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When the Cricket Stops

Hitler, Hedley and Hove

Patrick Kidd
Hedley Verity was one of those cricketers who did not return from the war  •  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hedley Verity was one of those cricketers who did not return from the war  •  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Had Benjamin Franklin been born 150 years later, and spent more time on his off-cutter than taunting lightning with a kite, he would surely have written of life's three certainties: death, taxes and Wisden every spring. But what to do when there is little cricket to fill the pages? No matter how grim the Covid-hit summer of 2020, at least there was a season, even if it began in July and ended in October; English professional cricket had not been played so late since 1864 (the year of the first Almanack). Half a century on, though, after war had stopped the game almost everywhere except at school, it was tradition alone that forced the proprietors' hand. "The question of coming out at all was seriously considered," wrote the editor, Sydney Pardon, in the preface to Wisden 1916. Filling it was a challenge, even when reduced from 791 pages to 299.
The first Wisden had included the rules of quoits, dates from the Wars of the Roses, and a list of canals in Britain and Ireland more than 30 miles long. Between 1916 and 1919, the book was full of death, showing "how great is the number of famous cricketers and of those of great promise who have given their lives for the Empire," as E. B. Noel wrote in his chapter on schools cricket in the 1916 edition. More than 80 pages were devoted to obituaries of the war dead, including Capt. Fergus Bowes-Lyon, the brother of the future Queen Mother, and Sub-Lt Rupert C. Brooke, who headed the bowling averages at Rugby in 1906, and had "gained considerable reputation as a poet". There were a poignant six lines for Ernest Allen, a staff member of the Cricket Reporting Agency, which put Wisden together. He had joined the Scots Guards in the first week of war, and was killed on January 1, 1915. It is possible his death was known when Pardon wrote that year's preface, which mentioned Allen signing up. Either way, the Almanack's convention of recording deaths only from the previous calendar year meant Allen's was not formally noted until 1916.
Longer obituaries appeared for A. E. Stoddart, the former England captain who had killed himself, and the Australian hero Victor Trumper, dead from Bright's disease at 37. Meanwhile, 45 pages were spent on the feats of W. G. Grace, who had died at home in south-east London. Legend has it he had been shaking his fists at the Zeppelins, cursing that they were the first opponents he couldn't see. It was on Dr Grace's urging that cricket had ceased in 1914.
On August 3, the day before Britain declared war, Jack Hobbs made 226 in four hours 20 minutes against Nottinghamshire at The Oval. The title was given to Surrey with two of their fixtures unplayed. Wisden pointed out that, for Middlesex, unbeaten until nearly a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, "the declaration of War quite upset the county's plans".
The plans of many young men were upset too. The obituaries in 1915 include Lt A. E. J. Collins, killed at Ypres; as a 13-year-old in 1899 he had made 628 not out in a house match at Clifton. Not every detail was accurate. Wisden reported that the Rev. A. H. C. Fargus, a navy chaplain and former Gloucestershire fast bowler, had died in the sinking of HMS Monmouth. In fact, he had not been on board, having missed a train. Fargus, who took 12 for 87 against Middlesex in 1900, then a record for a Championship debutant, did not die until 1963, but Wisden failed to note it until 1994.
For some, war was apparently the least of their worries. The 1915 edition had an advert for Dr J. Collis Browne's Chlorodyne, a remedy for coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, spasms, palpitation, hysteria, neuralgia, toothache, rheumatism, gout, fever, croup and ague. It was said to act "like a charm in diarrhoea, colic and other bowel complaints". Whether it was effective against trench foot was unclear.
A sign of the growing gloom can be seen in Wisden's reporting on the international game. In 1915, it said Australia were due to tour England in 1916, followed by the visit of South Africa a year later. "This scheme has been upset by the War," it reported. The same information appeared the next year, with one addition: "This scheme has been completely upset by the War." A brutal adverb.
The 1915 Notes by the Editor were pessimistic. "Never before has the game been in such a plight," wrote Pardon. The Notes vanished in 1916 and 1917 (their only absence in the Almanack's history since Pardon introduced them in 1901), so he transferred the gloom to the preface. In 1916, he wrote: "As regards the future the outlook is dark enough." And in 1917, "the outlook for the game" was "as dark as possible". That year's edition was "of necessity a rather mournful volume".
Among the obituaries in 1918 was Kent's slow left-armer Colin Blythe, the leading wicket-taker in the season before war. Still, the old saw prevailed that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country). Lord Hawke, president of MCC, was reported as saying: "When we are once more at peace and able to enjoy our games, the crowd will not discuss what such and such a sportsman did on the playing fields before the War, but what he did for his country during the War."
