Looking Back: Surrey & The Oval in 1921 - Kia Oval Skip to main content

A century ago, in the aftermath of the twin catastrophes of the First World War and Spanish Flu pandemic, life was still settling down again.

Richard Spiller looks back.

Surrey’s season

A dynamic new leader was now Surrey captain. Percy Fender had impressed the previous summer when he led for much of the campaign – initially because he was the only amateur available – in the injury-enforced absence of Cyril Wilkinson. Surrey finished third, playing bridesmaid to Middlesex’s coronation at Lord’s, hoping they could now scale the summit.

Fender stood out on the field, described as a “sort of civilised Groucho Marx” given his beaky nose which had glasses perched on them, sparing but curly hair and jumpers which stretched down almost to his knees.

A dashing batsman who had scored a century in 35 minutes at Northampton the previous summer and bowled medium-pace or leg-spin, Fender was blessed with tactical acumen and hated boring draws.

His dynamism scared opposition teams and often surprised his own team but he was distrusted by those who ran English cricket, which was why he became known as the best captain England never had.

The County Championship in 1921 was expanded to 17 teams, Glamorgan the first newcomers since Northamptonshire in 1905 and winning their inaugural match – beating Sussex by 23 runs at Cardiff Arms Park – although they finished comfortably bottom.

Surrey’s hopes of claiming the title took an early hit when Jack Hobbs tore a thigh muscle early in the season, putting him out of action for two months but celebrated his return by making an unbeaten 172 against Yorkshire at Headingley. Soon after, though, he went down with acute appendicitis which ended his season and might have cost him his life.

Even without “The Master”, Surrey were rarely short of runs. Hobbs’s post-war opening partner Andy Sandham scored 1,826 in the County Championship – earning a Test call-up – and another to force his way into the England side was Tom Shepherd, who made 1,658. Andy Ducat passed that with 1,683 and also featured. Alfred Jeacocke (977) and Bill Hitch (803) led the other contributors. Douglas Jardine made his debut and played seven matches.

But the bowling – as was to be the case so often during Fender’s 11 years in charge – could not match their batting output and tested his ingenuity. The captain’s 103 Championship wickets led the way, medium-pacer Tom Rushby’s final campaign after 17 years yielding 59 victims – including 10-43 against Somerset at Taunton, which remains a county best – and fellow seamer Alan Peach taking 68 while speedster Bill Hitch notched 62.

Yet they stayed in the reckoning long enough, winning 15 matches, to reach the final match – again facing Middlesex at Lord’s – knowing victory would land their first title since 1914. In a game watched by more than 50,000 spectators over three days at the end of August, Surrey failed to make the most of winning the toss in being dismissed for 269, despite Shepherd’s unbeaten 128, his sixth century of the season.

That looked more impressive when amateur seamer George Reay’s 4-44 spearheaded the dismissal of the hosts for 132 only for Surrey to decline from 115-2, built around 74 from the elegant Donald Knight, to 184 all out as Nigel Haig’s 5-62 took toll.

It left the champions needing 322 for victory and a second-wicket stand of 277 between Richard Twining (135) – severely injured in the First World War – and Jack Hearne (106) all but wrapped up victory as Frank Mann’s men won by six wickets to retain the title and leave Surrey runners-up.

Oval Test

Whitewashes down under were not invented in the 21st century. England had won the final two Ashes series before the outbreak of the First World War but when the action resumed it was a different matter.

Under Warwick Armstrong – known as the “Big Ship” for his sheer physical size – England were crushed 5-0 down under in 1920-21 and when the teams reconvened the following summer in England, Australia won the first three to retain the urn, fast bowlers Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald ripping through their opponents backed by leg-spinner Arthur Mailey.

England changed their captain after the second Test, Johnny Douglas giving way to Lionel Tennyson. The Hampshire skipper, later to be Lord Tennyson, immediately impressed by making 63 and 36 in defeat despite a serious hand injury and the bleeding was finally stopped by getting the better of a draw at Old Trafford.

Could England claim a consolation victory at The Oval? Tennyson won the toss and chose to bat, including Surrey players in Fender, Hitch and debutant Sandham in the side. Yet the star proved to be a man born in Battersea but unwanted by his home county. Phil Mead had moved south to Hampshire to such good effect that he was to make 48,892 first-class runs for them over 30 years – missing another four because of the war – the greatest number of runs scored by any player for one team.

He was no slouch at Test level either, averaging 47 in 17 matches spread over as many years, but perhaps it was because of the “peculiar rolling gate, sloping shoulders, wide legs and heavy, bowed legs” described by John Arlott about his boyhood hero, that England often looked to more dashing but less substantial alternatives.

Tennyson knew his man, who had been recalled for the Manchester match, and watched him amass an unbeaten 182 and joining him in a sixth wicket alliance worth 121 before declaring at 403-8. McDonald’s 43 overs earned him 5-143.

The visitors almost drew level in making 389 all out, thanks to Charlie Macartney (61), Tommy Andrews (94) and Johnny Taylor (75), declining from 233-3 as Douglas and Ciss Parkin claimed three wickets apiece.

Only three days were allotted for Tests and time had been lost on the first, England batting out time at 244-2 openers Jack Russell (102no) and George Brown (84) put on 158 and Hitch slammed 51no off 37 balls.

It would be another five years before the Ashes could be recovered in what was to prove an epic encounter at The Oval.

What else happened in 1921?

A state of emergency was declared in Great Britain after the miners went on strike in protest at pay cuts, the dispute lasting three months and forcing power cuts. Unemployment rose to two million at one stage as “roaring twenties” spluttered.

Chequers became the country residence of the Prime Minister, Liberal David Lloyd George continuing to lead a coalition with the Conservatives which had started in 1916.

The British Legion was founded to aid ex-servicemen and held its first Poppy Day in November.

A drought lasted 100 days, ending in late June and there was a heatwave in July, the driest year on record since 1788 being recorded.

The massive R38 airship exploded and crashed near Hull, killing 44 of the 49 people on board.

Women were admitted to Cambridge University for full degrees the first time.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was agreed and ratified in December, a truce having been declared in the summer following several bloody months. It gave independence to the Irish Free State. A separate Northern Ireland was created.

Tottenham Hotspur beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0 in the FA Cup final, Shaun Spadah won the Grand National as the only horse which did not fall. Humorist claimed The Derby while Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen retained their Wimbledon titles.

The aftershocks of the First World War, which had officially ended in November 1918, continued to reverberate with the Marxist Red Army taking an increasing hold on post-revolutionary Russia. A famine took hold which killed an estimated five million people.

New American president Warren Harding was sworn in, his inauguration speech described as “rumble and bumble, flap and doodle, balder and dash”.

Germany remained in ferment, a demand of $33trillion being demanded in war reparations. Adolf Hitler took charge of the Nazi Party.

The Cricketer magazine was founded by Pelham Warner.