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In the summer of 1876, William Mycroft produced perhaps the greatest bowling performance that ended up on the losing side. 

No one knew of him before he stormed in for Derbyshire in 1873. At 32, it was a bit late in the day for a left-arm fast bowler to start a cricket career.

He was only a fast bowler, but also someone who could mix swerve and pace with spin, and had a devastating fast yorker. Some questioned his action, but in those days of the formative years of overarm bowling so many actions were debatable.

William Mycroft had been a miner before that. Ironstone miner in Birmington, Derbyshire. And by any yardstick, he was a late bloomer on the cricket field. But, what a force he turned out to be!

If he had not played for the weakest of counties, his fame would have been greater. If Test matches had been played in the early to mid-1870s, he would surely have represented England.

But he did manage to turn out for teams like the North of England and All England XI. After all no one could deny that he had a phenomenal record. 863 wickets at 12.09 was more than brilliant, even in those days of dicey pitches.

1875 was particularly special. He captured 90 wickets that summer, at the incredible average of 7.37.

The next year also saw him at his very best. And never was Mycroft as lethal as in the match against a strong Hampshire side in 1876. And seldom has such a blisteringly overwhelming record ended up in a losing cause.

For batsmen, it is often the case of a single-handed crusade that ends up short of victory. But if a fast bowler takes 9 for 25 and 8 for 78, 17 of the 19 wickets, and still sees the opposition squeeze home by one wicket, it underlines some frustration.

That is what took place a the Antelope Ground, Southampton. Mycroft, bowling fast in the scorching heat, did everything he could to overcome Hampshire. Not only did he capture 17 of the 19 wickets, he caught one more and was involved in the biggest stand in the first innings when Derbyshire batted. The last bit is significant since Mycroft was one of nature’s unadulterated rabbits. His total of 791 career runs is substantially less than the 863 wickets.

But, all his miraculous deeds were not enough to win the match.

With last year’s Oxford captain, Arther Ridley, bowling his cunning lobs to excellent effect, the Derbyshiremen, batting first, had been reduced to 94 for 9. Mycroft put in solid resistance as the No 11, helping George Hay put on 21, before he was taken in the slips off Ridley.

The 115-run total looked puny, but Mycroft was raring to go.

His second ball had Hector Hyslop playing on. The following delivery saw George Longman caught brilliantly at the wicket by Alfort Smith. 0 for 2.

In his third over, the other opener George Carter was clean bowled. All three dismissed batsmen had gone for ducks. The score was 5 for 3.

Ridley, in excellent form, and skipper Clement Booth, now added 33, but Mycroft ran in to bowl both. The ball to Ridley pitched on middle and hit leg. He tore through the batting, picking up the first eight wickets, before breaking the sequence by catching Henry Tate off Hay at slip.

Francis Foster and John Galpin offered a bit of resistance before Mycroft’s dreaded fast yorker uprooted the former ’s stump.

Mycroft finished with 9 for 25 as Hampshire were all out for 63. A lead of 52 runs, a huge one in such a low-scoring game. By the time stumps were drawn, Derbyshire were clearly in control, 56 for 1 in the second innings. Only captain Robert Smith had been bowled by a shooter.

While play had begun at 12:45 pm on the first day, the second morning saw a prompt start at 11:00 am. You see, punctuality was not such a big thing on those days.

And on their home ground, Hampshire struck back with some extraordinary fielding backing up Ridley’s clever lob bowling. The luring lobs accounted for six over-adventurous Derbyshire batsmen, and within 80 minutes of start, they were all out for 91.

However, the hosts still required 143 in the final innings. And against a murderous Mycroft that was definitely not the easiest of tasks.by a

Hylsop and Carter, though, produced a rollicking start. The first two overs went for 13. And then there was a rather fortuitous wicket.

Partnering Mycroft with the new ball was John Platts. A bowler of speed, one of his deliveries at Lord’s in 1870 had struck George Summers. That had led to the death of the batsman. A shocked and inconsolable Platts had reduced his pace by a great degree after that.

Yet, fate linked Platts to remarkable injuries. He pitched short and Hylsop cut him hard to point. Captain RP Smith stood there, and was struck resoundingly on his head. The ball rebounded twenty yards and was caught by Amos Hind. The first wicket had fallen, the last that would not be taken by Mycroft. Smith was led off in a daze and that was the end of the match for him.

