Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….
“CRICKETERS AND THE WAR
DR W. G. GRACE’S VIEW, TO THE EDITOR OF ‘THE SPORTSMAN’
“There are many cricketers already doing their duty, but there are many more who do not realise that in all probability they will have to serve either at home or abroad before the war is brought to a conclusion. The fighting on the Continent is very severe, and will probably be prolonged. I think the time has arrived when the county cricket season should be closed, for it is not fitting at a time like this that able-bodied men should be playing cricket by day and pleasure-seekers look on. I should like to see all first-class cricketers of suitable age set a good example and come to the help of their country without delay in its hour of need.”
Published in: The Sportsman, August 27, 1914.
Morning, June 28, 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was travelling from the Governor’s residence at Sarajevo (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) to the local hospital with his wife Sophie.
Due to a confusion, Leopold Loyka, the chauffeur of the car, took a wrong turn to Franz Josef Street, past Moritz Schiller’s Café, where a teenager called Gavrilo Princip was standing. Princip had been hired and armed by Black Death (a secret Serbian military society) to assassinate the Archduke.
Upon discovering his mistake, Loyka reversed, and the engine stalled. Princip walked up and shot the royal couple from a five-foot distance.
Austria-Hungary retaliated by declaring war on Serbia. Russia backed Serbia, following which Germany voiced support to Austria-Hungary. That was August 1. France declared support to Russia the next day.
Germany invaded Belgium for quick access to France the next day. Belgium sought support, citing the 1839 Treaty of London that bound Britain, France, and Germany to protect Belgium’s neutrality in war. Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, and on Austria-Hungary eight days later.
The Great War (known today as World War I) had been set in motion. Every fit man was summoned to the fronts. Normal activity was threatened. There were calls (and rightly so) for the County Championship to be abandoned.
The Championship had been contested till July. Then The Army took over The Oval. Jack Hobbs’s benefit match had to be shifted to Lord’s from Surrey’s home ground. The match yielded a mere £657, but that was hardly relevant. Surrey would give him two more benefits, one of them almost immediately after The War.
And yet the Championship limped along through August after MCC announced that “no good purpose can be saved at the moment by cancelling matches.”
But the public had stopped caring about cricket altogether. The Canterbury Cricket Week, the marquee Kentish event and England’s oldest cricket festival week, drew little attention.
Kentish Express voiced their opinion: “It will be a relief to everyone when this fiasco called county cricket comes to an end. The people don’t want cricket, won’t have cricket. I know of one newspaper office where they put cricket scores and war news in the windows. Hundreds looked at the latter, practically no-one at the former. Indeed, there was hissing when a cricket score was put in the window the other evening.”
Even then the Championship continued despite the players being summoned one by one (the official count of First-Class cricketers who fought in The Great War stands at 210). Young men, in service of the British Expeditionary Force, were dying in Belgium.
But there still had to be a trigger that would bring the Championship to a halt. That came on August 27, when The Sportsman published the letter from WG Grace, quoted verbatim at the beginning of the article. A letter from cricket’s greatest pre-War personality achieved what others had collectively failed to.
Contrary to popular belief, however, a week’s cricket was still played in the Championship before it ended with a whimper. While the letter did not bring about an immediate end, there is no doubt that it acted as a catalyst.
On August 29, Field Marshal Lord Roberts addressed a battalion of Royal Fusiliers at Temple Garden, “I respect and honour you. How different is your action to that of the men who can still go on with their cricket and football, as if the very existence of the country was not at stake! This is not the time to play games, wholesome as they are in days of piping peace.”
MCC had meanwhile been compelled to cancel the traditional Scarborough Festival. “The continuation of first-class cricket is hurtful to the feelings of a section of the public,” they announced. One cannot help but notice the grudging tone in “a section of”.
And yet four more matches started on August 31. Two of them got over inside two days. In one of these, against Surrey at The Oval (released by The Army), Gloucestershire could field only ten men. A third match ended early on Day Three. And players and spectators, and more significantly, MCC faced more criticism.
The fourth match, between Sussex and Yorkshire at Hove, somehow ambled to tea despite the lack of enthusiasm (Yorkshire 461 and 123/6, Sussex 405) before the inevitable happened. “The men’s hearts were barely in the game and the match was given up as a draw at tea,” reported Cricket.
The last First-Class match of The Golden Age of Cricket on English soil thus ended anticlimactically. Two matches, scheduled to begin on September 3 and 7, were cancelled. Surrey were declared champions with a points percentage of 74%, but very few cared.
Hobbs finished the season with 2,499 runs, more than anyone else. Colin Blythe topped the wickets tally with 159. He was killed by shrapnel from a shell pierced his chest during the Battle of Passchendaele just over three years later. Blythe, one of the greatest cricketers Kent has ever produced, was only 38.
Major Booth (his name was Major) of Yorkshire died at 29. He had been named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1914 after scoring 1,228 runs and taking 181 wickets the previous season. In a single week on either side of Grace’s letter, Booth and Alonzo Drake had bowled unchanged for four innings to rout Gloucestershire and Somerset. The figures read Booth 6 for 48, 6 for 41, 5 for 27, 0 for 50; Drake 4 for 41, 4 for 40, 5 for 16, 10 for 35.
