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How Australia helped rebuild English cricket in 1919

How Australia helped rebuild English cricket in 1919

War heroes from Australia helped save international and county cricket in England, after a tour of England and Scotland in the summer of 1919

Following the First World War, English cricket was in a state of disarray into which the Australian Imperial Forces team stepped. Comprised of men waiting for demobilisation, the AIF XI were well-received by cricket-hungry crowds on their tour, helping hugely with ailing county finanaces and assuring that the Ashes contests would resume the following year in 1920.

These unsung Australian cricketing heroes and intrepid soldiers, as well as their tour of 1919, are covered in-depth in the new book, From Darkness Into Light: The war heroes who helped save cricket from oblivion (Pitch Publishing) by John Broom and Anthony Condon.

This excerpt provides some samples of the challenges that cricket in both England and Australia were facing.

Anxieties begin

The difficulties of arranging a representative Test side were raised almost immediately. Journalist Alfred Pullin was described by Wisden as “one of the foremost authorities on cricket and football in English journalism”. Writing under the pseudonym Old Ebor in the Yorkshire Evening Post, he wrote that a representative English side could not be put together until county cricket was “thoroughly re-organised”.

"The greater concentration of cricket in Australia, centred on just a handful of cities, made it easier for the Australians to rebuild"

He noted that although Australia would have a similar problem, the greater concentration of cricket in Australia, centred on just a handful of cities, would make it easier for the Australians to rebuild.

Lord Harris has his doubts

A portrait painting of Lord Harris from 1919
A portrait painting of Lord Harris from 1919. Credit: Arthur Hacker / Bridgemanimages (Wikimedia Commons)

Lord Harris, newly elected MCC treasurer, and president of the Cricketers’ Fund Friendly Society, concurred. Speaking at a meeting of the Cricketers’ Fund in July he more fully expressed the problems facing English cricket, following what he assumed was an imminent victory in the war.

Harris believed that due to the loss of men during the war, there would be not only fewer players available, but those who were available would need to work more, further restricting their ability to play cricket. In addition, there would be fewer spectators. This meant that when first-class cricket did resume, it would be at a lower volume.

Relative strength

However, the Star Green ‘Un dismissed the idea that military losses meant the side could not be representative, as although the teams would be depleted “we should know the reason and be proud of the way the missing heroes have played their part in the greater game”.

"The discussion of whether or not Test status was appropriate for them would continue almost up until the beginning of the tour"

Although at this stage this was not yet a conversation about the strength and representative nature of a military side versus a true national Test side, this discussion regarding the relative strengths of the teams and whether or not Test status for them was appropriate would continue almost up until the beginning of the tour.

Harnessing Australian cricket

AIF XI come out to bat in SheffieldThe Australian Imperial Forces XI cricket team come out to field at Bramall Lane, Sheffield in June 1919. Credit: Australian War Memorial (Public Domain)

What the cricketing establishment in England could agree on was that Australian strength could be harnessed for the benefit of English cricket. If the strengths of the sides was the great pessimistic talking point of the two years leading up to the start of the tour, the great optimistic talking point was the benefit the tour could have for English cricket.

In conversation with Lord Hawke at the end of March 1917, Pullin discussed the benefits of an Australian tour, writing “hence it looks as if the Colonials will have to come to the assistance of the Motherland, in cricket just as they are doing in the fateful days of war”.

"An Australian tour at the end of the war would be very helpful in getting the counties financially solvent again"

Although money was rarely discussed there was always the implicit understanding: Australian tours usually brought in a lot of money to the counties, and therefore an Australian tour at the end of the war would be very helpful in getting the counties financially solvent again after the lean years of the war. The Star Green ’Un echoed these sentiments, stating that an Australian tour would be “just the sort of tonic which first-class cricket will be sadly in need of”.

Plum Warner gives his approval

English cricketer PF "Plum" Warner
PF "Plum" Warner. Credit: Beldam, George W.; Fry, Charles B. (1905) Great Batsmen: Their Methods at a Glance, London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, p. 509 (Public Domain)

The idea was supported by another of the English cricketing establishment’s giants, PF “Plum” Warner, who would become one of the driving forces behind the tour. Speaking to the London Cricket Conference in early March 1917, Warner positioned the potential tour as important to Australian interests, because “if the game did not flourish in England, cricket in Australia would also be affected” as “the success of cricket in Australia really depends upon the success of cricket in England, and the visit of an English team is everything to Australian cricket”.

Rebuilding England to rebuild Australia would become a common refrain in the years to come. Warner did not seem daunted by the prospect of a representative game as “the fortunes of war had favoured neither side”, instead preferring to speculate on the “young men unknown to fame” who would fill the spots of the fallen.

From Darkness into Light book cover

From Darkness Into Light: The war heroes who helped save cricket from oblivion (Pitch Publishing) by John Broom and Anthony Condon is out now, £25

Banner photo: Australian Imperial Force XI cricket team. Credit: Australian War Memorial

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