Cambridge memories

AG Steel

I was sitting in the smoking-room of a country house one night last autumn, thoroughly tired out after a long day's shooting. I felt perfectly comfortable in my large armchair watching the smoke slowly ascend from my briar. My companions, of whom there were several, were all lazily inclined, and beyond an occasional remark about some shooting incident of the day none seemed inclined to do much talking. I was dreamily thinking of some old Cambridge friends now scattered over various quarters of the globe, and as their names flashed through my mind each one brought happy recollections of well-fought matches at Fenner's, Lord's, and the Oval. I was far away, oblivious almost to the presence of others, and my thoughts in their hazy wanderings had fixed on one particular hit-never by me to be forgotten. Charley Bannerman was the striker, P. H. Morton the bowler, and the match Cambridge v. Australians at Lord's, 1878. Half-asleep I seemed to see again that sturdy striker raise his massive shoulders and hit the ball a warrior's knock; the ball flew low, over the bowler's head, struck the iron-bound ground twenty yards in front of the outfield, and bounded right over the awning of Lord Londesborough"s drag and struck the wall behind. Truly a mighty hit. I could almost hear the cheers and shouts that greeted it.

Alas! too soon was my pleasant reverie ended. A low voice sitting at my elbow recalled me to the smoking-room and its surroundings. The speaker was a young Cambridge undergraduate, and the words he was uttering were these: I am not much of a cricketer myself, but the general opinion is that our eleven this year is the best we have had for twenty years at Cambridge. What about 1878? said I, quietly. 1878, said my young friend contemptuously. That year had a good bat or two- A. P. Lucas, and Alfred and Edward Lyttelton were not bad players-but what bowlers had it? There was none to be compared to Woods, the present captain.

It is hardly necessary to say that a long discussion followed and afterwards it occurred to me that a few remarks in WISDEN on Cambridge cricketers of the last dozen years or so by one who has played with most, if not all of them, might be interesting to University men and, perhaps, others.

As I was one of the unvanquished 1878 team I am naturally open to the charge of prejudice; I shall risk that, however, and say that in my opinion that was the best side that Cambridge has turned out in my recollection. It played eight matches, and won everyone, including a defeat of Gregory's Australian team by an innings and 72 runs. As a batting side it was exceptionally strong. Alfred and Edward Lyttelton were then at their very best; in fact, the latter's success that one season was phenomenal. Always a good batsman, the office of captain had no sooner become his than he played as he never did before, or since. He went to the very top of the tree, and the close of the season's record showed his to be the highest amateur average-viz., 29.25, the champion running a very close second. Alfred Lyttelton was then, as always, a really great batsman. No first-class cricketer ever possessed the elegance of style that was his; no flourish, but the maximum of power with the minimum of exertion.

These two, with that perfect master of stylish defence, A. P. Lucas, made a really sound nucleus for the batting strength of the side. The last-named batsman, when the bowling was very accurate, was a slow scorer, but always a treat to watch. If the present generation of stone-wall cricketers, such as Scotton, Hall, Barlow, A. Bannerman, nay, even Shrewsbury, possessed such beautiful ease of style the tens of thousands that used to frequent the beautiful Australian grounds would still flock there, instead of the hundred or two patient gazers on feats of Job-like patience that now attend them. There were several lesser-lights of the team who were far from useless with the bat-Ivo Bligh, Whitfeld, L. K. Jarvis, and A. G. Steel-as will be seen from the fact that the average of the whole eleven came to 219 runs per innings, and that in one of the very wettest seasons on record.

The bowling of the team was strong, though looking at it now, after a dozen years, one cannot help wondering at its success. P. H. Morton was during that season a really good fast bowler; not as good as Woods of to-day, certainly not; but at times he was very deadly. The divilment in his bowling was the great pace the ball left the pitch. Tallish, but of spare physique, he scarcely looked the stamp of man to bowl really fast, but he had most powerful muscles at the back of his shoulders, and it was to these that he owed his success. I owed my great success of taking seventy-five wickets for the University at a cost of 7.32 runs apiece to the novelty of my bowling. At that time no bowler in first-rate cricket broke from the leg-side, and for a short period many a first-class batsman made but sorry attempts to play the curly ones. A. F. J. Ford and A. P. Lucas were the only changes. With a good fielding side and a superb wicket-keeper the team was one that in 1878 would have taken a very high-class side to beat.

