July 9, 2011

Two inches off Mr Burbridge's nose

In which we go back over a century to the fiendish excitements of Newfoundland cricket in its heyday

Everyone wants to win. Claiming otherwise when playing or watching sport is to render the activity meaningless. To really win, however, you need to have lost before. And to appreciate your victories properly, you need to have lost a lot. This is something that supporters of Australia are beginning to understand, and that perhaps the followers of Argentinian soccer team River Plate will soon recognise too.

Whatever nadir your team might currently be stuck in, don't be disheartened. Various studies have shown that organisations learn an awful lot more from failure than from success. Just ask the cricket-lovers of Newfoundland & Labrador, who can perhaps regard themselves as the most learned and appreciative of sports fans. As I noted in the previous postcard, the two victories recorded by Cricket NL at the recent Atlantic Twenty20 Cup broke almost two centuries of mediocrity.

What, then, were Newfoundland's cricketing highlights across the previous 187 years? What memorable incidents, or crumbs of comfort, had followers of the game been able to find prior to 2011? With the help of the lovely Linda and Frances, sports archivists in The Rooms, the province's excellent museum, I panned the rivers of newspaper cuttings to pluck out a selection of the choicest nuggets.

To start with the most exciting incident in Newfoundland cricket, indeed in possibly all of organised cricket anywhere in time or space, we need to turn to August 24th 1908, in St John's, and the quite inexplicably unremembered "Fencegate".

Newfoundland is a pretty breezy place, but even aeolian experts were swept off their feet by the match between Holloway and the Shamrocks, when a lusty blow to one corner of the ground saw the ball fly across the boundary and become lodged beneath a blown-down fence. Witnesses stated that it could not be retrieved for some minutes, causing a delay to the game that frustrated all the players and both spectators. Serious questions were asked in parliament shortly afterwards about the security of the dominion's walls, and only a speedy intervention from the prime minister prevented the first wind-powered cricket riot.

Outside the city, though, local rivalries could often turn genuinely fiery, with the fishing towns of Harbour Grace and Carbonear having a particularly tetchy relationship. It is unclear if any malice was intended, but in one 1860s clash, a chap named Burbridge suffered grievously at the hands of an opponent. Burbridge liked fielding at silly point, but had an unfortunate tendency to shuffle in so close that it became stupid instead. This literally came to a head when batsman Will Squarey stepped out to play a cut shot, and "found the end of his bat had removed two inches of Burbridge's nose, completely altering his facial expression". Unsurprisingly Mr Burbridge took this as a cue to retire from the game.

If close fielding was dangerous, though, it was a doddle compared with batting on ice. On December 29th 1904, in the remote out-port of the Change Islands, a game was held between the Reverend Clench's team and Mr House's XI. The playing surface was a frozen marsh from which the snow had been shovelled off, and the particularly rough lumps hacked at with axes to yield a pitch described, probably generously, as "passable".

On the rather lively wicket, the match correspondent recalled with evident glee that "two black eyes were beautifully scored - one of rich, jet-black loveliness, resplendently lined with red and green". Reverend Clench was made of sterner stuff, though, and he battled his way to an unbeaten 32, leading his team to victory. Combining cricketing and ice-skating skills to such impressive effect, Clench was surely an inspiration to Yuvraj Singh and Dominic Cork.

On dubious surfaces, whether ice-bound or not, batting averages in Newfoundland were never likely to be high. This didn't mean that players and scorers weren't precious about their stats, at least not if 1866 is anything to go by.

The end of the season saw the secretary of the Terra Nova Cricket Association submit his numbers to the local press, but the newspaper printed only the best 11, arguing that "the averages below those we publish are so low, we think it as well not to". This was not well-received by the secretary, who wrote a strongly worded letter of rebuke. They had formatted the averages incorrectly, he complained, and bemoaned that the low numbers were "due rather to the excellence of our opponents' bowling than to any inferiority in our batting". Inspection of the numbers shows he was clearly being a little disingenuous. Whatever the conditions, when your top batsman has an average of 8.71 over the season, your team has probably underperformed.

A local gripe about underperforming was one thing, but far more heated was a regional spat about not performing at all. In 1900 the Halifax Wanderers had come to St John's for a series of matches, and had had their expenses covered by the locals. There were many associated entertainments, the games attracted good crowds, and the visitors - victorious, I should add - promised to return the favour and host the Newfoundlanders the next year.

Nineteen hundred and one came and went, however, and no invitation was forthcoming. The St John's press were indignant that their men had been given the cold shoulder, and that their public had "heard the bibulous blather which the Haligonians have now gone back on".

It sounds like the rant of a bad loser, but the Newfoundlanders probably thought they could win the proposed rematch. In demon young left-arm bowler, Jack Munn, they had a player who, for Oxford University that season, had already dismissed CB Fry and KS Ranjitsinhji in the same game. He was a match-winner, and not being allowed to unleash him on the Wanderers must have riled.

Relations between the two provinces have rather improved since the Wanderers debacle, I'm pleased to say: Nova Scotian players and administrators have been nothing but generous in supporting our efforts to revive the game. But more than a century on, it was appropriate that Halifax was the location of Cricket NL's first victory. I'm sure we'll appreciate it even more if we ever beat Nova Scotia themselves.

Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling

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