Rebecca Tyrrel: Who knew that the only wicket Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took as a first-class cricketer was the legendary Dr WG Grace?


Who knew that the only wicket Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took as a first-class cricketer was the legendary Dr WG Grace? So bowled over was he at dismissing his fellow doctor (until Bashar al-Assad's emergence as the tyrant of Syria, Conan Doyle was the most famous optometrist to make his name in another field) that he wrote a poem about the incident, which happened while playing for the MCC at Crystal Palace in 1900.

"Once in my heyday of cricket/ One day I shall ever recall!" begins Reminiscences of Cricket, "I captured that glorious wicket/ The greatest, the grandest of all."

How did it happen? Grace, it seems, mistimed a huge whack at a very bad ball, "a long hop", and gave an elementary catch to the wicket-keeper. Or as Conan Doyle, who named Sherlock after a teammate called Shacklock, lyrically described it: "Up, up like a towering game bird/ Up, up to a speck in the blue/ And then coming down like the same bird/ Dead straight on the line that it flew".

And cricket wasn't Conan Doyle's only extra-curricular; on regular visits to Davos, not far from the inspiration for the Reichenbach Falls where Moriarty met his end, with his first wife who needed the pure Alpine air for her TB, he pioneered cross-country skiing while wearing a tweed suit. "I am convinced that there will come a time," he predicted in the Strand magazine in 1894, "when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the 'skiing' season."

Without perhaps being the second Leonardo, Conan Doyle was quite a Renaissance man. He was knighted less for the Holmes stories than for a book about the Boer War, in which he served for a while as a field doctor; twice ran unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist in his native Scotland; and popularised spiritualism, to which he turned in the hope of contacting a deceased son on the other side.

Of all his achievements, however, the one that seemed to give him the most satisfaction was taking Grace's wicket, although he was modest about that in rhyme. "The capture of such might elate one/ But it seemed like one horrible jest/ That I should serve tosh to the great one, Who had broken the hearts of the best." The detective story genre's greatest gain was a bit of a disaster, so it seems, for Hallmark cards.

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