Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Much more than the creator of Sherlock Homes © Getty Images
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Much more than the creator of Sherlock Homes © Getty Images

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, born May 22, 1859, was much more than the creator of Sherlock Holmes.He was a man of many interests and fascinations that stretched from science and history to spiritualism and psychic activities. And he was also an enthusiastic cricketer through his life. Arunabha Sengupta sketches the cricketing links of this multi-faceted giant of English literature.

Of Grace, Holmes and Conan Doyle

In the cricket quizzing circuits, it is a common enough question: “Who was the only first class wicket of the creator of Sherlock Holmes?”

The answer is elementary: “The one and only WG Grace.”

The event took place on August 25, 1900, a few days after the great writer’s return from South Africa.He had been engaged there as a doctor in the service of the British Army during the Boer War. So overjoyed was Arthur Conan Doyle at getting WG out that he dashed out a verse about the event, of how he captured the wicket of the greatest and grandest of all.

What he forgot to mention was that Grace, captaining the London County side against MCC at Crystal Palace, was 52 years old when he faced Conan Doyle. And the old man had already scored 110 when he top-edged Conan Doyle to be caught by wicketkeeper Bill Storer.

Yet, that wicket stands as one of the greatest pieces of trivia linking literature and cricket.

For some odd reason, cricket is mentioned only twice in the 56 short stories and 4 novels of Sherlock Holmes.

There is the 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 these two instances, the noble game does not merit a mention in his many delightful adventures.

In Sign of Four, Toby the dog leads Holmes and Watson to Kennington Lane on the east of The Oval, but the characters don’t venture inside the historical ground.

But the author himself was incredibly fond of the noble game. He played it passionately, thought about it, voiced plenty of ideas, some of them quite quixotic. He also dreamt about it. Indeed, one of his dreams late in his life, as we shall see later on, links cricket, life, religion and beliefs in a curious and unique symbolic tapestry.

At the same time, he was not very good at the game, especially as a young man. Because of the curious fact that he played 10 First-Class matches, many devotees tend to jump to the conclusion that he was a talented cricketer. He was not. But no one could question his diligence and commitment.

Late in life, he also penned a short story based on the game itself. It quite succinctly underlines that Conan Doyle thought a lot about the game, but not necessarily in the rational or correct directions.

One can perhaps argue that cricket does not feature in the Holmes canon because Conan Doyle considered the great detective to be a minor creation in the midst of more serious work. Yes, although he is remembered today as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle spent most of his days believing that his important works were historical novels and non-fiction volumes covering war, political scenarios, science and paranormal phenomenon.

Perhaps cricket was too important a facet of his life to link with so trivial a branch of his literary output.

Yet, as we will learnin the piece that follows, in spite of cricket missing from the career of the great detective, two of the light-hearted Holmes pastiches created by Conan Doyle himself did feature the game.

Indeed, Conan Doyle was so much into cricket that it does merit a full-fledged article on his associations with the game. Besides, having established himself as one of the most popular personalities of Britain, Conan Doyle’s sporting involvement did not stop with cricket. It stretched across skiing, billiards, golf and the Olympics.

And as in the case of any great life, there are legends developed around the man which may be slightly stretching the truth. Let us look at his life from the sporting point of view.

The ordinary school cricketer

There is a theory that the name ‘Sherlock’ was derived from two stalwart Nottinghamshire cricketers, wicketkeeper Mordecai Sherwin and fast bowler Frank Shacklock. When Shacklock moved to Derbyshire, his fellow fast bowler was William Mycroft. Hence, it is not too big a leap to conclude that the name of the detective’s excessively laid back but fascinatingly brilliant brother was borrowed from cricket as well.

However, these are speculations. While there can indeed be some truth in the assertions, especially the one surrounding the christening of Mycroft, the first name of the detective could have had much less juxtaposed origins.

Arthur Conan Doyle at 14 © Getty Images
Arthur Conan Doyle at 14 © Getty Images

 

The last name was definitely derived from Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American physician and poet straddling the worlds of medicine and literature like Conan Doyle himself.He was admired by Mary Conan Doyle, the author’s mother.

