Spring 2003

Mismatch of the Day

Cricket’s nineteenth-century sideshows

Paul Collins

There was the usual flurry of press coverage last summer when a 37-year old theater producer strode into a London gallery and smashed the head off a statue of Margaret Thatcher. “Should Lady Thatcher’s head be replaced?” the Guardian asked its readers—a question they surely would have responded “yes” to even before the attack. But lost amid all the excitement was the real symbolism of the attack: not who was attacked, but how. The assailant, you see, had used a cricket bat. It was as if the very embodiment of Britishness had knocked Maggie’s block off.

Drawings of cricket games in Britain date back to the 13th century, though it took some time for the sport to overcome its unsavory association with gambling and ruffians. But by 1748 cricket was declared legal—it was “a very manly game” the Court of the King’s Bench insisted. From then on, it was firmly entrenched, even after the fatal beaning in 1751 of the Prince of Wales by an errant ball.[1]

But not all traumatic player injuries occurred on the field. Some actually preceded the game. “Yesterday a curious match was played at Montpelier Gardens,” noted the Times on 10 August 1796, “between 11 of the Greenwich [sailor] pensioners, wanting an arm each, against the same number of their fellow-sufferers with each a wooden leg.”

A one-armed team versus a one-legged team. It has the perverse genius of a plan hatched very late at night in a pub, which indeed it probably was. The first modern cricket teams were fielded in the 18th century by London pubs—for a thick wooden plank, a crowd of men with nothing to do, and large quantities of beer will always magically combine to form a entertainingly injurious spectacle. But even the promoters of this latest match could not have guessed at how wildly successful it would be.

Thousands of London spectators showed up at nine o’clock that August 9th to cheer on the two teams of grizzled seadogs—one brandishing hooked arms, the other wielding peg legs. The game was a hotly contested one; the crowd was “highly entertained with the exertions of the old veterans of the ocean, who never acted upon their most inveterate enemy with more energy.” The crowd roared and swelled; soon an unruly mob of five thousand was pressing at the fence, wanting in. Most eager to gain entry were a multitude of pickpockets, who thereupon descended upon the spectators in pairs, each holding the end of a long rope. They ran through the crowd, sweeping the Londoners’ feet from under them, and sending men and powdered wigs flying about like ninepins; in the confusion, the thieves dived into the writhing piles and relieved spectators of their watches and wallets. Fights broke out, the gates gave way, and the riotous crowd poured over the grounds.

Constables swarmed in and knocked miscreants about, and even caught one or two thieves as well; a full three hours passed before enough order was restored for the game to start again. The game, having stretched through an entire summer day, finally had to be called off on account of darkness. The one-armed team were many runs behind now anyway—because, as one observer dryly noted, they were “less handy” with the ball.[2]

Indeed, in the long history of one-armed vs. one-legged games that followed—they were held repeatedly over the next century, often to raise money for wounded sailors—the one-armed team almost always gets the worst of it. The one-leggers seem to have gotten a bit cocky about this after a while, for in an 1863 Manchester match they fielded a bowler missing both legs. Imaginatively nicknamed “No-Legs” by his teammates, he too managed to win.[3]

There are no cricket matches today at the Special Olympics, or even at the nothing-special Olympics. Perhaps this is out of deference to the attention span of, well, everyone really. Even so, a few professional disabled batters here and there—and at least one Italian umpire—have kept the one-armed cricket tradition alive. But the Greenwich pensioner teams of old have been left uncommemorated by any blue plaque or heroic column. I suggest that Margaret Thatcher’s statue should be left just as it is, headless, and moved to the former Montpelier cricket pitch—where, minus its least-used appendage, it can now serve as a fitting monument.

  1. See “Cricket” in volume VI of the 9th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1892).
  2. See Notes and Queries, 2 March 1878, p. 165.
  3. See Cricket’s Strangest Matches, by Andrew Ward (1994). Ward also describes smoker v. nonsmoker and author v. actor matches. In the latter, a team fielding Arthur Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, and A. A. Milne was soundly defeated by the thespians.

Paul Collins edits the Collins Library for McSweeney’s Books, and is the author of Banvard’s Folly (Picador, 2001) and Sixpence House (Bloomsbury, 2003).

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