The Victory TestsMartin Chandler |
Author: Rowe, Mark
Rating: 4 stars
VE Day on 8 May 1945 marked the end of the war in Europe. Fighting in the Pacific was to continue until August, but despite that and the European mainland resembling an anthill that had been repeatedly kicked on all sides, in England there was a natural desire for some semblance of normality to resume. After six years in abeyance a resumption of some International sporting competition was high on the nation’s agenda.
On the cricket field an Australian Imperial Forces XI had fixtures arranged up and down the country as did a Royal Australian Air Force XI. An agreement was then added for the two XI’s to combine as an Australian Services XI for a series of five three day matches against England. Three of the matches were to be played at Lord’s, and one each at Bramall Lane in Sheffield and at Old Trafford, Manchester. It is that series of matches that has come to be known as the “Victory Tests”. The Ashes were not at stake and the two teams’ Captains, Lindsay Hassett and Walter Hammond, took an approach to the matches that reflected that. They ensured the teams played attacking and entertaining cricket throughout and crowds flocked to the games. The series was eventually drawn 2-2.
England selected 20 different men for the five matches, 16 of whom had played in or were to play in official Tests. Of the 15 Australians only Lindsay Hassett and Keith Miller ever wore the baggy green in earnest and it is hardly surprising that when, over the following six years, cricket’s greatest rivals competed at full strength, England were a poor second.
Mark Rowe’s book is not the first book to have dealt with these matches but it is the only one that makes a serious attempt to place them in the context of the times in which they were played. He has spoken at length to the last two survivors of the England teams, Donald Carr and John Dewes, as well as the last Australian survivor, 92 year old Reg Ellis. To demonstrate how long the gestation period of his project was Rowe also spoke about it extensively to another of the Australians, Ross Stanford, who died in 2006, and who he had first met, while working on an unrelated book, in 1998.
There are, of course, accounts of each of the five Tests, but much more besides. Rowe looks at the other cricket played up and down the country that summer as well as looking at the wider picture as the country began to rebuild itself. As was the case after the Great War life could not go on as it had before the conflict, as societies evolve rapidly in wartime. For cricket however, as in 1919, there were efforts made to resist change, and the old traditions prevailed for the game in 1945 and beyond, as is vividly illustrated in this extract from The Victory Tests that author and publisher have kindly allowed us to reproduce.
The English season completed, the book follows the Australians home, for some of them for the first time in five years. The authorities continued to work them hard though as their tour extended to matches in India. It must have been a pleasure for them to be greeted there by Denis Compton, but rather less so by the nationalist riots. Six weeks on from arriving in Bombay it was, finally, back to Australia where, remarkably, there were still cricket matches to be played before the weary ex-servicemen could finally go home to their families at the end of January of 1946.
When the release of The Victory Tests was first announced it promised new insights into Keith Miller’s war record, and to look into Donald Bradman’s wartime activities. I had expected something controversial but am pleased to report that is not the case. For Miller the war finished too early for him to carry out more than two combat missions but, as Rowe is at pains to point out, the impression that there were many more was created by others on Miller’s behalf and not by the man himself – in any case war hero strikes me as an entirely appropriate description for any man who runs the risk, even just twice, of having “a Messerschmitt up his arse”. As for Bradman Rowe sets out the facts, but does not dwell on an issue that, it seems to this reviewer, is unfair to delve too far into so long after Bradman’s death, given the consequent loss of his ability to respond.
All in all this is an absorbing book and a valuable contribution to the game’s literature which I have no hesitation in recommending to anyone with an interest in the era. Just where The Victory Tests and author Mark Rowe will rank amongst this year’s cricket books and authors we will have to wait and see but I am happy to declare here and now that Alan Hunns has designed the dust jacket of this year, or indeed any year.
First-class cricket in England, as it was in most of the major cricket playing countries, was suspended for the duration of the 1939-45 war. When Germany surrendered in April 1945 it was far too late to organise a county season or Test series. But Australian servicemen already stationed in England, many of whom had played for their state teams before the start of hostilities, were invited to play a series of five matches against an England team, which provided much-needed entertainment for war-weary spectators and a chance to assess who might be the leading performers of future Ashes contests. This book tells the story of that memorable summer.
In fact RAAF sides had been playing regularly against club teams since 1943. Commanding officers no doubt recognised that airmen risking their lives for the Empire needed to unwind between missions, and local worthies were happy to entertain the Australians. And Lord’s hosted several matches between teams of servicemen during the war years; it was in such a game in 1942 that horrified spectators saw the 56-year-old former Surrey and England batsman Andy Ducat collapse and die at the crease. Neither side was at full strength in 1945 – among the best players missing were Bradman, Brown and Compton – and the five matches were quite properly never accorded Test status, but they were given first-class status and accounted for almost half the 11 such matches played in the 1945 season.
Bradman, incidentally, is the spectre at the feast, frequently referred to but absent throughout. Some of his contemporaries were keen to draw attention to his avoidance of active service; although Keith Miller, often cited as a war hero, actually spent only a few hours in the air right at the end of the conflict.
The best-known players for each side were Walter Hammond – the obvious choice as captain – Bill Edrich and Leonard Hutton for England, and Lindsay Hassett for Australia. England had much the more experienced side – of the visitors only Hassett had played an official Test. But those who saw the dynamic fast-bowling all-rounder Miller were left in no doubt that he would feature prominently in Ashes series for years to come. England’s selectors made one curious move. After two matches with the series standing at 1-1 they brought in three teenage batsmen, John Dewes, Donald Carr and Luke White – none of whom particularly distinguished themselves, not surprisingly – and all three were omitted from the remaining matches.
This book is an account, adorned with 16 pages of illustrations, of the five games but also gives details of the matches played between the Tests and there is also a good deal of background information about the cricket and the England of the time – most interestingly, I thought, is a chapter entitled ‘Amateurs and Professionals’ which examines the complex relationship between the Gentlemen and the Players which would continue for almost twenty more years.
With shelf space always an issue in my home I have to be fairly selective about the books I buy, but I can say that this is one I would have snapped up on sight. The only disappointment I had was when I looked for a list of averages, and found none. But, of course, figures only tell part of the story, and there is a full scorecard for each match. Recommended.