The 1942 Ashes tour
The newspapers blew across the empty field. There was no Warwick Armstrong to pick one up and read it. The air raid siren had sounded and the streets were deserted, leaving only the smell of pies baking in Lyons Corner House and the hum of a dozen Messerschmitts. This was England in 1942. There were plenty who said the cricket should not go ahead as there was a war on, but Winston Churchill made a Solomon-like decision. Let the Australians come, he decreed, but go easy on the publicity. Let life go on, but we should not get carried away and waste our time on frivolous pursuits. It is, after all, only a game.
Piecing together what happened on that 1942 tour has been difficult for cricket historians, and most have pretended that it simply did not take place. What we do know is that under the enlightened captaincy of Don Bradman and Wally Hammond there was sportsmanship, good behaviour and a fine spirit of reciprocity between the teams that was exemplified when the Don took the boys to see Gloucestershire playing at Lord’s.The 39-year-old Wally was in the process of making one of his elegant, powerful but almost certainly autumnal centuries and the Don turned to the bar where some of his players were drinking beer. ‘Come and have a look at this, you fellows,’ he said, ‘You may never see its like again.’ Later that day Wally and the Don were sipping lemonade in the Long Room, when the Australian skipper noticed something different.
‘Where are the portraits of Lord Harris and Lord Hawke?’ he asked the MCC Secretary.
‘We took them down,’ was the reply. ‘We found irrefutable proof that they had drawn up the schedules for the 1921 and 1926 Ashes tours with a view to tiring out the Aussies and programming the most distant games—Glamorgan, Lancashire, Sussex, as the case may be—before test matches. It was disgraceful. Both of those bounders are dead, and I’ll be damned if I want their ugly mugs looking down at me. By the way, Don, here are the Ashes. You won them fair and square in ’34. They’ll only come back here when we win a series.’
The Old Trafford test began in controversy when the start of play was delayed for some hours as the ground staff beavered away on the pitch. There was no announcement, of course, and the spectators had to work out what happened as best they could. Announcements! Pshaw! If you don’t know what’s going on, then that’s your lookout, chum. What transpired was that Wally approached the Don on the morning of the match and said the groundsman had just been sacked for preparing a pitch that unduly favoured England’s off-spinners.
‘But we have an offie in our team, Wally,’ countered the Don, ‘You know Ian Johnson.’
‘Yes, and a fine player he is, too. You don’t need a crystal ball to work out that he’ll captain Australia one day and lead by example. But Johnno’s a flight bowler, Don. He’s beaten me through the air more times than I care to recall. This wicket has been prepared for those who give it a bit more of a tweak, like our own Hedley Verity. Heds may be a Yorkshireman, and the Wars of the Roses not long over, but this OT wicket has been unfairly tailored for him.’
‘But what about the groundsman’s wife and children? Will they be provided for?’
‘He should have thought of that before, Don. As it turns out, he never married.’
‘So he never...?’
‘Occupied the crease? Apparently not.’
‘I think I know who’ll be most upset that this doctoring was even thought of.’
‘It’s a no-brainer.’
No actual record exists of this conversation between the Boy from Bowral and the Cirencester Kid, but it was put together by a committee of Melbourne playwrights working from available evidence. When a groundsman was sacked on the morning of the Leeds test, we do know that Bradman inquired about the reason and was told that the fellow had been loafing. Walter Hammond’s statement is on the record: ‘There were two groundsmen out there, but only one of them was preparing a wicket.’
After a spirited draw at Trent Bridge (‘A fine start to the series, Don,’ said a beaming Wally) the teams went to Lord’s, where the MCC Secretary apologised to the Australians about the ridge in the pitch: ‘We’ll get it fixed as soon as we can, but there’s a war on, you know.’
‘I know,’ said the Don sympathetically as he watched Bill Brown walk after getting a tickle to the keeper.
‘A cup of tea, sir?’ inquired a smiling WAAC, but Braddles had to decline.
‘I’d love one,’ he said, ‘but I have to go and bat. Excuse me.’
‘There’s just one more thing.’
‘What is it?’
‘Best of luck, sir,’ declared the WAAC with shining eyes.
When Don was on 254 Wally waved back the twelfth man with drinks and later upbraided him. ‘You don’t bring on drinks when a man’s about to break his record score at this ground,’ said the skipper.
‘Sorry, Wally,’ mumbled the twelfthy, ‘but there was no announcement.’
‘What the Dickens would be the use of that? You can read the scoreboard, can’t you?’
‘The whole idea of this wonderful game is that you have to decode things for yourself. If we ever had ground announcers ... well, you might as well go to Luna Park. It just wouldn’t be cricket.’
On a golden summer’s day at Fenner’s, before death duties, immigration and property development had the land lying fallow and the fish floating belly-up in the Cam, Australia lost narrowly to Cambridge University and the Don had to answer charges that he had Maliked the situation. ‘We were simply outplayed,’ he countered. ‘Full credit to the Cambridge boys for their gutsy effort.’
In the Leeds test, Bradman made 502 and was congratulated on his world record score by Wally and his team. ‘I want it expunged from the scorebooks,’ said the Don later. ‘England were a bowler short and that track was a shirtfront. Besides, there’s more to cricket than just piling up big scores.’
These are some of the problems the cricket historian is tempted to call insuperable. The series was played in such good spirit that most of the records have been lost or deliberately destroyed in the name of sportsmanship. We know for example that Len Hutton made a pair at the Oval in the fifth test, but is it true that he said to Bill O’Reilly, ‘I hope this makes up for all those runs I took off you in 1938’? There is also the wartime security aspect. In a Cairo bar on the way over to England Don Bradman was approached by a bookmaker called John and a monocled expat called Erich. ‘What’s it worth to you to lose the Ashes?’ asked John.
The Don replied, ‘What Ashes? I’m going to join up.’
‘I vould like to see your schedule, and I vill pay good money for zis document,’ ventured Erich.
‘Get back to Krautland,’ was the Boy from Bowral’s response. ‘We don’t want your type here. Maestro! Do you know the Marseillaise?’
And the band played on, just as Don did to Eric Hollies in 1948.
* Yes, I have had far too much to drink.
Thanks NC. That was lovely
Stumpski has reviewed a new book Fatty Batter sounds like a good read:)
There were times when I felt as if I was reading my own autobiography, particularly in the first part. I was tall and scrawny as a teenager rather than stout, but I must have played 100s of Owzthat games; these days, of course, there are rather more hi-tech alternatives. In adult life we have less in common, for one thing, he made himself into a far better player than I ever did, due no doubt to greater willingness to work on his game.
The new Ian Botham Autobiography Head On
Here is another one Clem Hill’s reminiscences
Hansie Cronje's book was gun, I really enjoyed reading it. John Wright's Indian Summers offered a pretty good insight into what cricket was like in India, and I really recommend it. Wasn't really good to read, but very helpful if you are going to talk about Indian cricket.
You will certainly be getting more from me - I quite enjoy writing them actually - but they won't be new books by and large. Most will be titles from the 1980s and 90s. I'll try and steer clear of (auto)biographies as I seldom find them very interesting, and try to offer something a bit different.
Ideally we would like a nice balance, I think we have managed that so far:)