Home Cricket through the Wars War & The Empire XI

War & The Empire XI

by David Pearl

In the photograph collection of the Australian War Memorial is a fine photo of Dr C.B. ‘Bertie’ Clarke.  The caption says he is hitting “round to a ball from 432462 Pilot Officer Desmond Robert (Bob) Cristofan in the cricket match between the RAAF and a British Empire XI at Lord’s” in May 1945.  Leaving aside the oddity of “hitting round” (it seems he has pulled the ball behind square), we know a little more about this match, played on 12 May, 4 days after the German unconditional surrender, from a little booklet entitled ‘Shadows Over The Wicket.’

It was written by E.Hoskin, the Official Scorer of the British Empire XI, and published in 1946 for 3/6d.  He tells us that a “somewhat weakened Empire XI succumbed to the powerful RAAF side by 6 wickets.”  There happens to be a photo of the Empire team taking the field, with the lower tiers of the pavilion well filled.  True, Trevor Bailey, who headed their batting averages in 1945, was absent, but they still managed to call on the New Zealand Test wicketkeeper, Ken James, Walter Robins, Harry Crabtree and Francis Appleyard,who had played for Essex, Ray Smith, their young Essex captain, Clarke, who had played for the West Indies, the Kent batsman Peter Sunnucks, Halliday of Yorkshire and Felton who played for Middlesex.  The Aussie airmen must have been some side.  It transpires that Keith Miller was playing and scored 50.  But the day’s best performance came from the slow left-arm bowler, Reg Ellis, with 8 for 22.

Coincidentally, the historic cricket photos site recently put up a picture of RAAF groundcrew playing at cricket in 1942.  This curiously posed photo suggests that none of them walked out at Lord’s.  Their playing strip seems to have been heavily bombed.

Returning to Ernest Hoskin, his slim booklet is a fascinating glimpse of wartime cricket, written in an incurably and relentlessly upbeat tone and full of the laboured humour that was common in writing of that period. The XI was formed for charitable purposes and to give the touring side of professional and other strong cricketers opportunities to play during the War.  He showers the players with superlatives.  Ray Smith, the captain, was vastly popular, inspired, showed enterprise and enthusiasm, set a magnificent example, was a brilliant fielder, considerate of others and exceptionally keen.

Bertie Clarke was the star, a leg spin bowler who must have bamboozled batsmen.  In the 4 seasons, 1940 to 1943, he took 428 wickets, performed the hat trick 4 times and took 10 for 29 against the Metropolitan Police in 1941.  He could bat, too, taking apart the unfortunate Police side for 74 and 85 in 1940.

The team was the invention of the 18 year old Desmond Donnelly who later became a Labour MP.  He cuts a sad figure in political history and during his career was less of a team player than the Empire XI years might have suggested.  He was a member of four political parties.  But, for devising this wartime team he would always have a place in cricket history.

It was a wandering club and they enjoyed playing at pretty grounds, as Hoskin makes clear.  They visited 90 grounds in the 6 seasons.  Careful scorer that he must have been, he lists them, first in alphabetical order, and then sets out the prettiest, including Epsom, Datchet, Pinner and Woodford Wells.

While he mentions that the cricketers would travel far to get a game, he leaves to the imagination the wangles and stratagems required for servicemen to get released for a cricket match.  The heartache of trying to raise an eleven can also be inferred from his section, ‘Opposing Clubs Loaned Players’.  (“All praise is due to them for helping the Tourists over their difficulties and most grateful thanks are here extended.”)

We can also guess that these village and town clubs went to some lengths to assemble teams that might beat the XI and its First Class players.  “The Games were not by any means always easy to win, for the opposition encountered was in several cases much stronger than perhaps it was expected to be.”  Forensic enquiry into their places of residence would not always have established a local connection.

Nevertheless, as we would expect of the tactful and cheerful Mr Hoskin, “all of the Tourists’ matches were played in the finest spirit, being thoroughly enjoyed by both sides.”  Moreover, it is clear that they drew large crowds, or the “ever-enthusiastic public” as he terms them.  “…both clubs and followers simply would not be denied their cricket.”  Half a million spectators turned out during the six seasons.  What he calls “this most happy state of affairs” was illustrated “throughout the aerial attacks.”  Did they really carry on setting the field, measuring the run-up and taking guard while ME 109s were flying overhead?  Perhaps so, as he commends players and crowds “for their pluck and resolve in keeping cricket going so strongly under such adverse circumstances.”

After voicing these sentiments, he tiptoes onto the more problematic topic of European history.  “One ventures to state unhesitatingly that had the noble game been taught on the Continent, wars would in all probability be unknown.”

Some of the cricketing feats seem to have been epic.  Harry Crabtree scored 4,328 runs for the XI in 129 innings.  In 1944 he completed 1,000 runs for the season, on 1 October.  Bertie Clarke with his leg spin and googlies took 665 wickets.  He also took a running catch in a 1944 match at Lord’s against the Dominions that some thought was the best they had ever seen.  With players of the calibre of Learie Constantine and Denis Compton occasionally turning out, the spectators would have had a feast of entertaining cricket.

Feasts also get a mention when Hoskin turns to the topic of teas and lunches, expressing astonishment at the “lavish catering … throughout so many years of drastic food restrictions.”  Once again we can imagine the desperate measures taken by the clubs (or their “lady members”, as he calls the tea-makers) to put good food on the table at a time of rationing.

Large sums were raised for the Red Cross and other charities, signed bats were auctioned and socials took place after the matches. This, surely, must have been a great release for the cricket-starved public and it is no surprise to read that thousands would attend the matches.  The last match was played at Kenton on the last day of September 1945 and many thousands turned up.  There were speeches at “the very substantial luncheon”, including one from Will Hay as well as Learie Constantine who later scored 23 in 9 minutes.  There was a printing press at the ground and score cards were produced at the fall of every wicket, which gives some idea of the organisation involved and the importance of the occasion.

What of Mr Hoskin?  We know nothing of the Official Scorer.  We gather that he loved cricket and the company and badinage of its players – he writes nostalgically of the train journeys to matches and the pranks and practical jokes they played on each other.  He must have been able to attend many of the 243 games the XI played.  In my imagination he is a retired accountant with a passion for accurate scoring and record-keeping.  One of the more unusual statistics is the record of the distances travelled to matches – 5,910 miles in 6 years: “counted from the London terminus … which makes an average of only 26 miles per match.  Our journeys really were necessary!”

Perhaps there is a cache of scorebooks that has been passed down the generations.  It is a pity we know nothing more about him.  But, writing enthusiastically of this astonishing touring team, with cliches, misprints, appalling jokes and all (no lessons from Will Hay, there), he wrote an important book, a record of an extraordinary cricketing enterprise.  It shines a searchlight on a neglected aspect of the social history of the War and ought to be more widely known.  As he writes, almost inevitably,  “Well played the Empire XI!”

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