Lord Frederick Beauclerk: A phenomenal batsman and a crafty lob bowler, he was a controversial man of cloth, a brilliant amateur cricketer and a successful professional gambler. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Lord Frederick Beauclerk: A phenomenal batsman and a crafty lob bowler, he was a controversial man of cloth, a brilliant amateur cricketer and a successful professional gambler. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Lord Frederick Beauclerk, born May 8, 1773, was one of the greatest cricketers of his day, the first gentleman-cricketer to be as good as the professionals. He was also one of the most disreputable characters of the game, a thorough gambler and a clergyman. In this series on the history of the forgotten art of lob bowling, Arunabha Sengupta discusses the life and career of this colourful cricketer.

A Study in Contrasts

Lord Frederick Beauclerk was a clergyman. From 1828 till his death in 1850 he was the vicar of St Albans.

But he was much more than that, and much less.

He was a brilliant cricketer, one of the finest batsmen of his times and, if scores had been kept to award sufficient credit to the bowlers in those days, he would no doubt have topped the bowling charts as well.

He was born into peerage, the fourth son of the 5th Duke of St Albans. Thus, Beauclerk was descended from Charles II and Nell Gwyn.

However, apart from being a great batsman and a superb bowler, he also possessed a sharp tongue and a bad temper. According to Rowland Bowen, He often seems a kind of equivalent to the former Bishop of Autin, the eventful Duc de Talleyrand-Perigord: a cleric without, it would seem, the faintest interest in being a clergyman, or any kind of Christian.

Bowen goes on to add, rather insightfully, Even amongst all the hagiography that exists about cricketers, an unqualified eulogy of Beauclerk has never been seen, and this is significant.

Beauclerk, the gentleman cricketer, made a lot of money from the game. The instrument of his profits was gambling. It was a pleasant way of augmenting his income during the summer, and he estimated 600 a year. He played for 35 seasons, reaping that kind of money without fail.

He needed the money. Beauclerk was one of the long line of younger sons of aristocracy brought up with a keen interest in hunting, shooting, fishing, turf, tennis, billiards, cards and other gentlemanly pursuits. And like the long line of younger sons of aristocracy, he had no money to indulge in these passions and pastimes.

Some younger sons went into the army and navy, some into commerce, some into law, some into matrimony with daughters of rich merchants, some hastened towards penniless ruin. Beauclerk went into the Church of England. It afforded him prestige and status, but not the money. The financial needs were taken care of by cricket and the enormous stakes matches were gambled for. Beauclerk thrived in that environment, taking special pleasure in the enormous draws of single-wicket matches.

Besides, he was also known for his sharp practices, his gamesmanship and his canny use and interpretations of the laws of the game. Indeed, when rhymester Baxter described MCC players in 1830, he commented on Beauclerk:

My lord comes in next and will make you stare,

With his little tricks, a long way from fair.

The all-rounder

Yet, for all his shortcomings, Arthur Haygarth wrote in his Scores and Biographies that no one had a better average than him. Later, he qualified it to read one of the best averages . Haygarth was indeed right as usual. Beauclerk heads the career batting averages of all those who played from Hambledon days to the period when over-arm was legalised. His career aggregate is second only to Fuller Pilch, although Pilch would have had a far better record had he enjoyed himself during an era of solely underarm bowling.

During that same period, Beauclerk scored more centuries than anyone other than William Ward and Pilch, and hit more fifties than anyone. If he had played in an era when bowling was well documented, one could have had similar inferences of his prowess with the ball.

Indeed it was as a bowler that young Beauclerk caught the eye. At the Cambridge University, he was spotted as a slow lob bowler of considerable potential by the well-known talent spotter Winchilsea. Beauclerk came across as a curious athlete. He ran well enough to win bets on furlong races. However, one of his legs was shorter than the other.

Winclisea s influence soon saw Beauclerk make his debut for MCC at the age of 18. William Fennex and he destroyed Kent for 39 on the way to an innings win. From that day, MCC was almost synonymous with His Lordship for three and a half decades.

Records are sketchy, but Beauclerk picked up enough wickets to feature regularly among the top three of the season. In 1797 he topped the charts with 42 First-Class wickets, 66 in all, a record that stood till 1832 when William Lillywhite went past him with his round-arm offerings (if we consider only First-Class wickets, James Broadbridge, another round-arm exponent, captured 46 in 1828 bowling that season for Kent). However, Bowen argues that given many wickets were not accounted for Beauclerk may well have been the first man to capture 100 wickets in a season, something that we will never know.

Beauclerk s lobs were slow, very accurate and remarkably quick after pitching. Besides, they were regulated by an unrivalled knowledge of the game. As old Hambledon batsman Thomas Beagley recounted, He did find out a man s hit so very soon, and set his field to foil it without loss of time. He could make the ball get up and look at you.

It was Tom Walker who blocked him ball after ball, just as he had done with David Harris. The legend goes that finally it got to the short-tempered clergyman. He threw his hat on to the ground and shouted that Walker was a a confounded old beast. And Walker retorted, I doan t care what ee zays and he carried on batting.

But it took a new generation of fleet-footed batsmen with a penchant for the drive to get the measure of Beauclerk. In some ways, it is a distant forerunner of Pakistani stalwarts running down the wicket to EASPrasanna or Virender Sehwag plundering Saqlain Mushtaq. In so many ways the ancient days of cricket show us how things will follow down the line.

With time, Beauclerk improved his batting to be second only to Silver Billy Beldham. He was generally slow, but a polished forward player who could hit through the off with class and style. The 170 he scored for Homerton against Montpelier in 1806 stood as the highest score in any form of cricket until William Ward registered the mammoth 278 for MCC against Norfolk in 1820.

In fact his all-round skills ensured that he was the only amateur to play regularly for All-England.

It was not for nothing that the same rhymester Baxter, who had hinted at his sharp practices, added the lines:

Though his playing is fine give the Devil his due,

There is very few like him at the game take it through.

The ugly side

However, sharp practices do take the centre stage even when we discuss the cricketing exploits of this redoubtable performer.

In 1810, another great amateur cricketer of his day, George Osbaldeston, paired up with the new Surrey star William Lambert to take on Beauclerk and TC Howard. So, with an amateur and a professional on each side, this double-wicket encounter was eagerly awaited. Fifty guineas were staked on it by the cricketers.

On the morning of the match, however, The Squire Osbaldeston woke up ill. Hence a proposition was made to His Lordship to postpone the match. But Beauclerk, for all his ability, was no sportsman, and his answer was No, play or pay.

So, poor Osbaldeston tottered to the wicket, made one run and retired. Lambert went ahead alone with the match. He scored 56 and 24, bowled the batsmen three times and caught one off his own bowling. Besides, there being no penalty for wide balls at that time, Lambert made Beauclerk wait in the second innings as he sent down wide after wide. A frustrated Beauclerk fumed and perished and the Surrey man had won singlehandedly by 15 runs.

However, unfortunately for his opponents His Lordship had a long memory. His first act was to raise a petition about wide balls, and the rules were duly changed in 1811. Next, years later, he used his clout to refuse Osbaldeston when the latter wanted to be reinstated into MCC.

The churlishness of Beauclerk was also recounted by author Mary Russell Mitford, whose pleasure of watching cricket was once ruined by supposed antics of this curious character.

He also supposedly made his posture curious, to magnify his physical deformity, in orderto lull the opponents into security or make spectators wager against him.

Thus was the man, a curious mix. A man of cloth and flannel, an amateur cricketer and a professional gambler. But he was one of the best batsmen of his times while being a wonderful, canny lob bowler.