Mordecai Sherwin : The Last Professional Skipper

Mordecai Sherwin

“Between the heyday of the touring XIs in the 1850s and the end of the century, the world of the professional cricketer was turned upside down.  Once he had been the master of his own destiny – even though gate receipts might not always have been shared out equally.  Now he was back in the position of an artisan.  The only compensation that he could derive from this reversal was the great increase offered by a regular programme of county matches.  Yet, as far as one can tell, professionals adjusted to their new station in county cricket with equanimity; where a grievance was voiced, it normally concerned rates of pay or earnings and not the question of the professional’s status.” (Christopher Brookes in ‘English Cricket’)

Wicket-keepers again.

Gregor MacGregor is sometimes said to have been chosen as one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year for 1891, but, strictly speaking, he was one of the Wicket-Keepers of the Year : another was Mordecai Sherwin (depicted above in the anonymous portrait that hangs in the pavilion at Trent Bridge).  They seem to represent two different epochs : MacGregor was 22 in 1891, Sherwin 40.  MacGregor was one of the new wave of public school educated amateurs who exerted an increasing influence over the game in the last decade of the century: Sherwin was one of the old school of professionals who had dominated the 1880s.

Sherwin also has the distinction of being the last professional to be appointed officially as captain of a county until Leicestershire chose Ewart Astill in 1935.  The idea that it would be unthinkable for a professional to captain a county (or, indeed, England) is sometimes thought of as a Victorian invention, which is true, but much later in her reign than one might think.  When Lord Hawke made his famous remark “Pray God, no professional shall never captain England” he added that he thought it would be “a retrograde step” and he had himself played for Yorkshire under a professional.

In its early years the County Championship itself was a nebulous entity.  Its beginning is usually dated from 1873, which was the year when the rules regarding qualification were agreed between nine of the larger counties. There was no central organising body – the MCC (stung by the failure of its own proposed knock-out cup in 1873) remained aloof.  The counties were left to organise fixtures among themselves (with the result that some counties played more matches than others*) and the winner was decided by the newspapers on the basis of the fewest matches lost.  This meant that in 1873, for instance, Derbyshire, who played two matches and lost both of them, were placed fourth, whereas Yorkshire, who had played eleven games, won six and lost four, were placed seventh out of nine.

The Southern counties were largely amateur with amateur captains.  Of the Northern counties, the Lancashire team were mostly professionals but captained by an amateur (‘Monkey’ Hornby between 1880 and 1891, E.B. Rowley before that date).  Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, however, were all professional sides with professional captains, although the two were very different in character.  Yorkshire were individually talented, but – until Hawke was appointed captain in 1883 – undisciplined, anarchic and (even according to the most favourable observers) often drunk.  Nottinghamshire were an altogether more organised and hard-headed, proposition.

Trent Bridge, where ‘Old Clarke’ had originated the travelling All England XI, was long-established as an alternative power base to Lord’s and the MCC.  Clarke and his successor George Parr had combined the captaincy of the AEE with that of the Nottinghamshire XI and the county’s captain in the earliest years of the Championship, Richard Daft, had made his name with the travelling side.

Gloucestershire, with the Three Graces in their prime, had dominated the 1870s. Nottinghamshire were on their shoulder and overtook them in the next decade, winning five successive Championships between 1883 and 1886, with a side Roy Webber describes as ‘probably as powerful as any county has ever fielded’.  Their success was built around the accurate fast-medium bowling of Alfred Shaw (who bowled more overs in his career than he conceded runs), and the patient, accumulative batting of the notorious stonewaller Scotton, the slightly more expansive William Gunn, and, above all, Arthur Shrewsbury.

As a batsman, Shrewsbury was admitted by all to be the ‘best professional batsman in England’, and thought by some to be superior to Grace himself, especially on drying pitches.  While lacking WG’s power, he built on his technical advances to pioneer the ‘scientific’ school of batting, particularly in the fields of ‘back play‘ and ‘pad play‘.  He was also a complex figure: hypochondriac, teetotal, so self-conscious about his thinning hair that as soon as he removed his cap on leaving the field he replaced it with a bowler, and possessed of entrepreneurial ambitions that were bound to collide with the growing desire of the amateur authorities to place the governance of the game in more gentlemanly hands.

In partnership with Alfred Shaw, Shrewsbury organised and sometimes captained three England tours of  Australia (on one occasion an all-professional side including most of his Nottinghamshire XI, including Sherwin) and, as a sideline, the first British Lions Rugby tour (this was before the two codes of Rugby diverged).  At one point one of his sides toured in competition with a rival team organised by Lord Hawke.

His nemesis came in the form of the Chairman of the Nottinghamshire committee, Captain ‘Hellfire’ Henry Holden, who doubled up as the Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire.  In 1881 Holden refused to allow Shrewsbury and Shaw to arrange a fixture against Yorkshire without the Committee’s permission (and pocket the proceeds): in response (and in search of formal conditions of employment) they led seven of the Nottinghamshire side out on strike. Five of them were quickly enticed back to work, leaving the ringleaders to hold out for another year, though they too eventually apologised and were welcomed back into the fold.  Holden, in his turn, was dismissed by Nottinghamshire, following an incident where he had refused to give the Australian tourists lunch, on the grounds that they were professionals and could afford to pay for it themselves.

