Oval in 1920: Looking back on a century ago

Published: 22nd March, 2020

Surrey celebrate 175 years of existence in 2020 and, since the club’s birth in 1845, there have been many highs and lows. Richard Spiller looks back a century to 1920, the diamond anniversary which nearly proved a gem.

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County Championship

England in 1920 was still coming to terms with the end of the First World War, after more than four years of global conflict.

Cricket at first-class level had been in abeyance from the final weeks of the 1914 season, which had been cut short by the start of hostilities with Surrey declared champions by the MCC committee, their first title since 1899.

Reviving the County Championship in 1919 was a matter of debate. Some felt that a summer should be allowed for counties to take stock but eventually it was decided that two-day matches would be played.

Hampered by the absence of leading all-rounder Percy Fender, who had broken a leg playing football the previous winter, Surrey finished fourth – Yorkshire, Kent and Nottinghamshire were ahead – but could be optimistic entering the 2020 campaign with matches now back at three days.

Cyril Wilkinson, in charge since 1914, was still officially captain but rarely available which meant Fender led out the side more often than not and began to forge his reputation as one of the most innovative and canny leaders of his time. With his glasses perched on the end of a beaky nose and sporting sweaters which rolled almost down to his knees, Fender was a cartoonist’s dream. Distrusted by the establishment for being too much his own man, he was to become one of the county’s greatest captains. He formally succeeded Wilkinson the following season.

Once again Kent and Yorkshire were among the challengers, this time Lancashire joining them. Opening with seven wins in eight matches, Surrey could not continue at that pace yet were still challenging at the start of August.

Neighbours Middlesex, whose captain Pelham Warner had announced it would be his final season, appeared to be out of the running in sixth place but won by an innings and 33 runs at The Oval as they began to put together a remarkable run.

Surrey responded by beating Lancashire by 221 runs at Old Trafford and then returned home to overcome Kent by three wickets in front of 66,500 spectators over the three days. They went down to Sussex by 223 runs at Hastings but then saw off Yorkshire by 31 runs at The Oval and won by eight wickets at Northamptonshire’s County Ground, where a fifth wicket stand of 288 between Alan Peach (200no) and Andy Ducat (149) was followed by Fender’s devastating century in 35 minutes, a record which held for more than 60 years.

That set up a showdown with Middlesex at Lord’s, with both sides plus Lancashire still in the running for the title. Fender’s 4-76 led the dismissal of the hosts for 268, the main resistance coming from 47-year-old old Warner in his final match as he made 79.

Now established as Jack Hobbs’s opening partner in succession to Tom Hayward, Andy Sandham’s unbeaten 167 saw Surrey to a first innings lead of 73 but centuries from Challen Skeet and Harry Lee put on 208 for Middlesex’s first wicket while some free-hitting lower down the order enabled Warner to set Surrey 244 in three hours.

Hobbs uncharacteristically failed for the second time in the match, Sandham’s 68 leading the chase, but a crucial moment came when hard-hitting Tom Shepherd was brilliantly caught in the deep by Patsy Hendren off young leg-spinner Greville Stevens. He went on to claim 5-61 and earn Middlesex victory by 55 runs to claim their second title and give Warner – the man known as ‘Plum’, who followed his illustrious playing career with an equally large contribution to the game off the field – a triumphant farewell in front of an emotional crowd.

Lancashire secured second place, beating Worcestershire by nine wickets, but Surrey had made a notable contribution to the first real summer of cricket since peace was restored. Hobbs, even though he was approaching his 40th birthday, scored almost 2,000 first-class runs with Sandham and Ducat both passing four-figures. Seamers Bill Hitch and Tom Rushby were still powerful forces with the ball despite losing four years to the war and Fender claimed 109 victims.

International scene

Test cricket had not resumed in 1920 but interest heightened through the summer as preparations were under way for England to tour Australia, the first series since 1912.

When Reggie Spooner had to turn the captaincy, it set an ill omen for what proved a disastrous winter. Under Johnny Douglas (whose initials JWHT were translated by Australian critics as ‘Johnny Won’t Hit Today’), England lost all five Tests to Warwick Armstrong’s mighty side. Surrey were well represented by Fender, Hobbs, wicketkeeper Herbert Strudwick and Hitch, who had to travel out alone after Vallance Jupp withdrew just before the departure date.

What else happened in 1920?

The League of Nations was established, designed to prevent future wars. It failed in its task, although not for want of trying. The Russian civil war ended in victory for the Red Army, immediately followed by a famine which killed five million people.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was created in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the soldiers killed but not identified in the First World War. King George V unveiled the Cenotaph in Whitehall, having already opened the Imperial War Museum earlier in the year.

In the United States, Prohibition – the Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution, which had been agreed by Congress at the end of the previous year – came into effect. It outlawed the production and consumption of alcohol and sparked a massive rise in organised crime, plus some awfully good films, until it was repealed 13 years later.

Charles Ponzi started a new business in the USA which relied on a constant stream of new investors to fund dividends to those already involved. The company eventually collapsed but Ponzi schemes continue to rob the unaware of their savings to this day.

War rationing was ended by the British Government.

Parliament agreed to the partition of Ireland two days before Christmas.

In the Summer Olympics, hosted by Belgium, the USA, Sweden and Great Britain led the medals table.

West Bromwich Albion won the Football League for the first and only time while Aston Villa overcame Huddersfield Town 1-0 in the first FA Cup final since 1915.

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