Lost Seasons

Lancashire Hotpot, by T.C.F. Prittie. Hutchinson, [1948?]

The Lost Seasons : Cricket in Wartime, 1939-45, by Eric Midwinter. Methuen, 1987.

In ‘Full Score’, published in 1970, Neville Cardus recounted the story, which he had originally told in his ‘Autobiography’, of how he had been in the Long Room at Lord’s in August 1939, shortly before the invasion of Poland, to watch Middlesex play Warwickshire.  Observing two workmen removing the bust of W.G. Grace, an elderly member had turned to him and said ‘Did you see that? That means war’.  Cardus added, rather plaintively, ‘Nobody has believed that actually it did happen, yet it is true’.

The truth of his story has certainly been questioned : Eric Midwinter, in ‘The Lost Seasons’, asserts that Cardus was already in Australia at the time, whereas Christopher O’Brien, in ‘Cardus Uncovered’, prefers the theory that he was on holiday in Derbyshire.  If it is debatable whether he witnessed the last day of the last first-class season in England before the war, there is no doubt that he was not there to see the first day of the first full season after it (by which time he was undeniably in Australia). 

It was, though, witnessed by his successor as Cricket Correspondent of the ‘Manchester Guardian’, Terence Prittie or, as he appears on the title page of ‘Lancashire Hotpot’, The Hon. T.C.F. Prittie (the honorific derives from his having been a son of an impoverished Anglo-Irish peer, as they mostly were, by that point). ‘Hotpot’ appears to be a compilation of pieces written for the MG in the course of the 1946 season, predominantly match reports, mixed (in the manner of a hot-pot) with some player-portraits, and a few opinion pieces.  It is another book that I bought some time ago (2015, judging by the receipt inserted as a bookmark), but have yet to read : now, given that he is describing the return of cricket after a long absence, seemed like a propitious time.

Had Cardus been there to report on the first day of the season, when Worcestershire took on the Indian tourists at New Road (or even if he had been on holiday in Derbyshire), I imagine that he would have summoned his famed ‘lyrical’ powers to convey the joy and relief of being able to watch cricket again after six years of war.  Prittie took a more restrained approach, his first paragraph reading :

The first match of any cricket season is an event.  But the first match of the 1946 season was something quite particular.  For six years there had been no regular first-class cricket, no county championship with its packed programme of matches, which are, in a sense, more vital to the cricket enthusiast than the gladiatorial Test Matches of the year.  To everyone who came to Worcester … the match meant a return to normality, a return to the old way of life in the nineteen-thirties, which may have been bustling but was not necessarily frenzied, lastly it meant a more faithful truce than the VE and VJ days which somehow did not bring the settled reality of peace.’

One might have expected some more extravagant expression of a sense of release, given that the author had been taken prisoner at Calais in 1940 and had spent the rest of the war in prisoner-of-war camps, where he organised games of cricket and, somehow, managed to contribute articles to ‘The Cricketer’. In that time he made six unsuccessful attempts to escape, which makes my occasional trips to Sainsbury’s to buy items that are not, strictly speaking, essential seem pretty small beer.

Prittie’s wish for a return to an unfrenzied normality was partially fulfilled : for the most part, the season he describes might have taken place in 1936, or 1956.  Like any good cricket-writer (or any ordinary spectator), he has his foibles and his favourites, his bugbears and hobbyhorses.  On that first day at Worcester, rather than wasting time in reflecting on the pleasures of freedom, he gets well and truly stuck into Cooper and Gibbons of Worcestershire for failing to take enough short runs (a recurrent theme of his) :

Cooper developed one maddening trick, that of playing a junket-soft stroke to the off-side and then starting off on a meaningless little scamper with his head down – four paces up the pitch and four back again. … This antic of his was as meaningless as the ma oeuvres (sic – standards of proof-reading had yet to the return to pre-war levels) of the Palace guards on the square at Monte Carlo.

