ABD_May 22
The Harrow team, four years before the match in question. Back, from left: Henry Montgomery, Thomas Hartley, Walter Money, Charles Smith. Middle, from left: John Ponsonby, Walter Hadow. Front, from left: Frank Cobden, Reginald Digby, Montague Stow, Ernest Mathews, John Gibbon. Cobden took 8 for 47 in a match that season to rout Eton © Getty Images

June 28, 1870. William Yardley scored the first hundred in the history of Oxford vs Cambridge matches, but the target for Oxford was a mere 179. Oxford were cruising along at 72 for 1, and later, at 153 for 3. Then, at one stage, they needed 4 runs with 4 wickets in hand. Then Frank Cobden intervened with his raw pace and bowled an over impactful enough to lend his name to the match. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at one of the most spectacular Varsity matches.

Frank Cobden first sprang into prominence with 5 for 37 and 3 for 10 against Eton in 1866. Three years later he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and later transferred to Downing College. He played only 22 First-Class matches, taking 65 wickets at 17, before moving on to bigger things: he became a Justice of the Peace in Radnorshire.

Despite his performance, however, Cobden never represented any county. Halsted, four years older, did play four matches for Gloucestershire, albeit with minimal success. Curiously, both brothers played their last match in 1872, Halsted at 26, Frank at a mere 22.

Earlier that season, Cobden had bowled Cambridge to a spectacular win against MCC at Fenner’s. He had taken 5 for 40 in the first innings, and when MCC chased 111, he claimed 4 for 40 to lead Cambridge to a 7-run win.

Pulling off two similar wins in humdingers was not something you expect of a 20-year old, that too in the same season. It took Cobden just over a month to pull off an encore.

The occasion

Make no mistake, Oxford vs Cambridge was no ordinary fixture. In the era preceding Test cricket and County Championship, the high points of English domestic season were Gentlemen vs Players (starting 1806), Oxford vs Cambridge (starting 1827), and Harrow vs Eton (the oldest of them all, the first recorded match being in 1805).

Eton vs Harrow is one of the longest-running annual sports fixtures. The matches are traditionally played at Lord’s, often attracting an audience bigger than First-Class contests. In fact, the Middlesex played their 1939 home match against Nottinghamshire at The Oval: Lord’s was used for Eton vs Harrow.

As for University matches, they were no less a contest; matches were played at Fenner’s and The Parks, and at Lord’s. Counties released their cricketers to turn up for Varsity contests. Touring sides played the Universities, sometimes a combined team, as did the counties.

The match in question, thus, was a bigger occasion than it would seem in the 21st century.

Day One

Cambridge batted first in “gloomy but dry weather” in front of 9,000 men, and were bowled out for 147 by the round-arm fast bowling pair of Charles Francis (5 for 59) and the curiously named Thomas Belcher (4 for 52). Though six men reached double-figures, Avison Scott was the only one to put up some resistance with 45, an innings involving “a promising display of all-round hitting”.

Starting at 4.10 PM, Oxford reached 66 for 1 before Cambridge hit back. Just like Cambridge, the Oxford men got off to starts, but did not convert them. While eight of them reached double figures, only three went past 20, of whom Arthur Fortescue top scored with 35.

Once again the fast-bowlers were the wreckers-in-chief: Cobden took 4 for 41, while the delightfully alliterative left-armer Edward Ewer Ward (Ed Ward, anyone?) had 3 for 33. The day’s play was called off at 6.45, when Oxford finished their innings 28 runs ahead, due to “their superior bowling and fielding”.

Yardley creates history

The sun shone upon Lord’s the next morning. A 10,000-strong crowd thronged to the ground, a good proportion of which consisted of former students of both universities.

Frederic Tobin was bowled cheaply; captain Walter Money and Frederick Fryer both played on; Walter Hadow took a “marvellously running catch” to send Charles Thornton back; and Scott played one to point.

After an hour’s cricket, Cambridge were 40 for 5, a mere 12 ahead. Then, as the clock read 12.57, William Yardley walked out; and pulled off one of the most outrageous displays of cricket. While Yardley’s hitting was “brilliant — at times, grand”, John Dale, who had opened batting, played the perfect foil with “careful, scientific play”.

It took Cambridge another 33 minutes to reach 100. The next 50 took 40 minutes. Six runs and five minutes later, “a magnificent right-hand catch (arm extended its full height) at deep leg” brought Dale’s effort to an end. His 140-minute effort had yielded 67; more importantly, he had helped Yardley bring Cambridge back into the match.

Francis Mackinnon, who would later become the 35th Mackinnon of Mackinnon and play a Test for England, helped Yardley add another 33 before playing on.

Then Yardley reached his hundred — the first in an Oxford vs Cambridge contest — and immediately hit one back to Francis. His 100 had come off 110 minutes, included 14 fours, and were scored out of 155 Cambridge managed during his stay at the crease. He walked away amidst standing ovation from spectators, teammates and opposition alike.

Cambridge were rolled over for 206, which meant that Oxford needed 179 to win. The captains had decided that if light permitted, the second day’s play would be extended till 7.30 if there was a chance of a win.

The chase

 Oxford resumed at 4.10. They lost Hadow before scoring, but Fortescue (44) and Cuthbert Ottaway (69), “aided by bad fielding”, added 72 for the second wicket. Ottaway continued after Fortescue fell, and with Edward Tylecote (the man immortalised by the Ashes urn) also looking solid, Oxford reached 153 for 3.

