Why have the Germans never been any good at cricket? This 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 actually stood for ‘overs, maidens, wickets, runs and average’.
At the darker end of this book’s territory, Dan Waddell provides good evidence that the Germans sent their best ever 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 it was a 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 cricketers 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 C.B. 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 100-metre race. All of them, as soon as they reached Berlin at 9.30 in the morning, 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 Führer suggested, should be forbidden from wearing pads.
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