As for the first name, Conan Doyle’s aunt Jane, wife of uncle Henry, had been born a Sherlock at Butlerstown Castle. Besides, when Conan Doyle went to school at Stonyhurst, one fellow student hailing from Ireland was Patrick Sherlock. Indeed, the Stonyhurst connection makes more sense because soon after Conan Doyle’s admission a pair of brothers arrived from Ireland. They were the Moriarty boys; and one of them, James, was a brilliant mathematician.

It was at Stonyhurst as well that he came across names that would grace his famous Professor Challenger series.

It was also at Stonyhurst that Conan Doyle fell in love with cricket. He developed a passion for the game and romanticised it. The sound of willow on leather almost merged with his fascination for history, and he thought of it almost as a medieval pastime, a tournament such as contested in by the knights, full of rules, rituals and spectacle.

However, he was not particularly good at the game. Initially, he benefitted from being small. The faster bowlers thought it was bad form to bowl quick at someone his size. Hence, he made runs, but very slowly. But with his subsequent growth spurt he was forced to battle the best of bowling meted out by his schoolmates. He struggled.

By 1873, at the age of 14, Conan Doyle was relegated to the Third XXII. The following year, he clawed his way back to the Second XXII and even progressed to playing one match for the Second XI against the First XI. He opened the innings and painstakingly carried his bat through the team score of 40, remaining unbeaten on 7. For the next couple of years he desperately tried to break into the first XI but was considered good enough for the second and no more.

In 1875, at the age of 16, Conan Doyle spent a few months at a Jesuit run secondary school called Stella Matutina at Feldkirch in the Austrian Alps. Conan Doyle liked the long walks and excellent beer, but he lamented the lack of cricketing facilities. He did write an account of a three-day game between the college and the town, in which he supposedly essayed a high-scoring innings. However, evidence points to that being a fictional contest. Not too many people in the town had ever seen a cricket bat.

Arctic, Lord’s and ‘cricket honeymoon’

On moving to Edinburgh University and training to be a doctor, Conan Doyle remained addicted to the game and quite desperate to make his mark in the cricket world. His later claim would be that he played cricket for the University. However, records show that he made it no further than the second XI in 1879. He also played a bit of rugby at the University.

But, that is not to say that he did not get his share of cricket during his university days. In 1878, he spent a large part of the summer in London. There he visited the Royal Academy, attended a Hallè recital and watched Henry Irving portray Louis XI on stage. Amidst all this, the young man also managed to catch the excitement of Australia playing MCC at Lord’s — that terrific match that lasted less than a day and paved the way for the future of international cricket.

There followed a stint on a whaler ship to the Arctic after which Conan Doyle took a break in Ireland. He played cricket for Lismore during this hiatus, but without much success. 3 and 0 against 25th Regiment and 9 against Cahir were all that he had to show for his efforts, apart from a couple of wickets.

As he ventured into the world of writing, Conan Doyle also tried to set up a surgery in Portsmouth. From 1884, he played regularly for the Portsmouth Borough. He batted at the top of the order, but with limited success.

With the passing of summer, Conan Doyle had to move away from the cricket field. His energies were now channelled to the football grounds. Towards the end of 1884, he became one of the founding members of the Portsmouth Football Association Club, and played mainly as a goalkeeper, occasionally taking the field as a full back. Surprisingly, he listed his name on the team sheets as AC Smith.

In 1885, Conan Doyle was married to Louise Hawkins at St Oswald’s Church, Thornton in Lonsdale. Three days prior to the wedding, he had played cricket at Stonyhurst against his former school. Immediately after the wedding ceremony, he ran off to Ireland on a cricket tour with Stonyhurst Wanderers, an Old Boy’s Team. Some say it was a honeymoon trip, but it seems hard to believe.

His performance in Ireland was less than ordinary, and the verse he wrote to describe the cricket in the Stonyhurst Magazine was even less impressive.  However, this time he did not mask the facts. His round duck against Leinster Club at Dublin was faithfully described. One cannot be sure whether Louise accompanied him to Ireland. There is scant evidence and most of it to the contrary. It seems that as with many other cricket aficionados, this was the start of his personal tussle between the game and the commitments of matrimony.

