For the historian James Holland, the Victory Tests of 1945 were not merely charged with symbolism; they were rambunctious demonstrations of the wonder of Test match cricket.
Seventy years ago, in the summer of 1945, England played Australia in a series of five Test matches, all of which were charged with a feverish excitement, and which, because they were played following the end of the war in Europe and then in the Far East, became known as the Victory Tests. It was not an official series, and there was no urn to be won, but they were hard-fought, watched by packed crowds, and with the exception of a dull draw in the fourth Test, witnessed some thrilling battles. In fact, it could easily be argued that the summer of 1945 saw some of the most entertaining Test match cricket ever played.
Cricket had not entirely stopped during the Second World War. The last game in England was Yorkshire against Sussex at Hove, which finished the day Germany marched into Poland on September 1, 1939. The great Hedley Verity took six for almost nothing, Yorkshire won, and then headed back north. Britain declared war the next day. The following week, Verity joined up and was later killed fighting in Sicily. He was not the only Test cricketer to give his life, and plenty were wounded or found themselves spending long years as POWs. The majority of first-class cricketers had swapped whites for khaki. This was a world war. Everyone was expected to do their bit – even sporting heroes.
So the County Championship had been suspended and so had Test cricket. For spectators, what remained were exhibition matches between the Army and RAF, or Australian Servicemen versus English Servicemen. It was something, and some big names were playing, but it lacked the competitive edge of a first-class game or a Test match.
Somehow, the Victory Tests managed to rekindle that competitive spark despite the lack of official status. Nor were the matches a showcase of the finest cricket ever witnessed between the two countries, but they were full of exceptional characters, included a number of both cricketing and war heroes, and they managed to capture the mood perfectly: there was a palpable sense of relief and gratitude, and a celebration of a fabulous game that could be played freely rather than under the looming threat of the swastika. And this extraordinary series, played in a spirit that has rarely, if ever, been bettered by the two great rivals, was to be defined by the emergence of a young Australian cricketer whose free hitting, stunning fielding and ferocious bowling delighted packed crowds. Keith Miller, a fighter pilot in the RAF, demonstrated that summer a devil-may-care joie de vivre that has rarely been matched in Ashes Tests. “We were all servicemen,” he said, “happy just to be alive and fit and well.”
Returning to captain England was Wally Hammond, now 42, and past his prime, but still a colossus of the game. Also included in the team were Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook and Bill Edrich, all freed from active service. With Verity and Ken Farnes now dead, and with Bill Bowes still recovering from his time as a POW, it was nonetheless a much-depleted side. Nor was there any sign of Denis Compton, who was still serving in the Far East, as was the upcoming batting talent, Reg Simpson.
Australia, on the other hand, were without Don Bradman, who managed to duck out of war service with a ‘back injury’, and were instead dependent on a small handful of Australian soldiers still in Britain – such as their captain, Lindsay Hassett, and a larger proportion of airmen who had been flying with the RAF, many of whom would only ever have this one, golden moment to represent their country – men such as the spinner Reg Ellis, and dashing batsman, Ross Stanford. The latter had been the Royal Australian Air Force’s leading batsman in 1944 despite flying Lancasters for 617 Dambuster Squadron between matches.
And then there was Miller, who had only just begun to make a name for himself back home in Australia when the war had begun. In the summer of 1945, he was still flying Mosquitoes, and in early May, with the war almost over, he had nearly come a cropper during a low-level attack on a German airfield. The aircraft following him was hit and exploded, while Miller had been forced to fly back to base with a napalm tank hanging loosely from his Mosquito’s underside.
Just under a week later, the war in Europe was over and Miller was playing in the first Victory Test at Lord’s alongside several players who were far from match-fit. One of those was the Australian, Graham Williams, emaciated after years as a German prisoner of war. When it was his turn to bat, Miller was still at the crease with a hundred under his belt. Emerging through the Long Room and onto the pitch, Williams received a spontaneous and deafening standing ovation. “It was,” Miller later recalled, “the most touching thing I have ever seen or heard, almost orchestral in its sound and feeling. Whenever I think of it, tears still come to my eyes.”
The first Test kept the cricketing excitement going until the very last ball, after Hammond sped up the over rate to give the Aussies a sporting chance of reaching the target: 107 were needed in the 70 minutes left on the last day to give them victory. It was a total they managed to overturn in the last over.
The war was over, the first Victory Test done and dusted, and yet for men like Miller there were still flying duties. On June 28, he was en route for an operation over the Ruhr when his Mosquito suffered engine failure and his starboard motor caught fire. With a wooden wing construction on the Mosquito, this was a potentially fatal disaster, but fortunately the fire extinguisher successfully dampened the flames and he was able to make it back to base in England on one engine. Getting there was one thing, landing was another, and as he touched down, the Mosquito bounced, the undercarriage folded, and the aircraft slewed on its belly. A similar crash-landing had killed an Australian squadron leader the week before, but both Miller and his navigator emerged unscathed.
Then it was back to cricket, and five more Tests – at Bramall Lane in Sheffield, at Old Trafford and three more at Lord’s. The five-Test series was eventually drawn 2-2, but the extraordinary summer of ‘Victory cricket’ was not yet over. Rather, the season culminated in a Dominions versus England Test at Lord’s at the end of August, and was dominated by Miller, who scored a stunning 185 in just 165 minutes. He slayed the England bowling to all parts in that innings, taking 14 off the first over, and hitting the pavilion roof with one six that fell into a hole made in the tiles made by shrapnel. There were seven maximums in all. Sir Pelham Warner, former cricketer, president of the MCC and guardian of the wartime game, declared he had never seen such hitting in all his long life.
The display struck a chord with all those who watched it. His innings was a leitmotif for the moment: the joy of peace, of having survived, of realising that life was to be lived and above all, enjoyed. That summer, Miller had been asked before one of the Victory Tests about the pressure of playing Test cricket. “I’ll tell you what pressure is,” he responded. “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Cricket is not.” Cricket was about entertainment, about sportsmanship. And it was supposed to be fun. No cricketer should ever forget that most important tenet.