Ashes 1882-83: Billy Midwinter’s second swap

Gloucestershire CCC in 1880 shortly before Fred Grace’s untimely death. WG Grace is seated (in stripes). Fred Grace (hooped cap) is third left in rear group. Billy Midwinter (directly behind WG) is fourth left in rear. EM Grace (bearded) is sixth left in rear. Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

The curious career of Billy Midwinter took another turn on February 17, 1883. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the second swap in the Test career of the man who had played for both England and Australia against each other.

From Gloucestershire to Victoria…

There have been few careers as intriguing as William Evans Midwinter’s. He was a quite competent all-rounder himself, but that hardly remains his main claim to fame. Born in Lower Meend, Gloucestershire, he moved to Australia at an early age. He had an impressive First-Class debut for Victoria against New South Wales at Sydney in 1974-75, picking up 6 for 61 and 2 for 61.

His third First-Class match was the first Test ever, at MCG. He picked up the first five-for in the history of Test cricket, claiming 5 for 78 to rout the Englishmen for 196. This means he also held the highest wicket-taker’s spot for some time, only for Alfred Shaw to overtake him later in the day.

He played the second Test as well, scoring 31 and 12 and picking up 2 more wickets.

… then back to Gloucestershire…

Midwinter went back to Gloucestershire on WG Grace’s invitation. He became the first overseas cricketer in the history of County cricket as well as Gloucestershire’s first professional. He did a decent job with his over-arm medium-paced bowling and dependable lower-order batting.

1877 passed by with Midwinter picking up 31 wickets at 13.74. This included 7 for 35 and 4 for 46 against an all-England side for Gloucestershire at The Oval. He also scored 194 runs at 17.63 with a fifty.

… then being kidnapped by a doctor…

However, Midwinter was determined to go back to Australia. He played a few matches for the touring Australians and he was all set to play against Middlesex for the touring Australians at Lord’s. The problem was that Gloucestershire were scheduled to play Surrey the same day at The Oval and there was one missing.

The Doctor soon figured out what was going on. So the Grace brothers — WG and EM — set off in a taxi for the Lord’s with their giant of a wicketkeeper Arthur Bush. They entered the visitors’ dressing-room, WG kidnapped Midwinter, and the four drove back to The Oval.

They were, however, intercepted at the gates of The Oval by Jack Gregory and his men. The Australians were never going to give up Midwinter that easily. There was a showdown at the gates of the historic ground at Kensington, and — as expected — WG had his way. Midwinter never played for the Australians again that season.

The Australians even threatened to cancel their match against Gloucestershire later that season; the match was eventually played after that rarest of rare occurrences: a WG Grace apology.

… then returning to Australia as a tourist…

Midwinter continued to play for Gloucestershire and was then picked for England to tour Australia in both 1880-81 and 1881-82. He scored 95 runs at 13.57 and picked up 10 wickets at 27.20 from 4 matches on the second tour.

He was back to Gloucestershire in 1882. He picked up 84 wickets (his best in a season) at 16.02 and scored 823 runs (once again, his best in the season) at 26.54 but did not get picked for the iconic Test at The Oval. That winter he went back to Victoria.

… and as a player…

By the time the England were back in Australia for what was supposed to be the first Ashes series Down Under, Midwinter had made it to the Australian side. It was a curious tour where 3 Tests were played as the part of an Ashes and a fourth experimental Test at the Association Ground in Sydney where all four innings were played on separate pitches. It was here that Midwinter played — this time for Australia.

After Ivo Bligh won the toss and elected to bat England lost Dick Barlow soon — to Midwinter. They were 37 for 2 before Charles Studd and Allan Steel added 73 for the third wicket. Steel batted on brilliantly, and finished the day on 135 as England were 263 for 9 at stumps.

‘Joey’ Palmer rounded off things by clean-bowling Fred Morley the next morning. England had not added a run. Other than Barlow, Midwinter also had Billy Bates caught by George Bonnor. Harry Boyle finished with 3 wickets.

Morley and Barlow then struck back, reducing the hosts to 39 for 3 before George Giffen joined Bonnor. The pair put on 74 before Charles Leslie broke the stand; Midwinter came out and scored 10 before Barlow ran through his defence.

Bonnor eventually fell for 87, but Jack Blackham marched on, scoring a rapid 57. Australia were 221 for 9 before Edwin Evans and Harry Boyle took the score to 248; both batsmen were 20 apiece at stumps.

Barlow claimed Boyle next morning, but not before Australia had scored 262; they trailed by a solitary run. Barlow and Steel picked up 3 wickets apiece.

Midwinter struck twice soon afterwards, removing Barlow and Charles Studd soon in the morning. The others kept on striking thereafter, and England were bowled out for 197 by stumps. Bates, with 48 not out, was the only one to provide some resistance. All five bowlers had claimed 2 wickets each.

Set to chase 199, Australia began disastrously on Day Four after Alec Bannerman and Billy Murdoch put up 44. Bates removed Murdoch and Steel chipped in with the wicket of Bonnor; Bates claimed Tom Horan and suddenly at 51 for 3, England were back in the match.

Giffen provided Bannerman with some support; the pair added 56. After Bannerman fell to Charles Studd for 63, Blackham walked out and played some fine strokes, adding 55 more with Giffen. The match swung back again as Steel picked up Giffen and Evans in quick succession. Australia needed 35 runs with 4 wickets in hand.

Blackham needed someone to hang around, and Midwinter provided with exactly the support he needed. He remained unbeaten on 8 and Blackham on 58 as the winning runs were scored off Barlow. Australia won by 4 wickets.

What followed?

– Midwinter returned to England again and played in the 1884 Ashes. He also took part in the 1886-87 Ashes. In 12 Tests — 8 for Australia and 4 for England — Midwinter scored 269 runs at 13.45 and picked up 24 wickets at 25.20.

– He lost his wife and two children by 1889; additionally, all his businesses faced serious setbacks. Midwinter suffered from mental problems as a result. He was admitted to Bendigo Hospital and later in Kew Asylum. He passed away on December 3, 1890 at an age of 39.

Brief scores:

England 263 (Allan Steel 135*, Charles Studd 48; Harry Boyle 3 for 52) and 197 (Bill Bates 48*) lost to Australia (George Bonnor 87, Jack Blackham 57, Allan Steel 3 for 34, Dick Barlow 3 for 88) and 199 for 6 (Alec Bannerman 63, Jack Blackham 58*, Allan Steel 3 for 49) by 4 wickets.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)