The tour that never was
When England and West Indies ambled off the field at the end of the Oval Test in August 1939, none of those playing would have guessed it would be almost seven years before the next international match. For 14 of them - six from England, eight from West Indies - it was their final Test.
The game took place in a slightly surreal atmosphere, one of normality while outside the walls of The Oval the world was turning on its head. In Europe the inevitability of war with Germany had been evident for several months, and Britain had spent the summer preparing for the impending onslaught.
The West Indies tour ended in a succession of cancellations as their county opposition found themselves unable to field sides: their players were joining or being called up. And the public had more pressing matters to occupy them. Even travel was increasingly hard as the rail and road network was commandeered by the forces and the country mobilised. By the end of the month it was clear that cricket could no longer continue in any form, and the season ended prematurely at Hove on September 1. Two days later, war broke out.
England were scheduled to tour India in the winter of 1939-40, and on August 2, after weeks of speculation the tour might be scrapped, the squad was named. On the day that newspapers carried brief articles on the squad, the front pages were full of stories about evacuation plans, an announcement that tin air-raid shelters were going on sale, and details of petrol rationing.
The tour party contained none of the XI who played at The Oval, nor any of the household names of the period. The choice of the 40-year-old Jack Holmes - his official title was Flight-Lieutenant Holmes, another indication of the state of the nation - as captain was widely welcomed, as he was a popular figure, and he had lived in India for a few years when a young man. He was supported by Lt-Col Claude Rubie, the tour manager, who had lived out there for more than a decade. Only two of the party - James Langridge and Stan Nichols - had been in the MCC squad on their previous tour, in 1933-34, although Langridge, Arthur Welland and Peter Smith had been in Lord Tennyson's side on their 1937-38 trip.
The rest were a strange collection. Three of the party - John Brocklebank, Roger Human and Gerald Mobey - had not featured regularly in county cricket in 1939. Mobey, by then 35, had only broken into the Surrey side midway through the season after almost a decade of second-team cricket; Brocklebank, a legspinner from Lancashire and the only individual from a northern county, had played eight games, taking 17 wickets at almost 40; and Human, a teacher, had played four matches for Worcestershire in August, scoring 63 runs at 10.50. Only one of the batsmen, James Langridge, finished in the top 10 of 1939's batting averages, and only Morris Nichols in the top 10 of the bowling. Bob Wyatt, by then 39, was the only player with anything other than limited Test experience, and even then the last of his 40 England caps had been in 1937.
Four leading players - Wally Hammond, at the time England's captain, Norman Yardley, Brian Valentine and Maurice Turnbull - all declined to make the trip, and Yorkshire were reported to not be keen to allow any of their professionals to take part. Perhaps the deciding factor in leaving the likes of Denis Compton, Bill Edrich, Len Hutton and Ken Farnes at home was the scheduled series in Australia in 1940-41. Tours in those days were gruelling, and when the alternative was four or five months on the road, a winter off was a welcome rest before an Ashes battle.
Some of those left out knew in advance. Compton said that once he learned that the MCC had not spoken to Arsenal, where he played a professional football, asking for permission to approach him, he knew he was spending the winter at home. Some who did go were caught on the hop - James Langridge had already arranged to spend the close season in South Africa, where he had secured a coaching job, with his wife and child.
This was the second full tour of India, and while cricket there had come on greatly, it was customary to send slightly weaker sides for tours to anywhere other than South Africa and Australia. "It has to be hoped that there will be a wider range of opponents than was the case on the previous Indian tours," wrote the editor in The Cricketer, "when a few players appeared to take the field in every important occasion, even travelling from match to match on the same train as the Englishmen."
As August rolled on, it became increasingly unlikely that the tour would go ahead, but nevertheless a schedule, starting in Karachi and going on to feature 26 matches, including three Tests, was drawn up. It was not until the eve of war in September that the official announcement of the cancellation was made by the MCC.
Of those chosen, only Tom Dollery, Smith, Billy Griffith and James Langridge went on to play for England after the war. Harold Gimblett was picked for the third Test in 1950 but his fragile mental state led to him dropping out. Smith must have thought he would never play for England. In 1933 he had travelled to The Oval to play in the Test, only to find out that the telegram informing him of his selection was a hoax. He finally made his debut against India at The Oval in 1946.
All but one who survived the war - Holmes - went on to play post-war first-class cricket. Two didn't see the conflict through. Rubie suffered a fatal heart attack after undergoing an operation in November 1939, which would have been in the early stages of the trip had it taken place, while Human died on active service in 1942, ironically in India.
England: Ft-Lieut Albert Holmes (capt), Hugh Bartlett, JM Brocklebank, Billy Griffith, RHC Human, Bob Wyatt, Emrys Davies, Tom Dollery, Harold Gimblett, James Langridge, John Langridge, Gerald Mobey, Morris Nichols, John Parker, Peter Smith, Arthur Wellard. Manager: Lt-Col Claude Rubie.
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa