Herefordshire is not regarded as one of the first class cricketing counties. Indeed it is only recently that it has been included in lists of minor ones. Yet, in that long-ago summer of 1853, it was unofficially regarded as one of the two top sides. Its sad decline can be traced to one crucial match in that year when they came up against Cornwall, the other highly regarded side, feared for their fearsome nautical tactics.
News from the Crimea coming only slowly, the eyes of the gambling fraternity turned to this match, so that a sizeable amount of money and the ownership of at least two large estates depended on its outcome.
Things started badly for the home side. Their captain, the Reverend Arthur Thistlewood, had misplaced his lucky double-headed penny with which he was accustomed to make the toss. For the first time in two seasons he lost and Herefordshire was put into bat on a damp wicket.
The opening partnership was not a lucky one. Charles Thistlewood had a bellicose temperament, ideally suited to seeing off fast bowlers. His way of attempting to head high balls had been known to intimidate even the most sadistic of that often psychopathic race. I should remind you that this was in the days long before helmets, indeed, the wearing of caps was considered a little effeminate. At the other end was Anthony E.A., generally a safe and skilful player, a good counter-balance to the wild vicar, but that day harbouring a deep and secret love for his captain’s daughter, Anne.
It was when the score had reached five that disaster struck. Anthony was hit a glancing blow on the head and the ball flew away over the wicket keeper. Thistlewood called out, “Run!” and charged down the wicket. Anthony, in his nervous state, thought, through the haze of pain, that his captain had shouted out, “Anne!”
Seeing his beloved’s parent racing towards him, bat flying, broke the young man’s nerve and he turned tail and ran for the boundary. Thistlewood, amazed, pursued him in a desperate attempt to retrieve the situation. Naturally this did nothing to calm the young man’s fears.
By this time the Cornish wicket keeper had collected the ball and, turning, found both opposing batsmen racing towards him. This was a time when the law against fisticuffs on the field was not as rigorously enforced as it is now. The wicket keeper also ran for it. Yet, even in his understandably fearful state, he had more presence of mind than to run over the boundary with the ball and gift runs to the opposition. He threw the ball to third man who, not being involved in the fracas, and therefore remaining cool, threw the ball to first slip who, not having anything better to do, removed the bails with it.
By now some order had returned. The umpires had a discussion about the situation. They quickly agreed that someone must be given out for such disgraceful behaviour. In those distant days of fair play it was considered unnecessary to have neutral umpires. After a while, on the basis that the Herefordshire umpire was almost a foot taller than the Cornish one, it was Anthony who was the man chosen.
To give him his due he seemed genuinely glad to be heading back to the pavilion and away from the fierce gaze of his captain.
The number three for Herefordshire was the great all-rounder Jeremiah Price. Never did he play with such consummate skill as in that match. His bat flashed in the sun, his body moved with a sinewy grace that belied his sixty five years. The ball repeatedly sped to the boundary as though charmed; as indeed it was, Price’s normal occupation being the charming away of warts and the attracting of adders to the doorsteps of old ladies who had annoyed him.
Mr Thistlewood, having brought his score to an angry twenty nine, fell victim to one of the Trevetherick brothers. These three were undoubtedly the finest slip fielders of their generation and their habit of constantly humming Methodist hymns during the bowler’s run up may well have unnerved the Anglican clergyman. He was replaced by Bulmer B.U.R.P., whose grandchildren grew up to have no connection with the cider firm.
It was soon after Price had reached his fifty that the end came. Facing fisherman and slow left hand bowler Doubleyou L.B., he misjudged his stroke and skied the ball. Cornish fielders stood transfixed by the evil expression on Price’s face and seemed disinclined to move but the impetus of the bowler’s run took him right underneath the path of the ball and he instinctively held out his hand and caught it.
Price departed with bad grace. It would perhaps be unfair to remark that, after that afternoon, all of Doubleyou’s teeth began to fall out and he was lost the next winter in an unexpected storm.
After the loss of their hero the Hereford batting deteriorated rapidly. The penultimate batsman, a farmer called H.T. Taylor, so old that he played with a bat the shape of a hockey stick and only playing because he owned the field they were playing on, won momentary fame by hitting a six through the window of his own farmhouse. The last batsman, Sir A.W. Rabbit Bt, was out hit wicket while attempting to defend himself against a wasp.
Herefordshire had scored one hundred and seventy four. As Cornwall was not renowned for strong batting the home players were not totally disheartened as they took tea. No one will ever know who decided to add farmhouse cider to the visitors’ tea and that it remained undetected tells us something of the wide difference to be expected in water from district to district in those days.
The effect on the teetotal Cornish was appalling. When they came out to bat they had lost all inhibitions that were to be expected for such an important game and began to clout the ball unmercifully. The spectators, previously rather drowsy in the afternoon heat, began to take a keen interest in the flight of the ball, so often did it seem to come flying in their direction. Mr Thistlewood harangued his side in quite unclerical language, but to no avail. Fortunately his bishop was fast asleep under a tree, having decided it was his Christian duty to take tea with the visiting side.
The crisis came when Cornwall were one hundred and thirty six for three. Price was bowling, with an expression on his face that farmers would normally pay good money to keep away from their pregnant cows. The next delivery landed so wide that it was outside the closely mown wicket. The batsman had just relaxed, expecting a wide to be called, when the ball swerved back and hit the middle stump. He walked back to the pavilion shaking his head in disbelief.
At the non-striking end was O’Toole, a Cornishman of Irish descent and strangely unaffected by the alcohol. He watched Price walk back for his run-up with suspicion. “’Ere, what’s he up to?” he suddenly shouted. All eyes turned on Price, who was discovered to be rubbing the ball with a grease found on inspection to be one he normally reserved for treating lame horses. For such ungentlemanly conduct Price was ordered unceremoniously from the field.
The Herefordshire side were now utterly demoralised and the Cornishmen were able to make the existing runs with the loss of only two more wickets, one collapsing onto his stumps and the other run out while desperately searching for a private and unseen part of the field.
Few, on either side, played the game of cricket again. When their ministers got to hear about the state the Cornish side returned home in they forbade them ever to take part in such a debauched spectacle again. Price retreated to the Black Mountains, his reputation as a cunning man greatly enhanced by his daring to cheat at the illustrious game of cricket. Perhaps the saddest figure of all was the Rev. Arthur Thistlewood. After this disgrace he took to drink and ended his days as the Bishop of Llandaff. As for Anthony and his Anne? Reader, he married her.