At the end of a week when cricket's reputation was severely dented by the criminal conviction of three players who were prepared to be party to gambling on events in a game, it is easy to think that this is a modern phenomenon. And yet the England side for the first Test ever, against Australia in March 1877, took to the field without their first-choice wicketkeeper as he was languishing in a prison cell in New Zealand after being arrested as a result of an altercation at the end of a match where he had wagered money.
A long-serving Surrey professional, Ted Pooley was widely respected as a player and was chosen to tour Australia and New Zealand with James Lillywhite's side in the winter of 1876-77.
However, Pooley's reputation was tarnished by his quest to make money at every opportunity. That was far from rare in that era, but even by the standards of that time, Pooley was a heavy gambler. It was chasing a quick buck that led to his being marooned in Christchurch, New Zealand as England and Australia met for the first time at Melbourne.
Pooley's career was anything but dull. In 1873 he was suspended by Surrey after an incident at Bramall Lane, where it was widely rumoured that he took a bet. Pooley certainly won a bottle of champagne for a minor wager with a colleague, drank it for breakfast and consequently was replaced as wicketkeeper after lunch. Surrey's minutes refer only to "insubordination and misconduct", but there were widespread reports that money had also changed hands.
The gruelling eight-month trip under Lillywhite was punctuated by a visit to New Zealand, where most of the matches were odds games (playing XXII of Auckland, for example). Betting was a key feature of all these matches, with odds published in the local newspapers. Match reports often included descriptions of the wagers and purses on offer.
Nearing the end of the New Zealand segment, the England side undertook an arduous journey to the west coast, while Pooley, sidelined by a leg injury, went straight to Christchurch, the venue of the next major match against XVIII of Canterbury. While there Pooley struck up acquaintances with various locals, and hit upon what seemed to be a sure-fire way of making easy money.
In those times it was the norm to predict the scores for each player in a side, with very good odds on offer. Ralph Donkin, a railway engineer who was staying in town, made such an offer, with odds on offer to anyone exactly predicting each batsman's individual total. In those days, especially in odds matches, low scores were common, and half a dozen opponents had already been bowled out for under 50 on the trip. Pooley, therefore, wagered a shilling per batsman that each of their individual scores would be 0.
To add to the odd situation, Pooley, who was still injured, stood in the match as one of the umpires, although there seems to be no question of his acting untowardly. Canterbury's innings produced 11 scores of 0, and so he stood to collect £36. But Donkin cried foul and refused to pay up. He claimed he had witnesses that he had declared the bet off before the game.
That evening Pooley confronted Donkin in the smoking room of the hotel they were staying in and the pair argued. Shortly after, as Donkin and a friend headed out to a theatre, it was claimed Pooley ambushed him, hitting him three times in the face. Later, Donkin returned to his hotel to find, according to the North Otago Star, "every particle of his wearing apparel torn to shreds".
Pooley moved on with the squad to Dunedin but the trouble followed him. While on the pitch he was constantly distracted by a flurry of telegrams demanding his return to Christchurch. He initially refused but at the end of the match Pooley and Alfred Bramhall, the baggage man, were arrested in connection with the assault and released on bail but told not to travel. The remainder of Lillywhite's party went on ahead.
A Christchurch magistrate decided that Pooley had thrown the first blow in the altercation with Donkin and fined him £5 for assault. Pooley was still not in serious trouble, although out of pocket,
However, Donkin laid another charge, accusing Pooley and Bramhall (by this time labelled as the team's money-handler by the local press) of wilfully and maliciously destroying his property, including important plans relating to his work. The magistrate committed the pair to trial, and although the hearing was scheduled for a week later, the case was adjourned when the defence requested a witness be brought from Melbourne.
The local press expected a custodial sentence. "It is felt Pooley …will get three months and is deserving of punishment for his dastardly conduct [but] no sympathy is expressed for Donkin who it is generally felt should have paid a bet that he made with his eyes wide open."
By the time the case was heard in Christchurch's Supreme Court on April 6, Pooley and Bramhall had been on bail for four weeks, the Melbourne witness had not appeared, and the match at the MCG had been over for a fortnight.
While the evidence against the pair was largely circumstantial, a waiter told the court that Pooley had instructed him to tell Donkin that "if he sleeps there [in his room] tonight he'll find himself half-dead in the morning." But other witnesses said they had other members of the England side tell Donkin "we will have it out of you by the morning".
Donkin hardly helped his case by claiming that he believed a bet could be cancelled if it subsequently emerged the odds were against one of the parties. The jury was unconvinced, and took less than an hour to return a not-guilty verdict.
Remarkably, the treatment of Pooley and Bramhall had resulted in residents of Christchurch taking pity on them, and they organised a whip-round which raised £50 for each of the Englishmen and a gold ring for Pooley.
Pooley eventually landed back in England on July 9, 1877, almost a month after the rest of his team-mates and two months after the birth of his second child.
What happened next?
By the time the tour party arrived back home, Pooley was 35 and past his best. He never did play for England, and only carried on representing Surrey for a few more years. There are those who say that it was the incident in New Zealand which started the slow decline which culminated with him dying broken and bankrupt in a London workhouse 30 years later.
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