George Ulyett, Billy Midwinter and John Selby: Caught in the eye of match-fixing storm in 1881! © Getty Images
George Ulyett, Billy Midwinter, and John Selby: Caught in the eye of match-fixing storm in 1881! © Getty Images

December 20, 1881. Sensational events took place in the background as Victoria and the touring England sides played out a thriller on a sticky wicket. Arunabha Sengupta relates the story of allegations of match-fixing and rampant betting during the ‘pristine’ early years of international cricket.

The formative years of Test cricket, looked at nowadays through the lens of veneration reserved for the obscure past, are often considered pristine, pure, spotless, with the angelic white clad players on the lush green outfields just about stopping short of sprouting wings.

After all, the nasty shadow of filthy lucre is just a modern contamination, leading to the current day corruption and vices like betting, fixing and so on.

That is always nice to believe.

However, the truth, as always, is rather drastically different.

The initial Test tours were nothing but commercial ventures, risky undertakings often floated by the players themselves. The Australian Elevens toured England after pooling their combined capitals for the sole purpose of profit.

And from the day of Ted Pooley, the Surrey wicketkeeper who missed the first ever Test because he was spending his time in a New Zealand prison due to betting related fights, the initial days of Test cricket remain extremely murky. Which is but natural, given that cricket traditionally was as much a betting game as horse-racing, the two innings format making it ideal for the bookmakers.

The 1870 version of the laws of the game brought out by MCC included four rules regarding betting. One of them stated categorically that bets were payable at a game’s conclusion. The other three dealt with player-versus-player ‘exotic’ wagers.

The bad blood

When Lord Harris took his England side to Australia in 1878-79, there were even fights and riots over umpiring decisions in a match at Sydney, caused to a great degree by the enormous stakes that had been bet on the game.

The relationship between Harris and the Australians soured after that, and it took a number of months for the rift to heal. And even though the financially successful England tour of the Australian Eleven in 1880 healed the fissures as only money can, suspicions of underhand businesses ran rife.

There were allegations in the Australian papers, voiced by ‘Umpire’, that the number of close results seen in the Club and Colonial matches in Australia in the early 1880s was signs that the players were being driven by the betting activities.

It was now that the continued commercial success of the international tours enticed the next England team of professional cricketers to venture Down Under. Nottinghamshire professional Alfred Shaw led the side. Former Test cricketer James Lillywhite was the manager.  And it was in this tour that the ugliest of all betting related episodes took place.

The organisation of the tour itself got off to a false start. Ace Yorkshire all-rounder George Ulyett, a leading member of the early England sides, had incurred the wrath of the Australian cricketing associations because of his role in the Sydney riot of 1879. He had made himself further unpopular by refusing to play the Australians when they toured in 1880.

The Australians did not want Ulyett playing in the country. However, the English insisted on his inclusion. Cricket in the colonies had improved a lot and Ulyett was extremely important if they were to prevent early defeats to Victoria and New South Wales. Such early losses would reduce interest in the tour and prove fatal to the financial venture. The eloquent reasoning was presented as follows: “The Players of England without the Yorkshireman would be like a representation of Hamlet with the omission of the character of the Prince of Denmark”.

Ultimately Ulyett travelled, and was one of the leading figures in the controversy.

Another person in the centre of the muck was Billy Midwinter. The Gloucestershire-born Australian, who had played the first two Test matches for the colonies, now played as professional for his county of birth, was back in his homeland playing for England.

Victorian Morality

The touring side opened against the weaker country sides before beating a strong New South Wales team by 68 runs. And then they geared up to face a star-studded Victorian side at Melbourne. What went on in this game was nothing short of scandalous.

Hordes of people flocked to watch the ‘great match.’ According to Shaw, 20,000 turned up for the second day. And the local supporters were a happy lot to start with. Opener Percy McDonnell scored 51, the bearded wicketkeeper Jack Blackham hit 66 and Jack Edwards chipped in with 65. In spite of Ted Peate’s accurate spinners, the home team piled up an impressive 251.

By the middle of the second day, Joey Palmer and Frank Allan, excellent bowlers both, had made the ball cut viciously off the pitch to bowl Shaw’s team out for 146. The rules of the day enforced follow-on under the circumstances; by stumps on the second evening Alfred Shaw’s XI (for that was what the touring Englishmen were called when they played the tour matches) had lost two wickets and were still plenty in the arrears.

The next day saw a spirited fightback by a young Nottinghamshire batsman called Arthur Shrewsbury. His serene half century, followed by a storm, ensured that the match remained unfinished when stumps were drawn. Shaw’s XI were on 167 for 7.

