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….
Len Hutton. 364 at The Oval, 1938, made over 13 hours and 17 minutes. And in this game he was caught behind off Graham Williams for one, spending just five minutes at the crease.
The ‘tall, dark, debonair’ Albert Cheetham and the reduced by PoW camps, emaciated Williams with his elbowy run-up continued to run in. The task of dealing with them fell to Cyril Washbrook and Middlesex man John Robertson.
The first change was Cec Pepper, the 16-stone all-rounder who replaced Cheetham. It was of little wonder that Sir Home Gordon felt that he was very much like ‘Warwick Armstrong when that wily fellow first visited the country.’ And when Pepper stood in the slips with his hands on his knees, he reminded Sir Gordon of Maurice Tate. In New South Wales, Pepper was the bowling partner of Bill O’Reilly. But would he be a great Test player? He was deciding between Test glory and a number of offers to play league cricket, and so difficult was the decision proving that he had left it to his wife back in Australia.
The two batsmen played Pepper’s leg-breaks with relative ease. Robertson pulled a four and a two. 50 was up with a subtle late cut by the Middlesex man.
And at the other end, Williams made way for the slow left-arm offerings of Reginald Ellis.
The previous evening, captain Lindsay Hassett had taken Ellis to the pitch during the downpour, pointing out how the rain had got underneath the surface at the downhill end. Ellis had been delighted. “It will suit me, won’t it?” And Hassett had replied, “You won’t bowl at this end. You’re the only one I can rely on to keep an accurate length and direction and I am going to set a field for you and you are going to bowl all morning.”
That was how it was. And to the final ball of Ellis’ first over, Washbrook stretched forward. It turned away and Stan Sismey had the bails off in a flash. 54 for two. Washbrook went for 28.
To a reverberating applause around the ground walked in the great Wally Hammond. The chill in the air of that dank May morning had made him don a sweater. His timing was off. He mis-hit several, did not quite get into his stride. But that imitable Bob Crisp, in the ground as a reporter, had the following to say: “Hammond’s technique is still the best thing to watch in a day’s cricket.”
Aren’t we all indulgent to our heroes even on their worst days?
Robertson, although not quite in command against Ellis, gave a stylish display. But Ellis snared him just after he had reached a well compiled 50. And Williams, using the slope of Lord’s, got one to come back inches to get past the revered Hammond blade. The mighty name had 29 against his name as he walked back. And the man who had lost 31 kilograms in his four years as a Prisoner of War in West Africa was tickled pink at getting both Hutton and Hammond.
It was Les Ames, playing as a batsman with more than the ability to do so, and Bill Edrich, the other colourful Middlesex character, who shared the biggest stand of the day. 75 runs were added in 24 overs. Ames struck the ball delightfully if looking rusty on occasions. Edrich too made sparkling strokes and jabbed at some with uncertainty.
It would not have amounted to that. Ames had not scored when Keith Miller, known more for his batting prowess, steamed in as the fifth bowler used and produced a thunderbolt which took the edge and went through into Sismey’s gloves. The wicketkeeper was delighted with the distinguished offering and let out a vociferous premature ‘howzzat’, the ball slipping out in the process.
At 205, Ames returned the favour, sending a full toss from Cheetham into the hands of Charlie Price. The bowler, buoyed by the unexpected success, pegged back the stumps of the dangerous Walter Robins.
But 38-year-old Lt Col John Stephenson, who had played very little cricket since 1939 and not at all since 1941, batted with relish as he compiled 31. Miller flattened the stumps of Edrich, but with wicketkeeper Billy Griffith assisting Stephenson with a patient approach, a sizable score looked on the cards at 267 for 7.
And then Charlie Price, the man who would play 14 First-Class matches, and all of them for Australian Services, got Stephenson and Doug Wright in the space of 3 balls. And Billy Griffith snicked the first ball of the following over.
267 all out. An Australian Services attack of very little experience had restricted a Test-class England batting line up to a relatively paltry score.
Not a surprise really, for the discerning spectators. As Crisp wrote: “The thing that strikes me most about the play was not that the England total was so disappointing but that these English batsmen displayed such fine form in their first real match of the season … a triumph of technique over rustiness accumulated in nearly six years of war.” Besides, both the captains had promised bright cricket to live up to the occasion. The English batsmen were praised for their willingness to take risks. Although some noted that “The bad timing and lack of confidence in men like Hammond and Hutton made the bowling look quite a bit more dangerous than it really was.”
The morrow was a day of rest. And the Servicemen smiled with satisfaction as the rest of the first day was played out. The little-known Jim Workman was sent back soon enough by Alf Gover, but Dick Whitington and captain Hassett got together into a good partnership. In the last hour, Whitington nicked Wright, and it was 52 for 2. But the spirited Sismey joined his skipper and the two saw through safely to the stumps. 82 for 2 in response to 267. A good day’s work.
According to Sydney Morning Herald, the two not out batsmen looked fit, happy and confident. Hassett was characteristically impish as he talked to the press. “When the bowlers are on top the captain’s job is secure.” When asked how he felt captaining Australia, he grinned all over his lea brown face and answered, “What do you think?”
After Sunday’s rest, the queue outside Lord’s started to grow from 6 on Monday. And once again, alongside Englishmen, there were plenty of Australian soldiers.
Cricket had gripped the city. A refreshing change from air raid sirens and the tidings of death.