Home Cricket through the Wars 1945 – The ‘Victory’ Season

1945 – The ‘Victory’ Season

by John Broom

‘No Hitler can kill the love of cricket which is inherent in the English people … Cricket will flourish as never before in all its long and splendid history. It is … a great part of the life of the English people.’

So Pelham Warner greeted the prospect of the 1945 English cricket season – the first one since 1939 in which first-class cricket would be played. Although VE Day came too late to organise a County Championship, tours by the Australian Services XI and New Zealand Services XI would adorn the summer. The British Empire XI, too, would round off their splendid contribution to wartime cricket under the captaincy of Ray Smith. In all, eleven first-class fixtures would take place, although none formed part of an official competition. The Australian Services XI would play nearly fifty matches and 414,000 people would pass through the Lord’s turnstiles.

At non-competitive club level, A.W.T. Langford marvelled ‘at the way in which the clubs overcame apparently insurmountable difficulties and in some instances actually contrived to turn out teams of considerable strength’.

Although the war’s end seemed in sight, still several pages of The Cricketer Spring Annual were filled with the obituaries of young men cut off before their prime. Sergeant Navigator K.C. Campin, who had made his debut for Bedfordshire in 1939 aged just 16, was killed in a flying accident in Scotland. Meanwhile it was reported that his county teammate, Squadron Leader Alec Cook DFC, had been killed in action over France in August 1944. Stanley Dearlove, secretary of Goodmayes CC in Ilford and for many years the club’s outstanding bowler, was killed by enemy action in November 1944.

The Bradford League continued to suffer a mini exodus of players across the Pennines, with George Pope and Jim Smith leaving the West Riding for the Lancashire leagues. The broad, sunlit uplands previously promised by Winston Churchill seemed a distance away in the West Riding as the league programme began in snow, hail and rain. Stan Nichols took seven Bingley wickets for 40 runs for Farsley. However, due to rain delays and transport difficulties, the Essex man had to leave the match before being able to bat, his colleagues only amassing 54 all out in the face of Robert Rae (eight for 15).  By June, Jim Laker was back in action for Saltaire, scoring 57 against Pudsey. He was on the losing side thanks to 52 not out from Len Hutton. By mid-August, seven clubs were in contention for the A Division title. A meeting between Saltaire and Windhill at Roberts Park attracted 4,000 spectators. Undercliffe clinched the title on the final day of the season, pipping Pudsey St Lawrence by one point.

As Victory in Europe was confirmed, with scenes of jubilation across Britain, Pelham Warner argued for the swift resumption of the Gentleman v Players match, ‘a game of long tradition and great prestige in which it is still the ambition of every cricketer, be he amateur or professional, to take part’. Warner appeared keen that the egalitarian waves that would sweep Attlee’s Labour Party into power in July would not lap at the shores of cricket’s class divide. He dressed up his desire for the return of the fixture as the ‘need [for] keen hard cricket in preparation for the strenuous games in Australia’. When the series did resume in July 1946, the Players promptly demolished their opponents by an innings and 140 runs.

For the first time since 1940, the historical picture gallery of the game was rehung in the Long Room at Lord’s, Warner averring, ‘after nearly six years they appear more attractive than ever, and being a warmth and colour to the walls which have been sadly lacking during the war.’

RAAF v British Empire XI Lord’s 1945

Also back at Lord’s, watching the British Empire XI play the RAAF, was Freddie Brown, recently released from German captivity and due to marry in June. He appeared thin and worn, having lost considerable weight. His fellow former inmate Bill Bowes had returned home, but having lost 3 stone during his incarceration, he declined MCC’s invitation to play for England against Australia at Lord’s at Whitsun.

Despite previous suggestions that the British Empire XI could continue into the post-war era as a festival and touring outfit, the decision was taken to bring proceedings to a fitting end once the 1945 season had been completed. A farewell dinner was RAAF take to the field at Lord’s. The achievements of the British Empire XI deserve more than a footnote in cricketing history. Over six seasons they had entertained an anxious and war-weary British public to the tune of 238 matches, raising over £15,000 for charity.

The notion of a post-war tour of England by a New Zealand Services rugby team had been mooted by General Bernard Freyberg, the head of 2 NZEF. In all, thirty-nine players would represent the NZ Services XI in thirty-five matches from May to September. Their travels took them from picturesque village greens to established Test venues. Wisden noted the Kiwis played ‘free and entertaining cricket and became warm favourites everywhere’. Gate receipts were donated to various charities and the rebuilding of the pavilion at East Molesey CC. The NZ Services XI appeared at the home of cricket on 7 June against a strong Lord’s XI, which included Bill Edrich, Laurie Fishlock, Errol Holmes and Gubby Allen. As well as the established stars of the team, the match afforded the opportunity for four Kiwis to play on the historic turf who, until a few months previously, had been prisoners of war.

When Sir Pelham Warner’s XI met the New Zealand Services XI on 12 July, Ted Badcock, as a professional, was required to step onto the ground from a gate to the side of the Members’ Stand. In solidarity, a handful of Kiwi amateurs, including Neil Begg, accompanied him through that entrance.

As the final English season of a fixture programme dominated by service XIs and wartime combinations was played out on grounds around Britain, the first-class counties were able to turn their minds to the immediate and future structure of the English game. In March, an MCC subcommittee chaired by Colonel R.S. Rait Kerr published an interim report on Lancashire’s proposal for a knockout competition. ‘Many of the keenest supporters of county cricket are not concerned with the position of their county in the Championship Table,’ wrote Pelham Warner, ‘or with the outcome of a Knock-Out Competition. For them each match is to be regarded on its merits.’ He bemoaned the highly competitive age, with many people preferring matches when something was at stake, rather than the inherent interest of the match. Left to Warner and his ilk, cricket would remain in a sempiternal Golden Age.

