From Darkness Into Light

Published: 2023
Pages: 352
Author: Broom, John and Condon, Anthony
Publisher: Pitch
Rating: 4.5 stars

Having read three of John Broom’s previous books, being his histories of the game during the Great War and World War Two, and a biography of Ray Smith, and knowing that his co-author was a distinguished Australian historian, I realised long before I opened From Darkness Into Light that it was going to be a worthwhile read.

What I didn’t expect was that the book would be quite as interesting as it is, primarily because I thought it was simply going to be another retrospective account of a cricket tour from the past and, in this case, not even one that contained a Test series.

The core of the book is certainly a full account of the 33 matches that the Australian Imperial Forces XI played in Great Britain in the northern hemisphere summer of 1919, followed by another ten in South Africa before, finally, three closing fixtures back home in Australia. But it is a great deal more than simply that.

Any book that covers anything of an historical nature needs to put its subject matter in context so, naturally, there is an introduction. Normally this would be just a few pages. Here however that introduction extends to about a third of the book’s length.

The mistake I, and I suspect others will have made, is making the blithe assumption that cricket was simply waiting for the War to end before coming out of its enforced hibernation and continuing much as it had in 1914, when the conflict brought down the curtain on the ‘golden age’.

In fact there were very real concerns about whether English cricket could resume in a form anything like it had existed in peacetime. The loss of players to the conflict was part of it, and the finances of the county clubs were, on the whole, dire. There were grave concerns about what sort of cricket the public would have an appetite for.

It is against that background that the account of the tour itself eventually begins. The way the chapters are arranged makes it look like all the reader is going to get is an account of each of the fixtures that were played. Again however there is much more to the book than a rehashing of contemporary match reports.

So although the narrative follows the tourists around the country the descriptions of the various matches are used to introduce the Australian players, and indeed their opponents. The sides ranged against the Australians were in the main the First Class counties, and their individual reactions to the resumption of the game are certainly varied.

Also facing the tourists were Oxford and Cambridge Universities, whose cricketing resources were particularly challenged by the War. The MCC featured as well of course, as well as a number of scratch sides, particular at some of the southern ‘festivals’ in the latter part of the summer. There were no representative games as such.

The playing strength of the tourists was impressive. Of the side only the man who initially led them, Charles Kelleway, was a Test player although, as the 1920s unfolded, Jack Gregory, Herb Collins, Bert Oldfield, ‘Nip” Pellew and Johnny Taylor would appear in Ashes Tests and, just once in the Bodyline series after Oldfield’s injury, would Hammy Love.

Only Derbyshire and The Gentlemen of England downed the Australians before the festivals started, after which the South of England (at Hastings) and CI Thornton’s XI (at Scarborough) also lowered the visitors’ colours.

The most thought provoking aspect of the books arise from some of the stories of the cricketers of the time. With the not inconsiderable number of books in recent years that have concentrated on the many cricketers who lost their lives in the Great War it is easy to forget that the stories of some of those who survived are also compelling.

The most poignant of the many that Broom and Condon relate to us concerns the three Denton brothers of Northamptonshire. None of the three featured in the game against the AIF but their wartime experiences are mentioned. Twins Billy and Jack had both been reported missing in the hostilities, though fortunately had been captured rather than killed. Younger brother Don was less fortunate, his wounds costing him the lower part of his left leg, but he still played three First Class matches in 1919 and 1920.

There are a couple of interesting digressions in the book, one highly relevant and the other of rather more indirect interest. The relevant one is the background to the replacement of Captain Kelleway as skipper with Lance-Corporal Collins. Was it war wounds playing up, a new injury, Kelleway being unpopular amongst the team or Kelleway being disrespectful to his hosts, or some combination of all those factors? There is of course no definitive answer, but Kelleway dropping out of the tour remains its most curious feature.

Time and again, and entirely properly in view of the book’s subject, the question is raised as to what those who survived the conflict contributed to the war effort. This, given that he appeared against the tourists on three occasions, inevitably leads on once more to the one controversy from the life of Jack Hobbs, and a balanced account of Hobbs’ activities during the conflict is set out.

Much the same approach is adopted to the AIF’s time in South Africa and then back in Australia, through which the side were unbeaten and, after so many months away already, a conspicuously successful tour finished on a high note when a powerful New South Wales side were beaten by 203 runs at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

So From Darkness Into Light is rather more than the interesting glance down a back alley of cricket’s past that I expected it to be. In fact it is a look at an important episode from the game’s history without which it is just possible that the red ball game we all value so highly might have disappeared a century ago. The book is highly recommended.

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