… By their studied laziness, Cooper and Gibbons lost 15 runs at least while they were together and as a result their stand of 41 fell below the run-a-minute level.  Cooper at one period went almost to sleep in a small three-foot square vacuum of his own creating.  He seemed no longer in touch with the game outside the narrow orbit of his meticulous but restricted footwork and only a painful deflection on to his own chin brought him back to life.’

This, of course, appears to be a complaint, but it is also a covert celebration : what could better exemplify a return to pre-war normality than being frustrated by slow scoring batsmen, or having nothing worse to worry about than that?

The passage illustrates the essence of Prittie’s style : while less self-consciously ‘literary’ than his predecessor, he was capable of some wonderfully humorous word-pictures, interspersed with some severe, and occasionally gratuitous, dismissals. Although I doubt whether he spoke with quite the same accent, I was sometimes reminded of Terry Wogan’s commentaries on the Eurovision Song Contest. At Worcester, the heavily-sweatered Gul Mahommed ‘was a barrel of white wool’.  Cyril Washbrook’s ‘innings are as tasteful and elaborate as a petit-point design’. In a phrase that seems to compete with (or parody) Cardus, Hammond’s cover drive ‘rippled across the ground as quickly as sunlight falling on lake water’.

Zoological comparisons were a favourite of Prittie’s. ‘Three times’, he tells us, Walter Robins ‘came out to Pollard with a skip and a dive, as light and volatile as a redshank on the saltings’.  Armanath ‘goes for’ Hutton’s legs ‘like a prison dog for a convict’. After some uncharacteristically aggressive strokes, Winston Place ‘like the mole after his sun bath … withdraws to the quiet and stillness of his usual domain’.  ‘Bedser’s antics’ are ‘like a roving retriever’.  Of Hammond : ‘a cricket ball is engulfed by his huge hands with the same finality with which a bun disappears down an elephant’s throat’.

In a survey of English spinners, James Langridge is dismissed as ‘reliable, but ageing and infinitely tedious’.  Phillipson’s defence is ‘exact, but hopelessly senile’.  Mankad is ‘as hard to shift as a piece of dough on the bottom of a frying pan’..  Judge ‘perpetrates his 0 with the same certain regularity as a well-trained hen’.  Roberts is simply ‘negligible and erratic’.

Tails were a curious preoccupation. Lancashire’s is, variously, ‘long and erratically motile’ or ‘quivering’ ; England’s is ‘brawny, but ineffectual’, or ‘long and limp’.  ‘For strokeless ineptitude and a sad lack of resilience, the Middlesex tail-enders were even exceeding expectations’.

Through this mass of detail and stylistic quirks, the retelling of long-gone and mostly long-forgotten games, a season lost to memory re-emerges to replace the one we have so far lost to disease.  Long-gone, and mostly long-dead, players are conjured back to life to fight old battles, rising up from the ground like a skeleton army – and less vividly the immortals (the Huttons, Comptons and Hammonds) than the half-remembered ones (Winston Place, Dick Pollard), and those now unknown  (who, after reading Prittie’s description, would not want to learn more about Cooper and Gibbons, the ‘hopelessly senile’ Phillipson, or the ‘negligible’ Roberts, not to mention ‘Iberian-dusky W.E. Jones and the monastically abstinent Lavis’?)

The frontispiece to the book

is captioned ‘Old Trafford on a damp and dismal day in May.  The roof of the Pavilion is still war-scarred’ and, however strong the desire to return to normality may have been, some of the scars left by the war were still unhealed in 1946 (and were to remain so for some years after).

Military references abound : Roberts lets go of his bat in the course of a hook, and the square-leg Umpire ‘ducked with a wary economy of movement which any man who has watched a V-1 bomb coming at his nose has learnt to cultivate’.  Lancashire go on ‘the offensive, for another cheap wicket would have let their bowlers in among the tail-enders like German panzers in a French digging battalion.’  ‘The Middlesex bowlers launched a final-hour assault which for courageous desperation resembled the German drive in the Ardennes in 1944’.  References to Dunkirk may now have become irksome, but Prittie feels entitled to employ them, as one who may have narrowly missed out on the evacuation.