Dale certainly did not help things by dropping Tylecote. Myth goes that he apologised to his captain with the words “sorry, Walter, I was looking at a lady getting out of a drag.” The line occurs in at least three sources, Illustrated London News, The London Mercury, and The Saturday Review of Politics.

They needed a mere 26. Surely they could not lose from there?

Then Tylecote was bowled by Ward. Fryer took an excellent catch at short-leg, also off Ward, sending Ottaway back. The catch was taken so low that Ottaway waited for the decision, a rare sight in those days. Wisden lauded the innings generously, calling it “one of the most finished exhibitions of artistic defence and correct cricket played in the match.”

Suddenly Oxford were 160 for 5. There were 20 minutes left in the day. And Money recalled Cobden.

There was a reason for this, as AG Steel and RH Lyttelton wrote in Cricket: “Cobden took a long run and bowled very fast, and on the whole was for his pace a straight bowler. But he bowled with little or no break, had not got a puzzling delivery, and though effective against inferior bats, would never have succeeded in bowling out a man like Mr. Ottaway if he had sent a thousand balls to him. However, on the present occasion Ottaway was out, those he had to bowl to were not first-rate batsmen, and Cobden could bowl a good yorker.”

But Frederick Hill dug in. He lost William Townshend to a slip catch. He guided Francis. The score reached 175. They needed another 4.

Then Ward had Francis leg-before. Samuel Butler survived the over.

The umpires took a look at the clock. There was a time for another four-ball over.

Those final moments

Cobden ran in for one final time in the day, from the Nursery End. Hill, the man who had defied Ward and Cobden to score a priceless 12, was on strike.

Hill went for it. He hit one hard towards mid-wicket. It was all set to be a boundary and a win for Oxford — but the fielder stopped it with a brilliant piece of work. Hill managed only a single, but that was the advantage of four-ball overs — farming the strike was a lot easier. Moreover, you could always expose the No. 9 batsman with three balls left in the day…

They needed 3 now. They had 3 wickets in hand. There were also 3 balls left in the day.

But Butler had no intention of survival. He wanted his moment of glory. So he off-drove one, and Alfred Bourne took an excellent catch at mid-off.

Lyttelton and Steel narrated the dismissal: “Mr. Butler did what anybody else except Louis Hall or Shrewsbury would have done, namely, let drive vigorously. Unfortunately he did not keep the ball down, and it went straight and hard a catch to Mr. Bourne, to whom everlasting credit is due, for he held it, and away went Mr. Butler — amidst Cambridge shouts this time.”

Note: There is some doubt regarding this position of the fielder. “As to whether this was mid-off or mid-on even those taking part in the match differ,” wrote Wisden in Cobden’s obituary. Martin Williamson wrote in ESPNCricinfo: “Contemporary accounts, which offer various versions of the match’s conclusion, have Bourne fielding anywhere from mid-on to cover point … but what they all agree on is that it was an excellent catch.”

But Oxford had two wickets in hand. All they needed was to survive those remaining two balls. Hill would be on strike the morning after.

Cobden’s next ball was straight and quick, a bit towards leg-stump. Belcher went for the drive, but the ball was too quick for him. It hit his pad and crashed into the stumps.

One wonders what went through wicketkeeper William Stewart’s mind as he walked out to survive the last ball. He had to survive one ball, to prevent a hat-trick, to bat out the day, to get Hill on strike, to make sure Oxford were in the hunt.

Stewart, excellent with the big gloves but hopeless with the bat, had walked out with instructions from his captain Bernard Pauncefote: he was supposed to keep the bat planted in the block-hole and not move it.

Lyttelton and Steel lauded this decision: “This was not by any means bad advice, for the bat covers a great deal of the wicket, and though it is a piece of counsel not likely to be offered to W. G. Grace or Stoddart, it might not have been inexpedient to offer it to Mr. Stewart.”

But while Stewart held the bat firmly as Cobden ran in, the instructions were forgotten as the ball was released. Instinct prevailed as Stewart lifted the bat, ever so slightly. And Cobden hit timber, sending the bails flying yet again, obtaining a hat-trick to finish what Wisden called the “match of matches”.

Lord’s erupted. This was an era when the boundary line, especially in England, was defined by the front row of the spectators. As was often the case, towards the last stages of an exciting match, the boundary grew shorter as the front row got closer in their eagerness to get closer to the action.

The Wisden correspondent, for once, got a bit carried away: “The sudden break up of ‘the ring’; the wild rush of thousands across the ground to the pavilion; the waving of hats, sunshades, handkerchiefs, fans, and sticks; the loud shouts for Cobden, Yardley, Dale, Ottaway, Fortescue, Francis and others, to come out and be tossed about by their partisans, formed a fitting climax to a match so excitingly contested and a result so astoundedly unexpected.”

Geoffrey Bolton, in History of the OUCC, lamented the defeat: “By superior bowling and infinitely superior fielding Oxford reached a position where they could not lose; and they lost.”

Cobden, on the other hand, secured a two-line verse, still there in the Cambridge Hall:

“The feat unto this day recalls,
Three wickets with the last three balls.”

Brief scores:

Cambridge University 147 (Avison Scott 47; Thomas Belcher 4 for 52, Charles Francis 5 for 59) and 206 (John Dale 67, William Yardley 100) beat Oxford University 175 (Frank Cobden 4 for 41) and 176 (Arthur Fortescue 44, Cuthbert Ottaway 69; Frank Cobden 4 for 35, Edward Ward 6 for 29).

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