‘I tend to think that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created on earth – certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.’ – Harold Pinter
‘Cricket is basically baseball on valium.’ – Robin Williams
‘Baseball has the great advantage over cricket of being sooner ended.’ – George Bernard Shaw
First and foremost, apologies to my American followers, because this post is going to be about cricket. The sport is regarded by many, both in the States and elsewhere (hello, continental Europe, China, South America…) as completely unfathomable, making it the subject of the sort of lengthy jokes which appear on tea towels. Now, I’ve never been a really huge cricket fan, but I’ve always enjoyed watching the game – I watched on grainy black and white TV as Gary Sobers hit six sixes in one over, no more than twelve miles from where I was sitting; I temporarily stopped teaching History to a bunch of Cornish kids so we could all watch Bob Willis destroy Australia at Headingley in 1981; and I’ve been to Test matches, albeit not for many years. Whisper it softly, but I’ve even played a few times, albeit with astonishing ineptitude. I have opened the batting, though (albeit only when our captain decided to reverse the batting order as a joke), and once turned out in an astonishing fogbound match in the middle of a reclaimed China clay tip, where it was barely possible to see your hand in front of your face, let alone the other players. You know those scenes in Dr Who where s/he’s in what’s meant to be an alien landscape which is all too obviously a large quarry, and the techies in charge of the dry ice are giving it all they’ve got? That.
(Top score, you ask? Nine, but that included two stonking boundaries.)
Anyway, the occasion for such shameless reminiscing on my part is that as I type this, Test match cricket is resuming, albeit behind closed doors and with players isolated in bio-secure zones in stadia which have integral hotels. Some things never change, though – rain is holding up play, i.e. it’s a typical British summer’s day, and England are one wicket down after no time at all, i.e. it’s a typical England performance. To mark the return of cricket, I thought I’d publish something which I stumbled across during the course of my research, and which to the best of my knowledge has never been made public before. In 1882, Mary Gladstone, later Mrs Drew (1847-1927), daughter of and private secretary to the then Prime Minister W E Gladstone, wrote to her close friend Margaret, Lady Cowell Stepney, who’d married (with catastrophic consequences) into the family which I’ve been studying for some 20 years. In this letter, now in the Stepney MSS held by Carmarthenshire Archives, Mary describes a visit to the Oval ground in south London to attend what would become one of the most famous cricket matches of all time – the Test match between England and Australia at which, contrary to all expectation, the mighty imperial motherland and inventor of the game was trounced by the colonial upstarts. So humiliating was the defeat that The Sporting Times proclaimed that English cricket had died, and that the ashes had been cremated and taken to Australia. Ever since, Test series between the two countries have been played ‘for the Ashes’, with the latest instalment having been played out in 2019.
Mary Gladstone clearly knew her cricket and was a close friend of one of the England players, the Hon. Alfred Lyttelton (1857-1913), the wicketkeeper during the match at the Oval. Here, then, originally written on ’10 Downing Street’ headed notepaper, is Mary’s previously unknown eyewitness account of a hugely significant day in the history of sport. Her account surely comprehensively demolishes the idea that the Victorians watched sport in a genteel and detached manner, with stiff upper lips, only the most polite applause, and no exclamation stronger than ‘jolly well played, old chap’. It also puts paid to any suggestion that women’s interest in such sports as cricket is only a relatively recent phenomenon. However, it confirms in spades all the old jokes about British cricketing weather, although Mary’s strategy of turning up to a Test match wearing a fur cloak was possibly a little extreme even at the time. (The events she describes took place on 29 August 1882…)
Dearest Maggie, Got to London all safe. Bitter cold and bad showers [plus ca change – D]. Alfred arrived in Downing Street 5 minutes after me. I flew upstairs, saw Papa, explained my apparent bad want in not going with him at once to Hawarden [the family home in north Wales], fetched a fur cloak and drove with Alfred to the Oval. Reached it about 1115, found they wouldn’t begin till 12. Went through much danger from flying cricket balls, the two teams being hard at work practising batting to anybody’s bowling and making a wicket of seats or people or anything that came handy. All the morning which the Australians were in and England fielding [I] sat alone surrounded by 20,000 strangers, it was a little flat having to gasp, clap, groan, laugh, shudder, burst as the case might be, all alone by oneself. However about 2.30 Charles [unidentified – D] arrived and sat with me and once Australia was out for 123 runs Alfred also came until it was his turn to go in.
[Lyttelton batted at number six; the legendary W G Grace opened the batting for England – D]
Only conceive England going in 2nd innings with only 85 to get! We felt certain of an easy victory. At least I didn’t, for I marked the devil in Spofforth’s eye. [Fred Spofforth, 1853-1926, nicknamed ‘the demon bowler’ – D] He is the great Australian bowler, and I felt sure now that I knew he knew he was going to bowl them all out, in spite of their being the most famous batsmen that Great Britain could produce. It was the most frightfully exciting scene as wicket after wicket fell to his deadly balls, whenever a run was made the whole of the vast audience chanted and cheered madly. Alfred stuck in valiantly, playing with the utmost patience and caution, not making runs but simply defending his wicket and getting a run when he safely could. He fell to a frightfully difficult high ball [word unclear – D] but he had made 12. When he left all was over and no further stand was made. [Lyttelton was out at 66-5; the last five wickets fell for only eleven runs – D] The Australians leapt high in [the] air at every successful ball of Spofforth’s and when the last man was clean bowled with only 8 more to win the game, the howl and the mighty rush was beyond anything you could imagine. [Four words omitted – three unclear, but third word is ’empty’] …in an instant swarming with thousands and thousands wildly cheering and waving hats, handkerchiefs and umbrellas. It was sickening for England but still awfully jolly to see.
And the rest, as the saying goes, is history!