A victory for cricket
Seventy years ago this week the war in Europe came to an end when Germany surrendered to the Allies; VE Day was on May 8, 1945. Within days sport had pushed war news off the front pages - though the war in the Far East continued until Japan's surrender in August.
While there was a widespread wish to resume first-class cricket as soon as possible, it was recognised nothing could happen that year. And there were major logistical obstacles. Many players who had joined the services were still strewn across the globe and even those close to home were not demobbed straight away. On top of that, many grounds were unusable - The Oval, for example, was not ready until the start of the following season - and others were in need of considerable work.
There had been a fair amount of good-quality cricket during the war. In the north and midlands the leagues continued throughout, while high-profile matches between makeshift sides helped raise funds for war charities. Lord's, especially, hosted games every summer where top players attracted large crowds, and was ready to stage major games. There was a fixture list in place for 1945, mainly of one- and two-day matches between representative XIs as well as the universities that had full programmes.
The season should have started on May 5 - three days before the end of the war - but rain washed out all three scheduled matches. A week later the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) had started the season with a game in which they easily beat a weak British Empire XI.
A two-day game between England and Australia (in reality, selection was limited, as with all wartime games, to whoever happened to be in the areas and available) had already been arranged for the following weekend, with further fixtures in Sheffield in June and back at Lord's in August. The southern bias in scheduling was mainly because of severe transport difficulties. With the war over, the authorities moved quickly to extend these to three-day matches between the best XIs both sides could field.
The RAAF and Australian Imperial Force (AIF) had separate sides based in the UK with cricketing commitments all summer. The AIF had been playing under Lindsay Hassett since 1941, while the RAAF had been playing representative games as well as providing players for British Empire XIs across the country. While few of them were household names, they were generally good-standard grade cricketers who were not out of their depth against top opponents.
Players from the two had been stationed together with the aim of forming a side to play when the war was over, although technically they were a military unit commanded by Squadron Leader Stan Sismey, a wicketkeeper who had played eight times for New South Wales before the war. The on-field captain was Hassett, the only one with Test experience (he had toured with Don Bradman's side in 1938) even though he was outranked by almost all his team-mates. Hassett and Sismey aside, most of the others in the XI at Lord's had limited state experience, although opening batsman James Workman never played any first-class games other than those in that summer.
The most remarkable inclusion was South Australia opening bowler Graham Williams, who had only been released from a German POW camp in April. He was 31kg (68lbs) below his pre-war weight after four years in captivity and had to drink glucose and water between overs to keep his strength up. He had spent his confinement teaching Braille to blind POWs, and when he found out that repatriation was on the cards, he had tried to get fit by chopping down trees.
If the Australians were a makeshift side, England were not, at least when it came to batsmen, although they were light on bowlers - which was to be a problem throughout the immediate post-war era. The openers for the Lord's match, Alf Gover and John Stephenson, were both 38. England were keen for the matches to be considered Tests but the Australian board rejected the idea.
Wally Hammond, England's pre-war captain, was picked to lead the England XI, although they were dealt one selection blow in the days before the match when Godfrey Evans, the wicketkeeper, was sent abroad by the army.
The MCC set the admission at a flat 1s (five pence) for the entire ground. The lucky ones found good seats in the stands, others had to sit on the grass or perch at the back of the stands. With food shortages and rationing, spectators were advised to bring their own refreshments.
The first day ended honours even, Australia 82 for 2 in reply to England's 267, the Times noting that the batting often looked rusty. On the second day, the Monday, Australia batted all day before being dismissed for 455 as England's attack bowled itself into the ground. "The first two days of the match... left little doubt in one's mind as to which was the better equipped side," the Times' cricket correspondent wrote. "There has been a resilience and adaptability in this Australian side which explains why at the close of play they were 188 runs ahead on the first innings."
The most memorable moment came when Williams came out to bat at the fall of the seventh wicket. In an interview with David Frith, Keith Miller recalled the scene. "He was given a great ovation that compares with anything ever given Bradman, Lillee or Richards. But it was not the sort of clapping and cheering that greets a hundred. This is different. Everyone stood up. They all knew about Graham's captivity. He was a big fella, but he was gaunt from his experience, and he just walked round for a while as if in a trance." Williams scored 53 off 56 balls.
The next day, England made 294. Losing their last five wickets for eight runs, setting the Australians 107 in 70 minutes; matches were played out to time in those days, with no minimum number of overs. With 20 minutes remaining they were 65 for 3 but England's attack was still weary from their first-innings efforts. As the clock was striking seven, Cec Pepper clipped Gover to leg for the winning run. "I'm not making excuses but I wasn't really ready to play," Gover said in 1995. "I had been a captain in the Surreys but had been invalided out. I had to play with my leg strapped up and I did so only because Plum Warner insisted."
That aside, it could almost have been scripted: a thrilling finish to signal cricket's peacetime return, a return to relative normality. At the end of the summer Hassett expressed a hope that in future all Ashes series would be played in such a convivial atmosphere. Within an hour of the start of the first post-war Ashes Test, civility had gone out the window.
What happened next
- In all, five Victory Tests were played and, perhaps fittingly, the series was drawn 2-2. Such was the state of the grounds that Old Trafford was still being painted and seating reconstructed by German POWs on the eve of the match there.
- MCC offered Australia a tour there in 1947-48 but Australia were desperate for a tour to try to recoup lost finances. The Services' tour manager, was asked to lobby for a series a year earlier. He was successful.
- For the Australians, there was a lot more cricket to come. After the end of the English season they toured India for six weeks on the way home. While there they were told the board had committed them to more matches so that when they got back to Australia - and a number of them had been away for several years - they had to play a match against every state side before they were finally released in early February, Hassett admitting that by that time they had "cricket exhaustion".
- Williams did not play first-class cricket again after returning to Australia
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