WHILE England’s cricketers do battle at Old Trafford, we might pause to remember one who served his country in more ways than one.
Last Wednesday marked the 70th anniversary of the death of Hedley Verity, the former Yorkshire and England left-arm spinner killed in action in 1943.
Verity, a captain in the Green Howards, was leading his men in an attack on German positions at Catania in Sicily when he was hit in the chest.
He was taken prisoner of war and later died at a military hospital in Caserta, Italy, leaving a wife, Kathleen, and two young sons, Wilfred and Douglas.
Verity’s obituary in Wisden narrates the story of his final grim game.
“The objective was a ridge with strong points and pillboxes,” reported the almanack. “Behind a creeping barrage, Verity led his company forward 700 yards. When the barrage ceased, they went on another 300 yards and neared the ridge, in darkness.
“As the men advanced, through corn two feet high, tracer-bullets swept into them. Then they wriggled through the corn, Verity encouraging them with ‘Keep going, keep going.’
“The moon was at their back, and the enemy used mortar-fire, Very lights and fire-bombs, setting the corn alight.
“The strongest point appeared to be a farmhouse, to the left of the ridge; so Verity sent one platoon round to take the farmhouse, while the other gave covering fire.
“The enemy fire increased, and, as they crept forward, Verity was hit in the chest. ‘Keep going,’ he said, ‘and get them out of that farmhouse.’
“When it was decided to withdraw, they last saw Verity lying on the ground, in front of the burning corn, his head supported by his batman.”
Verity was taken to a field hospital and underwent an emergency operation.
Along with other wounded, he was ferried by open railway truck up through Sicily and then transferred on to a ship across the Straits of Messina to Reggio in southern Italy.
Bundled into trucks again, Verity and his fellow wounded were taken to a hospital and then on to Naples on another goods train – a journey that took two days.
By the time they reached Naples, Verity was very ill and his wound had become infected.
He was taken by truck from Naples to the Italian military hospital at Caserta, where he had another operation and part of his rib removed.
Although the operation was first considered a success, Verity suffered three haemorrhages and died on July 31, 1943.
He was just 38 years old.
By any standards, Verity was a very great cricketer – arguably the finest spinner this country has produced.
During a first-class career that ran from 1930 to 1939, he took 1,956 wickets at an average of 14.90.
He dismissed the legendary Australian batsman Don Bradman eight times in Test cricket, more than anyone else, and a record-equalling 10 occasions in first-class cricket along with the Australian leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett.
Verity got Bradman out twice at Lord’s in 1934, when his 15 wickets in the match near single-handed inspired England’s solitary Ashes triumph at headquarters in the 20th century, and he returned the greatest bowling figures in the game’s history – 10-10 against Nottinghamshire at Headingley in 1932.
Verity was part of the Yorkshire side that won seven County Championships in the 1930s under Brian Sellers, forming a great partnership – and friendship – with pace bowler Bill Bowes.
Verity was not only a very great cricketer, however, but a very great man.
No-one, in fact, had a bad word to say about him, and all spoke of the quiet, unassuming dignity that remained in evidence even during those hellish last hours.
Sportsmen come and sportsmen go, but few have the enduring impact of Hedley Verity.
As the cricket writer Raymond Robertson-Glasgow observed: “In all that he did, till his most gallant end, he showed the vital fire, and warmed others in its flame.”
Don’t miss Sports Monday as Chris Waters’s bygones column reveals ‘the real Jeeves.’