In May 1885, England XI took on Cambridge University at Fenner’s. This game saw some curious incidents, such as wiping the scoreboard clean and a batsman getting out three times…..
Charlie Thornton and Martin Bladen Hawke. Two great characters of the Victorian Age and thereafter.
Thornton, nicknamed Buns, a great entertainer and the mightiest hitter of his day, was older. He was leading the England XI.
Hawke, to become immortal in the annals of the game down the line as Lord Hawke, was the younger man. He was just 24, and still had abundant hair much of which he would go on to lose very soon. Hawke would practically govern English cricket for nearly half a century. On this day he was leading Cambridge University.
The May sky looked ominous. The coin that Hawke flicked for the toss rose and turned against a murky backdrop, and it was already drizzling as Thornton called. The call was correct and England XI batted at Fenner’s.
The rain was irritating, sporadic, and never quite went away. The players assembled, started play, and then ran off. Again and again. There were as many as five interruptions.
But, significantly, not all of them were due to weather.
On that start-stop day, England XI quickly lost a couple of wickets. Jack Studd, of the famous cricketing family, and Walter Wright were dismissed, and debutant Henry Crawley was walking out to join his skipper at the wicket.
At this juncture, there seemed to be something wrong. There seemed to be way too much discussion, between Thornton, Hawke, some of the other players, and the umpires.
Since the catch had been more than clean, it was quite a surprise for the spectators to find the players engaged in a long debate. There did not seem to be any issues at all. However, soon they were greeted by the unusual sight of a groundsman running in with a measuring tape.
After a while, some industrious men were seen engaged in measuring the distance between the stumps. And to the bafflement of the cricketers, it was discovered that the pitch measured somewhat more than 22 yards.
The different contemporary sources are in disagreement about the actual length. According to some it was 23 yards. Some say it was 23 and a half. There were others who hedged on 23 and a quarter.
The actual figure is immaterial. It was definitely more than the regulation 22 yards and at least 23.
It was a curious scenario. Thronton and Hawke became involved in a prolonged discussion and decided that the match would have to be restarted.
Hawke may have well stated that the England XI had managed to lose two cheap wickets even on a pitch that had more than an extra yard. However, the agreement was reached. The scoreboard was wiped clean and Studd walked in yet again to open the innings with Thornton.
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The second chance at the wicket did not quite help Studd, with George Mirehouse dismissing him for just 5. The Nottinghamshire all-rounder Wright, coming in at one drop, fared somewhat better than he had done in his first venture, getting 18.
How did the error come about?
Some blamed the umpires. Did they position the stumps in wrong positions after the pitch had been rolled?
In any case, the corrected 22-yard pitch remained fresh and moist most of the day, and most of the Cambridge bowlers were successful. Crawley, the debutant who had to go back and wait quite a while for his turn after walking tow the wicket for the first time, top-scored with 39. The visitors totalled 235. And in the little time they had during the last session, Cambridge University reached 22 for 1.
The following day was dominated by John Crossland, the Lancashire fast bowler with a suspect action. He bowled his heart out, picking up 7 wickets for 117, but Herbert Bainbridge and Frank Marchant, both experienced county players, hauled the University score to within 4 of the England total.
When England XI batted again, Thornton switched the batting order so that Wright opened alongside him. Thornton himself started hitting the ball hard as he was famed for. Wright too stayed in for a while. The pair put on 92 before Charles Toppin bowled Wright for 23.
Wright, pictured above the article, thus had the unfortunate distinction of getting out thrice in the same match. Studd, batting at No 7, escaped the fate. He was unbeaten on 24 when the day ended, having added 35 unbeaten runs with Crossland for the last wicket.
With England XI on 165 for 9, the third day promised to be full of thrilling cricket. However, the rain came pelting down early in the morning and the entire day’s play was washed out. The match ended in a draw and Studd managed to avoid getting out three times in the same match.
The Fenner’s match is not unique in this regard.
Four years later, in Ireland, 1889, Leinster 2nd XI comprehensively defeated Blackrock College. It was only after Leinster had lost four wickets in their innings that it was discovered that the match was being played on a 26-yard pitch. However, unlike the Fenner’s encounter, the teams agreed to play on rather than restarting the game.
In 1946, as big a name as Len Hutton was at the wicket in the match between Yorkshire and Derbyshire at Chesterfield when it was found out that the pitch had been incorrectly measured.
When Lancashire played Derbyshire at Aigburth, Liverpool, in 1979, the alignment of the stumps was discovered to be asked.