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……
“One of the most satisfying innings of my career.”
When Wally Hammond utters those words, they take on incredible significance.
And he did have his reasons.
He had lost the spin of coin. Standing on the wet pitch, Lindsay Hassett had brought out his impish grin and asked England to take the first strike. And England had it tough from the word go.
Hammond had desperately wanted a left-handed batsman. Lack of options in this department had forced the home team to go back to the 45-year-old Maurice Leyland. But a strained tendon in his right leg put the veteran out of action. The 39-year-old stylish Errol Holmes came in. He was a right-hander.
War had reduced the flow of young talent to a trickle.
Almost immediately following the start, Cyril Washbrook was dropped at cover. And there was more woe for the Australians when the ball struck Len Hutton’s pads and struck Stan Sismey on the chin. The man who had braved much of the summer on the battlefields had to leave the ground and the big gloves were handed over to Keith Carmody. A couple of months down the line, Carmody would become the best man at Sismey’s wedding.
The Yorkshire crowd had a simultaneous heartbreak when Hutton forced one off the back foot and was smartly caught by Cheetham. The emaciated figure of Graham Williams continued to taste success as the great opening batsman, celebrating his 29th birthday, walked back for 11.
John Robertson and Washbrook settled down against some thoughtful bowling. At 41, Reg Ellis came on. At 46, Keith Miller ran in. Robertson struck Miller to the leg and Hassett swooped down on it at square leg. But the batsman stood his ground and the umpires were not sure.
However, it did not really prove expensive. Robertson was 20 then, and six runs later he needlessly chased a delivery from Ellis to be caught at slip. The Cricketer would lament his propensity to get out in his 20s and 30s.
Hammond was seven when he edged Ellis. The massive form of Cec Pepper, standing in the lone slip, was seen diving for the catch and then rolling over and kicking his legs in the air in vexation. England were 113 for 2 at lunch.
At 129 Washbrook fell, for a well-compiled 63. Makeshift wicketkeeper Carmody held on to a touch off Pepper.
Seven runs later, the normally elegant Holmes hoiked at Ellis in an ungainly fashion and looked back to see his stump topple over.
Bill Edrich could make just a single before he was caught adjacent to Pepper.
The two slow bowlers were on top. The 34-year-old George Pope was the all-rounder, and he walked in with the score on a tottering 141 for 5. In the pressbox, Norman Preston of The Observer jotted down that Australia were ‘shaping for a quick kill’. Bets were being passed around, mostly by Australians in the crowd, that the England innings would be over before 200.
But, Hammond had weathered the first uncomfortable moments and by now had the measure of the bowlers and the pitch. According to Guy Campbell of the Daily Telegraph “it was the pre-War Hammond and what fun.”
Playing the ball late, often with a swift, wristy chop, Hammond kept sneaking singles off the last balls of the overs. His defence was alert. And when the ball was pitched up, out came the booming Hammond drive. The bat flow finished in that magnificent arc that had become legendary in the game. “I have never seen a ball played so late as Hammond played it on Saturday afternoon,” wrote Bob Crisp.
107 were added for the sixth wicket. Hammond sent the ball into the crowd twice. Pope could hit the ball a long way as well, but today he was circumspect, watchful.
At 88, Hammond asked for a change of bat. And soon after that, Cheetham induced a false stroke off Pope. 248 for 6.
And as Williams bowled his medium pace, Hammond stepped down the wicket and on drove him. With Billy Griffith responding well, the batsmen ran three.
The clock showed 5:05 and Hammond raised his bat. The roar of the crowd could be heard from miles away. It had been a fascinating 100. In News of the World, George Harrison noted, “The hurricane cheering which greeted Hammond’s 100 was something to warm the heart. It shook the roofless stands of this bomb-blasted ground until they rattled.”
George Thompson summed it up for the Yorkshire Observer. “[Hammond’s hundred was] as grand as any among the 156 centuries he has scored in First-Class cricket … delightful in his late shots of varied character.”
When he wrote Cricket My World in 1958, Hammond looked back on this century as one of the most satisfactory innings of his career. He had plenty of great ones to choose from.
So, Hammond was unbeaten on 100. England 259 for 6.
And then they collapsed. Hammond skied one from Cheetham, and Hassett, running sideways, held the catch. The rest of the batting did not offer much resistance. The innings amounted to 286.
The standout performance for Australia was once again by Pepper. Hammond rated the spin bowling in this innings as some of the finest he ever faced. This from a man who had faced the likes of Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly for more than a decade.
Bowling his leg-breaks, googlies and top-spinners, Pepper hardly ever lost his length and ended with 3 for 86 from 30.5 overs.
The day ended with Australia on 23 without loss.
There would be 11 more hundreds as the sublime career of Hammond would come to its eventual end over the next two years. The pair of hundreds in the same match as England played the Dominions towards the end of the 1945 summer would be comparable in terms of sheer class and quality. But this was perhaps the greatest post-War innings that one saw from that majestic bat.
The Victory ‘Tests’ was full of glittering moments.