From left: The Catapulta (Source: Felix on the Bat) and Nicholas Felix © Getty Images
From left: The Catapulta (Source: Felix on the Bat) and Nicholas Felix © Getty Images

May 28, 1846. Tichborne Down, Hampshire witnessed a somewhat peculiar cricket match. While it was an 11-on-11 match, the players did not exactly play one another. Instead, the batsmen faced a bowling machine. Abhishek Mukherjee relives a bizarre contest.

Nicholas Wanostrocht was seldom addressed by his original surname. He was Felix to everyone. It will not be an exaggeration to call him a polymath: he was a cricketer, a classical scholar, a musician, a linguist, an inventor, a writer, and an artist.

James Pycroft described him thus in The Cricket-Field: “[Felix] had music in his soul, and could sing and play exquisitely on some seven instruments, and sketch cleverly besides.”

In the expanded version of The Hambledon Men, EV Lucas wrote: “In the Pavilion at Lord’s are water-colour portraits from his hand of Alfred and Walter Mynn, Fuller Pilch and others.”

Three of these streams are of our interest. First, he wrote Felix on the Bat, an excellent book on cricket instructions and a trove of information for cricket historians.

Felix was also considered one of the greatest batsmen of the era and one of the first great left-handed batsmen. He played for both Kent and Surrey, and was also a regular for William Clarke’s All-England Eleven. Even at First-Class level he scored two hundreds, a remarkable feat in an era when pitches were not even defined.

Bernard Darwin (yes, grandson of Charles), more known as a golf writer, immortalised five cricketers in his verse. Felix was one of the quintet.

And with five such mighty cricketers ’twas but natural to win,
As Felix, Wenman, Hillyer, Fuller Pilch, and Alfred Mynn.

William Caffyn wrote of Felix in Seventy-One Not Out: “He was a beautiful bat (left hand), being especially noted for his brilliant cutting, more particularly in the direction of cover-point (with the right leg in his case advanced). Mr Felix was undoubtedly one of the very finest exponents of this stroke ever seen. I have seen no batsman from W. G. Grace downwards who could excel him in this particular.” In Cricket, AG Steel called Felix “the father of cutting”.

‘Silver Billy’ Beldham throws some light on Felix’s improvisations: “He played with his bat held over his shoulder, and a quick shooter was most likely to be fatal to him. He played principally in suburban matches. But when he began to appear at Lord’s he put the bat beside him in the usual way and studied defence.”

Beldham probably did not approve of Felix’s approach, but there is no doubt that Felix was a thinking cricketer (what else can you expect from a mind of that order?). It is now time to turn to that aspect.

Felix’s greatest cricket legacy is Catapulta, the first known bowling machine. The above image will provide with a visual idea. I will not bore the readers with the physics.

The machine was quite versatile. In Felix’s own words: “With the use of this Instrument, you may (by setting it to the pace, so fast, that it would split your bat in two; or so slow, that the ball would scarcely reach the wicket), imitate the pace and place of all the great bowlers of the day.”

However, there is also a warning: “Too much practice with perfectly straight bowling would, perhaps, cramp your hitting. The person working it should (unless otherwise required) vary the direction of the ball about every third or fourth ball, and this without the knowledge of the batsman.”

It was, indeed, something much ahead of the era. Felix honed his skills against the Catapulta, so it must have been useful.

Years later, John Wisden would develop his own Catapulta. In 1867 Wisden ran an advertisement of the machine. It was the first advertisement in the history of the almanac.

The match 

Felix on the Bat came out in 1845. Our match dates to the year after that. The match, strange in nature, was a one-day contest between two teams called Tichborne Down Club and County Players. In Sporting Reminiscences of Hampshire from 1745 to 1862, John Seaverns has described the teams as The Gentlemen and The Players respectively. We will use the same names.

There was a catch, though (pun not intended): there would be no bowler. The eleven batsmen would bat, but against The Catapulta. Despite its incredible variety of formats, cricket has perhaps not seen anything of the kind. Or perhaps it has: who knows?

The match ended in a draw. The Gentlemen took a 33-run lead before bowling out The Players for 75, the highest innings of the match. Unfortunately, time had run out by then.

For The Players, E Privett, Blake, and Collyer made crucial contributions with bat. Collyer also kept wickets superbly and stumped several batsmen. E Dalton and John Durrell got runs for The Gentlemen, while W Clement and H Lipscomb fielded brilliantly.

However, the show-stealer was a contest between George Smith of The Gentlemen and Chamberlayne of The Players. Seaverns described: “[Smith] created some amusement by running half way over to meet the ball from the Catapult [sic] before it touched the ground, and succeeded thus in getting ten runs.”

An all-run ten? Perhaps.

Smith tried an encore, but Chamberlayne “stealthily altered” the length. Smith went for an encore next ball, was beaten in the flight, and was dismissed.

Brief scores:

County Players 32 and 75 drew with Tichborne Down Club (Gentlemen) 65.