Cricket and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic

By Richard Heller - June 29, 2020

From 1918 to 1920 the world was hit by the so-called Spanish flu pandemic. In three waves, it killed at least 50 million people, about ten million more than the total killed and wounded in the Great War. It struck the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and the American President Woodrow Wilson.

The death toll was heightened by the effect of war time privation and dislocation, and the disease was spread by millions of soldiers and labourers returning from theatres of war to their homes. This was the key reason for its arrival in pre-partition India, where the total death toll ranged between 12 and 17 million.

There were no vaccines against Spanish flu and no antibiotics against secondary bacterial infections. The most common pharmaceutical remedy was the relatively new drug, aspirin, and many people poisoned themselves with an excess dose. Otherwise the recommended remedies were very similar to those applied against COVID – social isolation, wearing face masks, frequent hand washing.

With cricket worldwide in lockdown from COVID, it would be fascinating to see what Spanish flu did to global cricket just over a hundred years ago. As a very preliminary piece of work, I looked through Wisden Cricketers Almanack for the years in question.

In those days, Wisden was overwhelmingly focused on English cricket, and on its amateur upper social reaches, with many pages on fee-paying public schools, including their individual averages, and far less on the leagues which nourished England’s professional players. But, as noted, the pandemic struck the highest in English society as well as the lowest and might have been expected to have a strong impact on English cricket.

If it did, this eluded the editor of Wisden, the redoubtable Sidney Pardon, who did not mention it in his Notes on season 1919, when it was at its peak. Mr Pardon was more exercised by the ill-received experiment in two-day first-class County Championship fixtures.

The flu did not generate any formal restrictions on cricket matches of any kind, and one cannot find reports of its impact on any team in Wisden’s account of the English season.

Wisden does record a handful of deaths of cricketers from influenza in 1918 and 1919: 17, from a total of 242 “died” and 207 “killed.”

The most celebrated was Major R O “Reggie” Schwarz, who had been one of South Africa’s great trio of googly bowlers before the Great War, alongside A E Vogler and Aubrey Faulkner. Schwarz was a very respected figures and well-connected socially, and he received a long obituary notice from Mr Pardon himself.

SCHWARZ, MAJOR R. O. (8th King’s Royal Rifle Corps) Military Cross. Died of influenza, in France, November 18.

Major Schwarz, as everyone knows, was famous as a slow bowler. Few men did so much to establish the reputation of South African cricket. He learnt the game in England and played for Middlesex before going to South Africa. In those early days, however, he did not make any great mark. His fame began when he returned to this country with the South African team of 1904. Studying very carefully the method of B. J. T. Bosanquet, he acquired, and afterwards carried to a high standard, the art of bowling off breaks with, to all appearance, a leg-break action. He did very well in 1904, but his success that year was only a foretaste of far greater things to come.

In the brilliant tour of 1907 he and Vogler and G. A. Faulkner raised South African cricket to the highest pitch it has ever reached. He was less successful than his two comrades in the Test Matches against England, but for the whole tour he was easily first in bowling, taking 143 wickets at a cost of 11½ runs each.

He proved rather disappointing in Australia, and in the Triangular Tournament in this country in 1912 he failed. Before going to South Africa Schwarz was an International half-back at Rugby football, playing against Scotland in 1899 and against Wales and Ireland two seasons later.

He also played for Cambridge against Oxford in 1893. He was born on May 4, 1875, and was educated at St. Paul’s School. In as much as he always made the ball turn from the off and had no leg break Schwarz was not in the strict sense of the word a googly bowler, and was in this respect inferior to his colleagues Volger and Faulkner. Still, when at his best, he was a truly formidable opponent, his accuracy of length in the season of 1907, in combination with such a big break, being extraordinary.

The writer of the obituary notice in the Times said: Personally `Reggie’ Schwarz was a man of exceptional charm, and his untimely death will bring real sorrow to his hosts of friends in many parts of the world. He had the great gift of absolute modesty and self-effacement. No one meeting him casually would ever have guessed the renown he had won in the world of sport. Quiet, almost retiring, in manner; without the least trace of side; and with a peculiarly attractive voice and way of speaking, Schwarz impelled and commanded the affection even of acquaintances.

During his years in South Africa he was secretary to Sir Abe Bailey–a post which his social gifts enabled him to fill with remarkable success. Before coming to Europe for service in France, he had won distinction in the campaign in German South-west Africa. All who knew him knew that at the first possible opportunity he would be in the field in France, quietly and unpretentiously devoting all his gifts–gifts that were bound to ensure his success as an officer–to the service of his country. He had been wounded twice.–S.H.P.

In Wisden’s obituary lists, there is not a single player from any part of India. Like most of its English readers, it barely registered Indian players (except for Ranjitsinjhi, a prince playing for England, and a few others who played for Oxford or Cambridge or as occasional amateurs in county cricket). Within the Indian death toll of up to 17 million, it is a certainty that there were many cricketers. It would be a fine task for historians in India and Pakistan to find them and tell their stories.

Richard Heller is the author (with Peter Oborne) of White On Green celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket. With Peter he is doing regular podcasts to help those deprived of cricket in England, Pakistan and worldwide.

By Richard Heller

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