Julius Caesar (standing on the extreme left) poses with the England team in 1863 © Getty Images
Julius Caesar (standing on the extreme left) poses with the England team in 1863 © Getty Images

March 15. The Ides of March. On this day, Arunabha Sengupta recalls Julius Caesar the cricketer. Yes, the namesake of the Roman general was one of the most popular cricketers of the 19th century.

March 15

The Ides of March have come (ay, but not gone).

And who else can we remember on this day but Julius Caesar?

Yes, some 1900 years had passed since the valiant Roman general had tasted death but once, supposedly uttering “Et tu Brute?” in stupefied disbelief while seeing death, a necessary end, had come when it had to come.

And now there arose another man answering to the same name, lesser than the Roman but also greater — at least with the willow, earning many a laurel wreath with his exploits on the field, embarking on at least two invasions across the oceans.

Julius Caesar, the great professional cricketer from Surrey, was one of the most famous names in the game during the mid-19th century.  He was not affected by the Ides of March as much as his colossal namesake, but it ran through the middle centre of his blessed and curst life.

He was born ten days after the date, on March 25, 1830, the youngest child of Benjamin Caesar and Ann Bowler. And heavens themselves blazed for the death of this great sportsman — at least the cricketing stars did — nine days prior to the Ides of March in 1878.

His cricketing roots were not limited to his mother’s maiden name. The Caesars of Godalming, Surrey, were a family of carpenters but thrived on the willow and the leather. So much so that they once took on the rest of the town. The 12 Caesars played 11 gentlemen of Godalming in 1850, a match advertised as “Twelve Caesars and Eleven Gentlemen of Godalming and District” — a deliberate play on Suetonius’ famous Roman history The Twelve Caesars. And despite being the favourite according to the bookies the Caesars lost the game.

Yes, I did say bookies. Cricket never existed without this dark underbelly. King Henry V predated Julius Caesar the cricketer by five centuries, and cricket itself by more than a couple — but don’t we recall Nym the soldier, the former follower of Falstaff, summarise the trends of the time: “You’ll pay me the eight shillings I won of you at betting?”

Julius Caesar. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.
Julius Caesar. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

Act I

But, even before the All-Caesar game, Julius Caesar had made his mark as a cricketer.

In the Surrey Gazette dated July 7, 1846, we find the following:

“A single-wicket match was played on the New Ground, Godalming, between Julius Caesar, a lad of 16 years of age, of the Godalming Cricket Club, and Mr C Coomber, of Eashing. Caesar went in first and obtained five which, with one wide, made six. Coomber fetched three runs which, with three wides, made six. Caesar for his second innings got 49, and wides three, making a total with the first of 58. Coomber followed and, after 35 balls were delivered, obtained no run and scored only one wide, leaving Caesar the winner by 51. The lad promises to be as noted in the game of cricket as his ancient namesake was in the art of war. The Godalming club are ready to back him against any lad of his age in the County of Surrey.”

Educated in his hometown, Caesar found support of the powerful Marshall family, the local timber merchants. In 1836, Henry Marshall had become the first mayor of Godalming. He was also an influential member of the recently formed Surrey CCC, and became President of Surrey CCC from 1856 to 1867.

In 1848, Caesar played for the first time at The Oval, when the Godalming CC took on Surrey. The bowling of the county side was a strong one, consisting mainly of professionals. Caesar scored 67 and 46, and Godalming triumphed. When they had made 192 for 5 in the second innings, on top of a 3-run lead, Surrey officially declared that they had ‘given up’.

Three months after turning 19, Caesar played at The Oval again. This time it was on the recommendation of Alexander Marshall, and he turned out for the Players of Surrey against the Gentlemen of Surrey. The Players won by 10 wickets, and Caesar impressed with his score of 30, with brave and aggressive drives off the front foot. He also fielded brilliantly.

The Surrey Standard noted: “Caesar is a fine steady bat, but without the flair and finish of William Caffyn; neither is his bowling so good; but his fielding at point is extremely beautiful.”

Caffyn and Caesar were to be the mainstays of Surrey for long, along with all-rounder HH Stephenson.

Soon, Caesar was spotted by the Nottingham-based cricket entrepreneur William Clarke, the founder of the All-England Eleven that toured the country. The Eleven played against the local sides in front of huge crowds, often with fairs and sideshows organised to coincide with the cricket — extravaganza dedicated to sports, to wildness and much company.

Act II

Caesar got married in 1850, his Calpurnia one Jane Brewser, the daughter of a carpenter. They wedded in the parish church of Stoke-next-Guildford. A year short of the accepted age of maturity, they lied about their years claiming to be 22. But then, who can begrudge minor falsehood for the sake of love? Two months later, a son was born to them — underlining the importance of their little dalliance with untruth.

Towards the end of the year, Caesar came across Clarke yet again while representing the Surrey Fourteen against the All-England Eleven. He scored 18, before Clarke himself rattled his stumps. And the following year, in 1851, Caesar met Clarke’s All England side yet again and produced a flurry of front-foot strokes and hits to the leg to get 38.

Later that season, Surrey played Nottinghamshire and beat the premier county side that included Clarke and George Parr. Caesar, however, bagged a pair and this made him prone to severe misgivings on the eve of every match.

He atoned for it by scoring his first fifty, against Yorkshire at The Oval. Clarke had seen and heard enough. Caesar was invited to join the All-England Eleven, with the offer of expenses and match fees. The young man accepted. He remained loyal to All England even when John Wisden created a parallel team of United England XI after falling out with Clarke about money.

In 1853, he played for the England team, scoring his maiden ton in August against Kent. It was a pleasing 101 with a five, 9 fours and 5 threes.

After the death of Clarke, Caesar remained with the All England team, now under the management of Nottinghamshire legend George Parr. It was with Parr that he went on the first international tour to North America. And later he joined Parr’s side as they went on the inaugural visit to Australia and New Zealand in 1863-64.

Caesar was also one of the batsmen whose cricket enthralled the young teenaged WG Grace.

“I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d, Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.”

As mentioned, Caesar was of extremely nervous disposition. Every low score filled him with self-doubt — those traitors of the mind thankfully did not find him fearing to attempt and thus lose the good he oft might have won. For instance, was besotted with gravest of doubts before a match against Cambridgeshire in 1862 and ended up scoring 111.

His fears extended beyond the cricket pitch. He often refused to sleep alone in strange hotels, fearing that the someone might have died earlier in the room. William Caffyn, who often roomed with him on tours, wrote about Caesar’s panic during a night. On hearing a drunken man’s voice, the Surrey batsman was certain that someone had yelled ‘Fire’. When the only response received from Caffyn was a disinterested snore, Caesar rang the bell frantically and roused the whole house.

His nervousness was rendered even funnier because his favourite sport other than cricket was pugilism. He was a first rate boxer and immensely fond of the art.

Caesar was also a good shot, but a tragic experience made him all but give up the sport. While out on a shoot, he was climbing over a hedge when his gun accidentally went off, and one of the gamekeepers was shot dead. Caesar remembered the incident with horror till his last day.

“Bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible”

His nerves sometimes created comical situations on the field.

In 1854, MCC had introduced a new rule permitting an injured batsman a runner. Caesar was playing for England against Nottinghamshire at Lord’s. Suffering from gout, he asked William Buttress to run for him while batting with John Wisden.

But when he drove a ball from William Clarke, he forgot about the existence of Buttress and scampered down the track. Wisden also ran while Buttress stayed put. Clarke broke the wicket at the non-striker’s end where Clarke now stood and appealed because Buttress had not run. The umpire gave Wisden out, but Clarke wanted Caesar to go. When the official refused, and an irate Clarke walked off with the Nottinghamshire team.

Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘this was a man’

Just about five feet seven inches, Caesar was compactly built and weighed around 79 kilos. As a batsman his main strength was the front foot drive, especially on the on-side. There were good leg hits as well. In an era when were men seldom went both front and back, he also possessed a strong cut past cover-point.

Caffyn called his strokeplay brilliant while Richard Daft wrote “his hitting was as smart and clean as anything that could be witnessed.”

In the field he was superb everywhere, but exceptional in the point. He took some fantastic catches and was a capable longstop. With the ball, he ran in to send down fast round arm deliveries, but was seldom used in this department.

Caesar shared a common trait with his All England captain George Parr. They both were of the opinion that good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used.

Both consumed liquor before retiring for the night during the cricket season. Once the two mutually agreed to reduce the quantity by half. The next morning both were out for low scores. That night they had another go at reduced portions, and once again the results were the same the next day. Upon this, he approached the famous hitter from Nottinghamshire and said, “George, it is evident that we must take in our usual quantity tonight.” And Parr replied, “Right you are my lad, and we’ll make up for what we went short of last night and night before as well.”

An illustration of the assassination of the Roman General Julius Caesar © Getty Images
An illustration of the assassination of the Roman General Julius Caesar © Getty Images

Act III Scene I

Caesar bid adieu to cricket in 1867. He ended with 4,879 runs from 194 matches with 3 hundreds at an average of 15.78. The figures were decent enough for those times.

After his cricket career was over, Caesar did not return to his trade of carpenter and joiner. He chose to concentrate on his business as a cricketers’ outfitter in Ockford Road, Godalming. Standing in quite a few matches as an umpire, he also co-founded Broadwater CC with James Street.

Caesar was appointed coach and supplier of cricket equipment at the Charterhouse School. One of the students he groomed there was C Aubrey Smith — the bowler with the curious run up who played for Sussex, and went on to captain England before becoming a reputed character actor in Hollywood.

Caesar later became the landlord of Cricketer’s Beerhouse in Godalming.

Supposedly, it was while coaching at Charterhouse, Caesar became afflicted with dropsy. Along with that there was the depression that often besets professional cricketers at the end of their sporting careers.

There were further misfortunes. His beloved wife passed away, leaving him disconsolate. His son, Julius junior, a promising all-rounder and assistant to his father as coach at Charterhouse, had made a girl pregnant. The 17-year-old was driven by shame, confusion and sorrow from his mother’s death and ended his life by throwing himself under a train between Peasmarsh and Compton bridges.

The last few days were terrible. There at the Railway Tavern there was no way to give words to his sorrow and the grief that did not speak knit up the o-er wrought heart and bid it break.

The Ides of March of 1877 had seen the start of the match at Melbourne, between James Lillywhite’s Englishmen and the combined team of the Victoria and New South Wales cricketers,the game that has gone down in history as the first ever Test match.

And nine days before the first anniversary of the event, miserable after several bleak and lonely months, Julius Caesar the cricketer passed away on March 6, 1878.

(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://twitter.com/senantix)