Arunabha Sengupta recounts one of the most incredible finishes of all time in First-Class cricket, and dwells on the man who engineered it.
The case of the missing ball
In September 2016, the old cricket ball disappeared from the display case on the mantelpiece. It had been placed on top of the open fire in the main public bar.
Admittedly, this room filled up quickly over the typical weekend. And as the management of the Gewsty Cobden Hotel in Capel Curig, North Wales, admitted: “Recently we’ve had quite a few very busy weekends and it would have been easy for someone to have taken the ball out of the case without anybody realising it.”
The management offered a £250 reward for the return of the ball, adding that “the history of the hotel is important and the ball is integral to that.”
This hotel was earlier known as Tan y Bwlch.
Tan y Bwlch means “under the pass”. The hotel is in a gorge where the Llugwy river turns 90 degrees as it passes the north-eastern corner of the hard rock which forms the mountain called Moel Siabod. Thomas Telford had to build his coach road (today’s A5) on a ledge well above the river. The hotel was built alongside the road soon afterwards.
Why would a hotel in North Wales be so obsessed about a cricket ball? Especially one that was 146 years old?
The answer is that the ball in question was made to perform one of the most singular feats in the history of First-Class cricket, by one cricketer who attained fame due to that instance. In fact, all his fame acquired from the game rested on this one solitary event.
You see, the lease of the hotel was taken over by a Frank Cobden in 1890. And then it was renamed to Cobden’s Hotel.
Frank Cobden was the cricketer whose fame rested on that one event, more specifically three balls he bowled in late June 1870.
That was during the Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge. Cobden, the old Harrovian and then a student in the Trinity College, was a round arm fast bowler who bowled remarkably straight.
The Varsity Match had been an annual fixture, ever since 1851. But by 1870, public interest had waned. By then a bearded young man from Bristol, by the name of WG Grace, was setting the grounds of England on fire. Much of the interest centred around him. The Times did not even mention the scheduled match on the morning of its start at Lord’s, preferring to spend column spaces on the Hunley Royal Regatta alongside a preview of the pigeon shooting contest at Hurlingham between the representatives of the House of Lord’s and House of Commons.
The following day’s paper did report that the Varsity match had seen Cambridge finishing their innings for 147 and Oxford making 175 to gain a 28-run lead, but that small coverage was overshadowed by the report of the exciting pigeon shooting contest and the odds for the Greenwood Stakes.
It all changed the following day. First-Class cricket, specifically Ox-Bridge encounters, received a shot in the arm because of Cobden’s feat. Later that week, The Field magazine underlined the cliché that a ‘match was never lost till won’ … all because of this 20-year-old round-arm fast bowler.
On the first day, Cobden had accounted for the Oxford tail, finishing with 4 for 41 from 19 overs. When Cambridge started out their second innings on a dull London day, wicketkeeper William Yardley fought back from 40 for 5 to engineer a revival. He went on to score the first ever hundred in an University match, and the second Cambridge innings amounted to 206. Oxford needed 179 to win.
Cobden ran in to get his fellow Harrovian Walter Hadow for a duck. But Arthur Fortescue and Cuthbert Ottaway added 72 for the second wicket and then Ottaway and Edward Tylecote, the best wicketkeeper-batsman of his day, added 67 for the fourth wicket.
Hence, Oxford were comfortably placed at 153 for 3, just 26 needed for a win. Runs were leaked and the bowlers were ineffectual. Edward Ewer Ward, a curiously named left-arm round-arm paceman, was doing his best, but the match seemed all wrapped up by Oxford.
And then Tylecote fell to Ward. At seven o’clock, with William Townshend walking out to bat, it was decided to play for an extra half hour to enable Oxford to make the remaining runs, instead of returning for another day.
Ottaway, though, was caught off Ward. Townshead was caught at slip off Ward almost immediately after that. And with Charlie Francis leg before wicket to the same bowler, the score stood at 175 for 7, Ward having captured 6 of them.
But then, only four more were needed. The massive form of Samuel Butler swung Ward towards mid-wicket, and the eyes turned towards the boundary. However, Alfred Bourne made an astounding stop and the score remained 175.
At 7:28, Ward’s over came to an end. He retired to the outfield. Ward played no further role in the match, but would go on to live to be 92, and would serve the Church of England for 59 years as a Reverend. And he would never play another game of cricket nearly as fascinating as this one.
And Cobden started what would be the most famous over in cricket for a while.
Fred Hill played the first ball to mid-off for a single. The hard-hitting Butler was on strike again. The ball was pitched up and the gigantic batsman smashed it to cover point. Bourne, who had already pulled off a miraculous stop, thrust his hand out and held on to an unbelievable catch. Lesser fielders would have just ducked out of the way.
2 to tie, 2 wickets left. Thomas Belcher walked in. A man of eminence, he would later become the Vicar of Basingstoke. However, he was no batsman. The next ball from Cobden struck his right pad and was deflected to the stumps.
176 for 9. William Stewart, the wicketkeeper, the last man, walked in deathly pale. The 9000-strong crowd at Lord’s remained still, silent in an unnerving way. A few minutes earlier, odds of 100 to 1 had been offered against Cambridge in the pavilion. It had been accepted. Now, as Stewart took strike, Cobden set his cap firmly on his head and ran in for the next delivery.
It was a long hop and a fast one. Stewart was beaten for pace. The stumps were hit. Cambridge had won by 2 runs because of this amazing hat-trick by Cobden.
The interest in Varsity cricket was back with a terrific bang.
Of Ghosts and Wars
Cobden never managed to repeat the heroics. He never even played for a county side. In fact, his brother Halstead played for Gloucestershire, alongside the Graces. Because of the all-round dominance of the Graces, Halstead Cobden did little with bat or ball, managing 11 runs very late in the order, and picking up one wicket in his four matches. But Frank Cobden did not manage even that.
He moved to Capel Curig and lived half his life there in the North Welsh village. In 1890 he took over the Cobden’s Hotel.
It was not a very successful venture. In 1900, Cobden spent £500 rearing pheasants in the area for the potential guests. But with the Boer War claiming time and lives, the guests never turned up. Cobden suffered huge financial losses and the license of the hotel was transferred from him in 1907.
The name remained the same. So did the ball, in the mantlepiece. He also supposedly left something else. Several guests claimed to have seen a spectre dressed in green, assumed to be the ghost of Cobden’s spinster sister.
Frank Cobden also became the Justice of Peace for Radonshire. He passed away in December 1932.