James Holland’s piece on cricketers’ gravestones originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.

Archie Jackson had been a teenage run-machine and, at 19, the youngest to score a Test century on debut – a stunning 164 against England at Adelaide in 1928/29. Blessed with exquisite timing and placement, he could play all around the park. Modest, self-effacing, charming and good-looking, he was universally adored – the perfect Australian cricketing hero (though born in Scotland). But by the time of the England tour in 1930, he was a shadow of his former self. Despite a diagnosis of tuberculosis, he continued playing – though not at the highest level. Early in 1933, he went downhill fast, and he died at a private clinic in Brisbane, not far from the Gabba, on February 16.

Jackson’s body was taken by train to Sydney amid a national outpouring of grief. At his home in Wright’s Lane in Drummoyne, large crowds gathered for his funeral, including boys clutching bats and stumps. The procession to the Field of Mars cemetery extended over a mile, everyone walking the four-mile journey. Among the pall-bearers were Don Bradman, Bill Ponsford and Stan McCabe.

An old friend lives not far from the cemetery, and I asked him to visit the grave, which lies in the Methodist section. No one else was there, so he could stand in undisturbed contemplation. The gold lettering on the red marble stone was clear, if not as bright as family names added since, among them his sister, who died in 2003, aged 96. Above the words “OUR DEAR SON” are a bat, ball and stumps; weeds grow in the rectangular bed in front, and the urn has no flowers. The grave is barely visited; few seem to care.

We hail the heroes of the day, thrill to see our favourite player score a hundred or take a glut of wickets but, once they retire, most disappear from view – and mind. The game moves on. Matches from the past look so dated. Footage of Viv Richards or Ian Botham can still delight us. We get a sense of the deadly potency of Michael Holding coming off his long run, or Dennis Lillee tearing in, all chest hair and wild moustache. Shane Warne will live on, and the Ball of the Century will continue to inspire awe. But push further back, and we have to rely on grainy, staccato, black and white film, or the words of Neville Cardus, to convince us of the greatness of past players. And, personally, I’ve never been entirely convinced.

Many old cricketers fade, die, and attract barely a backward glance. The fabulously named Julius Caesar was a case in point: a Surrey man, veteran of the first All England tour of North America in the autumn of 1859, as well as of Australia and New Zealand. In 1864, he was granted a grand testimonial match in recognition of his contribution to the game. Then tragedy struck. While out shooting, he accidentally discharged his gun and killed a beater, a shock from which he never recovered. His wife died suddenly and young, and his second son threw himself in front of a train. Caesar died aged 47 – and was buried a pauper in an unmarked grave. There he would have remained, had it not been for local historians in Godalming who discovered his tale, and erected a headstone in Nightingale Cemetery in 2004.

Caesar was forgotten by most outside Surrey, but what of more famous names? John Wisden lies in Brompton Cemetery, in west London, where he has a black marble grave, installed in 1984 by David Frith, then the editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, and William Gray. There are many demi-mausoleums and soot-stained angels in this haven of Victoriana, but not for Wisden. He is down a side path and, while his stone remains clear and unblemished, his neighbours are overgrown with brambles and weeds. I felt indignation on his behalf. And what of WG? He was living at Mottingham in suburban Kent in 1915, and had become deeply troubled by the threat of Zeppelins, which were terrorising parts of the south. A friend tried to goad him out of his gloom, saying he had seen off many a terrifying bowler, so why should he worry about these monsters? “I could see those beggars,” growled Grace. “I can’t see these.” Having suffered a mild stroke, he had a bad fall trying to raise himself from his sickbed. Soon after, his heart gave up.

A generation of young men – including many cricketers – were being slaughtered on the Western Front, but there was still shock and sadness that a great had died. First the war, now Grace: confirmation that the curtain had fallen on a gilded age. The King sent his condolences, and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in The Times: “Few men have done more for the generation in which he lived.” Despite the war, a good crowd, including Lords Hawke and Harris, attended his funeral and burial at Beckenham Cemetery.

I travelled to what is now south-east London to see his resting place. The cemetery lies close to Birkbeck station and, coming down the steps,  I was greeted by a sign for The Graces Bar & Grill, which suggested I was getting warm. On the other hand, there was no hint of WG; perhaps the current owners decided an association would “no longer have relevance for a younger clientele”, or some such. There is no bat, ball or beard in sight.