The subcommittee recommended a trial period of two seasons for a cup competition. Warner expressed concern about cramming too many matches into a season which also featured a tour by one of the Dominions. On the other hand, a knockout match might lead to ‘high tension’ cricket, which would be a good grounding for Test matches. The subcommittee recommended the unimaginative title of ‘The Cricket Cup’. They rejected the opportunity to play the matches over one day or two days, or to have time limits on innings. Walter Robins was quoted as being supportive of a proposal for a knockout cup: ‘I believe we have a chance to put on the map the kind of cricket a large section of the public have wanted for some time.’ The Daily Herald saw the proposal as a blow to the ‘ultra-conservative elders of the game’. The traditionalists were to win the day. On 12 June the decision was made to defer any decision on a cup competition until a normal County Championship season had been completed.

County grounds had suffered from physical neglect and, in the cases of Old Trafford and The Oval, bomb damage. Plans were afoot for the redevelopment of the Manchester ground, with the aim of holding 40,000 people, which would have made it the biggest in the country. However, a fundraising appeal failed to raise the necessary monies, and sixty German PoWs were paid a small three farthings per hour to prepare the ground for the Victory Test in August. They painted the stands and scoreboards whilst a German signwriter created all the public notices such as ‘Transfer to Stands’ and the words and figures for the scoreboards. A crowd of 76,463 would attend the match over three days. A.F. Davey had estimated the cost of restoring The Oval to be in the region of £50,000. Stakes had been driven into the turf and cages of barbed wire had been set up in preparation for housing German prisoners of war. Although these guests never materialised, the ground was in a sorry state when a new groundsman, Bert Lock, was appointed at the end of the war. Concrete posts were dismantled and holes filled in. Mounds of debris were cleared and 45,000 turves of grass brought in from Hoo marshes in Kent.

Warwickshire appealed for £50,000 for improvements to Edgbaston, although the long-term plan for the ground’s reconstruction had been estimated at £201,150. Very wisely the committee had decided to lay out a car park on newly acquired land, which would accommodate approximately 700 cars. Northamptonshire aimed to raise £10,000 to put the county in a sound position. In Wales a fund was started to endow hospital beds in South Wales and Monmouthshire in memory of Major Maurice Turnbull. On 18 August, a memorial match took place in honour of Glamorgan’s lost captain and secretary at the Arms Park between Glamorgan against a West of England XI led by Wally Hammond. This allowed the club to bid a public farewell to a man who had been its very lifeblood for a decade or more.

The Royal Australian Air Force players who had forged a favourable wartime reputation had been booked for twenty-two ‘big’ matches, including occasions when some of the side were due to play for a full Australian Services XI or a Dominions XI. To augment the RAAF players who had thus far entertained the English cricketing public, four Australian state players who had been serving in the AIF had become available: Lindsay Hassett, Dick Whitington, Cec Pepper and Bert Cheetham, the last of these having survived the 168-day Siege of Tobruk.

The Australian Services XI pitched up at that traditional end-of-tour venue, the Yorkshire spa town of Scarborough. H.D.G. Leveson Gower’s XI were soundly beaten by an innings and 108 runs on 5–7 September. Cec Pepper smote 168 in a total of 500, becoming the last player to clear the tall Victorian terraced houses of the adjacent Trafalgar Square.

To those Australians who played the game in such an enterprising and crowd-pleasing spirit fell the honour of convening five times that summer to play in a series of ‘Victory Tests’ against a representative England XI. Bill Edrich articulated the mood of optimism which gave context to the series:

Those of us that were left alive and young enough to still take part in the first-class game turned to and began to oil our bats again in 1945, and eagerly discussed the possibilities of putting the game on its feet once more.

The first unofficial Test match at Lord’s, commencing on 19 May, was the first first-class three-day match in England since 1939. Total attendance was well over 70,000, with £1,935 being raised for Red Cross and RAAF funds. The most poignant moment of the match came when Australian airman Graham Williams walked out to bat at No. 9 with Keith Miller going well at the other end. Miller later recalled the moving scene:

He was given a great ovation that compares with anything ever given Bradman, Lillee or Richards. But it was not the sort of clapping and cheering that greets a hundred. This is different. Everyone stood up. They all knew about Graham’s captivity. He was a big fella, but he was gaunt from his experience, and he just walked round for a while as if in a trance. … Whenever I think of it, tears still come to my eyes.

Two weeks before this match, Williams had been freed from a German PoW camp after four years of captivity.

Graham Williams, recently-released PoW who got a standing ovation at Lord’s for the first victory test.

He was 31kg below his pre-war bodyweight when he walked out to the middle at Lord’s. Despite being so weak that he had to be given glucose between overs, Williams went on to score 53 runs at a-run-a-ball and take two wickets in his forty overs.

In all, 367,000 eager spectators had thronged through the turnstiles of Lord’s, Old Trafford and Bramall Lane. Dick Whitington, who scored 221 runs in the series, recalled the camaraderie between the teams: ‘The English and Australian teams shared the same dressing room. … They travelled to and from the ground in the same motor-coach and stayed at the same hotel. Nobody lost anything by this. Nor did the cricket.’

The Victory Series gave the English public and the players a common focus of celebration of the successful conclusion of the war in Europe.

Cricket was back.

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