Drama at cricket pitch after a lifechanging declaration

The Last Match
The Last Match
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For his debut play Colin Philpott found a stirring story that combines cricket, drama and war. He spoke to theatre correspondent Nick Ahad.

As the former head of BBC Yorkshire, of the National Media Museum and now an author, Colin Philpott knows a good story. He’s found a belter for his debut play. The Last Match tells the fascinating tale of one of cricket’s most poignant games.

On Friday, September 1, 1939, the Second World War began and England’s county cricket season came to an abrupt end for all teams – all teams, that is, except for Yorkshire and Sussex. They were engaged in battle at Hove, Sussex’s home ground, when the news arrived that Britain had gone to war with Germany.

“They decided to finish the game,” says Philpott. “The main reason was that they were playing a benefit match for one of the Sussex players. The evacuation order had come, troops were being mobilised, Headingley was telling the players to get back and it looked like the game was petering out to a draw – and yet they kept playing. As it turned out, Hedley Verity took seven for nine in what was his last match for Yorkshire, but I have always been fascinated by the decision. That they kept playing seemed a futile and even offensive decision, but on the other hand it might also seem rather noble and even right. Like Drake playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe as the Spanish Armada arrived. For me it is a story about the ordinary and the extraordinary clashing.”

Philpott has now turned the tale into a drama. The story of the game is dramatic enough, but – as with most things cricket-related – there is much depth below the surface.

“The game was remarkable for a number of things. The fact that Verity took seven for nine, bowled Sussex out for 33 and Yorkshire knocked off the runs and then climbed on to a coach to come home was something. It was also significant that it was the last time that team, arguably one of the greatest county teams ever, was together. It was also the last game of what many would argue was the greatest left arm slow bowler the game has ever seen. Verity never came back from the Second World War. It’s a story that has always fascinated me.”

Initially Philpott considered a documentary approach to the story. None of the players are still alive, but he did track down a spectator who was at the match. “I looked at the idea of finding people who were there and telling the story as a documentary, but in a way that would make it about just the game. It’s actually about a lot more than that. It’s about the juxtaposition of war and peace, the idea of duty and sacrifice and to be hanging on to the last moments of peace.”

Philpott has teamed up with York theatre and film director Kit Monkman to turn the story into a drama that will premiere in Scarborough next week. “We’re going to be staging it actually on a cricket ground. It is roughly the 75th anniversary of the actual game and appropriately Yorkshire are playing Sussex next week.” The plan is to stage a half-hour version of the play – Philpott has written the full version – in a marquee at Scarborough, during the town’s cricket festival, next week. Philpott hopes the reaction will be positive enough to justify seeing a longer version of the play produced, possibly at Hove.

Kit Monkman, who is also directing, says: “The story of this cricket match and its hero Hedley Verity is a story which transcends cricket and which speaks to some of the fundamentals about what it means to be human at times of great crisis.”