79050321
Charlie Absolom © Getty Images

June 20, 1868. After making Surrey follow-on at The Oval, Cambridge University were up against a paltry 175 against James Southerton and his mates. William Warner and Charlie Absolom then got together after a top-order collapse, grinding it out, taking the battle to the opposition camp before something curious happened. Abhishek Mukherjee narrates the first incident of a batsman given out obstructing the field in a First-Class cricket match.

Charles Alfred Absolom went to Trinity College, Cambridge. One of the best slow medium-pacers in the country at that time, Absolom played 18 matches for his University, taking an astonishing 101 wickets at 14.48.

He also had an impressive career as a Kent amateur. Harry Altham wrote in History of Cricket that Absolom bowled “slow-medium of irreproachable length.” He could also slog, holding the bat in an unusually high grip, preferring the long-on area, and was a good fielder.

 When England toured Australia in 1878-79, Absolom played the one-off Test at MCG. The Test is remembered for Fred Spofforth’s hat-trick, the first in Test cricket. Absolom walked out at 26 for 7, after Spofforth had taken three in three.

Absolom counterattacked. He added 63 with Lord Harris and top-scored with 52 in a total of 113, “treating all the bowlers in a very unceremonious fashion” (as Frederick Lillywhite wrote). Wisden added that Absolom “forthwith played his old, old game of knocking the ball all over the ground” and “continued hitting hard for the honour of the old land.”

He scored 6 more in the second, but was not one of the seven bowlers England used in the match.

Nicknamed Cambridge Navvy for his humongous frame, Absolom was, to quote Benny Green from The Cricketer, “one of those gentle giants who would never hurt a fly but could easily throw a grown man around without undue strain”.

After that, Absolom as good as vanished from human civilisation. Nine years after he played that Test, he was reported dead in Trinidad two days after an injury: trying to load sugar aboard SS Muriel, he was crushed by a crane. Absolom was merely 53, and had apparently working as a ship’s pursuer all this while.

Note: Green mentions a load of bananas, not sugar; he also adds that Absolom was trying to unload, not load.

Absolom played 99 First-Class matches in all, scoring 2,515 runs at 15.05, taking 282 wickets at 19.47, and holding 127 catches. His aversion towards wearing a hat even in the extreme heat of Adelaide made him a recognisable figure on cricket grounds. He was also competent at football, long jump, and shot put (he earned Cambridge Blues in both cricket and athletics).

However, Absolom’s claim to fame lies elsewhere. It dates back to a match against Surrey at The Oval, in 1868.

The ‘feat’

 Cambridge were having an excellent season in 1868, as was Absolom. He single-handedly dished out an innings defeat to MCC with match figures of 9 for 108. Cambridgeshire hung on grimly to a draw, but Absolom had 9 for 128. Southgate were routed by an innings as Absolom took 4 for 82. And though MCC won the return match, Absolom had his fill, with match figures of 5 for 78. 

The students took first strike here, and though they lost two quick wickets, Walter Money (89) and Henry Richardson (143) led a recovery, adding 207 for the third wicket. Absolom, batting at ten, threw his bat around for a quick 26. Cambridge put up 339. Surrey finished the day on 40 without loss, and the first pair took the score to 68 the morning after.

It is not known whether there were wagers on the match, but had there been any, Money would have been a nice option. Bowling his underarm left-arm spin, Money wheeled down over after over, taking 6 for 66; trailing by 160, Surrey had to follow-on, and were reduced to 8 for 2 by — you have guessed it right — Money.

But Surrey fought back: Henry Jupp amassed 134 and George Griffith 55; William Mortlock batted with the tail, stretching the lead to 175, and eventually remaining stranded on 66. Once again Money came good, with 6 for 104.

175 was not a formidable target, but Surrey boasted of James Southerton in their line-up. The great man took new ball, and took out the youngsters one by one with his wily round-arm slow deliveries. Unfortunately for Cambridge, their wicketkeeper Richardson (who had top-scored in the first innings) had injured his hand, which left them with a batsman short.

When Absolom joined William Warner at 91 for 7, it seemed to be all over for Cambridge. But the two dug in, with Warner holding one end up and Absolom using the long handle. Then something curious happened.

Charles Box wrote in The English Game of Cricket:“Mr. Absolom — a powerful hitter — made a splendid drive, for which six runs were fully made, but venturing upon the seventh, the ball was returned so sharply that it came in contact with the striker’s bat before the popping-crease was reached. An appeal to the constituted authority proved adverse to Mr. Absolom. He of course retired. On reaching the pavilion he was told to return.”

Note: Box was genuinely annoyed by Absolom’s dismissal. He added: “This silly mandate received the contempt it deserved. Without doubt the ignorance of the umpire sadly marred the prospects of the Light Blues.” In fact, Box was so annoyed that the glossary of the book had the entry Absolom, Mr., wrongly given out.

 But Box’s attitude did not matter, for Absolom was sent back for obstructing the field. He was the first batsman to be given out obstructing the field.

As for the match, Southerton rounded things up quickly, with 7 for 66. These included a catch and 3 stumpings by Ted Pooley (he had another stumping, standing up to the pace of Tom Sewell).

Richardson emerged at No. 11 and remained unbeaten without scoring as Cambridge slumped to a 14-run defeat.

The second instance

It took 31 years before Worcestershire wicketkeeper Thomas Straw emulated Absolom, against Warwickshire in a County Championship match at New Road. The scorer noted: “In the Worcestershire first innings, Straw hit the ball in the air and started to run. [Alfred] Glover ran in to catch the ball, Straw bumped into him while trying to make his ground and Glover dropped the ball. Straw was given out for obstructing the field.”

Brief scores:

 Cambridge University 339 (Walter Money 89, Henry Richardson 143; George Griffith 6 for 90) and 160 (William Warner 50; James Southerton 7 for 66) lost to Surrey 179 (Thomas Humphrey 50; Walter Money 6 for 66) and 334 (Henry Jupp 134, George Griffith 55, William Mortlock 66*; Walter Money 6 for 104) by 14 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)