurance that times were normal again.
The rate of admission was one shilling. And just to remind the Londoners, as if they needed reminding, that life was not yet fully back to the regular ways, ‘spectators were advised to bring their own refreshments’.
Not only were they Englishmen. By the time the morning clock showed 6 AM, there were a number of Australian soldiers in slouch hats, some of them just freed from Prisoner of War camps a couple of weeks earlier. They were there to cheer their heroes.
By 8 AM in the morning the queues along the high walls were serpentine. At the very front was a GA King, a retired building surveyor from Battersea. This elderly gentleman later told Evening Standard: “I thought it would be like the old days when there were large crowds early in the day and when I waited from six in the morning.
The gates were opened at 10 AM, and within an hour the attendants had to force them shut because the stands were bursting at the seams.
And then there was the sight they had been waiting for. The toss. The gaunt, slightly overweight figure of Wally Hammond, the pride of English cricket, easily the biggest draw for the crowds. He was walking alongside Lindsay Hassett to the centre of the historic arena.
Today, looking back, we notice the names of Len Hutton and Keith Miller in the record books. But in May 1945, it was Hammond who drew all and sundry to the cricket. The biggest name in the land, the most majestic of sights at the crease.
He was 41 and his days in North and South Africa had seen little exercise and a gradual increase of weight. But he was still great with the willow. Hutton would take over the mantle as the greatest batsman in England, but he was still in his early days as far as Test cricket was concerned. On the other hand, Miller had enthralled many a spectator with his exhilarating hitting, his flashy off-drives, but he had not yet played Test cricket yet.
In fact, in the Australian side only Lindsay Hassett, the captain, had Test experience. In contrast, with the Huttons, Hammonds, Washbrooks, Govers, Edriches, Wrights and the rest of England had only three uncapped players.
One of the uncapped men was Billy Griffith, the wicketkeeper. Godfrey Evans could not make it because he was in charge of the British Army motor pool in Frankfurt.
But there was more to this match than just cricketing credentials.
Len Hutton opened the England innings. His left arm had been shortened by a couple of inches after a mishap during army training. Alongside him was his regular partner Cyril Washbrook.
A great roar went up among the spectators as they emerged. “Partly for the players and partly for cricket on general principles,” wrote RC Robertson-Glasgow. And as Mark Rowe later added, “Partly because they felt cold.”
The Australian attack would be opened by the tall Balmain boy Albert Cheetham, who, according to Wisden’s Norman Preston, was ‘elegant in action.’ To him fell the responsibility of bowling the first over in a new post-war era.
And it was a moment of historical poignance. In 1919, after the end of the Great War, the Australian Imperial Forces team, led mostly by Herbie Collins, had done so much to restore normalcy in a War-ravaged England. And in that team was wicketkeeper-batsman Hampden Love, who later played one of the Bodyline Tests. Hampden Love was the uncle of Cheetham.
Hutton took a single from the fifth delivery bowled by Cheetham.
From the other end, it was the South Australian Graham Williams. His plane had been shot down in the Western Desert during the Libyan campaign. The last four years had been spent in atrocious conditions as a Prisoner of War. He was 31 kilograms lighter than he had been at the start of the War. Before play commenced, he had been pouring glucose into himself in the dressing room, in the desperate hope of building up stamina. He had spent his last days as a PoW by teaching Braille to blind prisoners, an effort that was to get him an MBE. His method of getting fit after getting wind of possible repatriation was to chop trees.
Now the medium pacer started a fresh over to Hutton. And off the fifth ball, the great batsman snicked a catch to Stan Sismey. The man whose last Test innings against Australia had consumed 13 hours and 17 minutes in producing 364 had gone for one, caught off a bowler reduced to a pale emaciated fraction of himself.
The departure of Hutton could have been heart-breaking for England. But the crowd, aware of the ordeals withstood by Williams, and his efforts with the blind, cheered the bowler whole-heartedly, without any reservation.
As already mentioned, cricket in the Victory Tests had to do much more than mere cricketing credentials.