One side-effect of the war was that Leicestershire were forced to play their game against Lancashire at Barwell (other games being played at Hinckley, Ashby and Melton), having found that when they had reconvened at their Aylestone Road ground it had been damaged by bombing and the electricity works had encroached on to the outfield.  There Prittie, although initially charmed by the rustic setting, was seriously unimpressed by the behaviour of the crowd, leading him to urge that ‘cricket must not … be allowed to become the cockshy of the bucks and bumpkins whose spiritual homes are the prize-ring and the greyhound track’ (some aspects of post-war cricket cannot have been entirely to his taste).

Part of the return to normality was that, for the most part, the counties fielded substantially the same sides that had turned out for them in 1939, the professionals having generally been honourably kept on a retainer throughout the war (minus, of course, those who had died, and a small number who had retired). This meant, in turn, that there were a far from normal number of players in their thirties, forties, and even fifties (J.C. Clay of Glamorgan, one of the leading wicket-takers in 1946, was 52).

Part of the return to normality was that, for the most part, the counties fielded substantially the same sides that had turned out for them in 1939, the professionals having generally been honourably kept on a retainer throughout the war (minus, of course, those who had died, and a small number who had retired). This meant, in turn, that there were a far from normal number of players in their thirties, forties, and even fifties (J.C. Clay of Glamorgan, one of the leading wicket-takers in 1946, was 52).

Prittie (apart from his occasional references to ‘senility’) does not labour this point, but Eric Midwinter, in his invaluable ‘Lost Seasons’, provides the detail.  The Yorkshire side who won the Championship in 1946, for instance, contained eleven players who had featured in their winning side of 1939 : only Herbert Sutcliffe and Arthur Wood had retired, and the replacement for Hedley Verity, Arthur Booth, who had made his 2nd XI debut as long ago as 1923, was older than Verity, at 43.  As Midwinter puts it

A Rip Van Winkle of the 1940s, having avoided military service with the assistance of a six year doze, might have been forgiven for not realizing that time had slipped away over English cricket fields’.

He might, though, have an inkling that something about those sides was not quite right.

The England side that took the field in the Tests against India benefited from a core of batsmen who had made their debuts shortly before the war, and who were now still in their prime, even if they had lost many of what should have been their best seasons : Hutton (30), Washbrook (31), Compton (28), Hardstaff (34) and Bill Edrich (30) to accompany Hammond, who, even at 43, topped the first class averages in 1946 with 84.90.  The youngest four continued to be the backbone of England’s batting for the next ten years.

The bowling, however, had been weakened by the deaths of Verity and Ken Farnes.  Bill Bowes and Bill Voce (both 37) were tried, though Voce had last played for England in 1936, and Bowes’ health had been badly affected by his period in a POW camp.  Dick Pollard and Frank Smailes, neither young nor generally thought to be of Test standard, were given games, as was the 38 year old Alf Gover : only Alec Bedser, making his debut at the age of 27, offered much hope for the future, and he was to have a lot of bowling to do in the immediate post-war period.  Other than Bedser, the nearest thing to a purely post-war cricketer in the side was Godfrey Evans, who had made his debut for Kent in July 1939, and turned 26 on the rest day of his first Test match.

Midwinter identifies the cause of this post-war malaise as ‘the unknown warriors of the lost seasons’ – the players who were too young to have played pre-war, and had no opportunity to serve the usual apprenticeships during the war years, the worst affected being those born between 1924 and 1928.   Although the pre-war generation were enough to carry the batting, the seam bowling continued to be overly reliant on Bedser until the emergence of Trueman, Statham, Tyson and Loader, all born between 1929 and 1931, as were Peter May, Tony Lock and Ken Barrington.  Colin Cowdrey followed in 1932.

