July 2, 2013

The fielding dog and other tales

There is a deep quirkiness to some of the early reporting on cricket - and not just because the world was so different back then

A match in 1743: an era filled with odd games © Getty Images

Was the first great fielder in cricket history a dog? Leafing through a wonderful book, Double Century - Cricket In The Times, offered an answer. The emergence of the Times from a paper called the Daily Universal Register coincided with the emergence of the game into wider society, and in 1785 the pair became fumblingly acquainted, neither conscious yet of the co-dependent affair between press and sport that would still be going strong 200 years later.

There is a deep quirkiness to some of this early reporting, and not just because the world was so different. The era was filled with odd games. On 21 May 1788 "a cricket match was played at Alfriston, Sussex, by four men whose ages added together amounted to 297 years" (the reporter is more enthralled by the vintage of the players than the game itself, which is largely unremarked upon). On 20 June 1793, also in Sussex, was a match played "by females, the married women against the maidens, which was won by the married women, who had 80 notches more than the nymphs" (early proof perhaps that there's no substitute for experience). And, rather sadly, on 22 October 1805, at Totteridge, a match between two young men named Greig and Corduroy reached such a pitch that Corduroy, in pursuit of 34 to win the game, had made seven when he "again hit the ball and ran, but on arriving at the wicket, expired".

One of the most extraordinary matches from these early years took place on 21 May 1827, on Harefield Common near Rickmansworth, where "for a considerable sum" two gentlemen of Middlesex took on Mr Francis Trumper, a farmer at Harefield, and his sheep dog in a two innings game.

The match had its own backdrop. It had been "very much talked of in the neighbourhood" for three weeks before it took place, and a considerable crowd turned up to watch, drawn by both the bright and clear summer's day and ante-post odds of 5-1 against Trumper and the dog. Here is what happened next:

"The dog always stood near his master as he was going to bowl, and the moment the ball was hit he kept his eye upon it and started after it with speed; and, on his master running up to the wicket, the dog would carry the ball in his mouth and put it in his master's hand with such wonderful quickness, that the gentlemen found it hard to get a run, even from a very long hit."

It must have been a stellar performance, one of the first great exhibitions of craft in the field, and early historical evidence for Duncan Fletcher's insistence that everyone be able to do it.

Due in no small part to the dog - whose name, along with those of the gentlemen in the opposition, goes unrecorded - it was a low-scoring encounter. The gentlemen batted first and made three. Next Trumper went in and "scored three for himself and then two for his dog".

As odds on an upset were cut to 4-1, the gentlemen batted again and made another three, leaving Trumper the task of making two to win, which he did without having recourse to his dog's second innings.

"The money lost and won on the occasion was considerable, as a great number of gentlemen came from Uxbridge and the neighbouring towns and villages to see so extraordinary a game."

Thus Trumper and his faithful hound pulled off one of cricket's first betting coups.

It's fascinating to read on and see the form of the game coalesce. There is tremendous, blackly comic drama, for example, as overarm or "high" bowling makes its mark, necessitating a hastily convened meeting of the MCC to discuss an amendment to the laws of the game. Only a contemporaneous report can take you there. The urgency of the reported speeches as the debate sways back and forth shows that men have always become as inflamed by sport as they have by war or love.

We are distant from those times, but we still feel their thrum.

Double Century: Cricket In The Times Vol One - 1785-1934 is published by Pavilion Books

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here