Game’s afoot, goodbye to the stethoscope

In 1887, Sherlock Holmes made his way into the shelves of the reading populace by solving the case of A Study in Scarlet. Within two years, Sign of Four hit the stands as well as his historical novel Micah Clarke. With success coming his way, Conan Doyle continued to play for Portsmouth Borough and occasionally for Hampshire Rovers. He seems to have played hard. In July 1890, he strained his back on the field, and the injury was serious enough to keep him for venturing on to the field for nearly a month.

His life was changing. By 1891, with the publication of White Company, a historical novel set during the Hundred Years’ War, Conan Doyle decided that his future as a writer was safe enough to take the plunge. He gave up his Southsea medical practice, experimented a few days with a chamber at Devonshire Place and then gave up medicine altogether. By then, he had written the Doings of Raffles Haw and the famed collaboration with the Strand Magazine had kicked off with four short Sherlock Holmes stories.

The only complication that arose from giving up the Southsea practice was that his brother Innes had been staying with him to study at the local grammar school. Arrangements were made for him to move in with Arthur Wood, the mathematics teacher at the school who played cricket with Conan Doyle.

After a tour of Vienna, Conan Doyle moved to his new residence at 12 Tennison Road, South Norwood. The first thing he did there was to join the Norwood Cricket Club. In August 1891,sending the Adventure of the Man with the Twisted Lip to the Strand Magazine, Conan Doyle set off for Holland on a cricket tour with the Norwood team.

Some of his cricketing appearances were also made for the Allahakbarries, the wandering cricket team organised by writer JM Barrie. Barrie and Conan Doyle struck up a close friendship forged by mutual interest in cricket, the common profession of writing and the shared wariness about the radicalism of modern European theatre. They later collaborated in a not-so-successful stage production.

Another literary stalwart Conan Doyle met on the cricket field was Willie Hornung. Later he was to gain fame as creator of the Albany based gentleman cricketer and thief AJ Raffles. Hornung contributed to the same magazines and played for the same cricket teams as Conan Doyle. Soon, he was courting Conan Doyle’s sister Connie. Eventually they became brothers in law.

In 1892, Conan Doyle made his first attempt of killing off Holmes in The Final Problem. As already stated, he dearly wanted to concentrate on his serious writing. Legend has it that the London city clerks wore black armbands when the story was published in the Strand Magazine.

Skiing and golfing interlude

Relieved of the burden of his creation, Conan Doyle travelled with his family for a long stay in Switzerland in 1893. It was here that he mastered the infant sport of skiing — called ski-running in those days.

The Norwegian way of travelling on ice had made an impression on the Swiss. In Davos, the Branger brothers Tobias and Johannes had ordered several pairs of Norwegian skis and experimented on the local slopes. Conan Doyle himself had been impressed by Fridjof Nansen’s account of crossing Greenland on skis. He started out on his mission to learn the sport. On March 23, 1894, he accompanied the Branger brothers to cross the 14-mile long Mayerfelder-Furka Pass linking Davos and Arosa.

At one steep point during the journey, the brothers had tied their skis together with a thong and set off over the precipice as if on a sledge. When Conan Doyle tried to copy them, his skis slid from underneath and fell into the precipice below. Undeterred, he launched himself down the mountain on his backside. He landed near the Branger brothers and soon found his skis. However, much of the seat of his trousers were by now scattered along the slope. Later commented that in stark contrast to the claims of his tailor, Harris Tweeds were not indestructible.

When he wrote to his mother, Conan Doyle claimed to have been the first Englishman to cross the Alpine pass in winter on skis. That much was true.However, he is not the pioneer of Alpine skiing as some of his devotees claim.

On his return from Davos, he was dead tired. Hence, he spent his time relaxing — by playing lots of cricket.

Later in 1894, Conan Doyle printed his name in the annals of another sport.

That was during his successful lecture tour of America. During his busy schedule of talks and travel, he spent the Thanksgiving with Rudyard Kipling and his wife. We must remember that it was eight years before the Bombay-born author would sully the name of cricketers by calling them Flannelled Fools.

