Episode 114: Two testaments of cricket and war

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

John Broom has combined his passions for cricket and military history in two books on global cricket in both world wars: Cricket In The First World War Play Up! Play The Game and Cricket In The Second World War The Grim Test. They are both meticulous and moving. He explains his mission in writing them, as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.


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John sought to fill a significant gap in cricket’s historiography. Eminent writers of standard works had all but ignored the wartime years. These were not only full of drama but also represented two lost opportunities to change the course of English cricket. 1-2 minutes

Turning first to the Great War, John describes the mixed response of English cricket to its outbreak in August 1914. The English County Championship wound down and cricketers generally were urged (notably by the elderly W G Grace) to stop playing and serve the war effort. However, the Bradford League in Yorkshire controversially decided to continue and to take the chance to recruit some of the best County players, including Jack Hobbs, Frank Woolley and Jack Hearne. This generated some fierce attacks on the League and its participants. 3 minutes

Cricket had never before had to come to terms with the demands of total war. Some players like Hobbs placed their first duties to their dependent families, others like Woolley and Phil Mead tried to enlist but were surprisingly rejected as unfit due to minor conditions. Most joined up immediately, on the urging of the counties and clubs, team mates often enlisting together in the same unit. The future England captain Arthur Carr joined his regiment from the crease when called by telegram, allowing himself one more over. 4-7 minutes

He contrasts the mixed response of cricket to the outbreak of war with the demonstrative patriotism of rugby union and the much-attacked decision of association football clubs to carry on with their programme. 8-9 minutes Its mixed, even muddled, response preserved wartime cricket from either a total shut-down and mass extinctions of clubs or from general ostracism if it had carried on as usual. 44-47 minutes

He also notes cricket’s very different reaction to the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. There was no belief that it would be “over by Christmas” (as in August 1914) and in business (and cricket) as usual. The touring West Indians went home early to avoid the expected U-boat attacks, although three, Learie Constantine, Manny Martindale and Bertie Clarke stayed on to make notable contributions to the war effort, including cricket. 9-10 minutes

John records some of the notable cricket casualties of the Great War, including Colin Blythe, the Kent and England slow-left arm bowler, and Tibby Cotter, Australia’s express opening bowler. An especially sad wartime loss was Major (his first name, not his rank) Booth, the Yorkshire and England all-rounder, who died in the arms of his team mate, Abe Waddington. The casualties tore the heart from cricket clubs and communities all over the country, and thousands of families (such as that of A E J Collins, the schoolboy who had scored the world record innings of 628) had the further pain of not knowing where their lost one was buried. The 1917 edition of Wisden Cricketers Almanack consisted almost entirely of death notices and tributes: it was snapped up by family members and is now the hardest to obtain. In all, around one in every 11 first-class cricketers of the previous decade were killed during the Great War. Others came back maimed or mentally scarred to the point of suicide. With few opportunities in the war for young players to develop, English cricket took a long time to recover. 11-19 minutes

John has not found any cricketing conscientious objectors in the first war  but cites some examples in the second, including Johnny Lawrence, the future Somerset leg-spinner and, as a cricket school proprietor, mentor of an eleven-year-old Geoffrey Boycott. Conscientious objectors were far more accepted in the second war, partly (he explains) due to Neville Chamberlain. Lawrence during the war years had no problems playing in the Bradford League. 20-21 minutes

John discusses the extensive use of cricket in propaganda and metaphor in both world wars. He cites some notable examples, including Herbert Sutcliffe’s belief that Hitler would have learnt to behave properly if he had been taught to play cricket. 21-24 minutes

John’s books track the impact of both wars on cricket worldwide, and not only in the British Empire, since they were important episodes for American cricket. The wars saw cricket played in all manner of unlikely places, including Iceland and Iraq. The Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo became a notable venue, especially in the second war, with organized matches involving British and Dominion Test stars. Jim Laker learnt there how to bowl offspin. India maintained first-class cricket in both world wars and several English servicemen played there, including Denis Compton for Holkar in the Ranji Trophy. Inter-island first-class cricket saw two record-breaking partnerships involving a young Frank Worrell. 25-34 minutes

The Germans and even the Japanese were willing to allow prisoners of war to play improvised cricket. Bill Bowes wrote vividly about his experience of cricket as a German PoW, shared with Freddie Brown: Jim Swanton, Wilf Wooller and Geoff Edrich were Japanese prisoners of war. Swanton gave moving accounts of the role of cricket in helping them and others survive unimaginable conditions. 37-40 minutes

John describes the effect of both wars in opening up playing opportunities for women, both in new work-based leagues at home and service settings, including active service overseas. 34-36 minutes

John’s books convey the surprising quantity of English cricket played in both wars by top players. It was nearly all one-day cricket. In the second war, the main proponents were the British Empire XI, of overseas stars, and the London Counties XI, whose past greats included Hobbs and Woolley. Dominions and Service teams introduced many young stars, including Keith Miller. Their matches were well-attended and showed a big public appetite for exciting one-day cricket. But John suggests that nostalgia stifled all attempts to reform postwar cricket. All the old features of three-day county cricket returned, including the amateur-professional distinction. Apart from general nostalgia, he suggests that the authorities were anxious to clamp down on the autonomy and status of professionals, especially those who had become officers. 40-44 minutes

Finally, John describes his two-year programme of work on the books (almost immediately hit by the pandemic) and his source materials. For the second war, these included many first-hand memories of people who had played or watched wartime cricket. For the first, the British Newspaper Archive, especially local newspapers, had provided many heartbreaking details of lost cricketers and desperate searches from their families for any scrap of information about them. 51-53 minutes

Cricket In The First World War Play Up! Play The Game and Cricket In The Second World War are published by Pen and Sword

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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