In the 1820’s William Cobbett farmer, pamphleteer and radical anti-Corn Law campaigner set out on horseback across Southeast England to see the state of agriculture for himself, and to “enforce by actual observation of rural conditions” the arguments he had put to the Parliamentary Agricultural Committee against those of the landlord class.
On his Rural Rides he identified the southern slopes of Arreton Down (above) in the Isle of Wight as the place that produced the earliest crop of wheat in the country.
Had Cobbett waited for the harvest and then looked down from those heights he may have seen, far below, the villagers playing at cricket, or even a caterpillar or two grazing on the toughened sea kale that grew on these salt sprayed heights.
One hundred and fifty years later Arreton had another claim to fame in the English calendar. It was the venue for what was for many years listed in the Cricketer magazine as the last properly scheduled match of the English season.
For more than twenty years on the final Sunday in October, Arreton Cricket Club played hosts to The Mallishags – an old Island word for a caterpillar which is particularly slow in the field.
The day before, Arreton’s neighbours, Havenstreet, played the Rest of the Whirled. The two matches were devised, arranged, managed and publicised by Mac Richards an eccentric owner of a second hand book shop in the Island’s unofficial capital, Newport. Mac had a facility with those imaginary numbers which Third Man has been banging on about.
Both Arreton and Havenstreet boasted that wonderful cricketing surface, concrete and coconut matting; still to Third Man’s way of thinking the best strip for the encouragement of pace, spin with bounce and batting that can cope with steeply rising pace and spin, and ideal for cricket in October.
(It should be remembered that two hundred years before, in the glory days, Hambledon and their opponents thought nothing of playing in October on grass.)
With the assistance of his able lieutenants, George Wickens and Keith Newbery, Mac Richards selected his side for their instinctive expression of what was celebrated before, during and after the match as the Mallishag Spirit (which, although never exactly codified, preceded the MCC’s Spirit of Cricket by over a quarter of a century.)
The Mallishag’s archivist recently informed an inquiring Third Man that “Oddly enough, I can only recall one match being played in the pouring rain. It was usually bright but bloody cold (and we all got proper shrammed nipper).”
However, he would not be drawn on the substance of the Mallishag Spirit. Plainly, as Colin Cowdrey might have said, “If you have to ask, you don’t have it.”
The match began before most people woke on a Sunday morning. It was a difficult decision whether to field first before the hoar frost had thawed or second when the sou’-westerly gale had got up and pierced the many layers of clothing sported by Mallishags and Arretonians.
A huge prefabricated glass and plywood building (surely a later influence on the work of Norman Foster) sheltered the players from the infernal blasts coming in off the Channel.
It had plenty of old sofas and armchairs into which players sunk. Here they inhaled tobacco smoke, read the sporting pages of the Sundays, garnered the thin rays of sunlight penetrating the plate windows and glanced now and then at the departures and arrivals board.
Play stopped for lunch at 11.45. This gave the players and officials fifteen minutes to scramble their cars through the narrow gate of the field and get to The White Lion so as not to miss a single one of the 120 minutes available to them under the old licensing laws from the 12 noon opening time.
During lunch, taken in an old and unrenovated stable block, Mac Richards presented his awards for the season. When Third Man played in this fixture he was awarded a very chipped and old chamber pot. He cannot remember what the award was for, but it was pretty clear that every award was carefully selected to deflate any possible sense of self importance in the recipient.
Had the Captain of Hampshire accepted his standing invitation to play for the Mallishags he would very likely have found himself later than night aboard the last steamer back to Southampton lugging an inscribed old lavatory seat.
Play was resumed in time for a few more overs and a few more slogs before darkness officially brought a close to the English season at around 5 o’clock when a frozen umpire at the bowlers end finally declared “Time”.