Around the corner, opposite a nondescript building of flaking white paint with a sign for Steven Mears Funeral Directors, is the entrance to the cemetery. Through the gate, it was quiet: hardly a soul about, except for workmen repairing a path. A tree had come down and, for a moment, I wondered whether it had crushed WG’s grave. It consists of a bright white cross and surround – not quite as big as the grey cross next to him, but bigger than most. The day was grey, many of the graves were grey, and so was my mood: it was dispiriting to find the great man here. If the plot was a flash of whiteness, the grave had subsided a little, with the cross at a slight angle, suggesting a lack of care. To encounter such a vivid, colourful character amid this drabness was underwhelming.

On the train back, my mood picked  up. Few might visit his grave, but WG is not forgotten; the real giants of the game do live on. And he has his gates at Lord’s, after all. John Wisden has his Almanack and, since the 1930s, the Ravilious wood engraving. Bradman was cremated, but he has portraits, statues, stands, entire grounds, a museum and, briefly, a Royal Navy anti-submarine vessel bearing his name. Warne also has portraits, statue and a stand. Viv Richards, still very much with us, has a ground. Such icons will never be forgotten so long as cricket is played.

The truth is, graveyards are depressing. A place for the dead. Why remember a cricketer by visiting their burial place? There was, though, one grave I was keen to include on my pilgrimage – not in a London suburb, nor a stone flecked with industrial-age soot, nor in a bucolic English backwater. This one is in Italy, at the edge of Caserta, just north of Naples: a place dominated by a giant palazzo at one end and a ring of hills at the other.

It was a lovely autumn day, the sky as perfectly blue as a cricketer could hope for. All the Commonwealth war grave cemeteries are havens – they really are a corner of a foreign field that is for ever England. On passing through the wrought-iron gates, I found a green lawn that any groundsman would relish. Row after row of identical gravestones were overlooked by umbrella pines, verdant hedges and vivid roses. There was no one, except a gardener in the far corner, and I was grateful for the solitude. It’s easy enough to find a grave – each row has a number and letter – and there it was, towards the back, near a cherry tree.

Verity died a military man, but he was one of the game’s greatest bowlers. His ten for ten for Yorkshire against Nottinghamshire in 1932 are the best figures in first-class cricket. Even Bradman struggled against his left-arm spin, and at Lord’s in 1934 he took 14 Australian wickets in a day. On Friday, September 1, 1939, as German troops poured into Poland, Verity was playing for Yorkshire against Sussex at Hove – the last first-class match in England until 1946. After skittling Sussex for 33 (Verity seven for nine), the Yorkshire players headed home on the Saturday. Next day, Britain declared war; the day after that,Verity joined up. He did so out of conviction, because he believed Hitler and the Nazis had to be stopped. The decision cost him his life.

On a hot night on Sicily’s Catania Plain, in the early hours of July 20, 1943, he was leading his B Company when he was hit in the chest by a mortar fragment. Either side of him, men were falling; his second-in-command was killed outright and, in the dark and confusion, he was left behind. Had he been rescued, he might well have survived. But it  was the Germans who found him and, by then, their medical standards were waning.

Some years ago, I worked out the spot where he had fallen, and have visited many times; but I had not followed his path to Caserta. After the shrapnel was removed in an operation in a Sicilian farmhouse, he had been put into an ambulance and taken to Messina. Then a ferry to the mainland and a train heading north. At Caserta, a truck took him to hospital. All that time he had been bounced about, a broken rib pressing against his lung. The wound festered and, since the Germans had no penicillin, worsened. Ten days later, probably following a massive haemorrhage, he died.

Verity’s tragic death has long haunted me; I can’t bear the thought of his suffering, of his removal from all that was familiar, tended by the  enemy in an alien corner of the world. But now, the sun beating down, here I was, standing by his grave. It was far from Headingley, and from Lord’s, but the gentle beauty of the place was profoundly moving.

I thought of that battle in the Catania Plain, of his befuddling Bradman at Lord’s. And I read the inscription at the foot of his own personal slab of Portland stone:

Cricketers come and go, some fade from memory entirely, but Hedley Verity will never be forgotten by me. My pilgrimage was complete.

James Holland is an author and broadcaster.