On September 1st 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland. Two days later Britain declared war. All but one cricket county championship was abandoned. Sussex and Yorkshire played on as it was George Cox’s benefit. Hedley Verity took 7-9 in dismissing Sussex for 60. By the time Yorkshire had won there was no transport and they had to hire a charabanc to travel back to Headingley. Cyril Washbrook, stuck at Crewe Station for Lancashire, recorded that young conscripts were travelling hither and thither.
Cricketers too were conscripted and some were to play a leading role in the war. Bill Edrich and Keith Miller were RAF pilots. Others like Hedley Verity and the Northamptonshire skipper Roger Nelson, under whom they won their first game in 3 years against Leicestershire, lost their lives. Len Hutton had his arm shortened by two inches and remodelled his stance. Bernie Constable went to war as a leg spinner, lack of practice meant he returned as a batsman. Some were prisoners of war. Legendary writer Jim Swanton has recorded how much a worn copy of Wisden meant to those kept in terrible conditions in a Japanese prison camp. Freddy Brown and Bill Bowes did return from POW camps greatly weakened. In rugby the South African Okey Geffin used his wartime imprisonment to practice his penalty kicking and after the war was immensely proficient at it.
In other sporing fields, the lack of any Olympics nullified the achievements of Gunder Hagg, a Swedish athlete who lowered record after record and might have beaten Roger Bannister as the first sub 4 minute miler. He set the record in 1945 and it was to last until that famous day in May 6 1954 when Bannister broke it.
Of the 338 cricketing soldiers who played in the 1939 championship, 17 died and 102 never resumed the game. Bramall Lane and The Oval were severely bombed. Cricket was played regularly in the one day game at Lords and there some county friendlies. First class cricket returned in 1945 with tests between England and an Australian Services XI. At Lords in August Learie Constantine captained a Dominions XI to victory. 2 years earlier Learie Constantine was refused admission to the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square because the staff, in calling him a nigger, believed his presence would be unacceptable to their American guests.
By 1946 both the Championship abandoning the 8 ball experiment of 1939 and Football League resumed. In the golden Summer of 1947 Bill Edrich and Denis Compton uplifted the nation scoring 7,355 runs between them. Alec Bedser observed that the war was the making of cricketers, after that he was never nervous when he played. Others like Verity and Nelson, Major Maurice Turnbull and Flight Lt Gerry Chalk, DFC did not survive to test Bedser’s theory.
In writing this article I would like to accredit and acknowledge Stephen Chalkes’s superb volume Summer Crown, the story of Cricket’s County Championship. The best compliment I can pay to his scholarship, descriptive prose and editing is that thanks to Parcelforce I have had to wait 5 days not so patiently for delivery from the kind Ivan Conway for my collector’s copy beautifully bound in light blue for Sussex fans but it was well worth it.