The first tour of English cricketers to Australia, in 1861-62, took place as a replacement show because Charles Dickens had refused to travel that far to give his celebrated readings. But the great writer was connected to the game in many more ways. Arunabha Sengupta sketches the various links between the noble game and the most popular novelist in English language.
The cricketing Dickens
The day had been spent working with characteristic feverish zeal on the final novel — one that would remain forever unfinished. The Mystery of Edwin Drood lived up to its name, soon slated to remain an eternal mystery. The most popular novelist of England suffered a stroke in the evening. On the following day, June 9, 1870, he was dead at his residence in Gad’s Hill Place.
On the same day, 22-year-old WG Grace opened the innings of United South of England Eleven at London Road, Sleaford, against the 22 men of Sleaford, and scored 115. His opening partner was his brother GF Grace, who scored 100 and helped put on 166 for the first wicket.
Perhaps it was the cricket god’s manner of paying tribute to the great writer who, as can be expected of a novelist in that era, was linked to cricket in a great number of ways.
Cricket did crop up in his work many a times.
In Pickwick Papers Alfred Jingle claims to have played the game in West Indies. When Mr Pickwick asks him about playing cricket in heat, he rattles off, “’Warm!—red hot—scorching—glowing. Played a match once—single wicket—friend the colonel—Sir Thomas Blazo—who should get the greatest number of runs.—Won the toss—first innings—seven o’clock A.m.—six natives to look out—went in; kept in—heat intense—natives all fainted—taken away—fresh half-dozen ordered—fainted also—Blazo bowling—supported by two natives—couldn’t bowl me out—fainted too—cleared away the colonel—wouldn’t give in—faithful attendant—Quanko Samba—last man left—sun so hot, bat in blisters, ball scorched brown—five hundred and seventy runs—rather exhausted—Quanko mustered up last remaining strength—bowled me out—had a bath, and went out to dinner.”
The conversation takes place beside a ground where a grand match was being played between All-Muggletonians and Dingley Dellers. Through the game Mr Jingle provides a running commentary, proving himself a “most excellent and undeniable judge of the whole art and mystery of the noble game of cricket.”
This match was supposed to have been based on a real fixture between the clubs Cobham and Town Malling, played sometime between 1830 and 1835.
However, many critics were actually unkind to the depiction of the match by Dickens, pointing out the apparent ignorance of the game.
Bernard Darwin, a most confirmed Dickensian, once refused to include the match in a sporting anthology stating, “John Nyren might have turned in his grave if the writings of one so ignorant of his beloved game had been found next door to his own.”
EV Lucas was no more sympathetic, claiming, “The odd things that happened when All-Muggleton met Dingley Dell convince me that the Inimitable, much as he knew of everything else, was not even a theoretical cricketer.”
And while Horace Hutchinson was almost rude in his criticism, even the kind-hearted RC Robertson-Glasgow did not have too many favourable things to say, “I don’t know if Dickens ever watched cricket at Lord’s. Judging solely from his description of the cricket match in the Pickwick Papers, I should doubt it.”
One should point out that the novel, at least during the first few chapters that included the cricket match, was meant to be a farce. There is the possibility that Dickens wanted to portray the game in a sufficiently ridiculous manner to suit the tone.
Irving Rosenwater, the scrupulous researcher as opposed to those proclaimers of opinion, does reason that Dickens was able to indulge in farce to such effect because he did understand the game. According to him, by chapter VII it was easy to see that Pickwick was designed as a series of farcical cockney sporting adventures.
To support his claim, Rosenwater quotes a little brochure titled Sunday Under Three Heads, penned by Dickens in 1836 under the pseudonym Timothy Sparks. In this rather lesser known of his passages, he speaks out eloquently against the call for rigid enforcement of the Sunday Observance Law, voicing that there could be no moral objection to a game of cricket after church. Indeed, Dickens wrote with verve and feeling about a local clergyman himself arranging a game by paying for the stumps, bat and ball. He raised questions about the rationale of staying at home on a Sunday when men were ready to walk two or three miles to share a good game of cricket. To write such an article in the days when one could still be prosecuted for indulging in cricket on a Sunday spoke of his love for the game, if not quite of his understanding of its nuances.
There is no doubt that Dickens saw a lot of cricket, although not necessarily of the First-Class quality. His habit of walking indefatigably was almost as legendary as his writings, and during the course of his saunters he did chance upon quite a few games in progress in London and Kent.
Cricket between the Dickensian covers
After Pickwick Papers, Dickens did not quite delve into the intricacies of the game in his works. Cricket popped up in his works only once in a while. Cricket on the Hearth unfortunately refers to the insect in its title. Yet, given the enormous volume of his complete works, we do come across quite a few references.
Barnaby Rudge is described thinking within himself that the smell of the trodden grass brought back his old days at cricket when he was a young boy and played on Chigwell Green.
In Bleak House the readers are taken to a meadow by the cheerful town where cricket players are assembling in bright groups.