It was not always that Smith was hounded by bad luck. Indeed, ten years down the line, he inherited a large fortune and started living as a country squire in a rural Nottinghamshire village. He changed his name to Stevens, perhaps because Smith was too commonplace for a gentleman of leisure.

The Hampshire batsmen, though, batted on. Carter and Longman stitched together a fine partnership and the score was soon past 50.

At long last Mycroft struck. He bowled Carter with one of his specials. At 68, the in-form Ridley was bowled in the same way as in the first innings. Lunch was taken with the match in the balance, the score 75 for 3.

After the break, Longman and Booth both started confidently, driving Mycroft repeatedly to take 9 off an over. Signs were ominous that the great fast bowler was finally drained of the last bit of his stamina.

However, it was not remotely the case. Changing ends to try something different, Mycroft sent Booth’s off-stump cartwheeling, uprooted Longman’s leg-stump and then had Arthur Jefferys playing on. Suddenly it was 96 for 6 and Derbyshire were winning.

Reginald Hargreaves (whose picture we see at the head of the article) and Henry Holmes steadied the innings again, the latter impressing all and sundry by cutting the dangerous Mycroft to the boundary. But the bowler had the last laugh. Luring him into a similar stroke, he had the batsman caught by Samuel Richardson at point.

Holmes dismissed by Mycroft! More of this connection later.

122 for 7. Runs were taken in singles and twos. And then Forster was caught at short leg by Hylsop, the Hampshire wicketkeeper substituting for Smith. 130 for 8.

With the wicket deteriorating, the balls were turning. Mycroft now used a lot of spin in his deliveries. In all the tension, Tate almost ran himself out. At 135, he slashed Mycroft and Richardson caught him at point.

8 runs required, Hargreaves joined at the wicket by Galpin. Mycroft had captured 8 wickets.

But Hargreaves had nerves of steel. A late cut brought three, and Galpin stonewalled at the other end. Mycroft gambled. He changed ends. Those days, one could bowl consecutive overs while changing ends.

And he ran into Hargreaves with three runs required. Perhaps the rest between overs was necessary. Mycroft’s first ball was a rare half volley, and Hargreaves, playing one of the best innings of his career, drove it to the cover point boundary. Hampshire had won by a run.

The home crowd exulted. But then, words of sympathy were aplenty for Mycroft. Match figures of 17 for 103. And he had to end on the losing side.

The figures of Mycroft have not been bettered by any Derbyshire man even as I write, 142 years after the day.

Also read: Syed Mujtaba Ali and the use of cricketing metaphors in Bengali literature
Also read: The Barn Door Match

Literary connections

Mycroft kept playing till 1886. One of his last games was at Lord’s, 1885, a match between MCC and Derbyshire. While Mycroft bowled for one side, for MCC Mordecai Sherwin kept wickets and Frank Shacklock was the main bowler.

Cricket
Mycroft Holmes, as sketched by the great Sydney Paget

In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel. It is sometimes argued that Sherwin and Shacklock together formed the name Sherlock.

Somewhat more cogent is the theory that William Mycroft lent his name to the famous, brilliant and incorrigibly laid-back brother of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle, a serious cricketer himself, had a great deal of respect for cricketing talent. And county scorecards can come in handy when one is selecting names for characters. Ask PG Wodehouse, for instance, about Percy Jeeves.

There is another literary connection to this match. The match-winning batsman, Hargreaves, later married Alice Pleasance Liddel. The wedding took place in 1880.

The real Alice

18 years before that, 14 years before our match, Alice Liddel had been on a boat on the Isis from Folly Bridge, Oxford, to Godstow. It was a picnic outing, and Alice was just 10. A fellow traveller was family friend Charles Dodgson. As Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed the boat, Alice asked Dodgson to entertain her and her two sisters Editha and Lorina with stories.

Dodgson spun yarns of how a girl named Alice had fallen down a rabbit hole and thereby encountered several adventures and curious characters… The 10-year-old Alice asked Dodgson to write the story down for her.

In late 1864, Dodgson presented Alice with the manuscript of Alices Adventures Underground.  The following year, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published, with Dodgson writing under his pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

Cricket does have some curious connections.

 

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