The two literary giants dined and discussed literature at Naulakha, Kipling’s self-built house outside Brattleboro in Vermont. Conan Doyle was fascinated when his host recited his new poem McAndrew’s Hymn in a strong Glaswegian accent. Later, they played a round of golf, a sport virtually unknown in America. A surviving score card records that Conan Doyle and Beatty Baelstier, Kipling’s brother-in-law, lost a nine-hole contest to Kipling and Innes, Conan Doyle’s brother, by a solitary hole.

Some Conan Doyle-fans claim that this was the first recorded game of golf in America. The truth, however, is that as far back as in 1657 a pair of drunken men were arrested for breaking windows by hitting balls with their clubs in Albany, New York.

Conan Doyle returned from America and travelled back to Switzerland. But in between he had the time to score 64 for Norwood against the visiting Gentlemen of Netherlands.

Back in Davos, he missed cricket but made up for it in numerous ways. He played a serious level of billiards, helped lay out a new golf course in the town and appeared for the resort where he was staying in an ice hockey game. With his skis, he explored new routes across the mountains with his friends the Branger brothers. On one occasion, the three made their way across the Engandine to St Moritz on skis, sleigh and toboggan. He also shipped a pair of skis to Kipling in Vermont.

The Field Bazaar

But after further travels in Egypt and a stint as a War correspondent, it was back to England and cricket all over again. Brigadier Gerard and Rodney Stone were making their ways into the pages. And when time permitted Conan Doyle hammered 84 not out for Hampshire Rovers. His form was improving with age. He soon scored a century for the Authors against the Press.

By now he was settling in his new country-house, named Undershaw. A personal billiards room was set up in the premises, with £80 spend on a brand new billiards table.

In 1896, Conan Doyle was requested by the Edinburgh University to contribute a short piece of literature. It was to be published in a charity magazine Student during a fundraiser. He responded with his own Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The Field Bazaar.  In the story Watson receives a similar request from the same University and whilst he reads the letter at breakfast, Holmes correctly deduces the sender of the letter and Watson’s thoughts with regard to the message. A story running to barely one and a half pages, it shares many similarities to the canonical stories, including one of the ‘traditional breakfast scenes’. And in it we learn that Watson had been in the University first XI as a cricketer. A fair number of the clues are also linked to cricket.

The story was reprinted by Atheneum Press in 1934, and republished again in 1947 by the Baker Street Irregulars in pamphlet form.  It forms an irresistible item in the collection of any serious Holmesian.

Love, War, Runs and Wickets

By 1897, Louise was suffering for years from tuberculosis. Caring and attentive to the needs of his ailing wife, Conan Doyle however did find fulfilment in a new woman who came into his life this year. Jean Leckie was playing rounders when Conan Doyle saw her for the first time. The similarity of the game with cricket cannot be over-emphasised. Perhaps that was what lit the spark. Jean became his wife in 1907, a year after Louise passed away.

The summer of 1897 ended with the closure of the long cricket season. To mark the occasion, Conan Doyle held a fancy dress ball at the Beacon Hotel, near Undershaw.  Various guests turned up in different garbs, quite a few dressed as characters from Conan Doyle Books. Mrs Vernon Ford, wife of a Southsea doctor, even went to the extent of turning up as Silver Blaze the horse.  Among the guests Captain Philip Trevor struck a chord by dressing up as Conan Doyle himself. This gentleman was a cricket writer and a cricketing friend of Conan Doyle, who would later penseveral books on the game. As Major Philip Trevor, he would travel to Australia as manager of the England team in 1907-08, and produce a detailed account of the tour.

By the time he turned 40, Conan Doyle’s cricket was actually improving fast. He thought deeply about the game. His diary records, “Must cultivate a faster leg ball with swerve. Move along the crease. Bowl two balls with leg swerve over the wicket and then one with off break from the extreme edge of the crease.” His batting was showing signs of progress as well. He scored 67 in an hour against East Gloucestershire, and was gradually earning a reputation as a hitter. In 1899, his batting average for the season was just 21, but his 106 wickets proved how valuable he was for the teams he represented.

