Cricket – as played in the days of one Fuller Pilch

Best of the bunch: a detail from Nathaniel Felix’s picture of members of William Clarke’s ‘All Engla

Best of the bunch: a detail from Nathaniel Felixs picture of members of William Clarkes All England Eleven with Fuller Pilch, second from the right, a towering presence holding the bat. - Credit: Archant

Cricket today can be a solemn affair, tedious and drawn out for the spectators.

Fuller Pilch by John Grove published in the magazine Norfolk Fair in 1978.

Fuller Pilch by John Grove published in the magazine Norfolk Fair in 1978.

A modern Englishman who could succeed in penetrating the coils of time so as to watch a match of the early part of the last century might expostulate, 'this is not cricket', but admit it to be far more entertaining than the orthodox version of 1960.

Upon the old rough pitches, each ball was a potential crisis, the spectators uninhibited; bets on the game were customary.

In 1831, the Norfolk Cricket Club was described as 'second only to Marylebone.' That year the clubs met at East Dereham in August, but Norfolk lost. Already, in June, the Norwich Club had beaten Marylebone at Lord's in a two-day match, at which the betting had started at 6-4 on Marylebone. In the return match, Marylebone won. The defeats of Norfolk at Dereham, and Norwich on the home ground were attributed to the system of bowling employed against them.

The Norfolk Club had been formed in 1827 – the same year that we hear of a field at Lakenham 'without the Ber Street Gates' being leased for cricket and laid down with fine turf by Mr Bentley of Lord's. During the 30s, Norfolk played not only the MCC but several matches against Yorkshire. But fashion and fortune were just as fickle then as now. In 1840 the practise of this manly game seemed doomed to extinction in Norwich. Two years later, interest was revived by a match between the Norwich Club and the officers and privates of the 13th Light Dragoons. The Norfolk Cricket Club played few matches in two decades, till it was revived in 1862.

The scene outside Lakenham Pavilion before a cricket match - said to be 1912.

The scene outside Lakenham Pavilion before a cricket match - said to be 1912. - Credit: Archant

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In the early part of the century, several towns and villages in Norfolk had celebrated cricket teams. In 1818 Bungay challenged Holt and a grand match of cricket was played on Bungay Common on August 28-29. It drew a large number of spectators, 'because of the well-known science of the Holt players and the Bungay Club having been hitherto invincible'. Holt won in good style, making 215 runs and Bungay only 82. One man was objected to on each side, so the match was 10 against 10.

The return was to have taken place on September 7, 'but the Bungay Club, being entirely unable to cope with their successful opponents, have forfeited the stakes, and declined a second encounter'. The following September, the two clubs met again on Bungay Common. It was alleged that Bungay had smuggled two Marylebone players into their side. There was much wrangling, and on the second day, Bungay refused to go on, and the match was claimed by Holt. In spite of this unpleasant episode, there was a return match at Holt, which was won by the home side, but, as somebody said, with such an umpire, Holt might play any club in England and be sure to win!

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A lucky chance befell Holt's cricketing prospects at about this time. A tailor, named Pilch, moved into the neighbourhood, with three sons, Fuller, William and Nathaniel. This trio played for Holt against Nottingham in 1821.

'The place selected on the Heath was certainly very fine, and the arrangement of booths, marquees, flags etc and the beautifully prepared turf did great credit to the managing gentlemen. The fielding and bowling of the Norfolk men was certainly equal to their opponents, but in the science and freedom of their hits, and the attitude and closeness of their batting, the Nottingham men are much superior.'

The great WG Grace at Lakenham.

The great WG Grace at Lakenham.

So Nottingham won, but the play of a dark young man, over 6ft in height, called Fuller Pilch, was already being noticed.

Twelve years afterwards, he played two single wicket matches against the Yorkshire champion, Tom Marsden. The first, at Norwich, began on a hot midday in July. Betting was 3-2 on Marsden, who won the toss and went in first. The fourth ball he hit for three, but the 37th – 'one of those deceptive shooting balls against which there is no calculating' – got his wickets.

A half-hour interval followed, and the odds were in Pilch's favour. He made 74 runs, when they stopped for dinner. 'Now who would have thought themselves venturous in sporting 2s 6d or a tissy, and these were large sums for our locality for such a sport, were ready to offer any odds in the same calibre of coin.'

After dinner, Pilch was soon out, but he won the match by 70 runs. 'We are glad to hear of his triumph, for he is a most respectable fellow, as well as a good cricketer, and he was playing against one who was well worth beating, for he is an all England man, and a celebrated single wicket player' – patronising words about the man who was to become one of the two greatest batsmen of the century!

WG Grace steps out at Lakenham.

WG Grace steps out at Lakenham.

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