1810 November 22, 2008

A single-wicket scandal

The pre-Victorian era was not one where gentlemanly conduct prevailed
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Lord Frederick Beauclerk: so unpopular was he, that it is said that a notorious criminal once refused to travel in the same coach as him on account of his "fluent and expressive vocabulary". Another source said he was "cruel unforgiving, cantankerous and bitter" © Cricinfo Ltd
 

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries single-wicket matches were all the rage, usually fuelled by heavy wagers and played by individuals with sizable egos. They attracted massive interest, and often led to disputes and feuds. One such contest that fulfilled all these criteria came in 1810, and was almost the last match played at the original Lord's ground in Dorset Square.

On one side were George Osbaldeston and William Lambert. Osbaldeston was an interesting figure who had been expelled from Eton and almost sent down from Oxford for pouring hot gravy over a fellow student's head. He was, however, considered one of the leading single-wicket players in the land. Lambert was a top batsman, and in 1817 he became the first man to score two hundreds in a match.

Opposing them were Lord Frederick Beauclerk and Thomas Howard. Beauclerk made huge sums from gambling on cricket, even though he was nominally a cleric, and was universally feared and loathed. It was said that he was a "foul-mouthed, dishonest man who was one of the most hated figures in society ... he bought and sold matches as though they were lots at an auction". But his word was gospel within the MCC, and he was a renowned cricketer. Howard was a fast underarm bowler.

The game, for 50 guineas although illegal gambling would have dwarfed that sum, attracted widespread interest, but on the morning of the match Osbaldeston, who had been unwell for weeks, was unable to play.

Edward Budd, a good allrounder himself, was asked by Osbaldeston to go to his opponent and request a postponement. Beauclerk's reply was predictable: "No … play or pay."

"Never mind," Osbaldeston is reported to have said on being told of Beauclerk's stance. "I won't forfeit … Lambert may beat them both, and if he does the 50 guineas shall be his." Lambert was far from certain, and it took considerable persuasion to get him to agree, but when he did Osbaldeston sent back a tart reply to Beauclerk. "Yes, play or pay, my Lord. We are in earnest, and shall claim the stakes."

The row rumbled on. Osbaldeston requested a replacement fielder, but again Beauclerk stuck to the rules and refused. Fuming, Osbaldeston was persuaded if he could manage to face one ball then a substitute had to be allowed.

He dressed and headed in his carriage to Lord's, arriving at the end of the Lambert's innings. "I went in," he later wrote, "but from the quantity of medicine I had taken , and being shockingly weak from long confinement in my room, I felt quite dizzy and faint."

Nevertheless he managed to take a run off Beauclerk, which was cheered by the crowd who were aware of his illness. That incensed his rival who immediately summoned Howard to bowl, at which point Osbaldeston "gave up my bat and claimed a fieldsman".

Beauclerk wasn't finished yet, and brushed aside the request, leaving Lambert on his own. Despite this handicap, Lambert dismissed Beauclerk and Howard for 24 to take a first-innings lead of 32.

Lambert made another 24 from 78 balls second time round - Osbaldeston did not try to bat again - setting a target of 57. Howard made a breezy 24, and then Beauclerk appeared set to secure the win as he batted with increasing confidence. However, Lambert wasn't finished.

Under the laws of the day, there were no such things as wides. So Lambert started bowling way outside off stump and Beauclerk soon lost what remaining cool he possessed. When Lambert eventually sent down a straight one, the incensed Beauclerk took a wild swing and was bowled. Osbaldeston, watching from his carriage on the boundary, said he was "never more gratified in my life". His mother summoned Lambert to her own carriage and gave him a parcel believed to contain bank notes.

Beauclerk raged but to no avail, and skulked from the field with the cheers of the crowd almost mocking him. He did, however, have the last laugh.

The following year he forced through a law introducing wides. In 1817 he had Lambert banned from cricket after a farcical match in Nottingham in which both sides had taken money to lose. Beauclerk, in an outrageously hypocritical act, used his influence to get Lambert slung out of the game for good.

In 1818 he settled his score with Osbaldeston who, after losing a single-wicket match at Lord's, stormed into the pavilion and in a fit of pique scratched his name from the list of MCC members. When tempers had calmed, Budd approached Beauclerk to have Osbaldeston reinstated, but he refused point blank. Osbaldeston played little important cricket thereafter and was never readmitted to the club.

The increasingly despised Beauclerk continued to rule Lord's, oblivious to what people thought of him and making a good living from gambling. If a sign were needed as to how his peers viewed him it came when he died in 1850. His death did not even warrant a mention in the Times.

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Bibliography
More Than A Game by John Major (Harper Collins 2007)
It's Not Cricket by Simon Rae (Faber & Faber 2001)
A Social History Of English Cricket by Derek Birley (Aurum 1999)