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……
December 12, 1940. German Luftwaffe stormed Sheffield in a blitzkrieg. The operation was repeated with devastating effect three nights later, on December 15.
British soldiers chaperoned families into the Bramall Lane football ground, singing to the children, bringing drinks around to cheer folks up. For a while, they were safe there. But German bombs half destroyed the stands of the football ground. Years on, a pile of rubble lay there in one corner, and sand filled up the craters on the terraces. Debris of destruction.
Four and a half years later, it was beside these football stands that the ground staff prepared the matting wickets for practice before the second Victory ‘Test’. In fact, the venue, Sheffield United cricket and football clubs, had not hosted a Test since 1902, when Clem Hill and Monty Noble had engineered a famous Australian victory on a treacherous wicket. Since then Headingley had taken over. But now, with the Bramall Lane seats preserved in contrast to the destroyed wooden fixtures of the Leeds arena, the Sheffield ground got the nod for this ‘Test’.
It was the German prisoners of war who washed the benches and put them back in place. Their brushes painted and whitewashed the stands. Karma perhaps.
There was a minor hitch that would force the Australians and Englishmen to share the dressing room. The pavilion was still in use by the government ministries. But that did not bother the cricketers.
Because now the only army that looked like invading the city was one of cricket journalists and photographers. There were arrangements for a flash message about the ‘Test’ that would be communicated to Australia, through special lines, and the broadcast would reach in just four minutes.
There were breweries around the ground, with ghastly chimneys. There were rumours reiterated by Bob Crisp that when the visiting county sides batted in Yorkshire, word went around in those factories and fresh shovels of coal went on the foundries to fog the atmosphere and reduce visibility. During this ‘Test’, however, these very brewery workers would get on the chimneys to watch the cricket.
The wicket was diligently prepared by Fred Kean, the groundsman, who emphatically stated that it would be a natural track. “We’ve never used dope at Bramall Lane in my time.”
All the while, Wally Hammond put England’s problems in perspective in his newspaper column. Problems that lay in the intersection between cricket and War.
“Whom have we to take the place of [Ken] Farnes as a fast bowler, [Hedley] Verity as a slow bowler? … I have not seen a real fast bowler among the present generation. Friends tell me that Alec Bedser, one of the Surrey twins, has possibilities but I have not seen him play. He is now in Italy.”
The pace problem would dog England until the arrival of Fred Trueman and Brian Statham in the early 1950s. Till then Bedser would carry the attack alone.
In this match, however, Hammond did get the services of two medium pacers. George Pope, a tall, indefatigable medium fast bowler from Derbyshire who could hit the ball a long way. And Dick Pollard, another Nottinghamshire medium fast bowler, who would go on to play a few Tests for England.
Also in the side was Errol Holmes, the stylish Surrey batsman aged 39, who had spent the war as a colonel for the US Air Force and therefore was woefully short of match practice.
On the Australian side, there was another man who had spent several of the previous months as a prisoner of war, just like Graham Williams. Shot down over the North Sea, just off the Netherlands coast, Captain Keith Carmody had been imprisoned in Stalag Luft III. Eventually freed by the Russian army, this hugely popular RAAF skipper declared that captivity had not impaired his cricket form because he had managed to keep fairly fit: “War prison diet does not permit that sort of thing.”
Ross Stanford, bona fide War hero and a success in the first ‘Test’ at Lord’s, had just been awarded Distinguished Flying Cross for his service with the RAF Dambusters squadron. He insisted on stepping aside for Carmody.
This was truly a different sort of cricket contest.
And as the players arrived in Sheffield there were lots done for their entertainment. A dance was arranged at the Abbeydale Park pavilion. Many of them took advantage of the offer for a day’s golf at Bamford in the nearby Peak District.
And some watched the Friday evening game at Parkhead Cricket Club, where George Pope hit 157 out of the Norton Woodseats total of 237 for 5 in 20 overs. Parkhead finished on 210 for 4. Yes, almost a T20 match. Bill Bowes, the big Yorkshire fast bowler just back from a prisoner of war camp, still did not feel ready to resume his cricketing services for England, but hit his way to a merry 45 in the game.
Yes, a very different sort of a season for cricket.