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……
Complete quote: “Australians will always fight for those twenty-two yards. Lord’s and its traditions belong to Australia just as much as England.”
By: John Curtin, Australian Prime Minister, May 1944.
At 4.45 AM on September 1, 1939. German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on a Polish military transit depot, triggering the Battle of Westerplatte.
The UK immediately issued an ultimatum to Germany to withdraw forces. Two days later, a coalition of UK, France, Australia, and New Zealand declared war on Adolf Hitler’s Germany. South Africa joined the fray on September 6 and Canada four days after that.
And just like a quarter of a century ago, Europe was ripped apart by bloodlust.
The West Indians had to leave the English shores without playing the last seven matches of their 1939 tour. They boarded the Montrose from Greenock on August 26. Some members wanted to stick to the original schedule, of boarding the Athenia from Ireland on September 3. They changed their mind. It was a good thing they did, for the Athenia was torpedoed the same day.
The County Championship was called off immediately. That winter’s 26-match tour to India (including three Tests) was cancelled. Flight Lieutenant Jack “Sherlock” Holmes of Sussex was supposed to lead the English squad. He died after The War without a Test cap.
Of the tour members, Roger Human of Worcestershire would visit India – as member of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He would die in active service in Bangalore in 1942.
“England has now begun the grim Test match against Germany,” wrote Home Gordon in the September 1939 issue of The Cricketer.
The Oval, where England and West Indies had played the last Test before World War II, was converted into a prisoner-of-war camp. They spared Lord’s. “It was realised by the Government, and by the Services, that cricket provided a healthy and restful antidote to war strain,” noted Plum Warner.
“There were sandbags everywhere, and the Long Room was stripped and bare, with its treasures safely stored beneath ground,” HS Altham described Lord’s at its depressing worst in the Wisden, before leaving a ray of hope for the readers: “But the turf was a wondrous green, old Time on the Grand Stand was gazing serenely at the nearest balloon, and one felt that somehow it would take more than totalitarian war to put an end to cricket.”
There was also Neville Cardus’ account, of him watching “the ghostly movement of players outside” as Middlesex were playing Kent at Lord’s on September 1 (“the Friday morning when Hitler invaded Poland”).
As two workmen removed WG Grace’s bust from the Long Room to safety, a gentleman asked Cardus: “Did you see, Sir?”
As Cardus nodded, his companion announced: “This means War”.
The statement would have been prophetic had there been an ounce of truth in it. Unfortunately, the match between Middlesex and Kent had been called off (it was scheduled to start on September 2 anyway, not September 1). And as Eric Midwinter pointed out in The Lost Seasons, Cardus was in Australia at that time.
But then, that was Cardus being Cardus.
South Africa and West Indies called off their domestic leagues that winter. New Zealand hosted the 1939-40 Plunket Shield before abandoning the tournament during the war years. In Australia, that season’s Sheffield Shield was completed upon the insistence of Prime Minister Robert Menzies.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground was later commissioned by The Army, which meant that Victoria had to play their home matches at Princes Park, Carlton, which also hosted three VFL Grand Finals during The War.
However, cricket continued without much fuss in India just as it had during World War I. Thanks to the Vijays – Merchant and Hazare – run-scoring reached levels hitherto unknown in the country.
Posted in India, several English cricketers, including Denis Compton, Reg Simpson, and Joe Hardstaff Jr, played for Europeans in the Bombay Pentangular. Compton also played for Holkar and Simpson for Sind.
But not all were as fortunate. Hedley Verity’s battalion moved from India to Persia to Egypt to Syria before joining the Allied Invasion of Sicily. He was commanding B Company on July 19, 1943 when he was hit on the chest by shrapnel and captured by the Germans. They moved him around from one packed hospital to the next. He passed away on July 31, at 38.
His last words were “keep going”, exactly what he had done at Lord’s nine summers ago, taking 14/80 in a single day of an Ashes Test including the wicket of Don Bradman twice.
Tall, hefty Ken Farnes of Cambridge, Essex, and England used to bowl with serious pace. A pilot officer, Farnes did not survive a crash near Chipping Warden, Oxfordshire, at 30.
Sergeant-Observer Ross Gregory of Victoria and Australia was killed in combat near Gaffargaon (now in Bangladesh), at 26.
However, the three had been immortalised during the Melbourne Test of the 1936-37 Ashes, when Gregory was caught by Farnes off Verity.
