George Summers © Cricket

June 15, 1870. Nottinghamshire were chasing 157 against MCC on an underprepared pitch, which was, surprisingly, the norm at Lord’s in the era. One of the balls from MCC fast bowler John Platts took off, hitting George Summers on the cheekbone. For the rest of the day it seemed he was fine, even recovering. Four few days and a train journey later, Summers succumbed to the injury. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a tragic demise.

 “It was no uncommon occurrence in those days to see, out of an over of four balls, three shoot, and the other bump right over the batsman’s head,” complained Alfred Lubbock of the Lord’s pitch in Memories of Eton. He was not exaggerating. More importantly, Lubbock knew what he was talking about: he played several matches at the ground, for an assortment of teams ranging from Eton to All-England.

Frederick Gale’s tone was not as polite: “Had I been a wicket-keeper or batsman at Lord’s, I should have liked (plus my gloves and pads) to have worn a single-stick mask, a Life Guardsman’s cuirass, and a tin stomach-warmer … The place where the ball pitched was covered with rough grass and rolled down. It never had been, and never could be, good turf.”

It was a curious thing, the Lord’s pitch of the era, more so because The Oval, across The Thames, boasted of an excellent strip. The reason was certainly not financial, for as Simon Rae wrote in WG Grace’s biography, MCC was anything but short of money: in 1866 they renewed the lease on Lord’s and “raised a mortgage to buy the freehold”: the expenditure was £18,333 6s 8d, a large sum given the era. There were also plans for an extension of the pavilion and improvement of facilities.

But nobody seemed to care about the pitch. Balls took off in various angles after hitting the deck, often in a fashion that was nothing short of life-threatening, but the authorities, for some reason, paid no heed. A mower had been acquired way back in 1830; a senior member had immediately asked for “destruction of the infernal machine”. It took another decade for mowers to be brought back.

Writing for ESPNCricinfo, Martin Williamson pointed out that the pitch was so atrocious that Sussex had refused to play a match at Lord’s in 1864. The pitch was laden with all sorts of things (including gravel), and next to them there were holes the size of canyons.

In other words, the pitch was unfit to host matches when Nottinghamshire toured there to play MCC. Had there been an ICC, they would had to use superlatives of the highest order of the word ‘diabolical’ to describe it, and would have forbidden the ground from hosting matches, serious or otherwise.

Grinding it out

Richard Daft opted to bat, but something curious happened even before the first ball was bowled. Not all MCC cricketers turned up on time, and Daft allowed the opposition to field four substitutes.

Though Nottinghamshire lost two early wickets, George Summers (47) and Daft (117) added 119 for the third wicket. There was resistance down the order as well, and the tourists managed to put up 267.

Daft’s innings deserves special mention. Wisden wrote in appreciation: “Daft never scored so rapidly in a first-class match as he did in making that 117.” It was not customary for MCC to gift a prize bat to a touring (or local) batsman to honour of a performance, but they did exactly that for Daft.

Three of the wickets went to the delightfully named John Thomas Brown Dumelow Platts. A wheelwright by profession, Platts could be genuinely quick on his day. On this occasion, he jolted the Nottinghamshire innings early, and came back to break the big partnership. It will not be the last time we will hear of him in this article.

Towards the beginning of the innings, Edward Walker of MCC dislocated a finger, and Daft allowed a full substitute for him. The British press condemned the act, claiming it was “a breach of the rules”. So much for the hailing the spirit of the game.

WG Grace took field with Isaac Walker (younger brother of Edward), adding 67 overnight and 60 more the morning after. However, once Walker fell for 48, Nottinghamshire fast bowlers James Shaw and William McIntyre kept taking wickets, and MCC lost their 10 wickets in a span of 56 runs. None of the last nine men went reached 5; only The Doctor stood firm with 117 not out, carrying his bat through an innings of 183.

Grace’s innings was not faultless by any means. James Shaw hit his stumps when he was on 60, but the bails were not dislodged. On 90 he was dropped at point. If one ignores these ‘lives’, one cannot help but applaud Grace’s effort, who single-handedly kept MCC in the hunt with his four-hour effort.

Shaw (6 for 68)—bowling unchanged—and McIntyre (4 for 68) bowled fast and on the target, hitting stumps eight times between them. Since 80 was the follow-on mark of the era, Daft asked MCC to bat again.

Grace did not get any rest. He walked out again, John Dale in tow. Taking new ball was James Shaw, who did not get a break either. He struck with his third ball, hitting middle-stump to send WG back.

But there was resistance, mostly from Dale (90) and Isaac Walker (63). Once again they collapsed, this time losing their last 8 wickets for 62. Once again James Shaw took 6 wickets, this time for 65. He was backed by the unrelated Alfred Shaw (4 for 52), who was already on his way to become one of the greatest bowlers of the era. Seven years after the match, Alfred Shaw would bowl the first ball in the history of Test cricket.

MCC were bowled out for 240 at stumps on Day Two. Nottinghamshire were left to score 158 on the third day.

The fateful moment

 Thomas Bignall and William Oscroft walked out the third morning. They reached 23 before Platts clean bowled Bignall. Summers walked out. The clock ticked over to one o’clock.

Platts ran in. Summers took guard. The ball took off from a length and hit Summers on the left cheekbone (as per the footnotes by the scorer). He collapsed on the spot.

Grace’s version in Cricket, however, does not mention the ball hitting slightly above: “The first ball bowled to him by Platts was a little bit short, and it bumped and hit him on the head, and concussion of the brain followed. Platts was in no way to blame, for the ball did not bump higher than many I had to play in the same match.”

Charles Green, who was playing for MCC, agreed with the scorer’s version: “Poor George Summers was knocked out by a fast ball from Platts the Derbyshire bowler. When this occurred, I was fielding longstop, and somehow or other I was the first to pick him up. It was an awful blow on the cheek bone.”