Things ended well for Shaw: he returned to the captaincy after the Schism, then became a coach, an Umpire and a publican after retirement.  Shrewsbury and Scotton ended sadly.  Scotton seems to have become so afraid of getting out that he ceased to score entirely, lost his place in the Nottinghamshire side and took his own life in 1893.  Shrewsbury satisfied his entrepreneurial instincts by running a sports equipment business and continued playing until 1902, but in the following year, wrongly convinced that he was terminally ill, he shot himself first in the heart and then in the head at his Sister’s house in Gedling.

Sherwin himself (who was not a striker) is a slightly shadowy (though more than physically substantial) figure in all of this, who appears to have bobbed along buoyantly like a cork over the surface of some very turbulent waters.  He survives mainly in fragments and anecdotes, but I think the essence of the man remains.

His taking over of the captaincy was reported, rather casually, by Wisden in its coverage of the match between Nottinghamshire and Surrey at Trent Bridge that began on 30th May 1887 (significant because Surrey were then the coming power, poised to take over as the dominant county):

“The captaincy was offered to Shrewsbury, but for some reason or other he did not care about the office, and so the choice fell upon Sherwin, who gave such satisfaction that he was made captain of the county team for the season.

E.V. Lucas, in ‘Cricket All His Life’ recalls him thus:

“Moredacai Sherwin, the famous wicket-keeper in the great period, and as leader of the side in 1887 and 1888 the last of Nottinghamshire’s professional captains, was a very notable man … When interviewed … by Captain Holden at Trent Bridge as a potential wicket-keeper, he had been asked if he was afraid. “Nowt fears me,” he replied.  He followed by keeping wicket for Nottinghamshire for eighteen years with a remarkable record.  Mordecai (and I think Sherwin must have been the only cricketer with that name) was a rotund man of mirthful character and a leading member of the Nottingham Glee Club, which used to meet at the Black Boy to sing and be hearty together.  William Gunn, who was a glee singer too, lifted his voice also in the choir of St Thomas’s Church.

A.A. Thomson, selecting his all-time Nottinghamshire XI in ‘Cricket Bouquet‘ confirms the impression:

“Perhaps we might stick to the genuine old rough diamond, Mordecai Sherwin, who one day walked into Trent Bridge for the first time and announced ‘I’m t’new county stoomper!

Wisden, in its citation of Sherwin as Wicket-keeper of the Year, gives us some idea of his character and playing style:

 “Always in the best of spirits, and never discouraged, however much the game may be going against his side, Sherwin is one of the cheeriest and pluckiest of cricketers. In point of style behind the wicket he is more demonstrative than his Lancashire rival [Pilling], but, though the applause and laughter of the spectators may occasionally cause him to go a little too far, he has certainly never done anything to really lay him open to censure.”

– and it returned to this theme in its obituary of him.

“A very bulky man of great physical power, he could stand any amount of work, and his strong fleshy hands did not often suffer damage. He was inclined to show off a little for the benefit of the crowd, but this after all was a small fault. He was at all times one of the cheeriest of cricketers.”

And like many players of the time, he was also a footballer of one code or another, playing in goal for Notts County, at a time when they were a power in the land.  Wikipedia provides the following portrait of him in action:

“As a footballer, Sherwin played in goal for County during the 1870s and early 1880s and was, according to the sportswriter “Tityrus” (the pseudonym of J.A.H. Catton, editor of the Athletic News, the idol of the crowd despite his unpromising physique.

“Although only 5ft. 9ins, and bordering on 17 stone, he was a kind of forerunner to the mighty Foulke … very nimble, as quick a custodian as he was a wicket-keeper. In one match, when the Blackburn Rovers were playing at the Trent Bridge ground, that sturdy and skilful outside right, Joseph Morris Lofthouse, thought he would have a tilt with Sherwin.

“He charged him, and rebounded. Sherwin said: “Young man, you’ll hurt yourself if you do that again.” Undeterred, Lofthouse returned to the attack, but Sherwin stepped aside with the alacrity of a dancer, and the Lancashire lad found out how hard was the goalpost and how sharp its edge.

“Sherwin was a wonder. It was the custom in those days for teams to entertain each other to dinner after a match… At one banquet Sherwin “obliged” with Oh Dem Golden Slippers, and surprised the gathering with a jig and a somersault. At seventeen stones!”

As an explanation of the first incident, it was, at that time, within the rules of the game for a goalkeeper to be ‘bundled’ into the net if he had the ball in his hands.  To illustrate what might have happened between Sherwin and Lofthouse, here is what happened to a Spurs forward when he tried to ‘bundle’ William Foulke (left) in the 1901 Cup Final:

William Foulke

Sherwin retired from cricket in 1896, and – unlike Shrewsbury and Scotton – seems to have had a contented retirement, umpiring until 1901 and then returning to his original trade as a Publican.  He is also thought by some to have lent his name to Conan Doyle’s famous detective, in combination with his Nottinghamshire colleague Frank Shacklock.

*Bizarrely, this situation continued until 1928, and then again from 1933-1939.

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