A Lockheed B34 Ventura, flown by “Chud” Langton of Transvaal and South Africa, crashed in Nigeria. He was 30. Dooley Briscoe, another 30-year-old from Transvaal and South Africa, was killed in combat in Ethiopia.
Geoffrey Legge of Kent and England died in a plane crash in Devon. Sony Moloney of New Zealand, in Egypt. And Maurice Turnbull of Glamorgan and England, who had also played rugby for Wales, was killed by a sniper’s bullet near Montchamp after the 1944 Normandy Landings.
Len Hutton fractured his left forearm and dislocated his ulna during a commando training exercise. Several complicated surgeries later, his left forearm was reduced to a length about two inches shorter than his right hand. However, none of that could prevent him from becoming one of the greatest batsmen of all time or the first Professional to lead England.
Bill Bowes was captured after Tobruk fell in 1942. He served three years as a Prisoner of War in Italian and German camps. Despite losing about 25 kilos, Bowes played Test cricket after The War.
There was also Bob Crisp of South Africa, till date the only cricketer to take four wickets in four balls twice in First-Class cricket. Among numerous other things (including climbing the Kilimanjaro twice), Crisp’s most famous show came during Operation Crusader in Sidi Rezegh, where he commanded an M3 Stuart Light Tank to charge at a German army – on his own – and triumphed.
Seventy tanks were thwarted by “The Honey”, as Crisp would describe his tank in Brazen Chariots. To this day the British use the moniker to refer to Stuarts.
Keith Miller’s oft-quoted line “pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not”, on the other hand, does not account for much. Miller spent most of The War training and went on two missions including a “spoof patrol”. And both missions came towards the end of The War.
No part of Miller’s anatomy was never at the receiving end of a Messerschmitt, as Arunabha Sengupta has elaborated in detail.
What about EW Swanton, then, captured by the Japanese after the Battle of Singapore and crippled by polio during his PoW days? Swanton carried a copy of the 1939 Wisden. There was a perennial queue for the dog-eared copy, “thumbed by thousands in twelve different camps”. The tattered book was often brought back to life by twenty bookbinders in the same camps, who put the copy together with rice paste glue.
The copy had to be booked in advance, and no one was allowed to borrow it for more than 12 hours. All this got the Japanese suspicious. Upon much research – goodness knows what – their censors classified the copy as “not subversive”.
Speaking about Wisden, their factory at Mortlake was bombed by the Germans in 1944, destroying all records. But then, you do not expect a thing like a war to stop Wisden from getting published, do you?
A (debatably) more significant bombing nearly happened that year during a star-studded match at Lord’s on July 29. As mentioned above, Lord’s hosted several matches during The War, some to raise funds, some merely to boost morale.
As Flight Officer Bob Wyatt ran into bowl at Lieutenant Jack Robertson, the cricketers heard the tell-tale noise of a German doodlebug that had somehow managed to enter the British airspace.
As the noise grew louder, the cricketers flung themselves on to the ground and the crowd tried their best to hide behind the seats. Exactly where it landed is not clear – some sources say Regent Park, some Albert Road – but Lord’s was spared.
Robertson responded by hooking Wyatt for six off the second ball after resumption. And once again cricket prevailed…
This was not the first attack on Lord’s. An oil bomb had landed on the Nursery Ground four years ago. Several other attempts had been thwarted by the in-house firefighters.
The bombings impacted the attendance at Lord’s for the year, but the interest in cricket rose steadily:
The total turnover from ticket sales was about £23,000. It could have been more, but “all officers and men in uniform” did not need to pay for admission in 1940 and 1941. Everyone needed to pay sixpence for the next two years before they raised the amount to a shilling.
It was not only the British who cared for Lord’s. Australian Prime Minister John Curtin visited Lord’s twice in May 1944. He said the lines mentioned earlier in the piece during one of these.
Cricket kept being referred to throughout The War. At Ruweisat Ridge in 1943, Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery famously addressed the British Eighth Army at with “we ourselves will start a great offensive; it will be the beginning of a campaign which will hit [Erwin] Rommel for six right out of Africa.”
It may be relevant here that Montgomery had found a mention in the 1906 Wisden for being part of a last-wicket century partnership for St Paul’s School.
When Benito Mussolini fell, leaving Hitler the last man standing, the British intelligence agencies resorted to a cryptic message: “McCabe is out, but Bradman is still batting”.
Once everything was over, a Services cricket team was formed with Australian World War II survivors in Europe. They played matches in England, India, and Ceylon before returning home.
But that is another story.