Rosy retrospection, when mixed with a healthy dose of distaste for history, often paints idyllic and misleading pictures.
Generally, we like to believe that cricketers of the old were paragons of virtue, playing the game for glory, with not a commercial bone in their beings, demi-angels all but about to sprout wings. Cricket was a Gentleman’s Game after all.
In reality, from the earliest days, the sport was full of bickering, avarice, even heavy dollops of betting and fixing. One could perhaps say that today, with ICC Code of Conduct and anti-corruption watchdogs on the lookout, we do have a much more antiseptic environment surrounding the game.
For instance, let us look at what happened at The Oval in 1896. Bang in the middle of the Golden Age of Cricket. That too, after 20 years of Test cricket had already witnessed plenty of skulduggeries.
This was after England had won at Lord’s and Australia at Old Trafford. The two sides locked horns at the historic ground which had witnessed the Birth of The Ashes in 1882. It was the decider. Harry Trott’s Australians faced off against WG Grace’s English cricketers.
The start of the match witnessed rather an ugly haggling. Bobby Abel, Tom Richardson, Tom Hayward, Billy Gunn and George Lohmann, the five professional cricketers of England, threatened strike if match fees were not increased. The professionals were aggrieved that the Australians were earning so much more than them, and even their own amateur teammates were being ‘paid’ much more.
That was the true face of the amateur-professional divide. Entire books have been written about this
Ultimately Lohmann and Gunn sat out while the other three relented and played. And then sheets of rain fell on The Oval rendering batting a herculean task.
The first day ended with England on 69 for 1. On the second day, the wicket had been reduced to a mud-pudding, the first innings of the sides over for 145 and 119 and England 60 for 5 in the second. Hugh Trumble and Tom McKibbin were virtually unplayable.
What followed remains one of the blatant examples of the amount of gamesmanship and underhand dealings that took place in those pristine ‘Golden Age of Cricket’. And one has to turn to Joe Darling’s memoirs Test Tussles On and Off the Field for the details.
The weather had improved and with distinct chances of the wickets drying up overnight, the Australians were favourites to clinch the decider. And as Darling writes:
“As soon as stumps were drawn the late Dr Grace came into our dressing-room and said, ‘Well, Trott, you are going to beat us, as now the weather is settled there will be a good wicket tomorrow.’ During the night it remained lovely and fine and we went down to The Oval very sanguine of winning. One can well imagine our surprise when we found that there had been a ‘local rain’ of about 22 yards long and 6 feet wide, just where the wicket was. At first, we did not realise what had happened until we started to bowl on the wicket. England set us 113 runs to win and we made only 44. The wicket was absolutely at its worst in our second innings, and this in spite of the fact that it had not seen any rain since 3 p.m. on Monday.”
Bobby Peel captured 6 for 23 on that terrible strip, JT Hearne took the other 4 for 19. And Australia were, as Darling lamented, bowled out for 44. In fact, they had been 25 for 9 before McKibbin gave vent to his frustrations as he walked out at No 11 and hit out lustily for 16.
Yes, there is hardly any doubt that the pitch severely tampered. The practice wickets, on a lower part of the ground, were dry, but the centre square was mysteriously sodden.
And while the Australians did not really accuse the English players and officials, they did blame the ground staff. And Grace, aware of the tampering, was not really keen to relinquish the resulting advantage. His instructions to his remaining batsmen were simple as they walked out to bat on the third morning. “We must be all out in half an hour. We must have them in by twelve-thirty at latest.”
As a hilarious aside, KS Ranjitsinhji, dismissed the previous evening, suffered from asthma all night and then trod on a carpet nail when he woke up. Hence he was late to arrive at The Oval, accompanied by friend CB Fry in a cab. And the score on his arrival was 14 for 7. Given that England had been 60 for 5 overnight, there was considerable confusion in the mind of the Indian prince as he entered the ground. Why had they been docked all those runs?
England 145 (Stanley Jackson 45, Hugh Trumble 6 for 59) and 84 (Hugh Trumble 6 for 30) beat Australia 119 (Joe Darling 47; JT Hearne 6 for 41) and 44 (Bobby Peel 6 for 23, JT Hearne 4 for 19) by 66 runs.