Ashes 1902: Sherlock Holmes at The Oval

Cover of the Sherlock Holmes book written by Stanley Shaw

August 13, 1902. The day Gilbert Jessop blew the Australian attack away in an avalanche of audacious hitting, and the Yorkshire pair of George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes added the final fifteen runs to ensure an English victory by one wicket. Arunabha Sengupta looks at certain claims that Rhodes might not have been at the ground but for the presence of the great Sherlock Holmes.

That famous day in cricket when Gilbert Jessop’s thundering tornado of an innings carried England back into contention after they had tottered on the brink of certain defeat. The hosts were 48 for five chasing 263 to win when Jessop launched himself like a catapult at the high class bowling, scattering it to smithereens. The Times pronounced, “As long as cricket lasts, Mr Jessop’s great performance will be remembered.”

That day the Gloucestershire hitter scored 104 in 77 minutes with 17 fours and a five. And when wicketkeeper Dick Lilley was caught at mid-off by Joe Darling off indefatigable Hugh Trumble, England required 15 more to win with two Yorkshiremen to get them.

Legend has it that when Wilfred Rhodes walked out to join George Hirst at the wicket, the latter went up to his county mate and said, “We’ll get ’em in singles.” No one knows for sure whether these words were actually spoken. Several years later Rhodes acknowledged the deed but not the comment, which he maintained was “a pressman’s invention”. And half a century down the line, Hirst remarked that one can’t really remember what one says in such circumstances. Besides, ‘singles’ was not a commonly used term in those days.

Whatever be the truth they did get the runs, their 15 run association lasting 37 balls and consisting of nine singles, which is now etched in letters of gold in the annals of cricket.

Yet, according to at least one account, the partnership between Hirst and Rhodes would not have taken place had it not been for the timely intervention of the legendary pipe-smoking sleuth of Baker Street.

The game’s afoot

Indeed, in the book Sherlock Holmes at the 1902 Fifth Test, it is noted: “History does not record that without Sherlock Holmes this sporting triumph would not have been possible. But for the intervention of the Great Detective there would have been no match-winning last-wicket partnership between George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes — for Rhodes himself was not at The Oval on the day in question.”

It was not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who penned the work. The supreme author was an avid cricketer himself, a hard hitter and a thoughtful lob bowler. He even had a solitary First-Class wicket to his credit and his scalp was none other than WG Grace.

Cricket did feature in some of Conan Doyle’s writings. In one of his Brigadier Gerard stories, Conan Doyle describes a French officer’s rather calamitous efforts at the game as a prisoner of war. Late in his life, he wrote Spedegue’s Dropper, published as one of the ‘other stories’ with The Maracot Deep, wherein the hero develops an underhand lob delivery flung high enough in the air to come down vertically at the pace of a fast bowler. The names of both Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft are derived from the names of county cricketers.

But, the cricket is mentioned only twice in the entire Sherlock Holmes canon — a cricket cap is referred to in The Adventure of the Priory School, and in The Adventure of the Three Students one of the three young men plays for his college.

During that summer of 1902, Conan Doyle was close enough to the action. When the Australians opened their tour in early May against London County led by the 53-year-old WG Grace, the writer sat watching from the stands of the Crystal Palace Park. Grace did not really distinguish himself with the bat, but he did get Australian captain Joe Darling caught for 92. Leslie Poidevin, the Australian cricketer and medical student playing for London County, said that he was at a loss to see the use of the man stationed behind himself, but, curiously enough, that is where WG snared the Australian captain.

Three weeks later, Grace took five for 29 against the Australians for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s. According to Conan Doyle, who again watched the action, “There was nothing more childlike and bland than that slow, tossed-up bowling of Doctor Grace, and nothing more subtle and dangerous.”

But, all this while, Conan Doyle was not really thinking of getting Sherlock Holmes involved in the vagaries of the cricket field. In fact, the Great Detective had been killed off at the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem written in 1893. Although The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialised in The Strand Magazine in 1901, it was set before his supposed death.

