Weird but true... curious cricketing tales from the annals of Wisden

Time was when cricket was about more than ball-tampering and rows with umpires. A bizarre new collection of obituaries published in Wisden Cricketers' Almanack since 1892 reminds us of a bygone era of innocence and eccentrics - including a man who ran 250 while the ball was lost in nettles, and a rather weak bowler named Beckett who, it turns out, won the Nobel Prize for literature

DOYLE, SIR ARTHUR CONAN, MD, the well-known author, born at Edinburgh on 22 May 1859, died at Crowborough, Sussex, on 7 July 1930, aged 71. Although never a famous cricketer, he could hit hard and bowl slows with a puzzling flight. (It is said that Shacklock, the former Nottinghamshire player, inspired him with the Christian name of his famous character, Sherlock Holmes, and that of the latter's brother, Mycroft, was suggested by the Derbyshire cricketers.)

BROOKE, SUB-LIEUT RUPERT C, (Royal Naval Division), born at Rugby on 3 August 1887, died at Lemnos of sunstroke on 23 April 1915. In 1906 he was in the Rugby XI, and although he was unsuccessful in the Marlborough match he headed the school's bowling averages with a record of 19 wickets for 14.05 runs each. He had gained considerable reputation as a poet.

CAT, PETER (THE), whose ninth life ended on 5 November 1964, was a well-known cricket watcher at Lord's, where he spent 12 of his 14 years. He preferred a close-up view of the proceedings and his sleek, black form could often be seen prowling on the field of play when the crowds were biggest. He frequently appeared on the television screen. Mr SC Griffith, Secretary of the MCC, said of him: "He was a cat of great character and loved publicity."

DRAKE, EDWARD JOSEPH, died on 29 May 1995, aged 82. Ted Drake was an apprentice at the Southampton Gasworks before he made his debut for Hampshire in 1931. He made 45 but never reached this score again in the 15 further matches he played over the next six years. However, he found greater glory in the winters, when Hampshire would have paid him 10 shillings a week, as one of the great centre-forwards of his era, first with Southampton and then with Arsenal, where he was transferred in 1934 for £5,000. He only won five England caps, but scored 42 goals in the 1934-35 season, an Arsenal record, and went on to manage Chelsea to the 1955 League Championship. He married the girl he met at the gasworks dance, not a detail associated with modern football stars of his magnitude.

MOUNTGARRET, RT HON THE 17TH VISCOUNT, who died on 7 February 2004, was regarded as a comically eccentric aristocrat until events thrust him into the centre of Yorkshire's turbulent cricket politics. In 1984, Mountgarret was nominated out of the blue as Yorkshire president in the midst of the club's civil war between supporters and opponents of Geoff Boycott. His arrival was farcical: the chairman, Reg Kirk, introduced him as "Viscount Mountbatten". But Mountgarret, himself just an enthusiastic but indifferent cricketer for the smarter touring clubs, was so far above the Yorkshire battle that he proved the ideal choice. He said he intended to "bang heads together", and he succeeded in doing so: during his six years as president, the situation became far calmer. He was helped by being rather deaf, which meant he never had to listen to the overheated nonsense talked on both sides of the dispute. Earlier, he had been best known for a bizarre incident when he took pot-shots at a hot-air balloon that flew over his grouse moor; he was found guilty of recklessly endangering an aircraft, and fined £1,000.

AINLEY, ANTHONY, who died on 3 May 2004, aged 71, was an actor and a keen club cricketer for The Stage and London Theatres CC. "He was an eccentric and very effective opening bat who appeared in full body padding, sunblock, helmet and swimming goggles," according to his fellow-actor Christopher Douglas, "and he had a penchant for charging down the track and smashing the ball back over the bowler's head." Ainley followed his father Henry on to the stage, but found his greatest success on television as The Master, the arch-enemy of Doctor Who, in the 1980s. At one club game at the time, Ainley's fame preceded him, and the Sutton and Cheam Herald ran a headline above its match report proclaiming that "Inter-Galactic Terror" had been visited upon Surrey. A complex character, he usually took his cricket teas alone in his car - possibly because, according to one report, he "despised cheeses of all kinds".

