A War to the Knife

Published: 2019
Pages: 311
Author: Bentley, Richard
Publisher: Matador
Rating: 4 stars

When I mentioned this book in my recent piece on new and forthcoming books I didn’t know a great deal about it, so all I was able to say was that it deals with two trips that have not previously been the subject of books. The West Indian trip to England of 1933 is one,and the Englishmen’s return trip of 1934/35 the other. That was enough to gain my attention and, judging by the feedback  we received, that of others as well.

What I was expecting to read was a straightforward account of two forgotten Test series, no doubt in the main inspired by contemporary press reports and a review of the participants biographies and autobiographies. I will say at the outset however that there is a great deal more to A War to the Knife than that.

If I had given the book more thought I might have foreseen that there would be a look at the history of the game in the West Indies, and the racial divides that underpinned that. I wouldn’t however have expected that to be compared and contrasted with the class issues and the distinction between amateurs and professionals that dictated how First Class and Test cricket developed in England.

The real bonus of A War to the Knife is something which doesn’t directly concern those series against West Indies, but still casts a long shadow through the cricket of the 1930s and beyond. That is of course the spectre of ‘Bodyline’, the fast leg theory bowling deployed by England captain Douglas Jardine in Australia in 1932/33 in order to regain the Ashes, which had, up until that time, been the greatest furore the game had known.

It takes a while for A War to the Knife to actually deal with any of the cricket played on either tour, and when it does Bentley largely concentrates on the Tests. The England captain in 1933 was still Jardine, and the West Indies were led by Jackie Grant, today a forgotten figure.

A War to the Knife contains a number of essays on some of the combatants. They are not pen portraits as such, but are very worthwhile pieces of writing. Some of the subjects of these are the better remembered men like Jardine, Learie Constantine, George Headley and Walter Hammond, but there is plenty on the subject of some of the lesser lights, most notably Grant, but also ‘Manny’ Martindale and Herman Griffith, two fine West Indian fast bowlers.

The England team selection for the first Test in 1933 was curious, and Bentley looks back to Bodyline to try and find an explanation for that. Why did the selectors omit Eddie Paynter, so successful in Australia, and equally when left arm paceman EW ‘Nobby’ Clark declared himself unfit for the first Test was he replaced by a spin bowler, rather than Bill Bowes? A hostile Yorkshireman Bowes had not come off in Australia, but he was a fine bowler in England and from this distance in time his omission certainly looks odd.

The three Test series in 1933 was lost by the visitors by 2-0 as the West Indians went down tamely at Lord’s and the Oval without their talisman, Constantine. By far the most interesting match in the series was the second Test at Old Trafford. Who was the catalyst behind the West Indians decision to show England, Constantine for this one available, what the Australians had endured the previous winter? Was it Grant, in later life a missionary, or was it Constantine? Bentley is not persuaded by, but also looks at the not unreasonable suggestion that it was the England management who, worried about the possibility of the financial success of the 1934 Ashes series being put in jeopardy, were trying to turn public opinion against Bodyline and were therefore instrumental in persuading Grant to adopt the tactic.

The West Indian performance in that second Test was a great improvement and they competed with England on equal terms. At one point, thanks to their version of Bodyline, Grant’s men got their noses in front until, as he always maintained was possible, Jardine showed how such bowling could be played, and scored what was to prove his only Test century.

At the end of the 1933 tour Bodyline rumbled on, and Bentley doesn’t ignore that, taking a look at Jardine’s last tour, to India in 1933/34 and, perhaps not quite as anodyne as it seems, the 1934 Ashes series.

Bodyline also played a part in the 1934/35 trip to the Caribbean, most interestingly for the antics of Arthur Richardson, former Australian all-rounder and for the second and third matches Test match umpire, who seems not to have liked the West Indians bowling their version of Bodyline. He couldn’t however stop them winning the series 2-1 after defeat in the first Test in Barbados, undoubtedly one of the most remarkable ever played.

The England side in 1934/35 was an odd one. There were some big beasts; Walter Hammond, Patsy Hendren, Maurice Leyland, Les Ames, Ken Farnes and skipper Bob Wyatt. There were a few decent county players too, but also three odd selections, Lancashire reserve ‘keeper Bill Farrimond, Oxford batsman David Townsend, who never did play for a First Class county, and Yorkshire amateur William Harbord, a batsman who when selected had played just three Championship matches for his county and didn’t go on to play very many more.

The mix of history, politics and sport in A War to the Knife makes it a much more ambitious project than one to simply give a narrative account of a couple of old and largely forgotten Test series. Extensively researched, the underlying theme of the book is contained in its title, a quote from Cricket and I, the first autobiography to be published from a West Indian cricketer. The book, published in 1933, was Constantine’s, although the writing duties largely fell to his great friend and fellow Trinidadian, the Marxist historian and journalist CLR James.

A War to the Knife is self-published, but generally very well produced. It is not without minor irritations, the Bodyline series on one occasion being consigned to 1933/34, and in a couple of places England all-rounder Walter Robins’s surname becomes Robbins, but in the context of more than 300 pages it is unrealistic to expect perfection. There is no index, statistics or, unusually given the subject matter, scorecards. For once however the photographs make up for those omissions. There are not many of them, but they include three memorable ones none of which I recall seeing before; Jardine acknowledging the crowd after going to his century at Old Trafford, a shot of the remarkable bowling action of England’s ‘Father’ Marriott who took eleven wickets at the Oval in what proved to be his only Test, and of an unconscious Bob Wyatt being carried from the field after being knocked unconscious while facing Martindale in Jamaica.

I hope that A War to the Knife sells very well, and it certainly should. As well as appealing to those relatively few who will be interested in the two tours it covers, it is also required reading for the many who, like this reviewer, are still fascinated by that famous Ashes series of 1932/33.

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