Alfred Lyttelton's year as captain, 1879, saw the Cambridge eleven again undefeated. This was a good side, but lacking Edward Lyttelton and A. P. Lucas it could not be considered equal to the preceding one. G. B. Studd first made his appearance, getting the last place by the mere skin of his teeth. It is a strange fact that two such fine cricketers as Ivo Bligh and G. B. Studd just managed to scrape as eleventh men into the team in their respective years. The rival of each for the last place was the same man, O. P. Lancashire-hard lines indeed just to miss his blue so narrowly two consecutive years. This year saw the last of the Lytteltons-doughty champions indeed for Cambridge cricket. During the five years, 1874 to 1879, the ranks of Cambridge cricket were being continually recruited by some of the very best boy players-D. Q. Steel, W. S. Patterson, A. P. Lucas, Edward and Alfred Lyttelton, A. G. Steel, Ivo Bligh, P. H. Morton, and G. B. Studd were amongst the most prominent. It was hardly to be expected that the public schools could go on supplying such good men; but in 1880 Eton sent up C. T. Studd, who, in a very short time, took his place in quite the first flight of cricketers. He had, a fine, upright, commanding style as a batsman, and was a very useful slow bowler, quick from the pitch, and on a hard ground getting up to an inconvenient height. In 1881 Cambridge suffered their first defeat by Oxford since the great collapse in 1877. The eleven was strong in batting, but sadly weak in bowling, especially on the hard fast ground on which the University match was played. A. H. Evans at last had his revenge; as hard working a cricketer as ever played for either University, his bowling for Oxford in the three preceding Varsity matches had been magnificent, and that against strong batting sides. Supported by very weak batting all his efforts had been unavailing till 1881, and then his bowling, backed up by a beautiful innings of over a hundred by that finished player, W. H. Patterson, and a seventy (ever memorable for a strange stroll to the pavilion at its beginning) by C. F. H. Leslie, secured a well-earned and long-desired victory for Oxford.

The Australians fared but badly in their first three contests with the representatives of Cambridge. In 1878 the Australian management had found it impossible to give a date for a Cambridge fixture until after the University match at Lord's. I believe that this is the first occasion on which a University team has played as a University after the meeting at Lord's. However, keen for the fray, full of confidence after a most successful season, we reunited on July 22nd to try conclusions with the eleven which early in the year had inflicted such a terrible defeat upon a good team of the M.C.C. It was glorious weather, and a perfect wicket. We won the toss, and despite the unavoidable absence of A. P. Lucas ran up a total of 285. The most noticeable feature of the innings was the woeful lack of judgment the Australians showed in placing their field. In the first two hours their bowling was collared, and away went the majority of the field to the boundary. I recollect well batting to Spofforth that day without any cover-point or third man. We have learnt a lot from the Australians in bowling; they have learnt a lot from us in batting and general knowledge of the game.

The Australians' two innings were 111 and 102. These small scores were entirely owing to P. H. Morton, whose bowling on that day was doubt the best fast bowling on a true wicket I ever saw. He got twelve wickets for 90 runs, and clean bowled nine, most of them with really fast breakbacks.

The next match between Cambridge and the Australians was in 1882 at Fenner's. Their team this year was undoubtedly the best they ever brought over, before or since, and Cambridge did a great performance in beating them by six wickets. The wicket was a fine one and the weather splendid, and the Australians won the toss. C. T. Studd and R. C. Ramsay bowled them out for 139. Cambridge retaliated with 266, the chief feature being a grand 118 by C. T. Studd. His off-driving of Spofforth and Palmer was perfection. The Australians making 291 in their second innings left the Varsity a big task-165 to win on a well-used wicket. The weather, however, kept fine, the wicket played well, and the runs were got for four wickets. J. E. K. Studd played a fine innings of 66, and G. B. Studd 48. It will be a long time before I forget the face of the old President (Rev. A. Ward) when Cambridge had won. Mr. Steel, he said, I never yet got a new hat, except for the University match: I shall order one tomorrow in honour of this victory.