That same year he invited his cricketing friends to Undershaw for his August cricket week. A reporter from America was there to document the proceedings, diligently noting how the players were driven everywhere in a horse-drawn brake. There were further accounts of how on the return to evening tea, the table is illuminated by a banquet lamp shaded by a design of salmon silk. The journalist was quite accurate when he added, “As the cricket season occupies nearly two months, it may be surmised that very little literary work is done about Undershaw until its close between spring and autumn.”

As guns started roaring in the Boer War, Conan Doyle lobbied with the decision makers to get close to the action. He offered his services as a soldier, but was later accepted in the more reasonable role of a doctor.

The hospital was set up in tents of the Ramblers Cricket Club ground, Bloemfontein. It was on thisground that Sydney Barnes would capture 7 for 41 against Orange Free State in 1913-14. Later Percy Holmes would hit 279 in 1927-28 and Johnny Wardle dismiss 14 batsmen for 96 in 1956-57. The pavilion was used as the main ward.

In the midst of battling severe attacks of typhoid, and receiving flak from the journalists and ministers for insufficient medical facilities, Conan Doyle had the time to arrange inter-hospital football matches. However, his participation was short-lived after he was kneed in the ribs by a charging opponent in one of the early matches.

All this resulted in his own account of the War titled The Great Boer War.Later, his pamphlet The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conductwent a long way in earning him knighthood in 1902.

But before that, on his return to England, Conan Doyle enjoyed the cream of his cricketing days.

The Brushes with the Great Cricketer

The Crystal Palace Company had approached the ageing WG Grace to set up a side which would bring First-Class cricket to their extensive playing fields. The result was The London County side. And Conan Doyle, playing for an arbitrarily selected MCC side, faced off with the greatest of cricketers at the Crystal Palace in August, 1900.

It was Conan Doyle’s First-Class debut, and the selection was based on indulgence towards a great public figure. He batted low down the order, scoring 4 and 0, dismissed by future Test star Len Braund in the second innings. During London County’s second innings Grace piling on the runs, and Conan Doyle was put on to bowl. Later Conan Doyle wrote in verse:

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.

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.

After dealing rather contemptuously with the first two deliveries, Grace heaved at the third. It went off the top edge, straight up in the air. This is how Conan Doyle described it:

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.

He forgot to mention that Grace had already scored 110. Neither did Conan Doyle get another wicket in his 10 First-Class matches.

It was however in a game where he was a mere spectator that Conan Doyle faced his biggest problem of the season. At Lord’s his brother-in-law Hornung spotted him in the stands with Jean Leckie on his arms. This led to a heated argument between the two men that soured relations for quite a while.

The following year, as he wrote Hound of the Baskervilles,Conan Doyle played cricket in the West Country with the Incogniti cricket club. And then he faced WG again in the return match against London County. Grace took 7 for 30 in the first innings while Conan Doyle defended valiantly to score 21 not out in a total score of 94. With Walter Mead bowling for MCC, London County did little better, being bowled out for 109.

In the second innings, Conan Doyle hit Grace for two successive boundaries. The canny Champion held the next one back a little. And the author played all over it. He recalled, this time in bitter prose: “There was nothing more childlike and bland than that slow, tossed-up bowling of Doctor Grace, and nothing more subtle and dangerous. He was always on the wicket or about it, never sent down a really loose ball, worked continually a few inches from the leg, and had a perfect command of length. …(the delivery that dismissed him) gave the delusion that it was coming right up to the bat, but as a matter of fact it pitched well short of my reach, broke sharply across and Lilley, the wicket-keeper, had my bails off in a twinkling. One feels rather cheap when one walks from the middle of the pitch to the pavilion, longing to kick oneself for one’s own foolishness all the way.”

Two years later, Conan Doyle batted alongside Grace while playing for MCC against Kent at Lord’s. They were facing Bill Bradley, the Kent and England fast bowler.

