With the country in lockdown the 2020 cricket season is on hold, but this is not the first time domestic cricket has been affected by world events. Both World Wars commenced late in the cricket season. We look back to the First World War and two amazing games that year.
1914 was the 25th season of county championship cricket in England. The campaign started on 2 May and was due to finish on 9 September but, on 28 July, war came to Europe and the world. County cricketers with military commitments, such as Sir Archibald White, the Yorkshire captain, left their teams to do their national duty but the County Championship was not immediately abandoned. On 6 August, the MCC issued a statement saying that “no good purpose can be saved at the moment by cancelling matches”, and so games continued. For a few weeks anyway.
In August Yorkshire, minus White, who was replaced by George Hirst as skipper, travelled to the West Country to play in what would prove to be two remarkable fixtures, firstly against Gloucestershire at Bristol in a game starting on 24 August, and then Somerset at Weston-super-Mare.
At Bristol the Tykes won by an innings and 227 runs after Gloucestershire won the toss and elected to bat, a decision that looked ridiculous when they were shot out for just 94 runs in their first innings. Yorkshire used just two bowlers: Major Booth (Major being his Christian name not a military title) and Alonzo Drake. The visitors then racked up 405 before blowing the home side away for an even more paltry 84 in the second innings. And, once again, Yorkshire only employed their two opening bowlers – the first time in four years in a Yorkshire fixture that two bowlers bowled unchanged throughout an entire game. Booth finished with match figures of twelve wickets for 89 runs and Drake eight for 81.
And so onto Somerset and the very first game of the very first Weston festival. The home side’s playing staff were mostly unaffected by the war but were still not expected to offer much opposition to the mighty Tykes. If Drake was buoyed by his efforts in Bristol a few days before then he would have also taken confidence from his performance in Somerset one year previously when he returned incredible match figures of seven wickets for 7 runs in 10.5 overs, taking four for 4 in the first and three for 3 in the second innings as Yorkshire cruised to a win by an innings and 132 runs.
The newly laid pitch at Clarence Road had been subjected to heavy rainfall but Yorkshire decided to bat having won the toss. They slumped to 114 for six and were grateful to half-centuries from Denton and Drake as they limped to a semi-respectable 162 all out. Jimmy Bridges took a fivefer for Somerset. Success with the bat did not appear to calm Drake’s competitive nature and he and Booth bowled unchanged once again to shoot Somerset out for just 44 in under one hour, with three home batters recording ducks and only Ernest Robson getting double figures. The wickets were equally shared; Booth’s five for 27 runs and Drake’s for 16.
Yorkshire’s second innings was no better than the first with Bridges taking another four wickets to reduce the visitors to 112 all out. Somerset needed 231 to win the game. If this was deemed unlikely at the innings start then it appeared all but hopeless when they slumped to 52 for eight. The home team eventually limped to 90 thanks to a ninth wicket stand of 37 between Hope (appropriately named maybe) and Harcombe. Yorkshire won by 140 runs.
For a second game Yorkshire had two bowlers bowl throughout an entire match with Drake becoming the first Yorkshire player to take ten wickets in an innings. His ten for 35 contributed to match figures of 15 for 51 runs while Booth grabbed five for 77 in the game as both enjoyed a remarkable week where they had single-handedly bowled the opposition out for 94, 84, 44 and 90. Since Drake’s achievement only Hedley Verity (twice), and Frank Smailes, have taken all ten wickets in an innings for Yorkshire.
It was the pinnacle of both player’s cricket careers. Rotherham-born Drake had started life as a professional footballer, clocking up over 160 league appearances for Doncaster, Sheffield United, Birmingham and QPR between 1902 and 1909 when he joined Yorkshire. A heavy smoker, he suffered from ill health and died in Honley before WW1 ended in February 1919 aged just 34.
Booth, from Pudsey, took 603 wickets for Yorkshire in his career and played twice for England. He was named one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Year for 1914 finishing third in the bowling averages (Drake finished fourth.) He became Second Lieutenant Major Booth of the West Yorkshire Regiment and died in action on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, aged just 29. This was tragic for the game and for Yorkshire, whose president Lord Hawke said at the time: “England lost one of the most promising and charming young cricketers it was ever my lot to meet.”
Despite their “business as usual” approach, cricket could no longer continue to ignore news of casualties on the beaches of Europe and a public backlash led to attendances plummeting. On 27 August The Sportsman published a letter written by W.G. Grace in which he declared “I think the time has arrived when the county cricket season should be closed, for it is not fitting at a time like this that able-bodied men should be playing cricket by day and pleasure-seekers look on.” Subsequently the remaining games were abandoned with the last four matches finishing on 2 September. Surrey were handed a seventh County Championship after final positions in the table were calculated by the percentage of possible points gained.
There were more important things than sport going on in the world and it would be another four years before cricket returned.