AVELING, DR CT, whose name will be familiar to a great many Metropolitan cricketers, met with a tragic end on 5 September 1902. Whilst bathing at Helston, Cornwall, he was answering the appeal of a nervous lady for help when he died of heart disease.

BECKETT, SAMUEL BARCLAY, who died in Paris on 22 December 1989 aged 83, had two first-class games for Dublin University against Northamptonshire in 1925 and 1926, scoring 35 runs in his four innings and conceding 64 runs without taking a wicket. Beckett, whose novels and plays established him as one of the important literary figures of the 20th century, bringing him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, never lost his affection for and interest in cricket.

BENTINCK, BERNHARD W, who died on 27 June 1931, aged 53. Playing for Alton in August 1921, he had the unusual experience of being bowled by a ball (delivered by HE Roberts, the Sussex professional) that was deflected on to the wicket through striking and killing a swallow.

BOWEN, EDWARD ERNEST, met his death on 8 April 1901, aged 65, whilst on a cycling tour in France. He fell in attempting to mount his machine, and died almost immediately. He was enthusiastic about cricket, and will long be remembered as the author of several spirited and charming songs on the game.

BUSH, RONALD GEORGE, who died on 10 May 1996, aged 87, was one of two men to have played in winning teams in both New Zealand's traditional inter-provincial cricket and rugby competitions: the Plunket Shield and the Ranfurly Shield. During a rugby tour of Japan, he is said to have given his boots to the son of the Tokyo University captain, who later became commandant of a PoW camp in Malaya. When an officer answered "Yes" to the question "You know Ron Bush?", conditions in the camp improved immediately.

CLARK, ARTHUR HENRY SEYMOUR, who died on 17 March 1995, aged 92, was an engine driver from Weston-super-Mare and one of the most improbable of all county cricketers. Seymour Clark never played the game at all before he was 25, when he was drafted in to keep wicket for a makeshift railwaymen's side. He turned out to be a brilliant natural wicketkeeper, with fantastic reflexes, and quickly became first choice for the Weston town club. Three years later, when the regular Somerset keeper Wally Luckes was ill, Clark was brought in and, though he had trouble getting time off from the railway, played five matches in 1930. He kept magnificently; however, he is mainly remembered for his batting, which was hopeless. He was offered a contract for 1931 but thought the Great Western Railway offered more secure employment. "I got a tremendous kick out of playing for Somerset," he said later, "but it seemed sensible to go back to the locos."

CRISP, ROBERT JAMES, DSO, MC, who died in Essex on 3 March 1994, aged 82, was one of the most extraordinary men ever to play Test cricket. His cricket, which is only a fraction of the story, was explosive enough: he is the only bowler to have taken four wickets in four balls twice. Born in Calcutta, he was educated in Rhodesia and once took nine for 64 for Western Province against Natal in 1933-34.

But it is astonishing that he ever found a moment for such a time-consuming game as cricket. He was essentially an adventurer - he had just climbed Kilimanjaro when he got news that he was wanted for the 1935 tour - with something of an attention span problem. Like other such characters, his defining moment came in the Second World War when he was an outstanding but turbulent tank commander, fighting his own personal war against better-armoured Germans in Greece and North Africa. He had six tanks blasted from under him in a month but carried on fighting and was awarded the DSO for outstanding ability and great gallantry. However, he annoyed authority so much that General Montgomery intervened personally and prevented him being given a Bar a year later; his second honour was downgraded to an MC. Crisp was Mentioned in Dispatches four times before being invalided out in Normandy. The king asked if his bowling would be affected. "No, sire," he is alleged to have replied. "I was hit in the head."

