A Tour but for The WarMartin Chandler |
Author: Curry, Guy
Publisher: Curry, Guy
Rating: 4 stars
Books about cricket tours were once very common, but times change and they seldom appear now. Occasionally we are treated to a retrospective account of an important series from the past but, inevitably given the absence of any cricket, the subject of tours that have been arranged but did not then take place does not tend to go beyond the back pages of contemporary newspapers. It was therefore something of a surprise when, in 2020, books on such trips suddenly appeared to become de riguere.
All told, with Guy Curry’s book sneaking in between Christmas and New Year, we had as many as four. The first three, which I reviewed here, here and here were perhaps predictable, coinciding as they did with the fiftieth anniversary of the Stop The Seventy Tour campaign. Curry’s book is on a very different subject however, and dates back another thirty years, to the trip that England would have taken to India between September 1939 and March 1940 had World War Two not intervened.
Logic would suggest that the subject of the proposed visit would justify inclusion as little more than a footnote in a history of Anglo-Indian cricket but in fact Curry, a solicitor who, until he sold it at auction in 2006 owned one of the finest collections of cricket literature ever assembled, has managed a full book on the tour. The lifelong passion for our great game evidenced by the library he once owned is one reason for the decision to write A Tour but for The War. The other is that Curry’s maternal grandfather, Flight Lieutenant AJ Holmes, was the man who, had the tour gone ahead, have been England captain.
Despite the personal interest it is still, perhaps, a surprise that without any cricket to report Curry’s account extends to 175 pages, but the narrative never drags and is an absorbing read. There are two distinct sections to the book. The first half of it looks at how the tour came about, how it was arranged and the tensions that existed between the MCC and the BCCI on various aspects of the trip and how those were resolved.
The main source of the story of how the tour unfolded was the comprehensive archive maintained by the MCC at Lord’s, and this vividly illustrates the logistical and financial hurdles that had to be overcome in order to put any sort of tour together in that era. Interesting also are the selection dilemmas that exist when the hosts, understandably, want a group of players whose names will heighten spectator appeal, whereas even then the selectors were conscious of the concept of player burn out from long tours, and a consequent desire not to send the likes of Hammond, Compton and Hutton.
Having set out the background and chronology to the tour Curry then spends the second half of the book looking at the men who were eventually selected to make the trip. The best known is undoubtedly Bob Wyatt, who wrote an autobiography in 1951 and who was the subject of a biography by Gerald Pawle in 1985. Of the others the triumph to tragedy story of Harold Gimblett is a well known one, but the swashbuckling Somerset opener apart only the stories of Arthur Wellard and Tom Dollery have appeared in print.
As a minor digression, and a further illustration of the size of the research task Curry faced, I did look at the books I mentioned in the preceding paragraph to see how they might have assisted him. Pawle’s biography of Wyatt deals with the tour in a sentence. Wyatt’s own book seems not to mention it (although Three Straight Sticks does contain a post war photograph of Wyatt and his grandfather that Curry uses). David Foot’s biography of Gimblett has only a passing mention and I could see no reference to the trip in Dollery’s book, although that is not exactly an autobiography anyway. Barry Phillips’ biography of Wellard will have been of little more help, although it does at least have two separate half paragraphs that reference the tour.
The pen portraits Curry writes are, without exception, excellent. That of Holmes clearly falls into a slightly different category, and of course he is assisted by the fact that all of the men he has to write about are interesting individuals. It is clear that just as much care and effort has gone into the more familiar names, such as the Langridge brothers and SC ‘Billy’ Griffith (whose son Mike provides a perceptive foreword), as into the likes of John Brocklebank and Roger Human, a couple of amateurs whose names will be recognised only by the seasoned tragics amongst us, and manager Claude Rubie.
There are one or two slight disappointments with A Tour but for The War, but none are serious. One is that, having had access to the MCC archives, I did wonder whether the old files of the BCCI might have been available and whether their content might have added anything to the story. In truth I suspect not given that Curry had both sets of correspondence anyway, but any notes/minutes of meetings that gave any further gloss on Indian attitudes would have been interesting.
Another point that occurred to me was, had the tour gone ahead, how the three Test series might have unfolded. Curry does indulge in a little speculation as to how the various tourists might have fared individually. They weren’t a bad side, built around some quality cricketers in Wellard, Stan Nichols, John Langridge, Wyatt, Peter Smith and George Pope, but they would have faced a strong Indian side on home soil. Any team that could call upon Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, Syed Mushtaq Ali, Vinoo Mankad, Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh had to be given the very greatest of respect.
The pen portraits of the tourists being as good as they are perhaps a similar exercise in respect of the Indian ‘probables’ would have been worthwhile? To do so would, I suppose, have added considerably to the book’s bulk, and perhaps any attempt to assess how the series might then have unfolded is more appropriately left to the reader anyway.
What I do however wish Curry had done was finish his delightful story about himself and his son gatecrashing the committee room during a Test at Edgbaston. Their purpose was to enable Curry to enjoy a conversation with Bob Wyatt whilst his son engaged another famous man, John Major, in a separate dialogue. The whole episode conjures up a delightful image of a much respected Solicitor of the Supreme Court ignoring both protocol and warning signs but, sadly, Curry chooses not to share the detail of either conversation with his reader.
But despite those few, essentially tongue in cheek, ‘grumbles’ nothing alters the fact that A Tour but for The War is a fascinating book on a subject that has never really been looked at before. By its nature it is never going to be a best seller but I suspect, if they have not already done so, that the 111 copies of this very nicely produced and superbly illustrated book will sell out very quickly indeed. If any copies are still be available then Mike Down at Boundary Books is the man who will be able to assist.