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At a POW camp

The Hon Terrance Prittie submitted the following article to The Cricketer in January 1944 while still a prisoner-of-war. It explains the playing of cricket in Camp IX A/H

13-Nov-2007
The Hon Terrance Prittie submitted the following article to The Cricketer in January 1944 while still a prisoner-of-war. It explains the playing of cricket in Camp IX A/H
During these last three years, cricket has been one of the chief compensations in the prisoner of war's life in a vacuum.
In 1940 the total absence of any sort of equipment meant a complete break in the prisoner's cricketing life; but each subsequent summer has brought with it cricket - of a sort, to almost every officers' camp. 1941 saw the institution of two distinct varieties of prisoner's cricket, one in the constricted parade-ground of a Polish fortress, the other in a broad gravelled yard on the windswept Swabian plateau. In 1942, the largest camp of all even boasted a grass wicket and a full-sized ground. Thanks to the generosity of the De Flamingo club in Holland, bats, balls and pads were all available, and there seemed to be every prospect of a proper cricket season. Unfortunately, the absence of bat-oil, or any suitable substitute, soon made it clear that the limited supply of bats would not stand up to continuous use, and the bowlers had, once more, to revert to a soft ball.
In the same year, Camp IX A/H, containing fewer than 200 officers, began, after a period of experimentation, to play their own version of the game, perhaps the most individual, and certainly the most fully worked-out of all those tried so far. Its particular ingenuity, the enthusiasm it aroused, and above all, the many hours of pleasure it has given to almost every officer in the camp, serve, perhaps, to give it a somewhat wider interest than such a subject might at first sight seem to afford.
Certainly, of all prison-camps in Germany, IX A/H would to all appearances, seem to have least of all to commend it from a cricketing point of view. To begin with, the camp is a castle, built on top of a high and very steep hill, in accordance with mediaeval notions of defence. Secondly, it is cramped, even in regard to mere living space. In times of emergency, the castle would, in the Middle Ages, have housed a garrison of several hundreds; but its original architect could, obviously and understandably, have been little concerned with the need for providing them with ground for exercise. The buildings are grouped in a complete circle, looking inwards on to a small courtyard, 50 yards in length and a dozen in width. Save for two narrow terraces, which are nowhere more than four yards wide, the outside walls of the castle drop sheer into a circular moat, whose opposite wall rises to a height of something over thirty feet. In 1942, this moat was an unprepossessing bit of scenery, having its irregular and undulating floor liberally carpeted with rubble, old tin cans, and debris of every kind.
As far as cricket was concerned, the inner courtyard was at once ruled out. Thanks to the great height of the buildings, it was almost perpetually in shadow, and its surface consisted of irregular and protuberant cobblestones. Several rows of windows faced directly upon it, and even a single improvised game would have levied a terrible toll on their glass panes. There remained the moat, nowhere more than 40 feet wide and desolate in the extreme. It afforded small enough hope even to those Anglo-Indian officers for whom constant journeys east of Suez have made deck-tennis into an essential part of the business of life. For any reasonable approach to cricket it seemed clearly impossible.
But under the direction of Major-General Fortune, the moat underwent a complete transformation during the months of March and April 1942. A general levelling-out was followed by the construction, round the inside wall of the moat, of flower-beds bounded by a raised path. In places, a four-foot-high grass bank sloped down to the lower level ; and a section of this lower level was set aside as a cricket pitch, where it was hoped that some sort of knockabout game could be contrived. This space, which became the Camp cricket ground, requires, perhaps, a fuller description in order to illustrate its possibilities and limitations.
Imagine yourself to be the batsman at wicket. Your view will be as follows: along the whole length of the leg side stretches the outer wall of the moat, 30 feet high and bending round behind the bowler's arm, until it disappears from view behind an out-jutting bastion of the outer wall of the castle itself, and roughly in a line with extra cover. Above this leg-side barrier is the sentry's walk, and beyond that again, flower and vegetable gar-dens running to the very edge of the small plateau on which the castle system is sited. This outer, or leg-side wall, is no more than eight to ten feet from the wicket; but so gradual is its curve, that from wicket to the straight boundary is over 45 yards. Part of this straight boundary is marked by the built-up line of a vegetable garden, surmounted by a low fence and running out from the buttress, marked with an "M" in the diagram. From half-way across the moat, where the garden comes to an end, a white line prolongs the boundary up a slight grassy slope, across a path and through four feet of flower-bed to the opposite wall at a point just behind the protruding bastion. This point, where the boundary line meets the inner wall of the moat, is roughly where deep extra-cover would stand, and from here back to wicket "A" the lay-out is rather more complicated.