In too many cases, they simply died. Yet cricket survived, of course. "The long nightmare of the War has come to an end," Pardon wrote in his 1919 Notes, but in its place was something purists also found horrific: reform. As today, ideas for "brightening" cricket buzzed around, such as penalising the batting side for every maiden, ruling a batsman out unless he scored at a set rate, or moving the boundaries in. "Many people seem to regard cricket purely as a spectacle," Pardon complained. And he meant it to sting.
Twenty years later, war again stopped play. On the day Hitler invaded Poland, Hedley Verity, the Yorkshire left-arm spinner, took seven for nine at Hove. "I wonder if I'll ever bowl here again," he said to a team-mate. Verity died of wounds received in action in Italy. Editor Hubert Preston set aside 13 pages for him in 1944. Long appreciations of the "doings" of the greats - Sutcliffe, Leyland, Hammond and Verity, two years before his death - were one way Wisden padded out these war years. And an analysis of all Hobbs's centuries, first-class and otherwise, revealed he first got to three figures in 1901, for Ainsworth against Cambridge Liberals, and was still raising his bat 40 years later, for the Fathers' XI against Kimbolton School.
Pagination again suffered, falling from 875 in 1940 to 343 by 1944. A paper shortage, as well as the publishers' premises being bombed, made this a testing time. Yet the Second World War editions feel different from the First. There is less of the Hawkeian spirit, and not such an overpowering sense of death, in space or tone. Perhaps this reflects a new type of soldier at the front: fewer public schoolboys volunteering to be mown down pro patria. Humour played a greater part, too. A sign was pinned to the gate of "a certain South Coast ground" after a bombing: "Each peardrop which fell on this ground saved lives and property. We shall carry on. Nothing which falls from the skies will deter us except RAIN."
Wisden readers might also have enjoyed learning of some rare failures in the 1940-41 Australian season for Don Bradman, which moved the Almanack to employ an uncharacteristic exclamation mark: "Twice he was out first ball!" One reason for the change in tone between the wars was the amount of cricket for the star players. There may have been no Tests or County Championship, but the best cricketers regularly turned out for clubs, services teams and representative sides such as London Counties or the British Empire XI. Ernest Bevin, the labour minister, requested MCC to send a team to the North, saying it would be good for morale.
The 1942 Notes lamented that "cricket without competition [is] a snack, not a meal", but there were thrilling matches. Eton beat Harrow by one wicket in 1940: with the scores tied, three maidens were bowled, two balls seemed to pass through the stumps, and a catch was dropped. In 1942, Cambridge beat Oxford from the penultimate delivery. A year later, the British Empire XI beat the RAF by one run off the last.
As before, Wisden rebuked those who sought to use the war to reform the game. Lancashire proposed a regional championship, and others a Lord's final, a scheme that took eight decades to come to fruition. A one-day competition was also mooted, an idea the Almanack compared to "the new clockwork monkey in the nursery". While some might delight in seeing the ball hit "far, high and often", the Notes grumbled, "such spectators are, frankly, not wanted at county cricket". R. C. Robertson-Glasgow, an eloquent harrumpher, returned to this theme in 1945, writing that, for his money, seeing 20 for no wicket was a finer way to spend an hour than 60 for five. "The three-day match is a thing of hope," he pleaded.
And here is the biggest difference between Wisden's two wartime periods. In the 1940s, there is a much greater optimism. With reduced expenses, and many members still paying their subscriptions, nearly all the counties ended the war in a healthier financial position, whereas the first conflict had almost seen the end of some, notably Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. This message shines out in an essay by H. S. Altham, the cricket historian, in 1940. He ends by describing a visit to Lord's, sandbags everywhere, the Long Room stripped bare. And yet: "The turf was a wondrous green, old Time on the Grand Stand was gazing serenely at the nearest balloon, and one felt that somehow it would take more than totalitarian war to put an end to cricket."
Since all Wisden readers obviously enjoyed a classical education, he concluded with a line - in Latin only - from Horace, the poet who had also written the dulce et decorum est mantra that inspired the Great War generals. Altham's choice was more positive: Merses profundo, pulchrior evenit (You may drown it in the depths, but it rises the more glorious). So it was for cricket in 1940, so it will be 80 years later.
Patrick Kidd is editor of the Times's Diary column, and author of The Weak are a Long Time in Politics