The next match was at Portsmouth the same year, and was Australians v. Past and Present Cambridge. This was a magnificent game, and the finish never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Cambridge won by 20 runs after many exciting incidents. The University went in first, and made 196. C. I. Thornton and A. P. Lucas, 45 and 42 respectively, were the highest scorers. The Australians made 141. Then Cambridge ran up 152, Alfred Lyttelton's 60 being the highest score, and left the Australians 208 to win. They began their task well-too well it seemed to the numerous partisans of the University. I have no record of how the wickets fell in this innings, but unless my memory plays me false I think that the Australians at the fall of the second wicket- Bonnor's-were about 90 to 100. This was not pleasant. Bonnor had made 66 in just half-an-hour. His hitting of C. T. Studd's bowling was appalling. The wicket seemed good and played well; but late in the innings I noticed that several balls that pitched on the middle and off stumps got up very uncomfortably for the batsmen. I happened to be bowling, and keeping the ball as well as I could on that spot, innocent of all break, and almost medium pace, I met with great success. The finish was exciting when the Australians wanted about 25 runs to win and two wickets to get them; horror of horrors, two catches were missed, one a very easy one-imagine our feelings. However, all was well eventually, and amidst the very wildest excitement amongst the blue jackets we won. One of the Australians said to me afterwards: After this third defeat, you've only to hold up a light-blue coat and we'll run. However, since 1882 the Australians have amply avenged themselves both against the University and Cambridge Past and Present.

Since 1882 many fairly good batsmen have appeared in the ranks of the Cambridge teams, and a few moderate bowlers, but the decade has been one remarkably deficient in any brilliant talent. We look in vain for any names that have taken such a high place as the old ones. Not one Cambridge batsman during this period has earned the distinction of representing England; and it was not till 1888 that two such first-class men in their respective spheres as Woods and M'Gregor appeared. Lord Hawke, C. W. Wright (for a short period), F. Marchant, F. Thomas, Mordaunt, Foley, G. Kemp, Hon. J. W. Mansfield, C. D. Buxton, and F. G. J. Ford are amongst the best batsmen. There have been fewer good bowlers than batsmen. Rock was a very steady, slow bowler; Toppin at one time showed considerable promise, but never realised expectations. The young Australian, S. M. J. Woods, the present captain, is far away the finest fast bowler Cambridge has had for many years. Very fast, straight, with a good command over the ball both as regards pitch and change of pace, he is the beau ideal of a fine amateur bowler. He is a dangerous batsman too, one of those plucky, dashing players who appear to greater advantage the more things are going wrong for their side. What a pity we cannot keep this fine young cricketer at home; we could do very well with him in Gentlemen v. Players matches for the next five or six years. We are told that Ferris has taken a house or cottage of some sort near Bristol in order to secure some so-called qualification for Gloucestershire, though from all accounts he himself is at present in Australia. I should like to hear Woods had done the same thing in any English city he pleased.

Wicket-keeping has been of late above the average. Orford, the predecessor of M'Gregor, was as good as any University team wants, and very much better than the ordinary run, but M'Gregor, another pupil of that best of old cricketers H. H. Stephenson, has now reached the very top of the tree, as this last season he was deservedly chosen to keep wicket for England in preference to any of the professionals. He is a great wicket-keeper, and though I have not seen quite as much of him as I have of some other of the past stumpers, my own opinion is that he is the best amateur I ever saw. Firm and steady as a rock, without a whisper of a flourish, he takes the ball close to the stumps. Alfred Lyttelton was a great wicket-keeper; as a catcher at the wicket he was unsurpassed, for the very reason that made him a slow stumper, viz., he allowed the ball to pass the line of stumps a considerable distance before taking it. M'Gregor is a quick stumper and a fine catcher, too, and his quiet and sure style reminds me of that prince of wicket-keepers Richard Pilling .

With Woods and M"Gregor up again next season, and with the two promising youngsters, Streatfeild and Douglas, Cambridge should hold her own again at Lord's next year.

To old Cantabs the University pavilion is hardly the same now that our late President, old (as we used to call him) Ward, has passed away. Who that ever played at Cambridge in days gone by can forget his portly figure, his round and ruddy face? His jokes, some, alas, so oft-told yet always new to him, his laughter, his kindly genial sympathy as he greeted the discomfited batsman in the pavilion, will ever live in the memory of those who knew him. A cricketer's visit to Cambridge in the old President's days was never complete without an attack of the presidential Bollinger, which according to its owner could only cheer but not inebriate-an idle tale as many a thirsty soul could prove.

© John Wisden & Co