I saw an intriguing picture the other day while leafing through a book called Cricket – The Golden Age by Duncan Steer. You will see the image at the top of this piece.
It is unusual for a sporting image of the 1930# because nothing is happening. It is fairly unusual for a sporting image of the 21st century. There is usually something going on, if only a celebration or a mid-pitch chat, and action photography remains fantastic. But here, nothing is happening.
At first, with the smartly turned out wait staff, you think it must be some sort of country house match, of the sort hosted by the wealthy industrialist Sir Julien Cahn during the 1930s. You almost expect Bertie Wooster to be one of the players. (Many readers will be aware that Wooster’s celebrated manservant, Jeeves, was named after Percy Jeeves, a young and highly talented all-rounder who played for Worcestershire before the First World war and played for the Players against the Gentlemen in 1914. He was killed in action at the Somme in 1916.)
Anyway, Bertie Wooster is not in the picture. But astute observers will have noticed that somebody even more famous is. The figure sitting, padded up and thoughtful, in the foreground, is the great Australian batsman Don Bradman.
The photograph was taken during a drinks break in what was universally regarded at the time as one of the most thrilling of all Test matches, the fourth Test between England and Australia at Headingley in 1938.
It must have been taken during the second afternoon, when Bradman scored a century. As will be seen that is remarkable because that second day was noteworthy for being incredibly dark and presumably cool.
Almost nobody else is recognisable. The England batsman Joe Hardstaff Jr is about to return his glass to a waitress. Behind him stands the other Australian batsman, I think (by a process of elimination) Mervyn Waite.
Bradman, as so often, stands, or on this occasion, sits, alone. Behind him stands, poised, a waiter, almost like a personal factotum, apparently wondering whether he should interrupt the great man’s reverie with an offer of refreshment.
This was Bradman’s third tour of England, and his third Test at Leeds. In each of the first two he had made triple centuries. He had captained Australia in the previous Ashes series Down Under in 1936-37, which Australia won three- two after losing the first two matches. The England captain now was his great batting rival, Wally Hammond.
1938 was a remarkable tour, and series, in a number of ways. Bradman was in unstoppable form from the start. For the second time he reached a thousand runs before the end of May. He finished the season with an average of 115.66, making 13 centuries in. 26 innings.
The first two Tests were high-scoring draws. There were seven centurions at Trent Bridge, of whom Bradman was one; England’s rising stars, Len Hutton and Denis Compton, also made hundreds, Eddie Paynter made a double. Australia’s Stan McCabe made 232. Bradman summoned his teammates to the dressing room balcony: “Come and see this. Don’t miss a moment of it. You will never see the like of it again.”
At Lord’s there were double centuries for Hammond – playing in his most grand and regal manner – and the Australian opener Bill Brown. Paynter made 99 in England’s first innings, and keeper Les Ames 83. Bradman scored 102 not out in Australia’s second innings; he had made centuries in five successive Tests, all against England. The bowlers on both sides had struggled so far; there had been no five wicket hauls.
The third Test, scheduled for Manchester, was abandoned without a ball being bowled, because of rain. The Australians then played a remarkable game against Yorkshire, at Bramall Lane, Sheffield, and almost lost. Then came the fourth Test, at Headingley.
England had selection problems because of injuries to Hutton and Ames. Ames was going to be replaced by the eccentric Yorkshire keeper Paul Gibb, who was also a fine batsman, but at the last moment he pulled out with injury and the gloves went to the Middlesex keeper Fred Price. There were recalls for fast bowlers Ken Farnes and Bill Bowes, who were also no batsmen. There were two spinners, the highly experienced left armer Hedley Verity, and the rookie leg spinner Doug Wright. With Price batting at seven there was a long tail. Australia were unchanged from Lord’s save that Waite replaced Arthur Chipperfield.
Hammond won the toss and chose to bat. It soon became clear, however, that this game was going to be very different from Trent Bridge and Lord’s. The wicket turned out to be difficult right from the start. Of the England batsmen only Hammond was able to master it: he made 76 out of England’s total of 223. Australia’s great leg spinner Bill O’Reilly took five for 60 in 34.1 overs. Australia were batting on the first evening and when Brown fell to Wright’s first ball keeper Ben Barnett came in as nightwatchman to join Jack Fingleton.