Nottinghamshire Guardian reported that the ball “struck him a violent blow on his head, the ball missing his temple by about half an inch. Summers reeled backwards senseless.”

The accounts of Charles Thornton, also fielding for MCC that day, told a gorier tale: “It was a fearful crack on the temple and when struck he jumped up into the air, and then fell all of a heap.”

Bill Yardley, keeping wickets for MCC, told that he “never saw a ball get up with such lightning rapidity. The pitch of the ball and the blow on Summers’ head appeared to be simultaneous.”

WG was the first to reach Summers. He read Summers’ pulse and took time to listen to his heartbeat, before announcing in that surprisingly squeaky voice of his: “He is not dead.”

A near-unconscious Summers was almost dragged out of the ground by Thornton and Yardley. They took him to Lord’s Tavern, where he spent the rest of the day. So far, so good.

Daft measures

Daft, Notts captain, was next man in. He emerged from the pavilion, his head draped in a towel, in what was supposed to be a form of protest (Green called the headgear ‘ridiculous’). However, he could hardly have been blamed if he had wrapped the towel around his head to avoid being hit.

The pitch might not have been as atrocious as some of the other Lord’s pitches of the period, though it must be remembered that Grace was so ahead of his era that he was seldom bothered by pitch conditions.

When Wisden reported the wicket as ‘excellent’, they certainly underplayed the condition of the pitch. The assessment of Nottinghamshire Guardian (“the ball bumped awfully”) seems more believable; MCC never denied any of that.

Whatever be the case, he was up against Platts, who unleashed another bouncer the first ball Daft faced. Platt, to quote Rae, had a word or two to say “with a few choice observations expressed in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular.”

Frank Cobden, who would take a famous hat-trick in less than two weeks’ time (remember Cobden’s match?), claimed two quick wickets. Nottinghamshire were 37 for 3 (technically 4, since Summers was as good as ruled out).

Daft carried on confidently, eventually falling for 53, but once again there was a collapse. At 114 for 7, Nottinghamshire were as good as out of the match, but McIntyre and wicketkeeper Samuel Biddulph batted on.

McIntyre took charge while Biddulph held one end up. By the time Grace caught McIntyre off Thomas Hearne (of the famous Hearne family), he had scored 34, while Nottinghamshire needed a mere 2. But then, this was as good as their last wicket…

The batsmen had crossed. Biddulph ran to level scores and kept strike.

Platts came on from the other end, Biddulph swung, and they made it, sealing a well-deserved win for Nottinghamshire.

Summers passes away

The next day, the day after the match was over, Summers gave in to a bizarre temptation for no known reason. He placed himself in an armchair just outside Lord’s Tavern, watching a match between MCC and Civil Service.

He felt better that afternoon. He was able to “walk slowly round the playing field, assisted by a companion,” as Richard Tomlinson wrote in Amazing Grace: The Man Who Was W.G.

Green reminisced: “I have always understood that he would have recovered, and his life been spared, if he would only have agreed to keep quiet. Instead of this, he would insist, quite against the doctor’s orders, upon coming on the ground the next day and watching the match, sitting all the time in a hot sun.”

WG agreed with Green: “Unfortunately Summers treated the blow too lightly, appearing on the ground next day in a hot sun, and afterwards travelling by rail to Nottingham, which shook him terribly, and developed symptoms which subsequently proved fatal.”

It was a rough night, but Summers took the train to Nottingham next morning. The train tracks in 1870 hardly offered a smooth ride to the passengers. On this occasion, it was an unusually bumpy ride, which, to quote Rae, “shook him [Summers] terribly.”

Alex Picker wrote on Nottinghamshire CCC’s official website that the train “operated on rickety tracks and was well known for inducing dizziness in many of its passengers.”

Thankfully, his father managed Commercial Hotel, exactly opposite Nottingham Station. He retired to bed, and was prescribed ‘herb beer’. Then the convulsions began.

Four days after the blow, George Summers passed away in Nottingham, two days before his 26th birthday.

What followed?

- MCC paid £30 for Summers’ gravestone. It read: “This tablet is erected to the Memory of George Summers by the Mary-le-bone Cricket Club, to mark their sense of his qualities as a cricketer, and to testify their regret at the untimely accident at Lord’s ground, which cut short a career so full of promise, June 19th, 1870, in the 26th year of his age.”

- Wisden ran a poignant obituary: “The sad deplorable accident that ended in the untimely death of poor George Summers will distressingly assist in rendering the past season at Lord’s a memorable one to all classes of cricketers, by whom the unassuming manners, excellent conduct, and great cricketing abilities of Summers were held in high esteem; and it must be some consolation to his relatives and friends to know that no professional cricketer ever left us who in life was more highly respected, and whose death was so deeply deplored, than George Summers.”

- Unfortunately, it did not come as a consolation for George Summers’ father, who never recovered from the shock. He passed away soon after his son.

- Summers’ popularity and the shock caused by the incident were too much to handle for MCC. They finally realised that something needed to be done about the pitch. They did not delay the work on the pitch this time.

- Summers’ death shook Platts to the extent that he quit fast bowling. He continued with his career, bowling a mixed bag of medium-paced bowling and off-breaks.

Brief scores:

Nottinghamshire 267 (George Summers 41, Richard Daft 117; John Platts 3 for 74) and 157 for 8 (Richard Daft 53; John Platts 3 for 56, Frank Cobden 3 for 52) beat MCC 183 (WG Grace 117*, Isaac Walker 48; James Shaw 6 for 68, William McIntyre 4 for 68) and 240 (John Dale 90, Isaac Walker 63; James Shaw 6 for 65, Alfred Shaw 4 for 52) by 2 wickets.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)