AT first glance the sub-title might seem grandiose.
‘England’s Finest Sportsman’ it says on the front cover of ‘Stoddy’, a biography of AE Stoddart by David Frith, the world’s pre-eminent cricket writer/historian.
But this is not your usual case of a publishing house hamming it up for commercial effect.
For Stoddart, who bestrode the Victorian era like a colossus, captained England at three different sports – cricket, rugby, and Australian rules – and is indeed worthy of the epitaph bestowed on him by Frith and Von Krumm Publishing.
‘Stoddy’, as he was known, or ‘Drewy’, was Andrew Ernest Stoddart, who captained England in the first great Ashes series of 1894-95, when Yorkshire’s Jack Brown clinched a 3-2 win with a century in the final Test in Melbourne.
Frith’s book actually first appeared in 1970 under the title ‘My Dear Victorious Stod’, an expression taken from Queen Victoria’s imagined utterance in Melbourne Punch following that famous Ashes triumph.
Now, armed with a significant amount of new material, Frith has produced a greatly enhanced volume in the “fresh hope that ‘Stoddy’s’ name will be restored to the pinnacle which it once occupied, for he was a sporting god, England’s greatest sportsman in what has become known as sport’s Golden Age – or ever since”.
Stoddart, who committed suicide on Easter Saturday 1915, aged 52, is indeed a forgotten figure to modern eyes.
History remembers his contemporaries such as the great Yorkshire duo of George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes, WG Grace and Gilbert Jessop, but Stoddart’s name has faded like a line of old handwriting.
Yet he had been, in turn, the finest rugby footballer and the best batsman in the world, the equivalent, if you will, of Joe Root proving as adept with the oval ball as he is with the cricket ball.
Stoddart played 10 rugby internationals – it would have been more but for disputes that left England without fixtures – and 16 cricket Tests; only one other man has led England at cricket and rugby, although Lancashire’s AN “Monkey” Hornby did so only a combined four times.
Perhaps it was because he killed himself that Stoddart’s name has dimmed.
There was, and remains, a stigma about suicide, and Stoddart shot himself at his home less than a mile from the Lord’s ground where he shone so often for Middlesex and England. He had been ill for some time, was anxious about money and lonely.
Yet, only a few years earlier, he had been one of the most feted men in England.
Frith, who has also written definitively on the subject of cricket suicides, felt angry at the “twilighting” of Stoddart’s name.
Only Frith, in fact, could have brought it back so vividly to life; no keener student of the game has walked God’s earth.
Known to many as the founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, Frith is the author of 34 cricket books and he owns what is believed to be the largest private collection of cricket books/memorabilia.
Unusually for an historian, he is also a great writer (historians often get bogged down with dry detail) and has impeccable news sense.
Consequently, after tracking down a man in the late 1960s who had passed love letters between a young Stoddart and a girlfriend, Frith had the wit to ask the last witness alive to Stoddart, who was born in South Shields in 1863, “How did ‘Stoddy’ speak?”
“He spoke,” remembered Francis Cooke, who died in 1974, aged 102, “with the faintest Geordie accent”, a recollection worth more than several thousand words of bland reconstructions of scorecards and match reports, de rigueur in so many biographies.
Stoddart, whose family moved to London when he was a boy, played for Blenheim Cricket Club and then joined Harlequins Rugby Club at the age of 14. He appeared 46 times for the ‘Quins between 1880 and 1886, and he became the finest wing three-quarter the game had seen, blessed with skill and a strong physique.
Stoddart went on to join Blackheath Rugby Football Club, whom he represented 190 times, and he made his first-class cricket debut in 1885, for Middlesex against Yorkshire at Sheffield.
“Here’s a how-d’ye-do!” he is said to have remarked when the telegram arrived telling him to report to Sheffield, for it had never occurred to him that he might one day be good enough to play county cricket, too.
With a pair of borrowed, over-sized flannels, a prehistoric bat and some tennis shoes, Stoddart cut an unlikely figure at Bramall Lane, where he opened the batting and was yorked for three by “Shoey” Harrison.
He fared a bit better in the second innings, scoring 21 in a game Middlesex won by 49 runs.
The following year, playing for Hampstead CC, Stoddart set a new world record for the highest score made in any form of organised cricket.
Following a sleepless night spent dancing and playing poker, he went out to bat at 11.30am against the Stoics and, by the time he had returned to the pavilion a little over six hours later, he had amassed the small matter of 485 runs.
Instead of returning home for a well-deserved rest, however, Stoddart went off to play tennis, then on to the theatre and finally to a supper party. He finally turned in just before 3am.
Only last month, the world record score which Stoddart once held was lifted to the improbable heights of 1,009 by Pranav Dhanawade, a 15-year-old Indian schoolboy.
Dhanawade’s score beat the long-standing record of Arthur Collins, who struck 628 not out in a junior house match at Clifton College in 1899.
Stoddart, who made 26 first-class hundreds to go with 85 fifties, produced his most significant score in the second Test of the thrilling 1894-95 Ashes series against Australia at Melbourne.
He made 173, which stood as the highest score by an England captain in Australia for 80 years.
As a rugby player, Stoddart also captained the first Barbarians side and, in 1888, he took over the captaincy of the British Lions in Australasia after tour captain Bob Seddon drowned while boating on the Hunter River.
It was that team that Stoddart led in Australian Rules football games in Melbourne, a code to which he adapted seamlessly.
Stoddart, whose rugby kicking was so accurate that the authorities even adjusted the points scoring system as a result, was also a fine golfer and tennis player.
England’s Finest Sportsman?
Frith provides a wealth of compelling evidence.
‘Stoddy’: England’s Finest Sportsman by David Frith is published by Von Krumm Publishing, priced £17. A limited, signed, deluxe edition is available, priced £50, from email@example.com