A return to normality
In the May 1976 issue of The Cricketer, EW Swanton looked back thirty years to the first full summer after the war
Every May-time holds its own promise for every variety of cricketer and - cricket-watcher: but in 1946 it was all more extraordinary and much more memorable, for we were meeting once more friends of whom we had known not whether they were alive or dead, revisiting places which for years we had only dreamed of. Stiffly, and with trepidation, we went through strange, almost forgotten motions. It was a time of happy reunion when the fact that we were playing again mattered so much more than the quality of cricket that was being offered.
Two landmarks especially come fresh to mind, the opening day of the season at Lord's preceding the Annual General Meeting of MCC and the first post-war dinner, on May Day itself; the other at The Oval three weeks later when Surrey celebrated their centenary, necessarily a year late, with a game against Old England.
At Lord's the cricket took the form of a domestic affair between the Club and Middlesex. My recruitment to The Daily Telegraph did not take place until June, but I was already active week by week in The Field, from which the following is taken: "There are scenes that stamp themselves on the mind with an emphasis that defies the memory. I recall, on an evening in August, 1939, at Lord's standing on the balcony with the Middlesex captain for that occasion, watching the Old England team, the ground emptying, and wondering when we should celebrate our return. It has been seven years all but a few months, and that is at least a blessing not only that Lord's itself is unscathed, but that actually eight of that Middlesex side took the field when the season was reopened a few days ago. It was on a spring day of significant warmth and freshness that the new season was launched, and the MCC inaugurated its 162nd year."
Form was not to be reckoned too seriously, for few of the players had had the opportunity of much practice on grass, while some, including Compton, had had none. Nor was it the sort of wicket from which the ball comes through to the bat, inviting strokes off the front foot. It was, indeed, a surly, unhelpful pitch, with even more than its usual tendency when wet to keep low.
Quite the best thing was the way in which Compton, in a few strokes, reassured us of his old excellence. He and his bat are one, in the sense that this was true of Hobbs and Woolley, and it always seems such a very much better bat than anyone else's. If he were to spend five years in Baffinland, one would expect him to make a hundred the day he came back. He has the genius of George Gunn with no more than a hint of his waywardness. Denis Compton is going to give delight to more people over the next 15 or 20 years than anyone in the game, and he will not at any time have any notion what is his average.
I have said how well the more elderly played, and the truth is that no-one on the field, except Compton, looked more likely to make 50 against Australia tomorrow than Allen. The Allens, it is to be hoped, will go on playing whenever they can for the virtue of their encouragement and example, while selection committees strive by degrees to attain, in the hackneyed phrase, `a judicious blend of youth and experience'. For county cricket is a matter of running and throwing, long days in the field; and long nights in the train with, this summer at any rate, an `austerity breakfast' at a provincial hotel at the end of it.
But now to The Oval (click here for picture of Old England side). The pavilion had been knocked about in the war, the field used as a PoW cage, but somehow the ground was got ready, and the King, as patron of the club, came to see Old England take the field. Surrey treated them generously in that none of them wanted to make more than 50 or so while after the early dismissals of Herbert Sutcliffe and Andy Sandham they were reticent as regards lbw until Frank Woolley, just short of his 59th birthday, and Pat Hendren a mere 56, had got their bearings. When they did, though neither had held a bat for years they played like the masters one had known since boyhood. These two and Douglas Jardine also demonstrated how a sound technique, ground-in by the years, can remain almost unaffected by age and lack of practice
What they succeeded in doing was a testament not only of their surviving skill but of their sportsmanship in facing the arc-lights once again. The sun shone, and there were 15,001 present to cheer King George VI as the players were presented to him. My job was to do a BBC commentary, and also at the invitation of Errol Holmes, who was running the Surrey Centenary Appeal, to man the public address system; but my most valuable contribution was surely to propose that the pitch should be covered beforehand - a thing then seldom if ever done. Try as they might, the old 'uns could never have lasted if the ball had been stopping and turning or lifting or both.
P. G. H. Fender expressed the general feeling of nostalgia when in a letter to The Times he said: "More than once while we were fielding thought came to my mind that the warmth of the welcome, the size and the enthusiasm of the great crowd, and, above all, the presence of His Majesty, seemed to convey a message to all the younger generation of cricketers, not only in this country, but all over the world. A message telling them that where cricket is concerned public memory, in spite of the old adage, is not short: a message to inspire all young cricketers and to urge them to achievements in the game greater even than their wildest dreams conjured up."