Home Cricket through the Wars Ray Smith – `Inspiration was his forte’

Ray Smith – `Inspiration was his forte’

by John Broom

Amongst the many cricketers who lost many of their prime playing years to the Second World War was Essex all-rounder Ray Smith. Aged 26 when the conflict started and 32 when his first-class career resumed in 1946, it is a reasonable conjecture to make that he would have earned at least England cap had Herr Hitler not intervened.

Ray had played exactly 100 first-class matches before the first-class cricketing fires were extinguished at the end of 1939. A fast-medium swing bowler, who could also turn his hand to off-spin, and a hard-hitting lower-order batsman, Ray was rejected from the Army due to having flat feet, and the Royal Navy due to an inability to swim.

However his contribution to the nation’s war effort would be threefold – he enlisted as a Special Constable, undertaking ARP work in the Chelmsford district; his work on the family farm at Little Waltham helped to keep the nation’s depleted wartime larders stocked; finally his prominence in the organisation and playing of wartime charity matches across the UK helped to raise thousands of pounds for wartime charities, and put smiles on the faces of war-anxious Britons.

The cancellation of the first-class cricket programme might have left the cricketing authorities in a quandary had they not had the experience of the First World War to draw on.

Following two summers of disharmony in 1915 and 1916 as to the correct role for cricket in a wartime society, it had been deemed acceptable by MCC officials to arrange regular charity matches featuring high-profile players. As conscription was introduced for all those deemed fit for armed service from 1939 onwards, there was no opprobrium meted out to the cricketers of the Second World War.

Plum Warner, a leading light in First World War charity cricket, received with some enthusiasm the idea of a 19-yearold RAF recruit named Desmond Donnelly for a wartime British Empire XI which would play weekly charity matches around the London area. The idea soon took shape.

On 1 June, as Operation Dynamo (the evacuation of Dunkirk) entered its final frantic hours, the British Empire XI beat the London Fire Service by 144 runs. Amidst the reports of the heroism of the ‘little ships’ aiding the evacuation, the Sunday Mirror of 2 June carried a report on the match.

100 in 45 Minutes!

It might have been a county match for an hour or so at Lord’s yesterday. H.T. Bartlett (Sussex) and Ray Smith (Essex), playing for the British Empire XI, so flogged the London Fire Service bowling that they scored 100 in 45 minutes.

Smith scored 55 in a total of 290 for 6 before taking three for 42 as British Empire XI won by 144 runs.

The Daily News of 3 September reported that Ray Smith of Essex would captain the British Empire against an Army the following Saturday at Mill Hill. Sadly, no scorecard remains from that match but a snippet from the Daily Mirror recorded that Ken Farnes had lost his cricket bag on the North Circular Road on his way home from the match, ‘It is thought that the bag fell from the back of the car in which Farnes was a passenger’. Whilst the identity of the driver, possibly Ray Smith returning with Farnes to Essex, remains unknown it is significant that Ray had been invited to captain a side which contained at least one prominent amateur player.

Whilst it had been necessary, on occasions, for teams bereft of a ‘suitable’ amateur to have to pass the baton of leadership to a professional, it still remained a rarity. Whilst Ray and other former professionals representing the British Empire XI played as amateurs, the democratisation brought about by wartime exigencies meant that a man was now in charge of team which included players of a previously differentiated status. Ray had been one of the Essex professionals who just five years earlier had been reminded of the need to avoid such unbecoming conduct as addressing amateur players by their Christian names. Now he was leading them, and presumably not asking ‘Mr Farnes’ if he would like to change bowling ends.

Ray’s first appearance for the XI during the 1941 season came against Cambridge University on 16-17 May. He was once again granted the honour of captaining the side, despite the presence of former England skipper Bob Wyatt. 24 May saw P.F. Warner’s XI take on the British Empire XI at Lord’s. The match was a personally successful one for Ray, despite him ending up on the losing side. His seven for 69 included the wickets of three Test batsmen – Bob Wyatt, Charlie Barnett and Denis Compton.

Spectator journalist Oliver Warner was present and blended details of the play with a wider reflection on the significance of wartime cricket in his essay:

Last Saturday – appropriately enough Empire Day – two resounding teams met at Lord’s for the biggest…match of the season…

Lord’s was there all right, the turf as green as the lack of rain had allowed, and still lovingly tended, still patched with the relics of other pictures. The pavilion was full, the red tabs of the higher staff glowing from a distance, khaki mainly, but mixed here and there with the blues of the other services.

The public was not comparable in size with that for so good a match in peace time, despite a mere sixpenny admission. But it made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers…There were even score cards, and boys to sell them, so like old times it was.

The weather it was true, was not kind. The clouds were low; the light poor. Wind stretched the flags over the pavilion towards the Nursery End…one felt that the heavens did not wholly approve. Like so much else in battered London, it was something achieved under handicaps, though gaily done, and with the old dignity.

To all appearances, this was indeed first-class cricket…Nichols, for instance, played as if in full match practice, with his county rising in the championship….Essex, in fact, did well, for R. Smith bowled for the opposite side with great distinction, taking 7 for 69…

There was no tip-and-run atmosphere about it. The ritual was as solemn as ever, and the sound of leather on willow as sweet to the ears…Some of the players felt the ball lovingly between the overs.

There is, in fact, a defiant 1941 Lord’s season, stretching through June, July and the whole of August. A summer without cricket of any sort is as unthinkable as the swastika flying over the Lord’s pavilion, with one of those boringly impressive spade-swinging ceremonies profaning its green and luminous peace. We are not to be so deprived, and it is up to any who can to see and enjoy these future matches. Their organisation…is gallant, and they bring heart when most need it, with a solid glimpse of a better future.

Ray also played in several other scratch fixtures during the season. On Whit Monday, a strong RAF batting line-up including Charlie Barnett, Bill Edrich and Cyril Washbrook was bundled out for 51 by The Rest XI, with Ray and Stan Nichols claiming five for 11 and three for 18 respectively.

Throughout the season Ray had more than held his own against some very high-class opponents. One can speculate whether it crossed his mind that an international call-up might have come his way in the normal course of events.

1942 saw Ray handed the captaincy of the British Empire XI on a permanent basis. His son Guy recalls the existence of a letter from Plum Warner offering him this position and commiserating with him on being rejected for active military service.

The make-up of the British Empire XI began to change, with previously familiar faces missing due to the ever-increasing demands of the services. One new arrival for 1942 was Trevor Bailey, considered the best all-round public school cricketer of the war period. At the time, the man who would later earn the soubriquet ‘The Barnacle’ was considered an alert, attacking batsman with a splendid defence, a lively varied and judicious fast bowler and a beautiful slip or cover fielder.

Ray gave a wonderful display of hitting in a two-day match against Peterborough Town on 27 June, amassing 138 in seventy minutes, including 32 in one over. His innings included nine 6s and thirteen 4s and gave a foretaste of the striking power that would see him win the accolade of the fastest century of the season in three post-war seasons.

Ray seems to have captained by committee when he had experienced county pros in his side. The Sunday Mirror of 19 July headlined:

‘Skipper asks his team’

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