Conan Doyle recalled: “His first delivery I hardly saw, and it landed with a terrific thud upon my thigh. A little occasional pain is one of the chances of cricket, and one takes it as cheerfully as one can, but on this occasion it suddenly became sharp to an unbearable degree. I clapped my hand to the spot, and found to my amazement I was on fire. The ball had landed straight on a small tin vesta box in my trousers pocket, had splintered the box, and set the matches ablaze … W.G. was greatly amused. ‘Couldn’t get you out – had to set you on fire!’ he cried in the high voice which seemed so queer from so large a body.’”

In between games, Conan Doyle managed to take time off with his family at the Esplanade Hotel at Southsea. However, when he went to play for MCC against Norfolk at Norwich, it was Jean Leckie who was staying nearby at Marlborough Hotel.

Those were his peak cricketing years. A young PG Wodehouse observed Arthur bowling for Authors against Royal Engineers at Chatham in June, 1902. Coming on as fourth change, with the Engineers on 220 for 4, he took 5 for 44 and bowled the opposition out for 290. Wodehouse recalled: “He was captain that day. A captain who is capable of bowling like that, and yet does not try his hand till fourth change, is no ordinary man.”

In the meantime, daughter Mary was also developing a taste for country life. She loved to caddy for her father when he allowed it, and also played cricket enthusiastically. At that stage of her childhood, she hoped to start a women’s team.

Second innings

With time however, age caught up with Conan Doyle. Along with that there was the responsibility of a young family started with Jean after the demise of Louise.

The fascination for cricket remained intact. There was also a boxing ring fitted up in the garage of Undershaw where Conan Doyle occasionally squared up against the fitter guests. However, as he neared 50, he took part in fewer sports of the energetic variety. An occasional match for Authors against Publishers was about it. He leaned on golf where he was captaining Crowborough Beacon and billiards in which he won the Authors Club Handicap Cup. In 1911, he also participated in an international motor rally, the Prince Henry Tour.

His interest in sports remained unabated. He sympathised heavily with the Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri, the tragic hero of the London Olympic Games of 1908. Pietri entered the stadium leading the field, but stumbled from exhaustion in his final lap and had to be helped across the finishing line. He was disqualified and the gold medal was awarded to Johnny Hayes, the American who was the next to cross the finish line. In a reaction of solidarity, Conan Doyle named one of the exiles in the Holmes story Wisteria Lodge after him, although he misspelled it as Durando.

Yes, by now Conan Doyle had resurrected Holmes.

After the Dorando affair, Conan Doyle was chosen president of the Amateur Field Sports Association. In an effort to improve upon the dismal haul of medals by the British contingent in the London Olympics, Conan Doyle furnished ideas on how the performance could be improved. When the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 proved little better, he led an initiative to fund the British Olympic team for the scheduled 1916 Games at Berlin.

In the meantime, in 1913, he competed in the Amateur Billiard Championship and reached the third round.

His next associations with cricket, however,were rather tragic.

In 1914, militant suffragettes burnt down the cricket pavilion of the Nevill Ground at Tunbridge Wells. Conan Doyle launched into furious criticism, suggesting that all they needed to do now to add to their mean actions was to blow up a blind man and his dog.

And during the fruitless years of the Great War, which he spent trying to pen what turned out to be a rather disappointing history of the conflicts, he was shocked to hear of the demise of WG in 1916. He penned the obituary in The Times: “The world will be the poorer to many of us for the passing of the greatest of cricketers. To those who knew him he was more than a great cricketer. He had many of the characteristics of a great man. There was a masterful personality and a large direct simplicity and frankness which, combined with his huge frame, swarthy features, bushy beard, and somewhat lumbering carriage, made an impression which could never be forgotten … Few men have done more for the generation in which he lived, and his influence was none the less because it was a spontaneous and utterly unconscious one.”

The cricketing dream

The most poignant of his cricketing experiences perhaps took place after having been inflicted with the loss of his loved ones during the Great War. The death toll ultimately included friends, acquaintances, brothers and his son Kingsley.

During this phase, Conan Doyle’s life-long fascination for spirituality and psychic phenomena became a major driver of his life. His last few years were spent more engrossed in spiritualism and mediums than literature.