Holmes was in the midst of his Great Hiatus and would not be back before 1903. The next year, he would suddenly reappear in The Adventure of the Empty House (set in 1894) with rather unconvincing explanations to Dr. Watson that he had faked his death to fool his enemies.

In any case, Holmes with his house in Baker Street would have been much more at home solving a case at nearby Lord’s than crossing the river and going all the way to The Oval to allow the cricketing world benefit from of his talents of deduction.

The Adventure of the Unfortunate Australian

The book Sherlock Holmes at the 1902 Fifth Test was actually written by Stanley Shaw, and was published by WH Allen, London, in 1985.

It is a 160-page novel, set in the London of August, 1902.  In the novel Watson is away on his honeymoon and the story is narrated instead by a 23-year-old Australian named John Fairhurst.

This in itself is a kind of anachronism to the hard-core Sherlockians. Watson got married to Mary Morstan after meeting her in The Sign of Four in 1890. By 1894, when Holmes returned after faking his death, Morstan had already died. After that Watson had returned to Baker Street to take up lodgings with Holmes as in his bachelor days. Towards the end of the chronicles, a second wife is mentioned, but she is not named, described or explained. We may perhaps give Shaw the benefit of doubt and accept that the second marriage took place during the summer while Victor Trumper was setting the damp English grounds on fire.

Anyway, in the novel, Fairhurst lands in England, hoping to catch the last Test match of the Ashes Series. Unfortunately his ship gets delayed and he misses the first two days of the three-day Test. And that is not the end of his misfortunes. On the morning of the final day of the Test match, he is hit by a cab as he crosses the road to buy a newspaper.

And it turns out that the passenger in that the cab is none other than Sherlock Holmes. Fairhurst is taken to the famous digs at Baker Street to recuperate. While he is there the news comes through that the great Yorkshire all-rounder Wilfred Rhodes has gone missing from his hotel. The investigation gets underway, and the poor Australian cricket enthusiast spends more time in hansom cabs marauding across London than at The Oval enjoying one of the most extraordinary days of cricket.
There are several problems with the book.

The story is rather dull and insipid. The plot is thin and the solution rather disappointing for both fans of cricket and detective fiction.

The character of Holmes, as portrayed by Shaw, jars with the real devotees of the sleuth.

At one point, Holmes voices his opinion about cricketers: “The skills they acquire — and really, you can acquire a high degree of skill at whittling a stick if you do it every day of the year — the skills they acquire must remain forever unrelated to real life. There is more urgent business to be conducted in life than strutting about in white suits. No, no, no — we shall never agree on this. Watson and I could never agree on it. I could see some sense in it if a man found himself — like the hero chap in Homer — what’s his name? — being bombarded with rocks by a giant and had to use keen eyesight and agile footwork to save himself from being brained.”

Not only is it unflattering to cricketers, it is also far from what one expects Sherlock Holmes to say.

Besides, in the novel, while by running around London to unravel the mystery, the detective and his new friend miss the entire innings of Jessop. So do the readers. Now, what worth is a novelist if he pens a historical ditty and ignores the most fascinating bit of action taking place on that very day?

On the other hand, Shaw does try to mix ingredients of mystery, drama, cricket and Sherlock Holmes, the golden age of the game and the most famous fictional character of the times. He does deserve some credit for that.

Yet, the heart aches for Fairhurst, who makes the long trip to England and misses almost the entire Test. He arrives in time for the third day and yet cannot witness Gilbert Jessop’s remarkable innings.

He does go on to play a vital role in the Test match, but to be fair to the author, the interested readers need to garner the exact details by going through the book.

Brief scores:

Australia 324 (Victor Trumper 42, Monty Noble 52, Hugh Trumble 64*; George Hirst 5 for 77) and  121 (Bill Lockwood 5 for 45) lost to England 183 (George Hirst 43; Hugh Trumble 8 for 65) and 263 for 9 (Stanley Jackson 49, Gilbert Jessop 104, George Hirst 58; Hugh Trumble 4 for 108, Jack Saunders 4 for 105) by 1 wicket.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)