Oborne & Heller on Cricket

Two testaments of cricket and war

March 14, 2023 Peter Oborne, Richard Heller, John Broom Season 1 Episode 114
Oborne & Heller on Cricket
Two testaments of cricket and war
Show Notes

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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