There are several candidates for the match of the year 2011 - mad collapses, last-ball draws, you know, the usual - but there can be only one winner of the award for the year of 1848, when, at the Priory Ground in Lewisham, a team of men with one leg played a team of men with one arm.
It is a long reach back in time. 1848 was the summer that Grace was born. Brahms was 15. Tolstoy was 20. Dickens had just written A Christmas Carol. The Crimean war was five years away. America had 30 states. A man called Innocenzo Manzetti had hit on the idea for something that, three decades later, would become the telephone. 1848 is a distant place.
Cricket, though, was in rude health in its first great age, a sport of the people and a gambler's paradise. Two thousand four hundred people went to the Priory Ground to watch Eleven One Armed Men v Eleven With One Leg. The game lives on through a glorious match report in an Australian paper published six months later. ''Novelty was the ruling passion," it runs, "nine tenths went merely for the say of the thing".
The principal of the fixture was well-established; a similar game had been played for a thousand guineas in 1796, and this was a rematch of sorts of a fixture played in 1841, although, "during this long recess, the great leveller had bowled a large proportion of those who figured on that occasion out." The betting, "what little there was," went in favour of the men with "two living legs".
The players from both teams were Greenwich Pensioners, navy men who had been injured in service and now lived at the Royal Hospital. What a sight it was: "The singularity of the Greenwich dress combined with the ludicrous positions of the fielders, their antique physiognomies and the general clumsiness of both parties at the game produced a match that was grotesque in the extreme".
Lest anyone think political correctness was being invented at the boundary edge that day, a riotous time was had by all. A clue as to why the players were keen enough came from the description of their "substantial luncheon before each day's play" and "for their dinner there was a profusion of roast and boiled beef, and lamb, accompanied by plenty of heavy".
Thus, in their veteran's uniforms, full of grub and with a night's-worth of ale in them, did the One Arm XI make 50 in their first innings, which featured a top score of 8 not out. The One Legged XI replied with 32, The One Arm XI extended their lead with 41, leaving the One Legged XI 60 to win. They were dismissed for 44, a gallant effort that included the highest score of the match, 15, from their number five, Sears. The greatest contributor to both totals was extras. The One Legged XI conceded 30, the One Arm XI 43, all of which were wides. Across the match, 21 players were dismissed without scoring in one innings or the other, and the One Legged XI featured five batsmen who made pairs, including the unfortunate number eleven Baldrick, who was run out twice.
"The bowling on both sides was generally very wide," wrote our man [Mitch wasn't playing was he...?] "and the One Legs, in endeavouring to take advantage of it but in the majority of cases missing the object, span round like the final revolutions of an expiring teetotum, and frequently got out".
Then, in strange triumph, both teams "marched to the Bull Inn, headed by an excellent band who had been engaged throughout the match. Each man had free passage to and from the Royal Hospital, a glass of grog to drink to Her Majesty's health and ten shillings for his two days' exertions".
It was a distant match from a distant time, played in a world that is unknowable now. The lives of the players had not been easy, and yet their oddly uplifting spirit endures and flourishes. Any cricketer can relate to how they felt - especially that Baldrick. Here are the names of the men that played. Gentlemen, we salute you:
One Arm XI: Guay, Wiley, Morley, Johnson*, Burns, Sissoms, Broom, Newsom, Seale, Jeffreys, Sowden.
One Legged XI: Wetherhead, Ryan, Scot, Brown, Sears, Albar, Polston, West, Drew, Browne, Baldrick.
* Not that one.
NB: Thanks to the great Jonathon Green for passing along the report.
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