ico-h1 CRICKET BOOKS

Cricket in the Second World War: The Grim Test

Published: 2021
Pages: 274
Author: Broom, John
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Rating: 4.5 stars

I first fell in love with cricket in the late 1960s. Whilst my peers were learning to read with the assistance of Old Dog Tom and Brer Rabbit I was already spending hours poring over my father’s collection of post war Wisdens. They went back as far as 1948, the edition that celebrated the remarkable summer when Denis Compton coasted past the record run haul for an English summer, and managed the small matter of 18 First Class centuries.

Back then my summer Saturdays, and a few Sundays as well, were spent following my father around the towns and villages of the Fylde Coast. Naturally I got to know his teammates as well, who all set out to assist me with my acquisition of cricketing knowledge. Some of them had seen active service in the Second World War, and those that hadn’t all remembered the years between 1939 and 1946 vividly. Stories from that conflict were, as far as topics of conversation amongst them were concerned, second only to cricket in popularity, for so long as my innocent ears were listening anyway.

Those men and their stories are all long gone now and, if truth be told, were not something I’d given much thought to for many years. All that changed however as soon as I started reading this splendid book from John Broom. It begins with an evocative foreword from someone who lived through the conflict, David Frith, a writer whose incisiveness of purpose has in no way been diminished by Anno Domini. Author Broom then takes up the baton and continues with what at first blush is simply a history of cricket over those wartime years, but is in reality very much more.

The Grim Test could have gone wrong in a number of ways. It might, with so many deaths to record, have been too maudlin. It might have gone back to contemporary press reports and dwelt overmuch on the play in cricket matches where the result was not of great significance. Broom, a man whose oeuvre and background make it clear he is an expert on the subject, might have spent too much of his narrative explaining matters military. All such traps are avoided however, and The Grim Test is an immensely satisfying read, and is highly recommended.

So how does Broom go about his task? The format is simple, in that there are eight chapters, one covering each of the eight years between 1939 and 1946. The state of the nation, the world and the game of cricket in 1939 is often overlooked, even by those with some knowledge of the period. Here though the somewhat chaotic close to the season in the run up to that sombre speech of Neville Chamberlain on 3 September, when he bowed to the inevitable and the declaration of war came, is skilfully explained.

In 1939 the UK did, of course, still have an empire so the whole of the cricket playing world joined the conflict, and The Grim Test recognises the global nature of the conflict and covers all the game’s major centres. There is, by the nature of the book, an incidental history of the war in its various theatres and of the social history of the period as well as the occasional nod in the direction of wider political and military issues.

As far as the bulk of his narrative is concerned however Broom follows the game and its players. In England the end of the 1939 season saw the end of First Class cricket for the duration, although the format carried on elsewhere for varying lengths of time. Some of the English counties were effectively mothballed, whilst others were able to organise a few games of varying types. How the clubs continued and treated their players and staff is, naturally, a recurring theme.

League cricket did continue in the north, as did the rather differently organised club matches of the southern counties. A number of new teams grew up as well, fielding whichever ‘name’ players were available and playing fixtures, frequently for the benefit of charitable causes, against established opponents. Some of these fixtures are described in some detail. The game also continued in more or less organised fashion in the various theatres of the War, and wherever allied servicemen were held in captivity. The Grim Test covers the game in all its forms.

Ultimately it is the human stories that are the most poignant. There were many casualties of the War and due respects are paid to all those who died. The stories of men like Hedley Verity, Maurice Turnbull and Kenneth Farnes, as well as those of the game’s lesser lights who lost their lives are reported. Featured too are the stories of the wounded some of whom, Kent’s Bryan Valentine for example, were eventually able to resume their cricket careers. Others with war wounds, such as the immensely tall South African batsman Pieter Van der Bijl (father of Vintcent) were not. 

Some men were held in captivity by the Axis powers for considerable periods. Freddie Brown and Bill Bowes were two who spent a lengthy period in the spartan conditions offered by the German authorities. Nonetheless such treatment would have seemed like luxury to men like Geoff Edrich and Wilf Wooller, who had to tolerate the inhumanity of Japanese jailers. Their stories, and those of other cricketers who shared their fate feature as well. 

One particular strength of the way in which Broom weaves the various strands of his story together is the impression it creates. It may just be the nature of the story he is telling, but the fear in the early part of the war is palpable, as is the anguish of the difficult early years before, as the Allies slowly gain the upper hand, the guarded optimism as the closing months of the War finally afford an opportunity for looking forward.

The Grim Test is an important book on many levels. It is an impressively researched and immaculately written history of an era that, for perfectly understandable reasons, cricket historians have hitherto tended to neglect. It is also well produced, nicely illustrated and has an excellent index. At £25 it is a little on the expensive side, but then again it is worth every penny.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler