Death of a curious cricketer — Arthur Conan Doyle
Frank Shacklock and Mordecai Sherwin – the two Nottingham cricketers based on whom fiction’s greatest detective was named, can be seen at the two extremes of the middle row in this picture that hangs in the Trent Bridge pavilion – (Photo: Arunabha Sengupta)(Photo: Arunabha Sengupta)
By Arunabha Sengupta
July 7, marks the death anniversary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Arunabha Sengupta sketches the many cricketing connections of the man who created Sherlock Holmes.
The game’s afoot
Sherlock Holmes stories mention a cricket cap 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. Apart from that the noble game does not merit a mention in his many delightful adventures. Yet, the great detective was supposedly named after two Nottinghamshire cricketers, Mordecai Sherwin and Frank Shacklock.
Moreover, when Shacklock turned out for Derbyshire, his fellow fast bowler was William Mycroft, after whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle named the enigmatic, eccentric and laid back elder brother of the great detective.
The cricketing connection of the great writer, who passed away on this day 82 years ago, was not limited just to names of characters. Sir Arthur was a First-Class cricketer of some ability. Wisden observes in his obituary: “While never a famous cricketer, he could hit hard and bowl slows with puzzling flight. For MCC v Cambridgeshire at Lord’s, in 1899, he took seven wickets for 61 runs, and on the same ground two years later carried out his bat for 32 against Leicestershire, who had Woodcock, Geeson and King to bowl for them.”
Conan Doyle also played cricket for the curiously named Allahakbarries, a team founded by author JM Barrie, named after an African word that translates to ‘Heaven Help Us’. The side was made up of literary luminaries who played against the various villages in the Home Counties. Some of the extraordinary men of letters who made up the ranks were Conan Doyle, Jerome K. Jerome, AA Milne (creator of Winnie the Pooh), AEW Mason, EV Lucas, Maurice Hewlett, EW Hornung, PG Wodehouse, Owen Seaman and George Llewelyn Davies as well as the son of Alfred Tennyson.
At Lord’s in 1902, Conan Doyle captained the Authors side against the Publishers, and a 21-year old PG Wodehouse was one of the better players representing the wordsmiths. Incidentally, the most famous character created by Wodehouse also borrows his name from a cricketer – the Warwickshire fast medium bowler Percy Jeeves.
Cricket did feature in some of Conan Doyle’s other writings – even if they did not attain the stratospheric levels of fame as his Holmes tales. 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.
He spent a lot of hours contemplating about the game as well, often trying to conjure up indigenous techniques. Late in his life, he wrote Spedegue’s Dropper, published as one of the ‘other stories’ with The Maracot Deep. In the tale, Sepdegue, the hero, develops an underhand delivery, a lob flung high enough in the air to come down vertically at the pace of a fast bowler. When he achieved accuracy, Spedegue won a famous Test match for England against Australia.
However, Conan Doyle did have a rather peculiar peeve about left-handers, contending that left-hand batting should not be permitted since it held up the game.
Moment of immortality
The moment of cricketing immortality brushed Conan Doyle when he picked up his only First-Class wicket – the scalp was of one Dr. WG Grace!
So ecstatic was Sir Arthur that he penned a long poem describing the dismissal, a wonderful account of how he got WG caught, when the ‘wicketkeep’ Storer made sure of a terrific skier from a ball that the Doctor had diagnosed incorrectly.
The poem has been found to be in public domain and is reproduced here in full.
A fascinating battle on the cricket field between two doctors who had scant time for the medical profession – one earning his living by scripting epic tales of adventure and detection and the other by scripting hundreds on cricket grounds.
A Reminiscence of Cricket
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Once in my heyday of cricket,
One day I shall ever recall!
I captured that glorious wicket,
The greatest, the grandest of all.
Before me he stands like a vision,
Bearded and burly and brown,
A smile of good humoured derision
As he waits for the first to come down.
A statue from Thebes or from Knossos,
A Hercules shrouded in white,
Assyrian bull-like colossus,
He stands in his might.
With the beard of a Goth or a Vandal,
His bat hanging ready and free,
His great hairy hands on the handle,
And his menacing eyes upon me.
And I – I had tricks for the rabbits,
The feeble of mind or eye,
I could see all the duffer’s bad habits
And where his ruin might lie.
The capture of such might elate one,
But it seemed like one horrible jest
That I should serve tosh to the great one,
Who had broken the hearts of the best.
Well, here goes! Good Lord, what a rotter!
Such a sitter as never was dreamt;
It was clay in the hands of the potter,
But he tapped it with quiet contempt.
The second was better – a leetle;
It was low, but was nearly long-hop;
As the housemaid comes down on the beetle
So down came the bat with a chop.
He was sizing me up with some wonder,
My broken-kneed action and ways;
I could see the grim menace from under
The striped peak that shaded his gaze.
The third was a gift or it looked it-
A foot off the wicket or so;
His huge figure swooped as he hooked it,
His great body swung to the blow.
Still when my dreams are night-marish,
I picture that terrible smite,
It was meant for a neighboring parish,
Or any place out of sight.
But – yes, there’s a but to the story -
The blade swished a trifle too low;
Oh wonder, and vision of glory!
It was up like a shaft from a bow.
Up, up like a towering game bird,
Up, up to a speck in the blue,
And then coming down like the same bird,
Dead straight on the line that it flew.
Good Lord, it was mine! Such a soarer
Would call for a safe pair of hands;
None safer than Derbyshire Storer,
And there, face uplifted, he stands
Wicket keep Storer, the knowing,
Wary and steady of nerve,
Watching it falling and growing
Marking the pace and curve.
I stood with my two eyes fixed on it,
Paralysed, helpless, inert;
There was ‘plunk’ as the gloves shut upon it,
And he cuddled it up to his shirt.
Out – beyond question or wrangle!
Homeward he lurched to his lunch!
His bat was tucked up at an angle,
His great shoulders curved to a hunch.
Walking he rumbled and grumbled,
Scolding himself and not me;
One glove was off, and he fumbled,
Twisting the other hand free
Did I give Storer the credit
The thanks he so splendidly earned?
It was mere empty talk if I said it,
For Grace had already returned.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)