Crisp never did play again and found that the tedium of peacetime presented him with a problem far harder than anything offered by the Germans. He suddenly left and lived in a Greek hut for a year. Told he had incurable cancer, he spent a year walking round Crete, selling accounts to the Sunday Express. He died with a copy of the Sporting Life on his lap, reportedly having just lost a £20 bet, a risk-taker to the last. Crisp's 276 career wickets came at an average of only 19.88, but statistics are absurd for such a man.

DE ZOYSA, LUCIEN, who died on 11 June 1995, aged 78, represented Ceylon against various international touring teams and captured more than 500 wickets as a leg-spinner for Sinhalese Sports Club. He was also a successful cricket commentator, Shakespearean actor, writer and dramatist.

DOYLE, ANNIE GERTRUDE, died on 4 July 2005, aged 76. Nancy Doyle was the châtelaine of the players' dining-room at Lord's for many years until her retirement in 1996. Her lavish lunches - Mike Brearley once asked, unsuccessfully, if she could limit the number of courses to five - were legendary around a county circuit on which the staple diet in most places at the time was salad, and she was popular with generations of players. Nancy, who first worked at Lord's as a waitress in 1961, was small yet volcanic, and some colleagues found her quick tongue hard to take. Steadfastly Irish to the end, she was awarded an honorary MBE in 1994.

EASTERBROOK, BASIL VIVIAN, who died on 15 December 1995, aged 75, was cricket and football writer for Kemsley Newspapers from 1950 to 1983. Easterbrook was a much-loved member of the press corps with a puckish humour. He claimed that while covering a match from the old Lord's press box, he leaned out of the window to throw away his pencil shavings and the Nottinghamshire batsmen walked in, thinking it was the signal to declare. Once he phoned his office to dictate his copy, announced his name to the telephonist - Basil V Easterbrook - to be greeted by the response "What league is that in?" When he retired he wrote: "The craft and practice of cricket writing was my personal window to the sky."

ELIGON, DONALD, died at Port of Spain, Trinidad, on 4 June 1937, aged 28. After playing for Shannon Cricket Club he joined the Trinidad inter-colonial team in 1934 and became one of the outstanding bowlers in the West Indies. His death was due to blood poisoning caused by a nail in his cricket boot.

FOWLES, JOHN ROBERT, who died on 5 November 2005, aged 79, was a novelist whose work included The French Lieutenant's Woman. Cricket remained a lifelong interest, from the time Fowles learnt the game from the Essex captain, Denys Wilcox, at Alleyn Court prep school in Westcliff-on-Sea. While watching England nervily bat to victory over the West Indies at Lord's in 2000, he was joined in his living-room in Lyme Regis by a stranger asking the score. When Fowles told him, the visitor sat down and watched with him until Dominic Cork had hit the winning runs. Only when he asked how much Fowles charged for bed and breakfast, did both men realise that the stranger had walked uninvited into the wrong house.

GILLINGHAM, REV GEORGE WILLIAM, who died on 11 June 1953 after a ministry of 52 years, played cricket for Gentlemen of Worcestershire. When the river Severn flooded the county ground, Gillingham swam across it to gain access to the pavilion and returned with the account books. When Vicar of St Mark's, Coventry, he was a tenant of a condemned public house, the Barley Mow, which he transformed into a Hooligans' Club where both boxing and Bible classes were held.

HEMINGWAY, GEORGE EDWARD, died at Rangoon on 11 March 1907. On one occasion, when playing a single-wicket match against his two brothers, he hit the ball into a bed of nettles; the fieldsmen quarrelled as to who should recover it, and during the argument the batsman ran about 250.

KUBUNAVANUA, PETERO, who died on 20 November 1997, became a first-class cricketer retrospectively when the Fijian tour of New Zealand in 1947-48 was given first-class status more than 30 years later. He was a dashing left-handed bat and spectacular outfielder whose saves and throwing, barefoot and with his sulu (knee-length skirt) flying, delighted the crowds. His fielding action was depicted on a postage stamp to mark the centenary of cricket in Fiji. Kubunavanua had a fine solo voice and performed in concert halls while on the tour; he made an impressive sight as well, with a ferocious countenance under a bush of hair. After fighting the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, he served in Malaya. Fielding at square leg in a state match there, he became irritated by a swallow flying round him, stuck out his hand, and put the bird in his sulu pocket.

