Thomas ‘Tom’ Box (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
Thomas ‘Tom’ Box (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Tom Box, a legendary wicketkeeper in his heydays and later groundsman at Prince’s Cricket Ground, Chelsea, collapsed and passed away during a match between Middlesex and Nottinghamshire on July 12, 1873. Despite being close to a well-deserved win, Nottinghamshire agreed to call the match off, as Abhishek Mukherjee narrates.

Thomas ‘Tom’ Box is typically acknowledged as one of the greatest wicketkeepers in the first half of the 20th century. In a First-Class career from 1826 to 1856, Box had 236 catches and 162 stumpings from 248 matches. The stumping count makes impressive reading, for he played cricket in an era dominated by under-arm bowling.

In an era when wicketkeepers were not expected to bat, Box averaged 11.95. It is obviously difficult to deduce how good or bad that was. However, we can have some perspective. Fuller Pilch is acknowledged as the greatest batsman till WG Grace. Pilch played from 1820 to 1854 (in other words, he was Box’s contemporary) and averaged 18.61.

Box mostly played for Sussex, though there were on-and-off appearances for Hampshire and Surrey. Birth restrictions were not as stringent in those days. He represented the Players against the Gentlemen 20 times (at that times probably the most important cricket match). He also played for William Clarke’s All-England XI.

Sussex gave him an excellent benefit match in 1843. Box used the money to acquire Hanover Arms, Hove, which came with the Hanover Ground (or Royal New Ground). Sussex had played their first ever match there, in 1815. Box managed all cricket matches at the ground. So synonymous was he to the ground that it came to be known as Box’s Ground.

Sussex CCC moved base to Royal Brunswick Ground in 1848. Box leased it too, and continued to do the same till 1863. He was later recruited as groundsman at Prince’s Cricket Ground, Chelsea.

The incident

Four of the top six Nottinghamshire batsmen made it past forty as the tourists piled up 339 on the first day, captain Richard Daft top-scoring with 82. The great Alfred Shaw (who would bowl the first ball in Test cricket in less than a year’s time) then took 6 for 54 and bowled out Middlesex for 173.

Daft enforced the follow-on. Cuthbert Ottaway held the Middlesex innings together with a valiant 106 out of a team score of 220. This time Shaw got 3 for 62. John Tye, who bowled really fast off a round-arm action, had 5 for 41 on his debut for the county. Nottinghamshire needed only 55.

Robert Henderson quickly got John Selby, but there was little to worry: “Give me Arthur” Shrewsbury walked out to join Billy Barnes.

The score reached 10 for 1. Box put up the plate to signify “the first decade”. Scoreboard operators were not common those days, and the groundsman often doubled up, updating the score at regular intervals. His job done, he sat down on his customary chair and leaned back; and further back. He collapsed on the ground. He was announced dead three minutes later.

Nottinghamshire readily agreed to calling the game off despite the match situation. Lancashire captain ‘Monkey’ Hornby would do a near-encore eight years later by consenting to call off the match against Gloucestershire when news arrived that Martha Grace, mother of the famous brothers, had passed away.

On a side note, Middlesex never played another inter-county match at the ground, though 5 other First-Class matches were played there.

Brief scores:

Nottinghamshire 339 (Richard Daft 82, Billy Barnes 53; Robert Henderson 3 for 107, Charles Francis 3 for 62) and 10 for 1 drew with Middlesex 173 (Walter Hadow 78; Alfred Shaw 6 for 54, Fred Morley 3 for 50) and 220 (Cuthbert Ottaway 106; Alfred Shaw 3 for 62, John Tye 5 for 41).