How to play cricket when you’re dead: tales of players in the...

How to play cricket when you’re dead: tales of players in the The Great War

The First World War changed the world forever. Countries’ borders were re-drawn; communities were decimated and families lost whole generations. Cricket was not immune to the changes. The game itself was heavily influenced and many players were injured or lost their lives. In his first piece for Deep Extra Cover, Michael Chapman looks at the game during the war period and shares the stories of a few of those who died, including one who didn’t let his death get in the way of his playing career.

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Harry Lee bats for Middlesex, Middlesex v Leicestershire, County Championship, Lord's, April 30, 1930

Given the high level of conscription that followed the onset of the First World War, as well as poor levels of attendance at matches and lack of players, it is probably unsurprising that the County Championships of 1915 came to a halt and did not begin again until May 1919. As the war raged on, a lot of clubs closed down and the sport generally went into decline.

Although the Championship was in hiatus, grassroots cricket came to the fore. Charity and school matches grew in importance as morale boosters and were relatively well attended, largely because of the added attraction of watching former County and Test players. In response to the rise in popularity of school cricket, Wisden began to honour younger cricketers. In 1918 it published The Schools Bowlers of the Year and Five Public School Cricketers of the Year in 1919.

It wasn’t just the matches that were affected by the conflict. The pavilions of cricket grounds around the country, including Lord’s and Trent Bridge, were used by the Red Cross to treat thousands of patients.

Conversely, cricket also had its effect on the war. The Mills Bomb was a type of hand grenade first used in 1915 and British soldiers were often trained to throw them using a similar action to that of a bowler.

In the First World War, 104 Cricketers representing English County Championship teams were killed. 127 First Class Cricketers representing Universities and Minor Counties as well as those playing in India, Australia and South Africa lost their lives during this conflict.

Here are just some of their stories:

Percy Jeeves was killed in action in July 1916. He was a right-handed medium pacer, who played for Warwickshire, taking 196 wickets across the two seasons before the outbreak of war. His name may have disappeared into the mists of time had he not been spotted while bowling for his county by P.G. Wodehouse, giving the author the name of the famous valet.

Colin Blythe was seen as one of the best bowlers in the pre-war era of English Cricket. He was a spinner and proficient batter for Kent, known for batting with his right hand and bowling with his left. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1904, and made 4443 runs and took 2503 wickets across 439 first class matches. Blythe was killed in Passchendaele on 8 November 1917.

Kenneth Lotherington Hutchings was regarded as one of English Cricket’s most graceful batsmen. Having represented Kent for ten years in 207 matches, scoring over 10,000 runs and making the list of Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year in 1907, he was killed in Ginchy, France, on September 3rd 1916.

Arthur Edward Jeune “A.E.J.” Collins recorded the highest ever score for an individual batter. At the grand old age of 13, while playing for Clarke’s House against North Town House, he hit 628*. With the ball, he took 11 wickets for 63, cementing his position as a talented all-rounder. Along with roughly 210,000 others, Collins was killed in the first Battle of Ypres on November 11th 1914.

Frederick Key was not a first class cricketer, playing for Litchfield. He worked at the Dunlop factory in Birmingham and was a Sunday School teacher on the weekends. As such, there is little information available on his playing career, but the words he wrote to his parents on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916, have remained with us and reflect his love of the game. He wrote:

If you receive this, you will know that I have unfortunately been bowled out middle peg. But you may be sure that I batted well.

He was killed in battle the next day. He was aged 27.

And then there was Harry Lee.

Lee represented Middlesex between 1911–1934. After being shot at Neuve Chapelle during the Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1915, he was given up for dead and a memorial was held in his honour. In fact, having laid between the lines for three days, he had been taken into German custody and survived the war.

He nearly died again in 1917, when preparing to sail to India to take up a coaching role. He was booked to sail on the SS Nyanza but was switched to the Nagoya at the last minute for unknown reasons. The Nyanza was torpedoed off the coast of Plymouth.

Back in his homeland from 1919, and with one leg shorter than the other and quite withered, he continued to play cricket. He played 437 first class matches, scored over 20,000 runs and took 401 wickets. He played one test match for England, against South Africa in 1931, and after retirement umpired153 games.

After cheating death twice in his life, Lee’s innings finally came to an end on April 21st 1981. At 90, he was the second oldest surviving English cricketer. His brother Jack, an all-rounder who played for Somerset, was destined to die in the Normandy in 1944.

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