Benny Green pulls a character out of the darkness of cricket's chronicles of a century ago
A while back my own thoughts turned to a long-forgotten amateur called Charles Alfred Absolom, who might so easily have participated in both the original England v Australia inaugurative Tests but who in fact appeared in neither.
He was not involved in the 1877 tour of Australia, and by the time the 1880 series in England was under way, Absolom had already placed himself out of the reckoning, using the most bizarre method of doing so in the entire history of cricket. He had, however, toured Australia under his county captain Lord Harris in 1878-79, that notorious tour in which the Sydney bookmakers are said to have instigated a riot in an attempt to avoid paying out on an inevitable English victory, doing their work so well that the mob rushed the England players, who defended themselves with what stumps they could snatch until relief arrived in the form of the local mounted police. Absolom was not playing in that game, which is perhaps a pity, because he was one of those gentle giants who would never hurt a fly but could easily throw a grown man around without undue strain, hence the nickname which accrued to him in his Varsity days, The Navvy'.
In the single Test of that tour, played at Melbourne in January 1879, Absolom covered himself with glory. In his youth he had been a renowned allrounder for Cambridge University, Kent and the Gentlemen. WG said of him: 'As a batsman he had a peculiar style of his own. He held the bat very high up in the handle, and did not pay much attention to the pitch of the ball. Balls bowled to the off he hit to long-on, in fact anywhere but where the bowler intended and hoped they would be hit to.'
In his History of Cricket, Harry Altham describes his bowling as 'slow-medium of irreproachable length', while the best comment on his fielding may be found in the match reports of the early Wisdens, where time and again the chronicler is obliged to refer to some brilliant catch of his, or some remarkable return But by the time he arrived in Australia with Harris's side, Absolom was 32 years old. His bowling was no longer a considerable force, and even his batting had declined since the days when he opened for Kent. But his Iordship thought the world of him; in his autobiography even the magisterial Harris cannot resist referring to Absolom as 'dear old Bos'.
That seems to have been about the size of it; Absolom was one pleased to include him in the side against Australia at Melbourne. In deference to his own declining powers, Absolom batted at No. 9 - and was the only England batsman in either innings to make a half-century; his 53 out of 113 in the first, in defiance of Spofforth in full flow, saved his country from complete disgrace, although not ultimate defeat by ten wickets. All this is interesting but hardly remarkable. It is what Absolom did next which, a century later, thrusts him into the foreground of my thoughts.
Absolom simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Between 1880, when he left England, and 1889, when the cricketing world was saddened to hear of his death in Trinidad, nothing was known either of his movements or his motives. The mystery seemed to deepen into melodrama with the fact that at the time of his death Absolom was working as a ship's purser, and indeed met his death when a crane carrying bananas he was helping to unload fell on him and injured him so severely that he died in the local hospital two days later.
Quite apart from the inexplicable fact of his disappearance from England, how does a paragon of the Victorian amateur tradition, a young blood who has represented his varsity and the Gentlemen, how does so well-appointed a sprig end up shifting bananas in the colonies? Such a question seemed doubly intriguing to me because there was obviously no way of answering it, no evidence, no facts to go on.
Cricketers in those days, even more so than today, were regarded purely as sportsmen with no private lives at all, to judge from the dearth of information we have about them. I resisted the temptation to follow Absolom's trail simply because no such trail existed.
And then, some years later, I had one of those strokes of luck which I suppose come under the heading of Serendipity, one of those moments which no researcher can ever count on, but which now and again sneak up and hit him in the neck when he is looking the other way. I learned some things about Absolom the man which only served to heighten my curiosity and, I may add, my affection even more.
I had a suspicion that I might now be able to suggest what caused his disappearance. But I could not be sure, and anyway, that still left the question of where he disappeared to, how he spent those nine blank years, how he ended up involved in bananas. From what I had to go on, I decided I had enough to compile a longish essay, perhaps one chapter in a volume of collected biography I might one day get around to writing. But the trouble was that I couldn't leave Absolom alone. I learned a little more and a little more. I filled in a month of his life here, a summer there. I literally trailed him across the world, and not always from the sanctity of an armchair. That longish essay grew wildly out of hand, until I knew perfectly well that only a book would do it anything like justice.
I never found out everything about Absolom, why he chose to breach his life in his prime, how he came to die so pathetic and pointless a death so very far from the Kentish fields of his boyhood. But I discovered most of it. I now hold a bulky file containing all sorts of memorabilia connected, directly or otherwise, with Absolom. What started as a mere cricketing itch has grown into something which I think transcends cricket to become an archetypal Victorian fable of exquisite irony. I have promised myself that enough is enough, that I must stop delving and start writing. I have made a bet with myself that I will begin on January 1, 1981. In the meantime, events like the Centenary Tests, harking back as they do to the days of Absolom, remind me yet again of his affecting story and of what might have been.