MAGUIRE, AIR MARSHAL SIR HAROLD JOHN, KCB, DSO, OBE, at one time director-general of intelligence at the Ministry of Defence, died on 1 February 2001, aged 88. In 1959, after flying a Spitfire over Whitehall as part of the Battle of Britain commemorations, he was forced to come down at Bromley. Showing commendable discernment, he avoided The Times' sports ground and elected to crash-land instead on the Oxo cricket pitch, splintering the stumps. Fortunately the players were having tea in the pavilion, where the intrepid pilot joined them for a reviving cuppa.

MANNING, CARDINAL, died on 14 January 1892, aged 83. It may seem a little strange to include Cardinal Manning's name in a cricket obituary, but inasmuch as he played for Harrow against Winchester at Lord's in 1825, in the first match that ever took place between the two schools, his claim cannot be disputed.

MILLER-HALLETT, ALEXANDER, for 10 years until 1946 president of Sussex, died at Brighton on 14 February 1953, aged 97. While he was watching cricket, nothing else mattered. Once during a wartime match at Hove a German aircraft dropped a bomb on the ground. Without moving from his seat, Miller-Hallett remarked to his neighbour: "Fancy disturbing our game like that!"

PEPPER, CECIL GEORGE, who died on 24 March 1993, aged 74, was a leg-spinner often described as the best Australian player never to win a Test cap. He was one of the greatest characters ever to come near the game, to whom anecdotes clung, some of them actually true. Next to Keith Miller he was the big attraction of the 1945 Australian Services team in England and he emulated CI Thornton's 1886 hit by smashing Eric Hollies over the houses at Scarborough and into Trafalgar Square. It was assumed he would soon play for Australia but a few months later he exchanged words with umpire Jack Scott, after the latter had turned down three appeals against Bradman.

He never did learn to keep quiet and it made him one of league cricket's great drawcards. Usually there was more humour than anger, but when he went to India with the 1949-50 Commonwealth side he had to leave early because the umpiring annoyed him so much. It was thus gloriously ironic that in 1964 he became a first-class umpire. Among the great Pepper stories is the one about the mild-mannered league umpire who finally lost patience with his swearing appeals and shouted back: "Not out, you fat Australian bastard." He ended his own umpiring career just as helmets were coming in. When Dennis Amiss suggested Pepper might hold his, he replied: "You hold it, mate, and use it as a pisspot." On his death, one friend said Cec was the only man he knew who could talk, spit, chew, belch and pass wind simultaneously.

POORE, EDWARD, who died after being bitten by a rat at Haifa, Israel, on 29 June 1991, aged 42, was a popular and eccentric spectator on the grounds of the county circuit. He spent his time at English cricket grounds when he was not roaming the world's trouble-spots. When he died, he was helping to run a hostel in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. His ponytail and frequently bare feet successfully disguised the fact that he went to Harrow and was a great-nephew of Brigadier General RM Poore, who once scored 304 for Hampshire.

RAE, EDWARD, who introduced the game into Russian Lapland, died at Birkenhead on 26 June 1923, aged 76.

SOPER, REV BARON, died on 22 December 1998, aged 95. Donald Soper was a Methodist preacher of enormous power, a staunch pacifist, and one of Britain's leading churchmen. As a schoolboy, at Aske's, Hatcham, just after the First World War, he was a bowler of considerable pace. In a school match, a ball bowled by Soper bounced and hit the batsman over the heart. The boy died. William Purcell wrote in A Portrait of Soper: "The degree to which this upset Donald at the time and the persistence of the memory of it - he was recalling it 50 years later - suggest an abhorrence of violence which was possibly an unconscious ingredient of his later pacifism."

This is an edited extract from 'Peter: The Lord's Cat and Other Unexpected Obituaries from Wisden' edited by Gideon Haigh, Aurum Press, £8.99. To order the book with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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