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….
They queued up even before the first light of dawn broke through the night sky. Many of them were Australians. Soldiers all. Quite a few of them just released from Prisoner of War camps.
Australian Services were not exactly on top, but the prospects looked bright. 82 for 2 responding to 267. And Lindsay Hessett was already looking good on 27.
The Whit-Monday holiday started with a crowd of over 30,000. Doug Wright bowled a long spell early in the day, of mixed quality. If the batsmen were patient they got the short ones to pull. But some of his deliveries were probing. Hassett failed to keep one down, and Bill Edrich, diving full length at short-leg, almost like a goalkeeper, got his hands to it bit could not hold on.
Night-watchman Stan Sismey and Hassett added 84 before a ball from one of the rare, maverick of Edrich provided the breakthrough. The ball kicked, and the wicketkeeper Sismey raised his bat to protect his face. It went off the handle and Wright accepted the dolly at short-leg.
136 for 3. Amidst great cheers entered the crowd-puller, Keith Miller. Already, he had made a reputation for himself as a batsman of elegance and power.
The score moved along to 171, at brisk pace, before Hassett, well set for a century, raised his head and tried to hit Jack Stephenson out of the ground. He lost his off-stump and walked away with the characteristic impish grin on his face.
The last specialist batsman of Australia walked out. In the form of Ross Stanford. A period of attritional cricket followed. The strokes that were played went mostly behind the wicket. Walter Robins, bowling the traditional couple of overs allotted to the spinner before lunch, was seen off. Lunch was called at 196 for 4. Miller was unbeaten on 21.
Miller and Messerschmitt
The two air-force pilots resumed battle after the break. And a light rain started to get into the mix of things. Miller and Stanford batted for 10 minutes before the former appealed against the weather. The break was taken for 40 minutes as the rain eased off.
Immediately after the break, Stephenson ran in with the wet ball. Stanford snicked, but at second slip Edrich found the ball too greasy.
Alf Gover came in from the pavilion end, starting fast and with venom, and becoming slower and slower as the overs were batted out. His line also suffered. Stanford and Miller made merry. 99 were added in 90 minutes when Stephenson, Lieutenant Colonel with a DSO and a mention in the despatches, sent one of his medium-paced offerings down the leg side. Stanford, another supreme War hero, had thus far middled almost every ball. Now he missed this one and Billy Griffith moved like a streak lightning and had the bails off in a flash. Stanford was out for 49.
Now let us pause for a study in contrasts. And a look into human character perhaps.
According to Stanford: “One of the great disappointments of my life was not to get 50 in that particular innings, one of the best I played.”
Ross Stanford. One of the most battle-scarred fighter pilots. He started at 467 Squadron at RAF Bottesford near Nottingham in 1943. He flew to Dusseldorf, Mannheim, Hanover, Bochum, Hagen, Munich, Leipzig, Kassel, Modane and four times in nine nights to Berlin. He once had to turn back and jettison his bombs because of ice on the engines. There were many more raids on Berlin. By February 1944, he had flown 23 missions. And then he volunteered for the famous 617 squadrons.
The raids continued till D-Day and thereafter. In 11 months as a fighter pilot, Standford made 43 trips in all. The odds of his being killed were extremely high. He survived. And then he rued missing that half-century in the opening Victory Test.
At the other end was Keith Miller. The one famed for the words, “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.” That made him a dashing hero, an airman who played cricket for fun. That is the legend associated with the man.
And as in most legends, it is misleading.
In truth, Miller’s combat experience was less than 5% that of Stanford. Most of the War was spent in training for action. He went on just two missions, one of them a ‘spoof patrol’ organised for a beginner, more of a decoy for the enemy. The flight was logged as ‘uneventful’.
The second and last mission was shorter, but slightly more eventful, and Miller had to bring his aircraft back to the base with the tanks liable to drop at any time.
Two missions, that too when the German air-force were on its last legs.
That as all the war Miller saw. He never had a Messerschmitt up his arse.
He did not really reveal that his War had been action-free, but, as evidence suggests, was rather prone to tell stories to give the impression of a long and eventful career in the conflicts. He never mentioned his very limited experience in battle, except for one interview in 1981 when, in his 60s, he confessed to a National Library of Australia interviewer: “I only saw up to bugger all, to use an expression, ‘aircraft, enemy’ and if I did I was very happy if he got away from me rather than me trying to chase him.”
Yet his alternative mission was to underplay the seriousness of cricket and underline the enormity of War.
A direct contrast with Stanford. Perhaps because he desperately wanted to project himself as an active airman.
Make no mistake. Miller was a wonderful cricketer. And he played cricket more seriously than anyone else. When Len Hutton, with one arm shortened by a training injury sustained during the War, faced him in Australia, Miller was not shy of sending bumpers directed at his head. The Messerschmitt quote had by then disappeared where Miller’s original Messerschmitt had supposedly headed.
Here too Miller batted with a lot of dour determination. No romantic cavalier in this innings. At 270 for 5, Cec Pepper joined him and pushed the score along jauntily. 87 were added for the sixth wicket.
By 5:30 PM the members’ bar had run out of beer … ‘due I think to the Australian celebration of Miller’s hundred’ wrote Bob Crisp.
Then three wickets fell for 9. Pepper, playing with genuine relish, snicked one from Stephenson. Albert Cheetham was caught at slip off Wright, the great hands of Wally Hammond closing on the ball. And finally Miller went, hitting one from Stephenson to Ames.
Miller’s 105 was a gritty effort, with just six boundaries over three and a half hours. There had been a sharp chance offered to Wright at short leg off Gover, when he was 33, but otherwise he had put his head down and concentrated.
And the Messerschmitt myth once again. This was not an official Test match. But Miller was in the 90s for three-quarters of an hour. He cared about his milestones all right.
The Telegraph wrote: “Instead of a carefree aggressive batsman with a partiality for the full blooded drive we had known him to be last year, he showed a restraint hitherto unsuspected yet he was always attractive to watch.”
Much more than cricket
It was 366 for 8. But the end was not near.
Graham Williams, the man shot down in the Libyan War and who spent four years as Prisoner of War, was out to bat now. His work with the blind prisoners, whom he taught Braille, was well known. As was the fact that he had lost 31 kilograms as a PoW. He was cheered wildly as he made his way to the crease.
Charlie Price, who would never play a First-Class match but for Australian Services, joined him. And together they spanked a tired bowling. Price hit the only six of the day, sending Wright into the pavilion. Williams belted 11 fours in 53. 88 were added in 51 minutes.
By the time Wright got Williams to edge one to Griffith to end the innings, the score was 455. The lead was 188.
The excitement was infectious. Australian Services were on the verge of winning the match. All England could hope for was to bat out the remaining day and save it.
Yes, the English had been handicapped by the wet ball during phases. Yes, they had been tired.
But the grim truth was reflected in the report of Manchester Guardian: “The dearth of Test match bowlers was fully exposed by the Australian batsmen at Lord’s … the truth is that England has had no opportunity yet to replace Verity and Farnes, both killed in the war, or WE Bowes only recently returned from a German prison camp.”
True, the ‘Tests’ dealt with far more than cricket.