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Cricket news - War stops play: World War II stories

The Lord's Cricket Ground played host to the Army versus RAF match in July, 1944

The Lord's Cricket Ground played host to the Army versus RAF match in July, 1944

Over the last couple of months, the world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus. The sporting world hasn't been spared either. From football leagues and the IPL to the Olympics, mega-events have been either postponed or cancelled. In modern times, so many events being closed during peace is unheard of.

So, when was the last time life across the globe came to a standstill? World War II would be considered as one of the most destructive conflicts in history, crippling life across the planet. For six long years between 1939 and 1945, people faced hardships, with over 50 million fatalities. A string of sporting events - from the Summer and Winter Olympics to football World Cups and the Ashes - were cancelled.

It wasn't just about cancellation of events though as Test cricketers like Hedley Verity, Ken Farnes, Arthur Longton, George Macaulay, Maurice Turnbell, Ross Gregory and others passed away while on military service during the course of the war. The likes of Bill Bowes and EW Swanton were taken as prisoners of war. Keith Miller, Bob Crisp, Lindsay Hassett, Reg Simpson, Ray Lindwall, Jim Laker, Martin Donnelly and many others also partook in the war.

However, in the midst of all the doom and gloom, on 29 July 1944, Lord's was set to hold a match between the Army and the Royal Air Force. The war was still on, and to make matters worse, the South-East of England was regularly being hit with V-1 flying bombs. Even flats and houses near to Lord's were coming under severe attack. The Lord's stadium itself had been struck by an oil bomb back in 1940 but with no casualties reported. It was also the time when some grounds were just not fit to be used for cricket matches. In fact, The Oval was set to be used as a prisoner-of-war camp for enemy parachutists.

In such tough times, Marylebone Cricket Club took an active role in holding cricket matches, with Sir Pelham Warner playing a key role in organising them. Warner himself founded a side called British Empire XI while Desmond Donnelly, a British politician and author, initiated the London Counties XI. At Lord's, the Royal Navy, the Army, RAF and Buccaneers also played some games. And in 1944, when the RAF locked horns against the Army, little did the players know that they were about to be part of what would turn out to be an everlasting image of cricketers lying on the ground due to a V-1 flying bomb.

The match attracted a decent crowd, with around 3100 attending the one-innings game. One of the biggest attractions was Wally Hammond returning to England. During the second World War, the legendary England batsman was appointed as a Squadron Leader in the RAF in Egypt. However, he wasn't directly involved in combat, and was posted back to England in 1944. Gubby Allen, Godfrey Evans, Maurice Leyland, Jack Robertson, Charlie Palmer, Simpson, Bob Wyatt, Les Ames, and Bill Edrich were some of the other prominent cricketers who partook in that game.

Eventually, the game commenced at 2pm after overnight rain had delayed the start of play. The Army won the toss and elected to bat. Robertson, the accomplished Middlesex and England opener, gave the Army a decent start. For a while everything was going smoothly and it felt as if a keen tussle would take place between the two sides.

But one hour into play, with Wyatt midway into his run-up to bowl at Robertson, a German aircraft had infiltrated the British airspace, and was lurking around the stadium behind the clouds. The noise was familiar to those who lived during the time of war.

The doodlebug (V-1 bomb) was about to be dropped somewhere around the Lord's stadium. At that juncture, Wyatt had fallen flat on the ground, and was seen holding the ball. The spectators went helter-skelter and took cover wherever they possibly could. The sight of Robertson clutching his bat, Andy Wilson (wicketkeeper), Edrich and Austin Mathews all lying on the ground became an enduring image for generations to come. "The players and umpires lay on the ground, and spectators were to be seen in curious postures in the pavilion and around the ground," Warner later wrote in the book, Lord's, 1787-1945

"What made V1 flying bombs so lethal was that no-one could tell where they were going to land," James Holland, an English historian, author and broadcaster who specializes in the history of WWII, told Cricbuzz. "The missile was propelled by an engine, which, when the fuel ran out, cut and the bomb dropped almost silently. The warhead contained nearly a ton of Amatol, an incredible amount of explosive.

"Normal bombers would be picked up by radio listening and radar and an air raid siren would warn the people of the capital to take shelter. V1s were much harder to pick up before, so gave people less chance to take cover. They really were rather vicious. Those playing cricket at Lord's would have heard the buzz of the engine, heard it cut out, and would have had no idea whether it was going to land directly on top of them or 200 yards away as proved to be the case.

"There would have been shouts, panic, and the players would all have run for cover or flattened themselves on the ground - as the blast spread up and outwards. Since it was a Forces match, the players would have been very familiar with the drill, although so would just about everyone in London by that stage, six weeks after the first V1 dropped on London on 13 June."

Fortunately the bomb landed 200 yards away in Albert Road, and, remarkably, the players showed tremendous courage to continue play. When they resumed, Robertson lifted the spirits by hooking Wyatt into the grandstand for a six. And after some time, the chitter-chatter at Lord's was once again about the game.

The Army accumulated 211 for 8 declared, with David Townsend compiling 52 and Robertson aggregating 42. However, they couldn't force a win as the RAF clung onto a draw, finishing with 129 for 9. As the players trudged back to the pavilion after the match, all of them would doubtless have been pondering about the near-death experience.

Incidentally, a few weeks later, another bomb exploded not far away from the ground while Lord's XI clashed against Public School's XI. However, the threat of V-1 bombs didn't deter the organisers from hosting matches. In early August, a 16000-strong crowd watched in awe as Hammond crunched a majestic 105 for 'England' with Keith Miller composing a dashing 85 for 'Australia' in an unofficial one-day game at Lord's.

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