The match was hence undecided. Shaw’s men were supposed to sail for Adelaide at one in the morning. However, the Victorians were extremely eager to finish the game, ostensibly because they believed they had the upper hand.  Shaw consulted Lillywhite and the two Englishmen decided to leave the course of action to the Victorians.

Time and again in the history of cricket we have come across matches being left unfinished because one of the teams had to catch a boat. Here, however, the Victorians managed to turn the tables and delay the departure of the steamship. And it was not only because that they wanted to win.

In reality, enormous amounts of money had been bet on a victory for the home side. According to the account of Ted Peate, “The bookmakers were standing up doing business as if they were in Tattersall’s ring.” Peate also recalled a rumour that the bookmakers had paid the steamship company £300 to delay its departure.

The next day, Shaw was stunned to hear that the bookmakers were offering odds of 30 to 1 against Shaw’s XI. He wrote, “Most extravagant odds were offered on the Victorian team, in spite of the fact that the weather was wet, and there was a possibility of the home batsmen having to play on a sticky wicket, to which they were unaccustomed.” When Midwinter reported the odds to him, Shaw said that he was prepared to bet a pound at such terms. It was the 500-1 story of Headingley being played out a century earlier. All the members of the England side bet a pound each.

Whatever the scheme was it failed

When play resumed, the wicket was a proper mud pudding. Shrewsbury continued to bat magnificently to remain unbeaten on 80, and the Shaw’s XI innings came to an end at 198. This left Victoria 94 to win.

But now, there was an extremely nasty surprise.

Midwinter informed Shaw that Ulyett and Nottinghamshire’s John Selby had been promised a bet of ‘£100 to nothing’ on a Victorian win. And to top that, Midwinter claimed that the two professionals had asked him to participate in a fix. Apparently another Nottinghamshire man, William Scotton, was already involved.

A surprised Shaw did not believe him. But later, when on the field, he decided that the rumours were not unfounded. According to the captain, some Englishmen kept dropping chances, and one catch was taken by pure accident. Shaw later wrote: “A remarkably curious circumstance was that after one ridiculously easy catch had been dropped, a batsman was out by the ball going up inside the fieldsman’s arm and sticking there — not, I have reason to think, with the catcher’s intentional aid.” According to Malcolm Knox, this was most likely the catch of Harry Boyle, taken by Selby when the latter had scored 43.

In spite of such obvious intentions, Shaw marshalled his resources cannily. Neither Midwinter nor Ulyett got a bowl. Peate kept wheeling away, and on that wet pitch the left-armer’s deliveries spat up as they turned away. Apart from Boyle, only Palmer reached double figures.

One by one the wickets fell. The ninth went down for 75, and then last man Allan was caught short of his ground. Wicketkeeper Dick Pilling took the bails off and walked away, thinking that the match was over, when for some reason the umpire called “not out”. The tourists returned and in that very same over Dick Barlow bowled Allan to end the match. Shaw’s XI won by 18 runs, the first instance in Australia of a team emerging victors after following-on.

Speaking about the attempts at fixing, Shaw remarked: “Whatever the scheme actually was, it failed.”

What followed?

The England players hence made a killing from their win, having staked a pound each at 30:1. Besides, a Halifax expatriate named Sam Grimwood had also bet heavily on Shaw’s XI. So delighted was he at his enormous stroke of luck that he came down to the boat and presented each England cricketer with a £10 note.  Obviously, the ones who lost out were the bookmakers.

According to Shaw, later Midwinter was ill-treated on the ship as a quarrel broke out regarding the betting, fixing and the complaint to the captain.

There was, however, no concrete evidence and Shaw, good naturedly, allowed the allegations to be dropped. He also reported positively on Ulyett’s performance and character.

At the same time, the Australasian continued to cast doubts about the conduct of the English professionals. After the tour, in April 1882, the Scotsman reported that letters had been sent to the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire committees in which two professionals, Selby and Ulyett, had been charged of trying to involve Midwinter into the scam. The letters also said that when Midwinter refused, he was ‘assaulted’ and ‘seriously maltreated ’.

Whether this incident had any bearing on it is unknown, but Selby never played for England again.

Brief scores:

England 146 (Billy Bates 42; Joey Palmer 4 for 53) and 198 (Dick Barlow 42, Arthur Shrewsbury 80*; Joey Palmer 7 for 46) beat Victoria 251 (Percy McDonnell 51, Jack Blackham 66, Jack Edwards 65) and 75 (Harry Boyle 43; Ted Peate 6 for 30) by 18 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)