1921 April 10, 2010

Lost in transit

The batsman who was given out while he was on a train

In this era of sponsored cars and luxury travel, few cricketers rely on public transport to get them to and from matches. But until the 1960s, counties travelled to anything other than local games by train. It was only the advent of the motorway network in the late 1950s that made coaches and then cars viable and affordable alternatives.

In 1921, Leicestershire's penultimate County Championship match was against Surrey at The Oval. While Leicestershire were bobbing along in the middle of the table, Surrey were hot on the heels of defending champions Middlesex and had everything to play for.

On the first day Surrey were bowled out for 228 but hit straight back to dismiss Leicestershire for 138. Second time around, Surrey declared on 244 for 4, leaving the visitors a stiff target of 335.

With an hour left to bat on the second evening, Leicestershire lost opener Ewart Astill shortly before the close and sent in wicketkeeper and lower-order batsman Tom Sidwell as nightwatchman. He did his job, and at the close Leicestershire were 21 for 1.

The following morning Sidwell failed to appear to resume his innings, and so John King, who would otherwise have batted at No. 3, was sent in to join not-out batsman Aubrey Sharp.

The session was well underway when Sidwell eventually arrived at The Oval. It emerged he had got hopelessly lost on the London Underground en route from his hotel to the ground. Suitably chastised, and relieved his captain was out in the middle and not closer at hand, Sidwell and his colleagues thought no more of it.

Behind the scenes there was frenetic activity. At lunch, when it emerged Sidwell was present and ready to bat if needed, Percy Fender, Surrey's captain, raised an objection with the umpires. He asked whether a batsman who was, although well, not present to continue his overnight innings should be considered out. The umpires said in their view he should, but asked for their views to be confirmed.

Lionel Palairet, Surrey's secretary, proceeded to phone Francis Lacey, the secretary of the MCC, who agreed with the umpires, adding that were Fender to agree to Sidwell resuming then he could do so. Fender, not known for his relaxed attitude to such matters, refused, justifying his decision with the argument for Sidwell to bat against tired bowlers was "a concession which might have a material affect on such an important game".

"Fender, for all his manoeuvrings inside the laws, was a stickler for the proprieties," wrote Richard Streeton in Fender: A Biography, "and could be intolerant if he felt the other person or team had only themselves to blame."

What appeared at the time an academic issue became increasingly relevant in the hour after lunch, as Leicestershire gradually ate into their target, and when they reached 198 for 4 it appeared they might pull off a remarkable win, or failing that, escape with a draw. Either result would have finished Surrey's Championship ambitions.

But from there the innings fell away, as five wickets fell in half-an-hour, and the match concluded at the fall of Leicestershire's ninth wicket, leaving Sidwell in the records as being "Absent - Out". Surrey gained the win but it proved academic, as Middlesex, by virtue of victory over Kent, made sure of securing the Championship.

Fender's actions raised strong opinions on both sides in the newspapers. Some argued he was being unsporting, but the more widespread view was that he was well within his rights, especially given the importance of the match.

Five years to the day later, Sidwell got his revenge. Playing against Surrey at The Oval, he made sure he got to the ground on time, and hammered his maiden hundred, a career-best 105, batting at No. 9. Fender, however, still had the last laugh, dismissing him in both innings, as Surrey went on to win.

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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