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Ashes 1893: Arthur Coningham sets fire to the grass at Blackpool

Ashes 1893: Arthur Coningham sets fire to the grass at Blackpool

Arthur Coningham. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Coningham set fire on the ground at Blackpool in end-August, 1893. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at yet another singular incident in the life of a rather colourful character.
 
 
Arthur Coningham was one of the strangest characters to have played international cricket. He was once described as someone having “the audacity and cunning of an ape and the modesty of a phallic symbol”. A decent bowling all-rounder who played for New South Wales and Queensland, Coningham finished his First-Class career with 112 wickets at 23.24 with seven five-fors and 896 runs at 15.71 with a hundred.
 
He had some other strange achievements. For example, playing for Stanley against Alberts in the Aitchinson Ale Trophy he scored all 26 runs scored by his teams. He was also an excellent sprinter, shooter (rifle), billiards-player, footballer, and oarsman.
 
Cricket was, of course, his sport of choice. He was selected for the 1893 Ashes tour immediately after he scored 30 and picked up four for 90 and five for 79 against Victoria at Sydney.
 
Coningham began the tour well, picking up five for 74 on his first outing of the tour against Lord Sheffield’s XI at Uckfield. He had a decent tour, picking up 27 wickets from 12 First-Class matches at 18.40. His best performance of the tour came against Liverpool and District at Liverpool where he finished with three for 59 and six for 41 to bowl out the hosts for 85 and 76.
 
He did not play in any of the three Tests on that tour. He also saved a boy from drowning in the Thames, an act that won him a medal. He also ended up performing one of the rarest acts by the member of a touring side against Blackpool at Blackpool towards the end of the tour.
 
It was not a First-Class match, since it was decided that 12 Australians would take on a team of 16 (which meant that 12 and 16 fielders would field for each side, and there will be 11 and 15 batsmen to be dismissed). Bob McLeod won the toss for the tourists and decided to bat.
 
It was a brutally cold summer, and the little Lancashire hamlet faced the full brunt of it. Fortunately for the tourists they could were in the comfortable recluse of the pavilion. John Lyons got them off to an excellent start with a 45-minute 62 with six fours and three sixes. There was a collapse soon afterwards and ‘Dick’ Barlow (five for 23) reduced the tourists to 205 after they were 71 for one (Lyons scoring 62 of them).
 
In whatever was left of Day One, Charlie Turner and George Giffen reduced the hosts to 23 for six. They, however, had a long batting line-up (consisting of 16 batsmen, no less) and had looked forward to make a match out of it.
 
The seventh-wicket partnership between the Thomas Sankey (the Blackpool captain) and C Haselwood took the score to 69, but wickets kept falling at a consistent rate. They tried to preserve wickets against the tourists and took an enormous amount of time to build their innings.
 
It was an extremely chilly day, and Coiningham was freezing and bored in the outfield. After Giffen and Turner were through McLeod had brought on William Bruce, followed by Harry Trott, Hugh Trumble, and himself. As Turner wrote in his The Quest for Bowlers, “The batting not being too brilliant or lively, the outfielders had little to do and the idea evidently stuck [Arthur] Coningham that he would like to get warm.”
 
Coningham was sure that the ball would never come his way. He tore off some grass, collected some twigs, and piled them. He then nonchalantly walked up to the spectators and asked for a matchbox. Once that was acquired, he actually lit a small fire.
 
The spectators were astounded. It was probably the first time they had seen something like this happen on a cricket ground. Once the fire started burning, Coningham proceeded to warm his hands. The dumbstruck crowd realised exactly what was going on, and when the scene had actually sunk in they broke into a loud applause.
 
“One of the spectators even suggested that he [Coningham] go inside and get a couple of hot potatoes to put in his pockets,” wrote Turner. McLeod then summoned Coningham to bowl, who immediately clean-bowled Barlow and then followed it by dismissing Walter Hall for a duck. The hosts lost all their 15 wickets for 174.
 

Ashes 1893: Arthur Coningham sets fire to the grass at Blackpool

The Australian touring party in 1893…Standing (from left): Robert Carpenter (umpire), V Cohen (manager), Affie Jarvis, Walter Giffen, William Bruce, Alick Bannerman and Bob Thoms (umpire); Middle row (from left): Harry Trott, Hugh Trumble, George Giffen, Jack Blackham (captain), Jack Lyons, Charile McLeod, Charles Turner; Seated on ground (from left): Harry Graham, Arthur Coningham, Syd Gregory. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The rest of the match followed as expected: Hall’s five for 28 led the Australians to collapse from 104 for three to 140. Chasing 172, however, Blackpool never had a chance. Turner finished with seven for 28 and Coningham with five for 21. The hosts were bowled out for 92 and lost by 79 runs.
 
McLeod did not take a risk this time, and brought on Coningham second-change. Not only did Coningham pick up a five-for, but he also finished the innings with a hat-trick, removing Sankey (stumped by ‘Affie’ Jarvis), Thomas Higson (caught by Syd Gregory), and William Pilling (once again, caught by Syd Gregory) to round off the match.
 
What followed?
 

  • Coningham made his debut in the second Test of the return Ashes at MCG. After Giffen won the toss and put Australia in Coningham had Archie MacLaren caught by Harry Trott in the first ball of the Test. He became the first bowler to pick up a wicket with his first ball in Test cricket.

 

  • He returned figures of two for 17 and none for 59, and then scored 10 and three. In the second innings he was called for a no-ball and he responded by bowling a beamer at Andrew Stoddart. He never played another Test.

 

  • He later became a chemist and went bankrupt largely due to his addiction to gambling.

 

  • Once released he became a bookmaker; he carried a satchel with the words Coningham the Cricketer on it.

 

  • He found that his wife Alice had an affair with Denis Francis O’Haran, the Private Secretary to the Head of the Australian Catholic Church. He sent a letter mentioning that he would remain silent at a cost of $5,000. The letter was completely ignored.

 

  • Coningham then sued O’Haran of adultery. The case created a nationwide sensation. Coningham decided to conduct the defence himself and subsequently lost it.

 

  • Though Coningham lost the case his wife subsequently admitted that her third child was O’Haran’s, following which the family moved to New Zealand.

 

  • He worked as a book salesman in New Zealand before he was charged with fraudulent conversion of £6.3s and was imprisoned for six months.

 

  • Coningham was then accused of adultery by his wife; it was an accurate allegation and she won the divorce case despite the husband’s vehement denials. As he famously put it, “In Sydney my wife said she did and the jury said she didn’t, in Wellington I said I didn’t and the jury said I did.”

 

  • Coningham returned to Australia; his mental health deteriorated, and eventually he died in Gladesville Mental Hospital.

 
Brief scores:
 
Australians 205 (John Lyons 62; Dick Barlow 5 for 23, Albert Hallam 3 for 28) and 140 (Harry Trott 45; Walter Hall 5 for 28) beat Blackpool 174 (Saul Wade 46*; George Giffen 4 for 34, Charlie Turner 4 for 50, Hugh Trumble 3 for 11) and 92 (Charlie Turner 7 for 28, Arthur Coningham 5 for 21) by 79 runs.
 
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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