Back from the dead
In almost every regard, 1915 was a wretched year. World War I had become a bloody stalemate with no end in sight and the casualty lists, which were published daily, grew longer with each passing week. The obituaries for cricketers who had died in 1915, recorded in the following spring's Wisden, ran to 77 pages, almost a quarter of the entire almanack. The vast majority had been killed while serving in the forces, although the two highest-profile losses that year, Victor Trumper and WG Grace, died of illness and old age respectively.
One first-class cricketer whose name came very close to being included in the 1916 Wisden was Harry Lee, a young allrounder who had joined the MCC groundstaff as a 15-year-old in 1906 and made his debut for Middlesex in 1911. While serving in France that spring he was reported as missing and then his family were told he had been killed. But as they were to find out, Lee was very much alive.
His first decent run in the Middlesex side came in August 1914 when players started drifting away to join up, leaving the county, like all others, struggling to raise teams. His form was indifferent, although he did score his maiden first-class hundred against Nottinghamshire at Lord's towards the end of the month, by which time not even the main daily newspapers were bothering to report matches. When the season fizzled out, he too joined up, enlisting with the London Regiment on September 1.
Lee was sent to France at the beginning of March 1915 and was immediately thrown into action at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. On May 9 he was shot in the thigh on the first day of the Battle of Aubers Ridge, the bullet fracturing his femur. He lay in No Man's Land for three days before being picked up by the Germans and transported to hospital at Valenciennes. After six weeks he was moved to Hanover where he was advised by another prisoner to exaggerate the seriousness of his wound which might lead to him being repatriated. This he did, and in October 1915 he was sent back to Britain where it was found his injury meant one leg would be permanently shorter than the other. He was discharged from the army and told he would never play serious cricket again.
During his incarceration he had initially been reported as Missing In Action before his family were informed that he was presumed to be dead. A memorial service was held for him before news came through that he had been taken prisoner.
Lee got a job as a clerk with the War Office and started playing a few games for the MCC. In 1917, after a meeting with the wife of former Middlesex team-mate Frank Tarrant, he secured work as a coach in Calcutta. He booked his passage on the Nyanza, which was heading to Bombay, before being transferred at the last minute onto another ship which was heading straight to Calcutta. The Nyanza was torpedoed off the Devon coast and 49 lives were lost.
In India, Lee worked for the Maharaja of Cooch Behar as a football and cricket coach and in March 1918 made the unlikeliest of first-class comebacks, almost three years after he had been declared "dead". Despite his injury, he was no passenger either, taking 5 for 11 and 3 for 41 for Maharaja of Cooch Behar's XI against Lord Willingdon's XI. That November he played for England in a drawn 12-a-side game against India in Bombay, showing his injury was not a serious obstacle by bowling 32 overs (taking 4 for 177) in the oppressive Bombay heat. No caps were awarded as India were still 14 years away from playing Test cricket.
When county cricket resumed in 1919, Lee returned to England, eager to win back his place in the Middlesex side despite his injury which left him with a permanent limp. Playing as an opener, he enjoyed a successful summer, passing 1000 runs in a season for the first of 12 occasions and scoring four hundreds. The following season he was a key part of Middlesex's Championship win with both bat and ball.
Although he was able to play county cricket and hold down a regular place in a strong Middlesex side for a decade and a half after the war, he was not seriously considered for higher honours. He often spent his winters coaching in South Africa, and when he missed two successive years there in 1923 and 1924 his county form dipped.
For the winter of 1930-31, Lee, by now 40, secured work in two establishments in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. That coincided with an England tour during which Percy Chapman's side were badly hit by injuries. Chapman asked that Lee be excused from his coaching duties to bolster the side, and so Lee joined the squad, playing five matches for the tourists including his one and only Test appearance in the drawn fourth Test in Johannesburg.
The fairytale had no happy ending. During the Test the MCC, who ran the tour, were contacted by one of the schools where Lee was coaching with a claim that he had not obtained permission to leave. Lee was adamant he had, but the MCC said they would not issue him with his England cap and blazer until he apologised. Lee felt he had nothing to apologise for and so he was never formally handed either item.
Lee carried on playing for Middlesex for another four years. In 1931 he scored two hundreds; his brothers Jack and Frank also scored centuries for Somerset, the first time three brothers had scored first-class centuries in the same season. Two years later the three brothers provided the statisticians with some fun when Harry was caught by Frank off the bowling of Jack in a Championship match at Lord's.
After Middlesex terminated his contract at the end of 1934 he immediately started umpiring, continuing to do so until 1946 when he took up the post of coach at Downside School in Somerset until his retirement in 1953. He continued regularly attending matches at Lord's until his death in 1981 at the age of 90. Not bad for a man who had "died" 66 years earlier.
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