Apart from the fact that I am rapidly running out of things to read, I originally dug out Prittie’s book in the hope, I think, of experiencing a vicarious sense of elation at being able to return to cricket after a long period of deprivation and confinement.  More generally, I do not find it helpful to look to the war to illuminate our current predicament (if we employ the coping mechanisms appropriate to wartime we find ourselves in the same position as hedgehogs curling into balls into the face of oncoming traffic), but, where cricket is concerned, it is difficult to think of another precedent.

The parallels are clearly not close, even leaving aside the obvious large disparities in danger, deaths and deprivation.  Even if the entire county season were to be abandoned, there should be no danger of another ‘lost generation’, no test player will lose six years in the prime of his career, and the England team should be able to pick up more or less where they left off in the Winter.

However, as Midwinter’s book reveals, the current situation is, in one respect, worse than in wartime, in that far more cricket took place during the war than is commonly thought, simply not first-class cricket.  Having learned the lesson from the first war, when playing cricket of any description was, initially, severely discouraged, the authorities, recognising the role sport could play in maintaining morale, positively encouraged as full a programme as was practical.  Two all-star teams, the professional London Counties XI and the amateur British Empire XI featured prominently, playing against ad hoc county XIs, services teams, schools, Universities and others.  To have no cricket being played at all is unprecedented.

Enough matches were played for Carlos Bertie Clarke, who had toured with the West Indies in 1939, to take almost 750 wickets for the British Empire XI (he was to stay on after the war, to work as an NHS doctor, and play as an amateur for Northamptonshire).  Pre-war veterans Joe Hume (who went on to manage Tottenham Hotspur) and Harry Crabtree of Essex made over 4000 runs each, and Frank Lee, of Somerset, managed over 5000.  Keith Miller, Trevor Bailey, Alec Bedser and Reg Simpson all did enough to establish reputations.  None of these feats, however, made it into the record books because they were all made in one, or sometimes two-day games (timed, rather than limited overs, and with the unusual playing condition that the side batting second would continue after they had won, to give the crowd a full day’s entertainment).   

Wartime games could attract large crowds, according to Midwinter, often in excess of Championship attendances in the later ‘thirties, when they were (as usual, it seems) in decline.  His contention is that the flowering of cricket after the war (hampered by a sodden Summer in 1946, but definitely in full bloom by 1947) was not so much due to a desire to return to pre-war normality (as Prittie felt) as to satisfy a new appetite for aggressive and entertaining cricket stimulated by the experimental one-day games of the wartime years.

Midwinter is also of the opinion that the resumption of the Championship, much as it had been in 1939, represented a missed opportunity, and a victory for conservatism.  In his view, it would have been the ideal time to, at least, introduce a one-day knock out cup, and – I am afraid – to reduce the number of counties (as recommended by the mercifully forgotten Findlay Commission in 1937).  Inevitably, one of his proposals was to merge Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.  This is, I am afraid, where the contemporary parallels become uncomfortably close.  Even what is likely to be, by comparison with the war, a miniscule rupture in the continuity of first class cricket presents an opportunity to those who would like to see a wholesale reordering of it, and the financial consequences of the enforced break, which were not a factor during the war, make the prospects of returning to the ‘bustling, but not necessarily frenzied’ days of 2019 when cricket resumes precarious.

Prittie appears to have covered cricket for the ‘Manchester Guardian’ for a second year (and authored a second book), before returning to Germany to act as that newspaper’s Bonn correspondent.  A prolific author, he wrote, among many other works about Germany, generally complimentary biographies of Adenauer and Willy Brandt, before becoming a forceful advocate for the state of Israel.  A life well lived, no doubt, but I should imagine that his pieces about cricket were missed.  He was an entertaining and idiosyncratic writer, and I should have liked to have heard more from him.