James Steerforth, the charismatic friend of David Copperfield, later the seducer of Emily, is described as “the best cricketer you ever saw”. Later David recollects many a summer hour he had known to be but blissful minutes to Mr Dick in the cricket field.
We shed a tear when we read about the death of a child with a bat leaning against his bed in The Old Curiosity Shop.
And then we ponder about senility when in the Christmas Story The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, the old man of 87 rambles something about a game of cricket and a friend of his which he does not quite remember.
There are also some splendid imageries which take the help of cricket.
In Little Dorrit Edmund Sparkler, ‘stimulated by Love to brilliancy’, responds to Mr Dorrit saying that for a particular walk a man ought to have a particular pair of shoes, as, for example, shooting, shooting shoes; cricket, cricket-shoes. Later, in the same novel, Ferdinand explains the ropes to Clennam: “Look at it from the right point of view, and there you have us … It’s like a limited game of cricket. A field of outsiders are always going in to bowl at the Public Service, and we block the balls.”
In Martin Chuzzlewit we come across the offices of the ‘Anglo Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company’ where there are green ledgers with red backs, like strong cricket balls beaten flat. The novel also describes, “Yoho, beside the village green, where cricket players linger yet, and every little indentation made in the fresh grass by bat or wicket, ball or player’s foot, sheds out its perfume on the night.”
And in Sketches by Boz there is Edward Twigger of Mudfog, ragged, roaring and roving kind of fellow, who would work away at a cricket-match by the day together, running, catching, and batting and bowling, and revelling in toil which would exhaust a galley slave.
Little Nell too comes across a game of cricket on the green with boys and men playing and other folks looking on, while in the Uncommercial Traveller the small boys of Boles’s take on the small boys of Coles’s in a cricket match.
But it is in The Lazy Tour of Two Apprentices, co-written with Wilkie Collins, that we are offered a rather sumptuous cricketing feast. Thomas Idle accompanies a party of friends to the cricket field as a spectator, but has to enter the fray because there was one man short in one of the playing teams.
He is horrified to find his friend, “on ordinary occasions the meekest and mildest of human beings, suddenly contract his eye-brows, compress his lips, assume the aspect of an infuriated savage, run back a few steps and then run forward, and without the slightest previous provocation, hurl a detestably hard ball with all his might straight at Thomas’s legs. Stimulated to preternatural activity of bod and sharpness of eye by the instinct of self-preservation, Mr Idle contrived, by jumping deftly aside at the right moment, and by using his bat (ridiculously narrow as it was for the purpose) as a shield to preserve his life and limbs from the dastardly attack that had been made on both, to leave the full force of the deadly missile to strike his wicket instead of his leg.”
While fielding he follows the same sound principles of absolute self-preservation. “Impervious to ridicule and abuse … whenever the ball came near him, he thought of his shins and got out of the way immediately. Catch it, Stop it, Pitch it up were cries that passed by him like the idle wind that he regarded not. He ducked under it, he jumped over it, he whisked himself away from it on either side. Never once through the whole innings did he and the ball come together on anything approaching intimate terms.”
This side-splitting description of cricket, though, is generally attributed to Collins.
However, there is no denying that Dickens did like cricket. Even when he was in Italy, while writing The Schoolboy’s Story he created a hero, Old Cheeseman, who walks one night in his sleep with a fishing rod and a cricket bat in his grasp, and later on stops his carriage at the cricket field and takes a long look, with his wife, at the boys of his old school playing the game.
The name ‘Pickwick’ has been adopted by cricket clubs from Birmingham to Barbados. Even a Twenty20 championship, played in distant cricket-agnostic Switzerland, is called the PickwickT20.
The connection of Dickens with cricket does not end there.
As a journalist he covered the social life of London and often turned vocal about the lot of the poor. He criticised the high gate fees charged at Lord’s saying, “The London masses do not care much for cricket, probably because they have little chance of exercising any taste they may have for the noble game; but if they did, the half-crown gate-money would effectively keep them out.”
The first tour of an English team to Australia also took place because of the indirect influence of Dickens. Felix William Spiers and Christopher Pond were the partners of ‘Spiers and Pond’ — a company that ran Café de Paris in Melbourne. The entrepreneurs tried to interest the author to visit Australia and conduct a few lectures.
They say travel is invaluable to writers, but the great English novelist was not interested in the long journey. He was already hugely successful and was riding on the crest of fame at that time, having recently turned the French Revolution into the backdrop of a novel with A Tale of Two Cities.
Hence, as a replacement feature, a team of English cricketers captained by HH Stephenson of Surrey sailed from Liverpool on The Great Britain and docked in Melbourne on October 20, 1861. Thus first England team to Australia arrived and was greeted by a crowd described by the Melbourne Herald as not seen since “the Athenians arrived in Corinth.”
Scoring by Boz and A Tale of Two Paintings
In the Memorial gallery at the Lord’s cricket ground, we come across a famous oil painting, formerly the property of Sir Jeremiah Colman. In it Dickens is depicted bowling the first ball in a charity match, in the meadow behind his final home at Gad’s Hil Place, near Rochester.
