By 1939, English cricket was facing a polarisation of financial fortunes between the county and international game. Surrey, traditionally one of the strongest counties, was unable to produce a balanced budget despite finishing 3rd in the 1938 County Championship. Their immediate prospects were not helped by the requisitioning of The Oval by the military in the summer of 1939. Originally intended for use as a prisoner of war camp, the county would not be able to use the famous old ground until after the war. Surrey’s August home fixture against Lancashire had to be switched to Old Trafford.
By 1940 Surrey CCC was in a quandary, having lost The Oval, The intention was to tour the county and playing local clubs and services XIs. Eventually nine matches were played. The club had been reorganised on a wartime footing, with a skeleton administrative staff being retained and a sliding scale of payments to their players, based on their earnings. The Surrey Committee had been calling ‘since the earliest days of the war to get support for the formation of a Cricket Competition for 1940 but … the project had to be abandoned’. The club’s yearbook also stated that coaching for schoolboys would continue at the Sandham and Strudwick Indoor Cricket School.
Alec Bedser and his twin brother Eric had made their county debuts in June 1939 and were amongst the beleaguered and bedraggled troops fleeing towards the French coast in the face of the German blitzkrieg of the early summer of 1940. Having both joined the RAF, they were present at Merville airfield on the Franco-Belgian border when the shout went up that ‘German bombers are coming over’. They ran with a comrade into a field. ‘The German bomber was about 200 feet up and we were at his mercy. We were lucky, the tracer bullets passed between us.’
As they stood on the crowded lanes leading to the Channel port, Alec and Eric were growing increasingly anxious about their chances of making it back to England. An army van then drew to a halt beside them and the driver shouted, ‘I can’t leave you behind.’ It soon transpired that he was a member of Surrey CCC. Having eventually reached the coast, the twins huddled beneath the cliffs to the south of Dunkirk before a rescue boat picked them up and transported them back to England.
By 1941 with most of their first team regulars, including Errol Holmes and Alf Gover, having joined the services, Surrey continued to field a Colts XI. On 30 August, Alec Bedser dominated the match against East Molesey, top scoring with 53 out of a total of 175, then dismissing the opponents for 50 with eight for 10. Bosser Martin, the groundsman responsible for The Oval featherbeds of the interwar years, including the pitch on which England had racked up 903-7 declared against Australia in 1938, retired after fifty-one years’ service with the club.
A match in June between a Fathers’ XI and Kimbolton School saw the last of 244 recorded centuries scored by Surrey’s `Master’ Jack Hobbs. His friendship with the headmaster, William Ingram, also saw the great man coaching pupils at the Huntingdonshire school on Wednesday half-days.
Surrey again organised a round of matches at the county’s out grounds to give their Colts an opportunity to develop. Under the care and encouragement of Andrew Kempton, Surrey Colts drew from all classes of society. Kempton wrote: ‘The lads who have comprised this side have come from Public Schools, Secondary Schools, and village clubs, and their enthusiasm for each other’s success has made the experiment well worthwhile.’
Although not directly related to the prosecution of the war, the death of the popular former Surrey batsman Andy Ducat brought sadness to the cricket world in general. Playing for Surrey Home Guard against Sussex Home Guard at Lord’s on 23 July, 56-year-old Ducat collapsed at the crease and died suddenly of a heart attack. Cecil Somerset, a member of the Sussex General Committee who had been fielding close by, told Home Gordon:
Oddly enough, as Ducat came in I thought that though the oldest, he looked by far the fittest man in the match. He ran a very short run and before he had quite recovered his breath played the next ball. It was a yorker and he jabbed it hard with the bottom of his bat. Then he fell down, collapsing, and though his pulse just flickered for half a minute, he was completely unconscious and death was virtually instantaneous.
By 1943 the county’s pre-war financial deficit had metamorphosised into a surplus of £1,359 9s 7d, reported at the club’s AGM. Much of this amount was being set aside to cover ‘the very heavy cost of reconditioning The Oval after the war’.
Whit Monday, 14 June, saw the raising of what was thought to be the largest sum of money from one match in aid of the Red Cross, as the spectators enjoying the encounter between Cheam and Surrey Colts donated £500 to the noble cause.
Among those who would miss the English summer season were the Bedser twins. Eric and Alec had been despatched to North Africa. The former wrote to Norman Preston, ‘Life would not be worth living from our point of view if we were separated. This may sound peculiar but anyone who has a twin can appreciate what I mean.’
An indication of the improving status of the professional cricketer was the election of Jack Hobbs to the Surrey Committee. With typical modesty, Hobbs remarked, ‘I regard it as a high compliment to the professional cricketer.’
One of Hobbs’s committee colleagues, colts captain Andrew Kempton, was to experience the promise of youth and the anguish of loss in 1944. One of his charges, 19-year-old Aircraftman 2nd Class Brian Wildbore died on 4 September. More encouragingly the season marked the debut of the 14-year-old Tony Lock, who ‘showed promise’.
Post-war Surrey stumper Arthur McIntyre had been wounded in the Anzio landings, and was recuperating in a convalescent home near Bari. Transferred to the role of Army physical training instructor, McIntyre helped establish a service ground there; its perfect situation by the Adriatic was complemented by a monumental effort to flatten and smooth the playing surface with a bulldozer and heavy roller. The wicket was of matting over a concrete surface, and sightscreen and scoreboxes were made and erected. Seating accommodation was built for several hundred spectators. Marquees were set up for serving refreshments and loudspeakers provided a running commentary on the action. Scorecards were printed and convivial lunches were enjoyed by the spectators.
Stan Squires, the Surrey batsman, claimed to be the only first-class cricketer to have taken part in a match in the Hebrides. An RAF sports officer, Squires was responsible for the laying of a concrete wicket, complete with matting, at one station and, when weather permitted, a good time was enjoyed. A sand dune half the size of a house at cover point presented quite a problem but also raised many a laugh. The fielder would lurk out of sight and then emerge as the batsman set off for a second run, causing a run-out. Squires was experimenting with wearing contact lenses when batting. Described as ‘invisible glasses’, they had been used by many airmen in the war. Post-war he continued to wear them while representing Surrey.
As with many county clubs, Surrey’s post-war line-up had a familiar look to it. The county offered contracts to fourteen of their pre-war seventeen professional players. More bizarrely, the club also managed to appoint an unintended captain. Major Leo Bennett, a well-known club cricketer, had been earmarked to fill the space left by Monty Garland-Wells’s late withdrawal. Meanwhile, Major Nigel Bennett arrived at The Oval to renew his club membership, was taken to the club chairman and immediately offered the captaincy, which he accepted. His inexperience led to him rolling the ball back along the ground for overthrows from the bowling of an astounded Alf Gover, and asking off-spinner Jim Laker to open the bowling. Bennett retired at the end of the season with a batting average of 16 from his thirty-one first-class matches, with Surrey finishing a lowly eleventh in the table.
From an uncertain pre-war situation, and despite the loss of their headquarters for over half a wartime decade, Surrey would go on to dominate the County Championship in the 1950s.