What with the domestic cricket season drawing to a close and the Ashes series about to begin, I thought that I would tell you about a rather strange match played over 150 years ago.
In 1848 at the Priory Ground in Lewisham, a team of men with one leg played a team of men with one arm in what was perhaps the most challenging cricket match in history. This was the summer that WG Grace was born. Brahms was 15. Tolstoy was 20. Dickens had just written A Christmas Carol. The Crimean war was five years away. America had 30 states. A man called Innocenzo Manzetti had hit on the idea for something that, three decades later, would become the telephone: 1848 is a distant place.
Over two thousand people turned up to watch, and the game was immortalised in a report published in an Australian newspaper. ‘Novelty was the ruling passion,’ it runs, ‘nine tenths went merely for the say of the thing’.
This strange fixture was in fact a rematch, as an earlier game had been played between one-armed and one-legged men in 1841; but, the newspaper remarks, ‘during this long recess, the great leveller had bowled a large proportion of those who figured on that occasion out.’
All the players were Greenwich Pensioners from the nearby Royal Hospital for Seamen, which from 1692 until 1869 cared for and provided a home for injured sailors of the Royal Navy. They were provided with a ‘substantial luncheon’ each day, and were equally well catered for after their day’s play, with a generous dinner and ‘plenty of heavy’.
The betting went in favour of the men with ‘two living legs’, but in the event it was their one-armed opponents who emerged victorious by a margin of 15 runs. The highest score of the match was 15, and in total twenty-one players were dismissed without scoring at all. Of the one-legged team, five men made ducks (no score).
‘The bowling on both sides was generally very wide,’ noted the Australian newspaper’s critique, ‘and the One Legs, in endeavouring to take advantage of it but in the majority of cases missing the object, span round like the final revolutions of an expiring teetotum, and frequently got out’.
With play over, celebrations began and both teams ‘marched to the Bull Inn, headed by an excellent band who had been engaged throughout the match. Each man had free passage to and from the Royal Hospital, a glass of grog to drink to Her Majesty’s health and ten shillings for his two days’ exertions’.