While the cricketers are in white, Dickens, like the umpires, is dressed in black and is in the process of sending down an underhand delivery. It is dated September 16, 1868, roughly two years before the death of the writer. The overarm delivery was allowed from 1864, but there were still plenty of exponents of the underarm version in 1868.
The fielding side is shown raising their handkerchiefs in synchronised cheer.
In February 1932, the auctioning house Sotheby’s received a letter from Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, son of the immortal novelist: “The picture is one representing Gad’s Hill, of that there cannot be the slightest doubt; and the incident shown in the picture is one which may most probably have happened. My father lived in Gad’s Hill from 1856 to 1870 … from my own knowledge cricket matches were constantly played on this field. Indeed, towards the end of the time we had a village cricket club of which I was the captain. I cannot recall the ‘Charity Match’ which it represents but it may have taken place when I was away at school or college. My father used to take the part of ‘scorer’ at the games we played there, and was sustained in that arduous job by the ‘cooling drinks’ provided for the guests who were staying in the house at the time or for the neighbours who came to see the games. Having regard to his interest in cricket itself and his keen interest in promoting the cause of charity, I can, I think, safely say that the incident did happen.”
However, Neil Robinson, Library and Research Manager at Lord’s, informed this writer that a more recent evaluation of the painting in question has revealed that the scene of cricket was a later addition onto the original scenery of the meadow behind Dickens’s last home. Hence, while the match depicted could have been real or fictional, the painting is certainly a compound of the real and the imaginary.
Yet, we do have enough evidence to believe that Dickens was likely to have been a regular figure at the matches played at Gad’s Hill.
In late 1867, the novelist was touring USA, when he sent a letter to his son Henry—much of it a lengthy discourse on the quality of cricket in Kent. A while later, in early 1868, he wrote to his son from Baltimore he discusses the ways of administering the Higham Cricket Club, urging young Henry to assume the role of the captain.
Sizeable crowds turned up to watch the cricket matches at Gad’s Hill, and Dickens arranged for William Stocker Trood, the landlord of the Sir John Falstaff Inn, to have a drinking-booth on the ground. Later he held Christmas sports at the venue, in which he himself was judge and referee, and confessed that the arrangement was prompted by the success of the summer cricket matches.
The great writer was also known to invite eminent men of the locality to lunch with him when cricket matches took place at the ground.
George Dolby, who managed Dickens’s immensely successful reading tours, commented, “Mr Dickens was a great lover of cricket, and in the summer of 1866 he would often hurry back to Gad’s Hill after a visit to town, in order to be present at a cricket match in the field at the back of his house — between his own Higham Club and some other club in the neighbourhood.”
According to several eyewitnesses of these matches, Dickens did act as the scorer on numerous occasions. Percy Fitzgerald, a renowned student of Dickensiana, wrote, “I myself have seen him sit the whole day in a marquee, during a match … marking in the most admirable manner.”
There happens to be another oil painting, rather less well-known, titled ‘Henry Dickens’s XI v Men of Kent 1860’ where Dickens can be seen scoring at a small table on the boundary alongside a fellow scorer. This painting also belonged to Sir Jeremiah Coleman.
However, it shows the match being played on the land in front of Falstaff Inn and in Dickens’s time there was no such cricket ground. Besides, Henry Dickens was only 11 in 1860 and would not have been expected to be the skipper in such an important game. It is quite likely that the artist, J Shaw, took some liberties.
Yet, this painting, the one depicting Dickens the bowler, and another one showing Benjamin Disraeli at the wicket, hung in Dickens’s house until his death.
Rosenwater, however, is not satisfied with merely proving Dickens’s love for the game, and goes on trying to furnish further proof of his knowledge and judgement of cricket.
He writes, “When batting for Kent Colts as a 17-year-old George Henry Remnant came under Dickens’s notice at Gravesend in 1866. Very soon afterwards, Dickens wrote to him asking him to play for the home team at Gad’s Hill. At the first match in which Remnant took part (in 1866) he scored 78, which won the match for his side — to Dickens’s particular delight in his own selection of the young player. Dickens personally congratulated Remnant, who played many times thereafter at Gad’s Hill.”
There is another enchanting story of this Remnant. Once when batting at Gad’s Hill, he drove a ball hard and it travelled quite some distance. Ultimately, it landed on the back of a pony harnessed to the small carriage in which the Dickens children’s governess was sitting. The piny was shocked and bolted. Remnant, throwing down his bat, ‘gave chase and caught the pony before any damage was done.’
Ellen Ternan, the Rochester born actress who went on to become Dickens’s mistress for more than a decade, also supposedly played the game and had an understanding of it vastly superior to that of the novelist.
Yet, as Rosenwater concludes: “Dickens’s knowledge of cricket may not have been as extensive and peculiar as Mr Weller’s of London, but it was sufficient to afford him much pleasure and conviviality — which after all are the basic qualities we associate with both Dickens and the game of cricket.”