Again it is bounded by a 30 foot wall, on top of which lies the narrow terrace accessible from the castle, and, behind that again, the walls and windows of the castle itself. But, first of all, there is far more space on this side of the wicket. Save where a second bastion curves out just opposite the wicket, this off-side wall is nowhere less than 20 feet away from the pitch. Ten of these 20 feet belong to the plane of the cricket-ground proper, which is thus just under 20 feet broad altogether. The other, ten feet on the off side are divided equally between a sloping grass bank rising three to four feet above the level of the pitch, and a gravel path, running past a number of seats set exactly against the wall. Behind the wicket, both walls of the moat curve at a rather more acute angle, giving a shorter and narrower boundary 20 yards from the wicket, and on a line between third man and second slip. Where, behind point, the bastion falls back to the inner wall of the moat once more, the space above the path is filled by a large and always singularly empty flower-bed. From the opposite wicket, the view is, of course, exactly reversed; being, moreover, somewhat fore-shortened by the second bastion and the quicker turn of both moat walls.
This was the rather unpromising cricket ground for the camp, but a start was made even while flowerbeds were still being dug, and the raised path constructed. Conditions were at first somewhat primitive. The wickets were merely plywood boards of the correct measurements, propped up by stones. There were proper bats, but only a tennis ball, and the creases were simply scratched into the ground. The wicket was earth, about three inches of which had been spread and levelled over the rubble foundation.
Improvements, however, were not slow in coming. Wooden stumps were constructed, with fixed bails, and set into a solid base about three inches high. The wickets were thus in single pieces and moveable. The high-bouncing and uncontrollable tennis-balls were modified by an additional outer covering of elastoplast, cut in two pieces and hand sewn. This extra weight reduced the bounce,, assisted the bowler's grip and increased receptivity to spin. Even more important, it protected the tennis-balls, of which there was only a limited supply, and prolonged their terms of usefulness. A quantity of lime was next procured, and mixed with water, and the usual standard creases appeared, to facilitate what had previously been a despairing task for the umpires. The pitch, moreover, stood up to any amount of wear and tear, thanks, too, to a bye-law making the wearing of rubber-soled shoes compulsory. Rain was so infrequent that the wicket had very often to be watered, and only occasionally did bad weather stop play; while during the worm-cast period a light brushing was all that was found to be necessary.
The game had now reached a stage where more detailed and carefully thought-out rules were required. Its inception had been largely the work of certain Harrovians (one of them an Oxford and Kent player of a dozen years ago), who saw the latent possibilities of a terrain reminiscent of some of the Harrow house-yards. Early rules were fragmentary and incomplete. Eleven-a-side tip-and-run was at one time a frequent variation, to ordinary cricket, and in the restricted space run-getting was an extraordinarily difficult achievement. As a result, it was ruled that only the striker could be run out. Then tip-and-run was relegated to the cold tail-end weeks of the season.
Ordinary cricket became the invariable rule, but, as the object was to give a game to as many people as possible, an innings was limited to half-an-hour. Thus a match could comfortably be played between two and four o'clock in the afternoon, catering equally for those who ate a late lunch or an early tea.
A system of scoring had next to be devised. The flowerbed at third-man was at once put out-of-bounds and one run given for any hit into it--an action enforced in deference to the outraged feelings of the gardeners. A hit clean over the outer wall of the moat was obviously liable to have unfortunate results. Not only was in its hitting the outer wall of the moat short of the boundary and giving the field a possible catch. A slight slice, on the other hand, gave the widest possible safety margin; and this, in time, became the most popular stroke in the game.
