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A tale of a comic kidnapping
May 21, 2005
Everyone has to make agonising, nailbiting choices at some point in life: Labour or Tory; strawberry or vanilla; Busted or McFly. But few of these decisions result in your own kidnapping. And yet that's precisely what happened to the indecisive Billy Midwinter on June 20, 1878, after he found himself torn between playing for Australia, at Lord's, or Gloucestershire, at The Oval - and very nearly ended up doing both.
Midwinter was eligible for both sides as he was born in Gloucestershire in 1851, before emigrating to Australia where he played for Victoria. A promising allrounder, he played two Tests against England - the first two Tests of all, in 1876-77 - in which he took eight wickets, before joining Gloucestershire's side of amateurs in 1877, where he became the first overseas player in the county system, and Gloucestershire's first professional to boot.
Midwinter's midsummer dilemma should have been easily resolved: he was on good terms with Gloucestershire's captain, WG Grace, and had already agreed to play for them when required. Grace was certainly expecting him to turn out against Surrey at The Oval, but when the day dawned, Midwinter found himself wavering between county and (adopted) country.
He plumped, understandably enough, for international stardom, and arrived at Lord's to play against Middlesex. The Australian No. 3, Tom Horan, wrote that Midwinter was "determined to return with them to the colonies, where he had been promised a benefit match in both Melbourne and Sydney." Midwinter was padded up and ready to stride into bat with Alec Bannerman when the plot took another twist.
Earlier that day, five miles away in downtown Kennington, WG had realised that his team was one man short - and he soon guessed why. Not a man averse to sharp practice, he jumped in a cab with his brother, EM, and the giant wicketkeeper Arthur Bush and the party hotfooted it north to Lord's. There, Grace gatecrashed the party, by barging straight into the visitors' dressing-room and kidnapping a startled Midwinter.
The quartet dashed back to The Oval, where the match was already underway after an initial delay. In their absence, it had been decided to get the match started, and Gloucestershire chose to field. It was, quite literally, an amateur affair, as a host of substitute fielders were called upon to plug the gaps.
But even when the foursome piled out of their getaway vehicle, they couldn't immediately take the field, because their passage to the pitch had been halted by some understandably irate Australians. The Aussies weren't going to let a key player disappear from under their noses without a fight, oh no, and an indignant Dave Gregory, Australia's captain, promptly gathered a select band of likely lads to snatch him back again.
Gregory shepherded his men into a carriage of their own, and they set off on a wacky race which took them over the river and down to Kennington where, upon arriving, both parties began shouting and bickering. They stopped short of physical fighting; having to make so instead with finger-pointing and verbal sparring. Grave eventually won the battle for his man, and sniped at the Australians: "You are a damned lot of sneaks."
A full-strength Gloucestershire team finally assembled on the pitch - but a bleak Midwinter's contribution wasn't worth all the brouhaha. He made 4 and a duck in his two innings, and his four wickets for 65 came at a greater overall cost ... his place in the Australian side.
Grace, however, was much more composed. Invigorated by the whole episode, he made 40 out of Gloucestershire's 111 in their first innings, and 31 out of 159 in their second. He also took ten wickets for 113, but all to no avail - Gloucestershire lost by 16 runs, their first defeat for two years. Up at Lord's, meanwhile, the Australians won comfortably by 98 runs.
But this wasn't the end of the matter, for an angry exchange of letters followed. John Conway, Australia's manager, kick-started matters with a blistering letter of complaint to Gloucestershire, the focus of which was more on WG's behaviour than Midwinter's indecisiveness.
EM Grace replied, in a letter addressed to Gregory: "With the knowledge of Midwinter's engagement staring you in the face you attempted to induce him to break his promise, desert his county, and play for you by offering him a much larger sum than we could afford to pay him." Midwinter would have certainly gained much more than the £8 (plus expenses) offered to him by Gloucestesrhire; the Australians were offering £50, with an eventual return of somewhere between £700 and £750 per player.
Letters continued to fly back and forth and, at one point, the Australians threatened to cancel their fixture against Gloucestershire at Bristol at the end of the season. This prompted WG to write a soothing letter to Gregory which has the desired calming effect. "I apologise again," he wrote in July, "and express my extreme regret to Mr Conway, Boyle and yourself, and through you to the Australian cricketers, that in the excitement of the moment I should have made use of unparliamentary language to Mr Conway."
The match went ahead at Clifton, but Gloucestershire were hopelessly out of their depth: they lost by ten wickets inside two days, their first home defeat of the season. And rather than try to turn out for both sides, this time Midwinter played for neither. He was absent with a split thumb.
Midwinter played no part in Australia's next two Tests either. In fact, the next time he turned out for an international team, he was playing for England, when he became the first and only man to have played for England against Australia, and vice versa. In all, he played four Tests for England, on their tour of Australia in 1881-82, but failed to record a win.
And he still couldn't make up his mind, because soon afterwards he left England to play for Australia once again. But this time the matter was settled. He played six more Tests for them between 1882 and 1887 and these proved to be his last. Just three years later, at the age of 39, he died in an asylum in Melbourne, after suffering mental problems following the death of his wife and children.
WG Grace - a life - Simon Rae, Faber and Faber, 1998
Observer Sports Monthly magazine - August 4, 2002
Ask Bill - BBC Sport website, October 31, 2002
WG - Robert Low - Richard Cohen books, 1977
Cricketer magazine - April 1979
Wisden - 1879
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