When you see the disruption that Coronavirus has caused to cricket at all levels this year it seems even more amazing to look back on the war years when the game thrived in local cricket.
On Friday 1 September 1939, the British government issued its warning to Hitler, demanding that he cease his attack of that morning on Poland. Two days later war was declared.
On that same Friday, first-class cricket in England ground to a halt, and it was to be nearly seven years before it resumed in 1946. The cricket leagues of the north and midlands were the happy beneficiaries.
The Birmingham League prospered, becoming a top competition virtually overnight. It was, however, the Bradford League which really attracted the stars and, in turn, attracted the crowds.
It was reminiscent of the 1914-18 seasons when Jack Hobbs, Sydney Barnes, George Gunn and Frank Woolley had acted as professionals in the northern leagues. Wisden spoke wistfully of, `the talent which migrated to the Bradford neighbourhood'.
Spectators revelled in the sight of Sydney Barnes, above, of Saltaire bowling to Jack Hobbs of Idle. The grass banking in Roberts Park was full of spectators for such a spectacle.
Despite the exigencies of war service and war work and the troublesome nature of public transport, practically all the Bradford clubs fielded Test and county personalities, and sometimes two or three of them.
In 1940 Windhill signed the West Indian all-rounder Learie Constantine, above,. In his book, Cricket in the Sun, Constantine said his contract with Windhill was the best he had ever had and he did not disappoint the large crowds, who came to watch him play.
His first season brought him a hat-trick against Spen Victoria, 76 league wickets at an average of 11.80 and a batting average of 30.50 as Windhill won their fourth title in a row.
The following season, Constantine became only the second player in the league’s history to take four wickets in four balls- against Lidget Green. Apart from being a potent fast bowler he was a free-scoring attacking batsman and without peers as an outfielder.
In an age of relatively pedestrian fielding at all levels, Constantine delighted the crowds with his athleticism and his ability to run batsmen out aiming at just the one stump.
Wilf Barber (above), of Yorkshire scored a thousand runs in league and cup games for Brighouse in 1940, including a hundred in thirty-six minutes against Bradford. Barber finished second in the league batting averages with a haul of 954 league runs at 59.62 and a top score of 154.
Another First Class cricketer in Brighouse’s ranks was Alex Coxon, who in 1944 took 51 wickets and scored 423 runs. He was 28 year old and poised to make his Yorkshire debut at a mature age.
D.Smith (Derby & Lidget Green), Arthur Mitchell (Yorkshire & Baildon Green), Leslie Ames (Kent & Windhill) and George Les Berry (Leicester & East Bierley) were three more local heroes.East Bierley had to seek re-election in 1940 despite Berry’s remarkable season contributing 537 runs, and taking 62 wickets.
Also in 1940 Yorkshire’s Horace Fisher playing for Baildon, scored 612 runs at a staggering average of 74.42, with a top score of 140*, and he also took 54 wickets. Four years later in 1944 he topped the league bowling averages with 57 wickets at 6.14 for Yeadon.
Fisher, a left arm spin bowler, could claim to be the first bowler in county cricket to claim a hat trick of LBW victims, in the course of taking 5 for 12 against Somerset at Sheffield in August 1932.
In the same match, Fisher posted his highest ever first-class score in Yorkshire's only innings, an unbeaten 76, as Yorkshire ran out winners by an innings and 93.
Earlier that week Fisher took six wickets for 11 runs, against Leicestershire at Bradford, which remained his best bowling return.
Len Hutton, above, returned to his home township and opened the batting for Pudsey St Lawrence. Hutton was always proud of his St Lawrence connection and five years after hitting what was then the world record score in Test cricket, he was delighted to help them to their first major honour in 1943 when they defeated Brighouse in the Priestley Cup final.
However, it was Eddie Paynter (Keighley) who took the chief honours in 1940, scoring 1,040 runs in league matches alone, a feat only performed once before, by Oldroyd for Pudsey in 1933. Paynter was not done there and in 1942 he scored 970 runs at an average of 138.50.
