Why Hitler wasn’t re­ally bowled over

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mark Ma­son

Field of Shad­ows: The Re­mark­able True Story of the English Cricket Tour of Nazi Ger­many, 1937 By Dan Wad­dell Ban­tam, 272pp, $55 (HB) WHY have the Ger­mans never been any good at cricket? Dan Wad­dell’s en­ter­tain­ing ac­count of the MCC’s 1937 tour to the Father­land gives some clues. Any coun­try po-faced enough to have a ‘‘So­ci­ety for the En­cour­age­ment of Play­ing Ball’’ will strug­gle from the start. Cer­tainly the Ger­mans back then seemed to un­der­stand nei­ther cricket’s equip­ment (‘‘Why so much lug­gage?’’ asked one re­porter of the tourists) nor its ter­mi­nol­ogy — later, dur­ing the war, letters home from Bri­tish POWs about games at their camp were cen­sored be­cause ‘‘OMWR&A’’ was thought to be code. It stood for ‘‘overs, maid­ens, wick­ets, runs and aver­age’’.

At the darker end of this book’s ter­ri­tory, Wad­dell pro­vides good ev­i­dence that the Ger­mans sent their best crick­eter to his death in Auschwitz (he’d made the mis­take of be­ing Jewish).

Team spirit was also a prob­lem: one player re­sponded to a fielder drop­ping a catch off his bowl­ing by march­ing over and felling him with a right hook. The MCC tourists later ad­vised their hosts that this might not be the best way for­ward. ‘‘Yes, I have heard about the in­ci­dent,’’ replied an of­fi­cial. ‘‘But I un­der­stand very sim­ple catch.’’

The book is too good, how­ever, to trade in sim­plis­tic myths. We’re re­minded that the Nazi flag was flown dur­ing a 1937 Davis Cup ten­nis match at Wim­ble­don. Later that sum­mer the MCC play­ers gave the Hitler salute in Berlin with­out any of the con­tro­versy Eng­land’s foot­ballers at­tracted for do­ing the same thing the fol­low­ing year. De­spite the ‘‘Jesse Owens vs Hitler’’ head­lines that have since been at­tached to the 1936 Olympics, the ath­lete found the dic­ta­tor a ‘‘man of dig­nity’’. Owens re­served his dis­dain for his own pres­i­dent, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, who avoided send­ing him a con­grat­u­la­tory tele­gram for fear of alien­at­ing white vot­ers in the Deep South.

Bri­tish of­fi­cials had their own ‘‘only obey­ing or­ders’’ mo­ment when a team of Ger­man crick-

it was a eters in­vited to Lon­don were de­nied ac­cess to the Oval pavil­ion, though it was pour­ing with rain. And even the leg­end of all-round lov­able cove CB Fry takes a knock: yes, his party trick was jump­ing onto a man­tel­piece, turn­ing in the air as he went so he could bow to his au­di­ence, but he also adored the sound of his own voice. He once met Hitler. Neville Car­dus wrote that it was a pity Fry didn’t speak Ger­man, be­cause the war could have been avoided: ‘‘Hitler might have died of a fit, try­ing to get a word in.’’

Much of the story, though, evolves ex­actly as you’d ex­pect from a group of in­de­pen­dently wealthy English­men on a cricket tour. The MCC side was es­sen­tially the Gen­tle­men of Worces­ter­shire. One of them owned Berke­ley Cas­tle and slept, as had 13 pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily, in the old­est bed in Bri­tain. One of them would go on, aged 73, to win an over-50s 100m race. All of them, as soon as they reached Berlin at 9.30am, got on the booze. Omi­nous — as on a pre­vi­ous tour one drunken player had tried to start a fight with his own re­flec­tion. At their Berlin ho­tel a younger mem­ber of the team mis­took his bidet for a foot­bath, while on the field there was the alarm­ing dis­cov­ery that a press pho­tog­ra­pher would be record­ing the match from short ex­tra cover.

Thank­fully no one lis­tened to Hitler’s idea for how cricket could be im­proved: bats­men, the Fuhrer sug­gested, should be for­bid­den from wear­ing pads.

June 21-22, 2014

The ‘all-round lov­able cove’ CB Fry at the crease

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