Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated on June 28, 1914. Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August, and on Austria-Hungary on 12 August. The Great War – or the First World War, as they would later call it – had already been in motion by then. But that did not bring the County Championship to an immediate halt despite numerous calls from both the press and the public, not even after the Army took over The Oval as a prisoner-of-war camp.
And yet, MCC refused to call off the Championship. In fact, they issued a statement on the lines of “no good purpose can be saved at the moment by cancelling matches.”
It eventually took a letter from WG Grace to the editor of The Sportsman, on 27 August, to bring a swift end to the farcical operation of the tournament. The War took its toll on Grace: he remained under constant stress before dying of a heart attack on 23 October in 1915.
Four matches were still played on 31 August, but they generated no interest. In fact, Gloucestershire could field only ten men against Surrey, who were declared champions. It was obvious that cricket could not continue under these circumstances.
All able-bodied Englishmen were summoned to the frontier. As many as 210 First-Class cricketers died in World War I, of whom 11 were Test cricketers. There were many others who played cricket at other levels. More and more copies of Wisden were sold – for the obituaries of these men.
Cricket was restricted to the schools that remained open. There were some matches, often featuring a big name or two, but it was really after the Armistice that serious cricket resumed. The Australian soldiers in Europe formed the Australian Imperial Force Touring XI. They played 46 matches in Britain, South Africa, and Australia.
Herbie Collins, Jack Gregory, Nip Pellew, Johnny Taylor, and Bert Oldfield, all of whom played for the Australians, would become stars in the early days of cricket after The War. This was not Test cricket, but this helped lift the morale of the people in a nation ravaged by war.
A similar sequence of events took place after the Second World War. Matches were played during the War, especially at Lord’s. This was not competitive cricket, but matches used to raise funds for the armed forces or the people. Some were played just to lift the morale of the people, and it worked. They paid for cricket despite an economic crisis so bad that basic supplies like bread had to be rationed.
The interest rose with the Victory Tests, five unofficial “Test” matches played immediately after the War, between England and the Australian soldiers who fought in Europe. The proposal came from Australian Prime Minister John Curtin, shortly after Germany surrendered on 9 May 1945. The War was still on (Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in August), but Winston Churchill agreed.
While this was not a full-strength Australia team, it featured Lindsay Hassett (who would succeed Don Bradman as Australian captain in 1948), a young Keith Miller, and several leading First-Class cricketers.
The first unofficial “Test” was played at Lord’s. The crowd (including men in uniforms) had queued from the previous night. The gates opened at 10 am and had to be closed by 11, for it was a full house.
The cricket was played in terrific spirit. The Australian squad played 21 matches in Britain (including the five “Tests”), 10 in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and against all six Australian states before they could return home.
A total of 331 thousand people had attended Lord’s for all matches in 1939. In 1940, the first full year of the War, the count dropped to 53 thousand. By 1944 it had risen to 167 thousand. In 1945 – thanks to the three Victory Tests at the venue – it surpassed the 1939 count.
As with World Wars, sports, especially cricket, has often been used by governments to help the people recover their morale. At the time even government intervention was not needed. The Australian GDP had fallen by 10 per cent between 1929 and 1931, during the Great Depression. Unemployment soared to 30 per cent by 1932. Life became harder. Suicide rates went up.
And amidst that, Australia sought solace in two sporting heroes that conquered the world: a thoroughbred racehorse named Phar Lap; and Don Bradman. Bradman’s achievements in 1930 did more than lift the morale of an entire nation. The Times wrote how “he was, for the army of the unemployed, their beacon of hope.”
Closer home, the two governments took great initiatives to ensure India toured Pakistan in 1978-79 to play a bilateral series the first time in 18 years. There was an encore in 1998-99, when the teams played after a nine-year break. The two nations fought at Kargil later that year, but India toured Pakistan again in 2004.
To be able to bring a nation together despite its many problems is something sport has always been able to. And for nations where it has been popular, cricket has been the sport of choice for governments.
South Africa chose cricket as among the first steps during their return from exile in the early 1990s. It is cricket that holds the Caribbean Islands together despite them not participating as one in almost any other field, sport, or otherwise.
Even the Taliban, who had banned all sporting activity in Afghanistan, made an exception for cricket in 2000, following which it took Afghanistan less than two decades to attain Test status. As with other countries, cricket played a great role in giving an entire nation reason to cheer – and why not? Not many teams, after all, feature cricketers who have risen from war camps to reach the highest level.
Thus, when the world begins its recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic, expect sport to assume a key role. A return for any field obviously helps professionals in the relevant space, but the role of sports, as history has taught us, goes beyond that: the people need to be reminded that there is still hope.
And in India, a country that has come to standstill on numerous occasions during cricket matches even when everything is normal, there is little doubt that cricket plays its part.
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