The creator of Sherlock Holmes found his match that day © Getty Images
The creator of Sherlock Holmes found his match that day © Getty Images

May 29, 1903. Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, by then a proud captor of WG Grace’s wicket in First-Class cricket, was almost put on fire at Lord’s. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a moment when the man behind Sherlock Holmes found himself in a tight corner while batting.

Memories of Crystal Palace, August 25, 1900 must have been fresh in Dr Arthur Conan Doyle’s mind. He had been so moved upon dismissing the other great doctor — WG Grace — that he composed a poem. Conan Doyle would not take another First-Class wicket, which meant that his only wicket would be that of the greatest English batsman of the era.

Both doctors progressed along their respective paths. Conan Doyle was knighted in 1902, but not for his stint with the sport he loved. In 1902 he scored 43 against London County. However, when MCC played Kent at Lord’s in 1903, he did not get a chance to have another go at WG — for both men played for the same side.

A fair service

It rained at Lord’s the first morning, and play did not start till 2.40 PM. Things did not start too well for MCC. Grace was bowled by Bill Fairservice for 11. Albert Trott scored 1. And soon they were reduced to 68 for 6 by the pace of Bill Bradley (who could be quite fast on his day) and the control and guile of Fairservice.

The onus fell on Albert Relf, who would later go on to play 13 Tests in the pre-War era. Relf scored 42, adding 86 with Christian Doll. Alec Hearne came along and polished things off. Doll put up 56, and MCC were bowled out for 177. Fairservice claimed 4 for 40 (his career-best figures till then) and Hearne 3 for 22. Conan Doyle was caught-behind off Hearne for 3.

But then, Kent had the pair of Jack Hearne and Trott to contend with. Ted Dillon was an outstanding sportsperson who played rugby union for England. Unfortunately, he hit the first ball of the innings back to Hearne. Kent finished Day One on 9 for 1.

Kent captain Cuthbert Burnup (who played football for England) was the only one to resist the Hearne-Trott attack: he stood firm with 72. Hearne bowled unchanged with 5 for 59. At the other end, Trott returned figures of 5 for 54.

MCC had a lead of 30, but once again Fairservice ran through Grace’s defence. This time he had scored 31, as did Trott. Unfortunately, MCC kept losing wickets, and when Jack Hearne joined Conan Doyle, the score read 116 for 9: MCC led by a mere 146.

Doctor on fire!

Over a century later, it is difficult to fathom how optimistic Grace and his men were about Conan Doyle and Hearne putting up a top partnership. However, to their credit, runs kept coming, and the lead grew.

Then it happened. Bradley sent down a quick one. The ball hit Conan Doyle on his thigh. And, to the surprise of all present at the ground, he was on fire!

The great man later recollected in Memories and Adventures: “His first delivery I hardly saw, and it landed with a terrific thud upon my thigh. A little occasional pain is one of the chances of cricket, and one takes it as cheerfully as one can, but on this occasion it suddenly became sharp to an unbearable degree. I clapped my hand to the spot, and found to my amazement that I was on fire. The ball had landed straight on a small tin vesta box in my trousers pocket, had splintered the box, and set the matches ablaze.”

It did not take a Sherlock Holmes to think what to do next. Conan Doyle quickly threw the box on the pitch (did this qualify as tampering?). There was, of course, no risk involved with at least two qualified doctors around. When Colin Blythe clean bowled Hearne, Conan Doyle was left stranded on 16. The pair put up 29, and Kent had to score 176.

On his return to the pavilion, Conan Doyle was greeted by a typical comment, in that outrageous squeaking voice: “Couldn’t get you out — had to set you on fire.”

Burn up all the way

Hearne struck first ball again, removing poor Dillon for a king pair. James Seymour helped his captain put up 35, but wickets kept falling to Hearne and Trott. George Thompson also took two quick wickets, but the real blow came when Burnup eventually fell for 46.

Fairservice, having taken 7 for 96 in the match, joined Kent gloveman Fred Huish at 98 for 6. The pair seemed unperturbed against the trio of Hearne, Trott, and Thompson, and runs kept coming. The pair put on fifty, and the target suddenly seemed achievable.

When Huish was finally bowled by Hearne for 56 (he had passed 2,000 First-Class runs during the course of the innings), Kent needed a mere 10. These runs were achieved easily by Fairservice and Blythe. Kent won by 3 wickets with a day to spare.

What followed?

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle played for MCC till 1907. He finished with 231 runs at 19.25 and, well, that solitary wicket.

- Two years before he passed away, he penned The Story of Spedegue’s Dropper, a short story on lob bowling. It was published on The Strand in October 1928.

Brief scores:

MCC 177 (Albert Relf 42, Christian Doll 58; Bill Fairservice 4 for 40, Alec Hearne 3 for 22) and 145 (Bill Bradley 3 for 32, Bill Fairservice 3 for 45) lost to Kent 147 (Cuthbert Burnup 72; Jack Hearne 5 for 59, Albert Trott 4 for 54) and 176 for 7 (Cuthbert Burnup 47, Fred Huish 56; Jack Hearne 3 for 54) by 3 wickets.

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