This article was originally published on All Out Cricket on July 20th, 2013.
“And after the weekend rains you are surprised, mon ami? Australians are used to hard pitches. The Lord’s wicket would have been decidedly sticky, no? So it’s not a day for the stroke play. No. It’s a day for the art of spin bowling, and Hedley Verity is the greatest exponent alive”.
Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) castigates Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), after the hapless sidekick expresses incredulity at the feats of Hedley Verity at Lord’s in 1934.
The “Four and Twenty Blackbirds” case was solved, and Poirot was dining with Hastings, Henry Bonnington and Inspector Japp. Throughout the case, Hastings had fretted about missing the Test, his frustration exacerbated since the Belgian sleuth remained nonplussed that anything lasting five days may not reach a neat conclusion like all of his cases. His dining table revelation was therefore all the more staggering.
At Lord’s in 1934, rain did not so much stop play as dramatically rechart its course. In those days, pitches were left to the mercy of the elements, and somewhere another Yorkshireman in a straw hat with a lopsided grin is purring about “ooncoovered wickets”.
Anglo-Australian relations were still tetchy – Bodyline occurred only 16 months previously and although six of the England side that finished that series remained, those perceived as the troublemakers were gone; Jardine and Larwood had already played their last Tests. Australia hadn’t lost at Lord’s for 38 years, and with Bradman, O’Reilly and Grimmett in the side, there was no reason to believe the happy trot would end. They were nicely set at the end of the second day too; 192-2 with Bill Brown on 103* and Stan McCabe 24*. Only 101 behind, a decent first innings lead for Australia looked odds on.
But then the weather took a turn. Sunday was a rest day and England keeper Les Ames described a “severe thunderstorm”. He wasn’t alone in thinking that batting last on a “sticky dog” would be disastrous for England – the Aussies needed winkling out, and quickly. Salvation was at hand; apparently the next morning Hedley Verity surveyed the sodden London streets and declared that “I shouldn’t wonder if we don’t have a bit of fun today”. Frank Keating claimed that en route to the ground, Verity’s taxi ran over a black cat “at the same moment as the sun came out”. Not out batsman Bill Brown recalled that his runs were straightforward on a dry wicket, “but on a damp one everything changed”. “Verity speeded up and bowled magnificently“ he reported. Australia capitulated for a further 92, with Verity adding six wickets to the prize of Bradman, caught and bowled on Saturday in the dry. Australia missed the follow-on by seven.
For anyone playing the Aussies in those days, Bradman’s wicket was the prize, and his score at the point you took it generally determined who won. Following on, he had a rush of blood at 13 was again caught off Verity. According to Wally Hammond, the Yorkshiremen remained expressionless, “though he knew, as we all did, that the ball had won the match”. With deadly efficiency, Verity despatched the tail in a way England’s current bowlers couldn’t manage during the first Test at Trent Bridge. By 6pm, he had 14 wickets in the day and England had triumphed by an innings and 38. His haul after tea was 6-15 and England had their only 20th century Ashes win at Lords. Not given to overstatement, Douglas Jardine suggested that “for clear thinking and execution”, Verity’s performance “may stand alone for all time.” Bill Brown recalled a “festive air” after the match and although there was “quite a bit of champagne flowing around”, apparently not much of it was being swigged by the Aussies. Not that Verity got carried away either. Contrasting his deeds to Flintoff’s heroics decades later, writer Derek Hodgson suggested that Verity possibly “had a couple of drinks” but certainly didn’t “get up to anything with pedalos.”
The fun didn’t last. England lost the series, and within days of the Lord’s Test, Hitler orchestrated the Night of the Long Knives. Five years later, on the final day of county cricket before war, Verity took 7-9 for Yorkshire at Hove and wondered out loud whether “I’ll ever bowl here again”. He would not; like Ken Farnes – another England bowler in that match – Verity did not return from the war. He died as a POW from wounds received while leading his men during the invasion of Sicily. Bill Bowes was another member of that England attack at Lord’s and heard the desperate news of his great friend while also a POW in Italy.
That most poetic of writers R.C Robertson-Glasgow reflected on the life and times of Hedley Verity. “He had the look and carriage of a man likely to do supremely well something that would need time and trouble” he wrote. “To the spectator in the field he may have seemed, perhaps, a little stiff and aloof; but among a known company he revealed geniality, wit, and an unaffected kindness that will not be forgotten”. Hercule Poirot knew a performance when he saw one. The next time someone tells you how they saw 14 wickets taken in one day at Trent Bridge in 2013, tell them about “Verity’s Match”, when one man did it by himself.