Oscar Wilde was one of the most celebrated writers in the history of English literature © Getty Images
Oscar Wilde was one of the most celebrated writers in the history of English literature © Getty Images

Born October 16, 1854, Oscar Wilde never exchanged his pen for the willow. However, Arunabha Sengupta traces some connections of the great writer with cricket, not all of them very flattering for either the man or the game.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay.

This was the very second verse of the Ballad of the Reading Gaol, the final work of Oscar Wilde’s literary career, published two years before his death.

The author of The Picture of Dorian Gray was hardly a sportsman, demonstrating every bit of the nineteenth century aesthete’s distaste for athletic endeavour. However, he did display some early interest in the game. There is evidence of this in Wilde’s earliest surviving letter.

It was written to his mother in 1868. At that time Wilde was at Portora, which Lady Wilde rather pretentiously claimed to be the ‘Eton of Ireland’. The missive started ‘Darling Mama, the hamper came today, and I never got such a jolly surprise, many thanks for it, it was more than kind of you to think of it.’ After that, following some show of interest in the publication of his mother’s poetry, Wilde went on to describe the triumph over a regimental side in a cricket match. In the same letter he also wrote of his distaste for rowing with the words ‘that horrid regatta.’

The youthful fancy for the game, however, would not last. Soon, Wilde was dismissing both cricket and rowing in the same breath with the words as ‘bats and boats’.

By the time he gained fame for his plays and courted infamy because of his lifestyle, Wilde had turned his back on the game with a flourishing sweep. “I never play cricket,” he declared. “It requires one to assume such indecent postures.”

Of course, Wilde held rather curious views on all sports. Another of his celebrated quotes went, “Football is all very well as a game for rough girls, but it is hardly suitable for delicate boys.”

When in Toronto in 1882, Wilde expressed his admiration for Canadian Lacrosse player Ross Mackenzie and went on to say, “Lacrosse is so far ahead of cricket for physical development.”

Wilde was idolised by EW Hornung, creator of the celebrated fictional gentleman cricketer and thief Raffles. In 1895, Hornung was blessed with a son. He named the boy Arthur Oscar — following the devotion of the writer to the two supreme figures of the English literary world of that era, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. The christening took place just a week before the start of Wilde’s famous libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury. In the England of 1895, steeped in middle-class morality, WG Grace was by far the hero with his wondrous deeds with the bat that summer, while Wilde was very much the anti-hero.

This apparent fondness for Wilde led Hornung’s biographer Peter Rowland to suggest that the character of Raffles was based on the Irish playwright. But, whatever be his merits, Wilde was no cricketer. It is much more likely, and more widely believed, that the inspiration behind the cricketing criminal was the charismatic George Ives.

For all intents and purposes Wilde remained far from cricket, as was expressed in his Garden of Eros.

Far from the cricket-ground and noisy eight,
At Bagley, where the rustling bluebells come
Almost before the blackbird finds a mate
And overstay the swallow, and the hum
Of many murmuring bees flits through the leaves
Have I lain poring on the dreamy tales his fancy weaves.

(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)