In July 1916, Booth was killed after he was hit by a shell on the Somme, France. He died in the arms of Yorkshire colleague Abe Waddington. Waddington survived The War, but the incident tormented him – a feisty fast bowler who did not hesitate to sledge – for the rest of his life.
Kenneth Hutchings, the swashbuckling Kent batsman, was 33 when he was killed in action at Ginchy, France. He was hit by an artillery shell. “One of the greatest cricketers has been taken away from us,” lamented Daily Telegraph. Back in 1907, the typically restrained Wisden wrote that “batting so remarkable and individual as his, has not been seen since Ranjitsinhji and Trumper first delighted the cricket world.”
Reggie Schwarz, the man who picked up the googly from Bernard Bosanquet and took it back to South Africa to catapult their cricket to the next level, joined the King’s Royal Rifle Cross. He died at Etaples, France, a week after the Armistice to end The War was signed, of a Spanish flu epidemic. He was 43.
Gordon White, one of Schwarz’s partners-in-crime in the English demolition of 1905-06, was wounded at Khan Jibeit near Jerusalem and died in Gaza shortly afterwards. He was 36.
‘Tibby’ Cotter, that express fast bowler of Australia and part of The Big Six, died at 33 at Beersheba, Israel, after he had swapped duties with another Light Horseman. He was shot dead from close range by a Turk.
Percy Jeeves of Warwickshire was killed at High Wood near Montauban-de-Picardie, France, in the same Battle of Somme that had killed Booth. Jeeves never played a Test, but Plum Warner had predicted great things about him.
However, of the 34 First-Class cricketers felled in The War, Jeeves’s legacy will probably outlast everyone else’s. PG Wodehouse admitted that he had decided to name his iconic character after Jeeves once he saw him bowl at Hawes.
Outside First-Class cricket, the most remarkable name was of Arthur ‘AEJ’ Collins. In 1899, a 13-year-old Collins had scored 628 for Clark’s House against North Town. It stood as a world record score in any recorded cricket till Pranav Dhanawade scored 1,009 in 2016. Collins was 29 when he was killed in action in the First Battle of Ypres.
Wisden saw a spike in sales as anxious parents and loved ones searched frantically for obituaries. They did not honour five cricketers in 1916 or 1917 and named schoolboys in 1918 and 1919.
Some First-Class cricket was played in Australia, New Zealand, and India (but not in South Africa) in 1914-15 – though they were far from being full-fledged seasons. India were the only one among these to host First-Class cricket during The War.
Norman Callaway scored 207 against Queensland on debut for New South Wales in the final Australian season. He never played another match and was 21 when he was killed in action at Bullecourt, Pas-de-Calais, France. His 207 remains the highest First-Class average of all time.
We shall not go into the gruesome details of those bloodied years. Neither shall we chronicle the complete list of cricketers felled in The War. However, it should suffice to mention that there was no cricket of the serious kind.
Fundraising matches were played in England, but serious cricket resumed only after the Armistice when the Australian soldiers who had fought in Europe formed the Australian Imperial Force Touring XI.
Over nine months starting May 1919, this team played 46 matches (33 in Britain, 10 en route home in South Africa, and 3 on Australian soil), 39 of which were granted First-Class status. Five of these men – Herbie Collins, Jack Gregory, ‘Nip’ Pellew, Johnny Taylor, and Bert Oldfield – went on to play key roles in the early days of cricket after The War.
The County Championship resumed the same season. An experimental rule that restricted matches to two-day contests (albeit of longer playing hours), was announced and scrapped once it was identified a failure.
English cricket fared far worse than its Australians counterpart, as was evident in their display in the two Ashes that followed (they lost 0-5 and 0-3). They would take some time to recover.
Postscript: Last days of WG
Had he been younger, there is little doubt that Grace would have been at the forefront in the War. He was too combative to not be a part. The intent on being at the thick of things was too strong.
But he was not young anymore. He had already lost a 30-year-old son, WG Jr (who shared the same full name with The Doctor), nine years ago. His younger son Charles was 32 when the War began.
On Whit Monday next year, Grace agreed to play in a fundraising cricket match at an invitation from Archie MacLaren and Alec Hearne. An unwell Grace could not play but stayed all day and went around the ground with a collecting box.
It was the Zeppelin raids that changed things. England was terrified at their first sight of organised aerial attacks. It took a toll on the great man. He suffered a stroke on October 9 while working in the garden.
Four days later the Germans targeted Woolwich Arsenal. Grace grew more and more agitated. Sources suggest that he was spotted shaking his fist at the Zeppelins.
‘Shrimp’ Leveson Gower, who visited him during this phase, reminded him how he had faced the fastest bowlers of the era, Grace replied, “I could see those buggers; I can’t see these.”
He died of a heart attack on the 23rd. No, they do not list him as a World War victim.