There is no doubt that the league in wartime provided infinitely more crowd appeal than they did before or after. Every Saturday one could watch three, four, sometimes five established cricketers, alongside a decent sprinkling of excellent club cricketers, ambitious to keep pace with the maestros. Indeed, halcyon days!
During the war years there was no charter for elite clubs to rule the roost. Virtually every club would be a threat with their assortment of `guest' players. This made the very ethos of the league open, and created quite a healthy state of affairs.
The powerful Windhill sides enjoyed glory but so did Saltaire and Spen Victoria who won the First Division title in 1943 and 1944 respectively.
Eddie Paynter eventually scored 4,426 wartime runs with Wilf Barber (3,746) his nearest batting rival.
The Derbyshire trio of G.H.Pope, A.V.Pope and W.Copson were the most successful bowlers. In addition to taking 445 wickets, George Pope also scored 2,236 runs in Bradford League cricket. D.Smith, another Derbyshire player, scored 2,731 runs.
A record number of 70 first-class cricketers were engaged in the Bradford League in 1943, among them eleven England and three West Indian Test cricketers.
Saltaire had an abundance of `first-class' assistance in the war years- they were not unique in the league in this regard- but they were certainly amongst the more enterprising clubs.
They Guested For Saltaire 1940-1945
Derbyshire: A.V.Pope, W.H.Copson, H.Elliott, G.H.Pope, T.D. Hounsfield, L.F.Townsend, H.Beet, C.Gladwin, E.Marsh
Yorkshire: W.Watson, T.Jacques, G.A.Wilson, S.Douglas, A.Coxon, J.V.Wilson, W.Bowes.
Worcester: H.H.Gibbons, W.A.Hill- Kent: A.E.Fagg
In Saltaire’s 1942 side was George Pope who had replaced his brother (A V Pope), but was superior in terms of his first class record. He had also played test cricket for England, unlike his brother.
A right handed batsman, who also bowled medium fast. his top score for Derbyshire was 207 not out, while his best bowling had been an 8-38 analysis amongst a haul of 677 wickets.
His famous performance for Saltaire came in a Priestley Cup second round match against Yeadon. Saltaire batting second were 67-0 with Pope unbeaten on 67. When he was finally dismissed for 75 the score stood at 78-3.
Saltaire also had the services of fast bowlers Bill Bowes and Bill Voce who were part of the notorious bodyline series of 1932/33 in Australia.
Spen Victoria enjoyed the most outstanding season when in 1944 they performed the league and cup double. Laden with good county players, Arnold Hamer scored 605 runs, while Yorkshire left arm spinner Arthur Booth took 61 wickets, and George Pope grabbed 67.
Pope was also the undisputed star of the Priestley Cup final win. He top scored with 76 and took six for 36 as they defeated Yeadon by 72 runs.
He also had a tremendous season for Lidget Green in the war years when he took 88 wickets and scored 641 runs for Lidget Green in one season.
Booth’s rise to fame in middle-age at Yorkshire came about when the legendary left arm test spin bowler after Hedley Verity was killed during the War.
Yorkshire lacked a slow left-arm bowler when cricket resumed and Booth was recalled. He played in two first-class matches in 1945 and then became a first-team regular in 1946, the first full post-war season, at the age of 43.
Yorkshire won the County Championship that year and, in all matches, Booth took 111 wickets at an average of 11.61. He received his county cap was top of the season's First Class bowling averages.
It must be said that there were some disappointing performances from these elite cricketers- West Indian test cricketer Edwin St Hill could only take 36 wickets for 17.02 apiece for Spen Victoria in 1942, and A V Pope only managed 299 runs in the same year for Windhill.
However, it must also be said that they were in competition against some very good cricketers.
The Wartime Winners 1940-1945
First Division title
1942 Lidget Green
1944 Spen Victoria
Priestley Cup Winners
1940 Undercliffe 153-8, Lidget Green 150
1941 Saltaire 102, Undercliffe 44
1942 Saltaire 95-5, Windhill 94
1943 Pudsey St Lawrence 149, Brighouse 65
1944 Spen Victoria 151-9, Yeadon 79
1945 Yeadon 150-5, Pudsey St Lawrence 89