Cricket in the shadow of the monster

The final day of first-class in England for nearly six years took place on Friday 1 September 1939 at Hove. The final round of County Championship matches were cancelled but, as the editor of The Cricketer Annual observed, “we were, perhaps, lucky to have enjoyed almost a complete season’s cricket, as for weeks past we have been listening to the flapping of the wings of the Monster, and his shadow was around us and above us. He never left us.”

As the players arrived for the start of the final day of the Sussex v Yorkshire match at Brighton, news was breaking of Germany’s invasion of Poland. Yorkshire, who had already secured the Championship, were given the option of abandoning and returning home but decided to carry on out of respect for Sussex stalwart, Jim Parks, whose benefit match this was. A E R Gilligan described the decision to play on as “the real Drake spirit”, conjuring up an image of Sir Francis finishing his game of bowls as the Spanish Armada sailed up the English Channel.

Superficially, it was an idyllic English seaside festival game – the sun shone out of a clear blue sky, a band played and tea and cakes were served – but the impending catastrophe of war cast a long shadow. Yorkshire’s Herbert Sutcliffe, an Army reservist, had already been called up and was missing from the side. Up and down the country children were preparing to be separated from their parents and evacuated, gas masks were being distributed and back-garden bomb shelters erected.

Yorkshire won the game thanks to a sensational spell of bowling from left-arm spinner, Hedley Verity, who finished with figures of 6-1-9-7, but such was the strained atmosphere that this “magnificent feat scarcely raised a handclap” (according to his Yorkshire colleague and friend, Bill Bowes).

The Yorkshire players were due to travel home by train but there were no seats to be had because of the evacuation so they hired a coach. The roads were full of traffic fleeing London and, by nightfall, when a blackout came into force, they had reached only as far as Leicester. They stopped there overnight and had a final dinner together with champagne and oysters before resuming their journey at first light. In the words of J M Kilburn, “it was a sad and silent party… and thence departed their several ways one of the finest county teams in the whole history of cricket. It never assembled again.”

At 11:15am on Sunday 3 September, the country gathered around their wirelesses to listen to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sombrely confirm the worst fears of an anxious nation. As Sir Home Gordon put it in that autumn’s edition of The Cricketer Magazine, “England has now begun the grim Test match against Germany… we do not merely wish to win the Ashes of civilisation. We want to win a lasting peace with honour and prosperity to us all”.

Hedley Verity had been preparing for war since the Munich crisis of 1938. Despite Neville Chamberlain’s claim that he had secured “peace in our time”, Verity began to immerse himself in military textbooks, at the instigation of Lieutenant-Colonel Shaw (his future battalion commander). Although his peripatetic lifestyle as a professional cricketer precluded him from joining the Territorial Army, Verity wanted to ensure that, when the time came, he could transfer his tactical nous from the cricket field to the battlefield.

During Yorkshire’s unscheduled stop in Leicester on the night of 1 September, Verity and Bowes sat up late into the night discussing how best to serve King and country. Both were determined to enlist but Bowes’s wife was expecting a baby in October, so they decided to delay doing so until after the baby had been safely delivered. In the meantime, they joined the local Air Raid Precautions unit in Guiseley (north-west of Leeds).

The day after baby Bowes was born, the two Yorkshire colleagues enlisted with a searchlight unit in Bradford. They were too large for regulation uniform but their friend and fellow Yorkshire and England player, Herbert Sutcliffe (who by now was a captain in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps), sourced them something suitable.

When the opportunity arose, Verity enlisted with the Green Howards but Bowes had a long-standing knee injury which meant he “was unable to do the necessary crawling along hedge bottoms”, as he put it. Instead, he joined a gunnery Officer Cadet Training Unit.

Verity was subsequently died of wounds on 31 July 1943 after being shot and captured during a raid in Sicily. Bowes was captured at Tobruk and spent the rest of the war as a POW. I have written about his experiences as a prisoner, including an extraordinary game of cricket, here.

The great Yorkshire side of the late 1930s

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