Joe Doherty, October 2020
When the Green Howards regiment of the British Army arrived in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland in the early years of World War II, you might well think that cricket would have been the last thing on their minds. But that would be to underestimate the passion of the Yorkshiremen for a sport in which the White Rose had traditionally excelled and in which their county side had been champions of England for seven years of the preceding decade.
The cricketers in the Green Howards were fortunate in two ways. Firstly, their commanding officer (Lt Col AL Shaw) was a cricket fanatic. Secondly, they counted among their ranks two of England's finest cricketers of the era: the talented all-rounder Norman Yardley (who captained Yorkshire for eight seasons and led England in 14 of his 20 Test appearances) and Hedley Verity, one of the greatest spin bowlers of all time.
From the regiment's base in Omagh, Colonel Shaw availed of every opportunity to organise as many friendly matches across Northern Ireland as time and military duties would allow, pitting his regiment XI against opposition teams in Tyrone, Armagh and Derry during that summer of 1941. When Saturday came around, however, the illustrious visitors were in big demand and Strabane Cricket Club were successful in persuading Shaw, Yardley and Verity to turn out for them on at least three occasions in their North West Senior League campaign.
And so it happened that on 25th May, 1941 Strabane entertained their arch rivals Sion Mills in front of a large crowd at the old Recreation Park in the annual Tyrone derby. Games between Strabane and Sion (only three miles apart) were always fiercely contested and on this occasion, Sion had a particularly strong team comprising the likes of Andy McFarlane, John Flood and Hughie Donaghey (father of Brendan and Daniel).
Strabane batted first and, thanks to a classy half century from Yardley, posted a total of 160. Sion in reply had reached 70 for 2 when Verity (who had been relatively expensive until that point) managed to get the breakthrough when he had Patrick 'P' McGrath caught at slip by Yardley for a well-played 53. From this point, the left-armer took control of proceedings. Sion were bowled out for 110, Verity returning to the pavilion having taken 6 wickets for 62 runs.
Such heroics, of course, were nothing new to Verity. In 1932, he had taken all 10 Nottinghamshire wickets for 10 runs at Headingley. A couple of seasons later, in the 1934 Lord's Test, he had twice dismissed Don Bradman on his way to figures of 15 wickets for 104 runs, a feat which remains one of the great Ashes performances. Bradman, with his Test average of 99.94, remains unchallenged in terms of being regarded as the greatest batsman of all time: Verity played against him in 17 Tests and dismissed him 8 times, more than any other bowler in the world. In the last County Championship match played before the outbreak of WWII, he had skittled 7 Sussex wickets for 9 runs at Hove on the south coast of England, with the war clouds gathering across the channel just twenty miles away.
Spool forward to 1941. In that League and Cup Double-winning year, Strabane were blessed with an impressive array of cricketing talent. Captained by J.L. Rankin, the team included the Humphries brothers, Vic Craig, Paddy McLaughlin, Willie John 'Glaxo' McGonigle and Paddy Kelly, whose nephew John Beattie took over 800 wickets as a pace bowler in the 1960s and 70s. Beattie still remembers his uncle Paddy telling him about Yardley and Verity, how talented they were and how inspirational they were to play with. And how good they were to his uncle, giving him advice and encouragement as a young bowler.
'In fact,' John says, 'they told him that, when the War ended, they were certain that they could get him a place with any County team in England. Except, of course, their beloved Yorkshire, who operated their "Yorkshire only" policy!'
There was frustration and disappointment one weekend when the Green Howards had lined up a friendly match at Sion Mills on a Sunday, only to have to cancel it because Sunday cricket was not allowed in the North West at the time. The following day, Captain Herdman, one of the owners of the Mill, got to hear about it when he returned from a business trip and he was not best pleased. 'If these young men can be sent out to give their lives for us on a Sunday,' he blasted, 'I see no reason why they should not be allowed a game of cricket on a Sunday. Never let this happen again.'
Although the Green Howards were 'here and gone' within three short months, they left a deep impression in Strabane, especially among those with whom they shared a dressing room. Victor Craig was a young wicketkeeper who went on to be capped for Ireland five years later; he vividly remembered the companionship and class of the Yorkshire stars. He was particularly complimentary about Verity, who confided in him about some of his skills and techniques.
For example, he shared a secret that on the morning of a Test match he would go out and personally inspect the pitch in an attempt to find a blemish, however small, that he would proceed to use as a target for his 'spin landing area'. Craig also remembered Yardley and Verity bantering in the dressing room after a successful batting partnership and Yardley exclaiming to Verity, 'Did you see my Wally Hammond shot off the back foot through the covers!'
'They were like excited schoolboys, such was their enthusiasm for cricket, even at our mundane level,' remembered Craig.
'On another occasion, I was nervous about the total we had set against a strong Brigade batting line-up on a good track and I told Verity this on the way into the tearoom. He put his arm around my shoulder, gave it a squeeze and whispered in my ear, "I think we might be alright, Victor."' Two hours later, Brigade were all out for 90, the left arm maestro having taken 5 for 28.
Strabane, as noted, already had a more than decent team and there was not much to separate them from Sion Mills and Brigade in the quest for honours. The fact that they were able to call on the Yorkshire superstars for those vital league matches against their closest rivals, though, probably did tip the balance and the final placings in the League showed that Strabane finished two points clear of both Sion Mills and Brigade, who shared the runners-up spot. Verity, in those match-winning turns against Sion and Brigade, had done it again. And again.
Forward now to 1943. The British Army is in Sicily and the Green Howards are engaged in a battle to gain control of the city of Catania, at the foot of Mount Etna. Hedley Verity was the commanding officer of several platoons that came under fire in open landscape and were trapped in a cane field with mortar bombs exploding all around. Verity spied a farmhouse in the distance and ordered No. 1 Platoon to head for the farmhouse and No. 2 Platoon to give cover.
No sooner had he issued the instructions than he was hit in the chest by shrapnel from the exploding mortars and fell to the ground. One of his junior officers came to his aid but he waved him away and simply said, 'Keep going.'
Most of the contingent were taken prisoner by the Italian forces and the following day a young corporal sought permission from his captors to go back to look for his Captain. The request was granted and he found Verity badly wounded on the scorched farmland. The young British corporal who had shown such initiative and loyalty in seeking out and recovering his injured leader did so on the 25th of July 1943. A Sunday.
Verity was immediately ferried across to a military hospital on the Italian mainland where he underwent two operations in an attempt to stop the bleeding in his lungs. The best medical attention, however, proved to be in vain. Succumbing to his injuries on 31st July, two months after his thirty-eighth birthday, Captain Hedley Verity was buried with full military honours in Caserta, north of Naples.
The 1944 edition of Wisden carried an extensive and moving obituary of Verity's 'short but splendid life', describing the bowling achievements 'pressed into but overflowing the ten years of his career'. It is perhaps unsurprising, amid his many accomplishments, that his exploits in a few Irish North West cricket matches remain largely undocumented. The extent of his contribution to Strabane CC's successes in 1941, however, is indisputable. And for those lucky enough to have seen him and played alongside him, the memories of his grace, collegiality and sublime gifts were indelible.