1870 October 2, 2004

Cobden's match

The varsity match of 1870 will always go down as one of the classic games in English cricket

Frank Cobden: devastating in the gloom © The Cricketer
If, at the turn of the 20th century, English cricket followers had been asked to name the classic games of the previous 100 years, it is almost certain that the Varsity match of 1870 would have featured strongly. Cobden's Match, as the game become almost universally known, was referred to by Wisden as cricket's Charge of the Light Brigade. The final over was dissected ad nauseam, and even in the 1940s was considered worthy of discussion in the sporting press.

Until the first Test on English soil in 1880, the highlights of the summer were the two Gentlemen v Players games and the Varsity match. The County Championship as we would recognise it now was not instigated until 1890. When Oxford and Cambridge met at Lord's in June 1870, the level of interest was considerable.

The game itself threw up some excellent performances. William Yardley scored the first hundred in the 36th match between the two universities, rescuing Cambridge's second innings when they led by only 12 with five wickets left. Charles Francis took 5 for 59 and 7 for 102 in a losing cause, while Edward Ward ripped through Oxford's top order in their second innings, taking 6 for 29. But the name forever associated with Cambridge's remarkable victory is Frank Cobden.

On the first day Cobden, bowling at 6.45pm in poor light, took Oxford's last three wickets for next to nothing, and play ended with honours roughly even. Cambridge, bowled out for 147, conceded a lead of 28 by the close. Cobden was a brisk rather than fast roundarm bowler who was thought to be at his best while a schoolboy at Harrow, but in what Wisden said was "bad light" he was more than a match for the tailenders.

Despite this, Bernard Pauncefote, Oxford's captain, agreed that play could be extended until 7.30pm on the second day if a result was possible. His decision was reported with a mixture of criticism and amazement, and in the event proved his side's undoing as again their tail was exposed in gloomy conditions.

On the second day, rescued by Yardley's 100, Cambridge were bowled out in front of 10,000 spectators for 206. Yardley put on 116 for the sixth wicket with John Dale (67) before Dale was brilliantly caught one-handed at long leg by Cuthbert Ottaway. Dale later blotted his copybook somewhat when he dropped Edmund Tylecote at a crucial stage of Oxford's second innings. "Sorry, Walter," he said to Money, his captain, "I was watching a lady get out of a drag."

Set 179 in a little over three hours, Oxford lost a wicket without a run on the board, but thereafter made steady progress, and at 153 for 4 needed just 26 more runs with six wickets in hand.

Oxford's wobble began in earnest when Ottaway's three-hour 69 was ended by a brilliant catch at short leg by Fredrick Fryer off Ward. The ball was held so low down that Ottaway unsuccessfully appealed to the umpire that it had touched the ground. That dismissal encouraged Money to bring Cobden back into the attack at the Nursery End. One of Cobden's team-mates later recalled: "He would never have got Ottaway out if he had bowled a thousand balls at him."

The two sides for the 1870 match. Click here for a larger image of the Cambridge side and click here for the Oxford XI © The Cricketer
By then it was 7.10pm, with 19 needed and five wickets left. Crucially, the light was again deteriorating fast. Ward took two quick wickets, and at the start of the last four-ball over, Oxford needed four runs to win with three wickets in hand. The odds were still with Oxford, as Cobden had to bowl to Frederick Hill, a useful batsman who was on 10.

Hill drove the first ball on the off side and took a single, "a decision I regretted for the rest of my life," he said later. Few doubted that Hill could have coped with Cobden, but Oxford's tail, perhaps affected by the events of 24 hours earlier, were less stubborn.

Samuel Butler drove the second ball of the over - a half-volley - hard, but was superbly caught by Alfred Bourne. Contemporary accounts, which offer various versions of the match's conclusion, have Bourne fielding anywhere from mid-on to cover point ... but what they all agree on is that it was an excellent catch.

Next up was Thomas Belcher, a fast bowler who had taken six wickets in the match. Cobden bowled him a straight full-length delivery which clattered into the stumps. Thirty years later, Belcher claimed that he was bowled off his right leg. Whatever the reality, Oxford were nine down with three needed to win.

William Stewart, Oxford's wicketkeeper and a poor batsman, was the last man in. His career average of 3.83 tells all there is to know about his skill with the bat. Francis MacKinnon, who later jokingly boasted that he had played the winning knock with his 2 in the second innings, recalled Stewart's slow trudge to the middle. "He passed close to me in the field and was as white as a ghost. His captain had given him a little brandy and told him on no account to lift his bat from the blockhole."

But Stewart did lift his bat, Cobden removed his middle stump, and Cambridge had won by two runs. The crowd poured onto the field, "waving hats, sunshades, handkerchiefs, fans, and sticks," according to Wisden and Cobden was carried round the ground on the shoulders of the jubilant spectators.

"By superior bowling and infinitely superior fielding, Oxford reached a position where they could not lose; and they lost," the History of the OUCC put it. And the book added, recalling Pauncefote's agreement to extend play, "They gave the game away by an incredibly stupid decision."

Of the players in that match, only two, MacKinnon and Edmund Tylecote, played Test cricket. MacKinnon's only England appearance was at Melbourne in 1878-79, and when he died in 1947 he was 98 years and 324 days old, and is still the longest-lived Test player.

One other, Ottaway, had a remarkable sporting career before dying aged only 27. He was the first man to captain England at football in 1872, and appeared in three FA Cup finals (1874, 1875 and 1876), winning the first one as part of the Old Etonian side in 1874. His cricket was limited, but he scored two hundreds for Middlesex in 1876, including one in his final first-class match. He also won Blues in athletics, rackets, real tennis and football.

Others went on to play county cricket, but not Cobden. He played two more summers for Cambridge, and that was the extent of his first-class career. He carried on playing club cricket, but was forever dogged by people asking about that over.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail rewind@cricinfo.com with your comments and suggestions.