Fingleton and Barnett began watchfully and well on the Saturday morning, until, at the beginning of the second hour’s play, the former was bowled by Verity for 30; 87 for two. Barnett batted in all for two hours and his dismissal brought in McCabe to join Bradman. But there was to be no repeat of McCabe’s Trent Bridge heroics; Farnes knocked his off stump out of the ground just after lunch.
It was at this point that it began to get extremely dark. Neville Cardus said that he had “never before seen (or just seen) first-class cricket played for so long in a light as bad”. It seems astonishing now that there was no sightscreen at the pavilion end. Bradman himself later said that he could see matches being lit in the stand (remember, everybody smoked).
There was some surprise that the batsmen did not appeal against the light, as they were allowed to do (as indeed were the fielding side). The concern was that if rain came, which seemed plausible, the wicket would get worse, so it made sense to get as many runs as they could now. But conditions were perilous enough. As Cardus put it, after lunch “the Australians were like lost souls in a November fog – being led about by Bradman and his torch.”
Bradman made 103 out of 148 scored while he was at the wicket, in about three hours. Cardus said it was undoubtedly one of his greatest innings, totally assured and confident, full of powerful drives and adroit glances to leg. While he was in Jack Badcock made four, Lindsay Hassett 13, and Waite three, in 45 minutes. They did eventually appeal against the light, successfully, just before tea.
Australia were eventually out for 242, a lead of 19. Charlie Barnett and Bill Edrich took England to 49 for no wicket at the close.
The game came to its thrilling conclusion in the late afternoon of the third day. The match winner was O’ Reilly, who took five for 50 (including Hammond, Compton and Hardstaff) as England were bowled out for 123 (Paynter 21 not out). At one point they had been 73 for one, and they seemed to be in charge. Such was the significance of O’Reilly’s performance.
That left Australia needing 105 to win the match and retain The Ashes. It turned out to be one of “those” targets. There were 35,000 people in the ground, and another 12,000 locked out. Excitement grew as Australian wickets started to fall. Brown fell leg before to Farnes for nine, then Fingleton to Verity for the same score. That brought McCabe and Bradman together, which seemed a pivotal moment. But they were both out to Wright, and it was 61 for four. Bradman wrote later about the tension in the Australian dressing room. He simply couldn’t watch, and had to have an account of events from others.
In the end the hero was the unflappable, audacious, diminutive Hassett who made what must surely be the greatest 31 in the history of Test cricket.
Australia won by five wickets. A G Moyes, Bradman’s biographer, said it was the finest Test he had ever seen. The report of the match in Wisden called it “a fine test of skill [which] had many glorious moments …and was often thrilling to watch.”
Australia had retained The Ashes but England could still draw the series. As in 2019, they did so, thanks to Hutton’s gargantuan 364 at The Oval. Bradman twisted his ankle in the field and did not play again on the tour.
And of course he did not play again in England until Australia’s next tour, in 1948. (He was not part of the Services team which played five “Tests” in England in 1945.)
Everybody had to take a break from what they were used to, rather as we are now. There was no first-class cricket to speak of anywhere. That lasted six years. Hopefully our global crisis won’t last quite that long. When the War ended, things picked up again soon enough. MCC toured Australia in 1946-47, and Hammond and Bradman renewed their mutually respectful, if wary rivalry.
But, however challenging our global pandemic appears to be, war calls for challenges of a unique nature – I write as a member of what must be the luckiest generation in British history – and cricket is not immune.
Pilot Officer Kenneth Farnes, of the Royal Air Force, was killed on the night of 20 October 1941 when the plane he was in crashed. He was 30.
Captain Hedley Verity, of the Green Howards, died of wounds in a prisoner of war camp in Italy on 31 July 1943. He had suffered the wounds during the Eighth Army’s attack on the German position at Catania, in Sicily. He was 38.
Share this Post