What inspired Conan Doyle cricket yarn?
Having established with the help of our readers that Joe Cover was the comic-book hero who perfected the high dropping full toss, which came out of the clouds to land on top of the stumps, the greater mystery remained. Where did he get the idea from?
The best evidence suggested that Cover's creator was familiar with the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, particularly a short story called Spedegue's Dropper.
Tom Spedegue was an asthmatic schoolmaster suffering from a weak heart who practised in the New Forest by lobbing a cricket ball over a cord slung between two 50-foot-high trees. He was taken from the obscurity of village cricket to defeat the Australians in the deciding game of an Ashes series and, after being carried shoulder-high from the field, retired from the game on doctor's orders.
But where did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle find his inspiration? Several readers have suggested that being a keen cricket fan - he once wrote a poem describing how he bowled out W G Grace - Sir Arthur would have been familiar with a book published in the Badminton series in the 1880s. The book, by A G Steel and the Hon R H Lyttelton, was regarded as a definitive treatise at the time and has since established itself as a classic of cricket literature.
In it, the authors deal seriously with the high dropping full pitch. They write: "It should be delivered as high as possible; there is no limit to the height this ball may go in the air, as the higher it ascends the more difficult it is to play. It should be bowled so that it reaches its highest point when it is almost directly over the head of the batsman and should pitch on the very top of the stumps."
They advise that this kind of ball might be excessively punished by an attacking batsman but is highly recommended against what they describe as "pokey batsmen".
According to the book: "One of the most amusing sights we have ever seen at cricket was one of these batsmen having ball after ball of this sort bowled to him. It was not till after he had nearly lost his wicket a dozen times, only keeping it by exceptional good luck, and had afforded the greatest merriment to players and spectators alike, that he burst out from sheer desperation into wild and furious hitting - a line of conduct which had the immediate effect of compelling the bowler to desist from his lofty attacks."
So we don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Lyttelton and Steel begat Tom Spedegue begat Joe Cover and that the fanciful imaginings of a comic-book hack in the Forties and Fifties had their origins in a coaching manual written more than 50 years before. The correspondence on this matter has been fascinating and plentiful. I am particularly indebted to John Hollinhead, of Leek, and Jonathan Forster, of Congleton, for their contributions. Mr Forster points out that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a useful cricketer himself, once taking seven for 61 for MCC against Cambridgeshire.
He also suggests that the name Sherlock was derived from two Notts players of the 1880s, the bowler T F Shacklock and the wicketkeeper Mordecai Sherwin, the scorebook often recording c Sherwin b Shacklock. He says there is another rumour that Sherlock's brother, Mycroft, was christened after two brothers who played for Derbyshire at the time.
The only mystery remaining is when was the last time a bowler employed the cloud-seeding full toss. John Oldham, of Dorset, remembers a bowler called Jimmy Olsen playing for Werneth in the Central Lancashire League in the mid-Thirties. Mr Oldham says Olsen's deliveries were high enough to make the batsman dizzy and because of the time the ball spent in the air, Olsen often took as long to bowl an over as Ted Badcock, the quick bowler at the other end.
His efforts were somewhat hindered by the fact he didn't receive much co-operation from wicketkeepers, who were in danger of being beheaded as the batsman flailed his bat like a broadsword at the dropping ball. Mr Oldham says: "There was some talk of Olsen being a Dane," which would, of course, explain everything.
Further eyewitness testimony is provided by Mr Skinner, of Oxhey, who says in the late Forties he saw the inimitable R J O Meyer, captain of Somerset, bowl out a Kent batsman with a high dropping full toss. As Mr Skinner remembers it, Meyer delivered an over of such balls during which the unfortunate batsman became confused by his unorthodox attack and stood away from his wicket in bafflement, only to see the ball land on top of his middle stump.
'Boss' Meyer, a renowned individual thinker who founded Millfield School, was said to have practised bowling the high lob while headmaster at Millfield. He was dissuaded from making it his speciality in county cricket by the appearance of Godfrey Evans at the crease. Evans, who enjoyed a joke, swatted Meyer's next over all around the park using his bat one-handed like a tennis racket.
So far as we know, this was the last time the high dropping full toss was deliberately used in county cricket. Unless you know better. . .