It was during the last days of the First World War that he started documenting his dreams. In one such dream he saw himself opening the batting in an important cricket match between the Catholics and Protestants. He seemed to be playing for the Catholics and was doing well. But suddenly he found that while going for a run, he had to climb a hill slowly and with great difficulty. There was no umpire and the wicket had been marked bizarrely on a screen at right angles to the pitch.

It speaks of confusion, of dilemma, of sorrow and reveals many facets of Conan Doyle’s mind, not least of which is the important role that cricket played in his life.

Childhood Dream and How Watson Learned the Trick

After the War Conan Doyle did not play any serious cricket. By this time he was in his sixties and there was a young growing family of two sons and a daughter to take care of.

Yet, at long last he realised one of his childhood dreams — of leading England against Australia. That was in August 1920, when he led the team of English passengers against their Aussie counterparts in deck cricket on board the SS Naldera. He was on his way to Australia, on a Spirituality tour. On landing in the country he became a honorary member of the Melbourne Cricket Club.

Age was catching up with him, but he was still interested in sports. He was in France when he received the newsof the death of his brother-in-law Hornung. He sped off to attend the funeral before rushing back to Paris to watch England take on France on the rugby field.

In 1922, Conan Doyle was one of several authors commissioned to provide books for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. The otherwriters included J. M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.

Conan Doyle was provided with a book approximately 1.5″ x 1.25″ to inscribe a story by hand. He wrote a 503-word story titled‘How Watson Learned the Trick’. It was another Holmes pastiche, another breakfast scene, in which Watson tries to use the deductive skills of Holmes to determine what the great detective was up to. He ultimately fails, and Holmes informs him that he was not, as deduced by Watson, looking at the financial pages in the newspaper, but was checking the cricket scores right next to the finance section. “I turned to it to find if Surrey was holding its own against Kent.”

Strangely, unlike the Holmes stories and novels, there was cricket in abundance in both the Holmes pastiches Conan Doyle penned.

Spedegue’s Dropper

By his late sixties, Conan Doyle was no longer playing cricket at all. However, he did have time for golf. Indeed, he claimed to have written The Veiled Lodger and played two rounds of golf on the same day. He was also urging Denis, his young son by his second marriage, to be more disciplined. “More cricket and golf, less dancing, cinemas and late hours.”

An illustration that says ‘Sir A. Conan Doyle at the wicket — bowled by A. P. Lucas’. This dismissal was probably the inspiration behind Spedegue’s Dropper © Getty Images
An illustration that says ‘Sir A. Conan Doyle at the wicket — bowled by A. P. Lucas’. This dismissal was probably the inspiration behind Spedegue’s Dropper © Getty Images

On his final trip, another South African voyage, he had the pleasure of watching his daughter Jean gain selection for the women’s deck cricket team on Windsor Castle. She was also the only woman to bowl overarm, and captured two wickets in two balls.

On return, a distinctly tired Conan Doyle wrote mainly on Spirituality. Towards the latter stages, even the scientific explorer Professor Challenger finally succumbed to the unknown psychic phenomena.

Conan Doyle’s last great work was published a year before his death — The Maracot Deep and Other Stories. While mostly tales of exploration and science, the one odd man out was Spedegue’s Dropper. This was a quaint story of a lob bowler, a delight for cricket connoisseurs.

Curious and from a cricketing point of view rather unrealistic, it tells of Spedegue, the hero, who 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 achieves accuracy, Spedegue wins a famous Test match for England against Australia. Supposedly, it was based on his own experience after AP Lucas had dismissed him using a similar lob.

The striking part of the story is that it was written in 1929, about two decades after lob bowling had disappeared from cricket. It hints at several things. Firstly, Conan Doyle used to think a lot about cricket and had his own curious ideas. That must be evident from many cricketing associations of the man. And not all of his ideas were sound. For example, he once voiced that left-handers should be banned since they slowed the game down.

However, there is another more poignant chord struck by the tale. It was probably the desperate attempt of an ageing man, the colossus of the Edwardian days, to hark back to the familiar times which made sense to him.

Arthur Conan Doyle passed away on July 7, 1930.

(ArunabhaSengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)