The value of a left-hander was immensely enhanced by the conditions. From one end he had a much more easily executed pulled drive as his chief scoring shot, which could be varied by a hook on to the terrace. On the other hand, he was virtually helpless at the other end where the much narrower angle offered him little prospect of producing the very heavily sliced drive needed to give him six runs. The right-hander always had the hook on to the terrace to fall back upon at this end. It thus became an elementary point of tactics to put a left-hander in at one end, and by means of the hard-run short single, to get him back there whenever possible.
Some of the more mediocre cricketers in the camp were among the heaviest scorers, carefully picking out the right ball to hit and retiring, often enough, with a couple of fives and a couple of sixes to their credit. On the other hand, most of the few class batsmen playing frequently failed. Among others, an Essex county player, and a representative of Surrey Club and Ground were always hitting the ball well in the middle of the bat, making perfect drives along the ground which never looked like scoring runs. But sooner or later they would miss-hit the elusive tennis ball and be caught off one or other of the walls. An ex-Dorset player went to the other extreme, repeatedly trying to pop off-side, and even straight balls up on to the terrace, and being almost invariably clean-bowled. There was, moreover, a remarkable evenness of performance, as the best batsmen generally faced the best bowlers, and the tail-enders came in for the worst of the change bowling.
Captaincy, too, was a high art, involving different bowling policies from each end, special measures against a left-hander, and a systematic study of each individual opponent's foibles and weaknesses. And the fieldsman is at first all at sea with the curious angles at which the ball leaves the wall. Sometimes, indeed, the ball lodged on a projection or grass tuft in the wall, in which case the ball was ruled to be "dead." The grass bank, too, was something of a hazard to the more elderly players.
The pitch was in use every day, and both 1942 and 1943 were very full seasons, in each of which cricket was played on at least 140 days. The season began in April and ended in early October, but the fine, dry German autumn made possible at least another month's cricket, which was mainly devoted to tip-and-run. More than 75% of the camp played, 50% of them regularly; and Sunday afternoon was reserved for matches between one team of officers, and an XI of NCOs and other ranks, who, owing to their work, could not field a side during the week. On Sundays, in particular, and on fine days, in general, the terrace was packed with onlookers, whose comments were as frequent and as pointed as those from Sydney's famous Hill.
Sides were produced by large rooms or combinations of small rooms in the camp, but there were plenty of club fixtures, when teams of Gunners, Greenjackets, commando officers, and so forth, took the field. A score of 50 was about average, and under the final edition of the rules, no side succeeded in reaching 100, although 90 was passed several times. The lowest team score, 0, stands to the credit of the Highland Brigade.
Where records were of such a variegated nature, few are worth recording. Three sixes running were hit several times, and 30 runs from a single over once. Four wickets were taken in four balls, and innumerable hat-tricks performed. As an experiment, an all-day match was played, lasting five hours and containing no limitations on batsmen or bowlers. Although one player reached his fifty, the game was hardly a success, as scoring was slowed right down, and there was no compensating factor, either for players or spectators.
One especially noteworthy finish took place in a match between the Greenjackets and a Scratch XI. The latter led by 70 runs on first innings, and the Greenjackets, batting a second time, were still two runs behind with only three balls of their second innings remaining to be bowled. Off these balls, 18 runs were scored, and the Scratch XI, with 17 to win, were dismissed for 16, the game thus ending in the only recorded tie.
There was some hope that 1943 would be our last cricket season in Germany. At the time of writing--January, 1944--this hardly seems likely, and the probability is, that with great events in train, the officers of IX A/H will be playing a third summer on this improvised cricket-ground. Whatever we are missing, we might, after all, be worse off, for with a cricket bat in his hands, the prisoner of war is rather nearer home than at any other moment of his existence. The cricket field is our "land of the lead," where, as Caroline Nairne wrote :
"There's nae sorrow there, John,
There's neither cauld nor care, John,
The day is aye fair."
The Hon Terrance Prittie was one of the leading foreign journalists of his generation, working for The Guardian where he was cricket correspondent, chief correspondent for Germany and latterly as diplomatic correspondent. He was captured at Calais in 1940 and escaped six times. While a prisoner he wrote a classic cricket book - Mainly Middlesex - which recounted his pre-war cricket-watching from memory.