William Lambert: the greatest cricketer of his day. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
William Lambert: the greatest cricketer of his day. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

William Lambert (born 1779, died April 19, 1851) was acknowledged as the greatest cricketer of his day. A champion batsman, a near-unplayable lob bowler and one of the first authors of technical manuals of the game, this fascinating pioneer was also one of the first cricketers to be banned for match-fixing. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this extraordinary man.

Greatest of his times

William Lambert was perhaps the greatest all-round cricketer of that celebrated epoch.

The Surrey professional was acknowledged by Harry Altham and Jim Swanton in their magisterial history of the game to have been the greatest force in English cricket for the 16 years of his career.

The duration could have been greater, but for the couple of instances when he courted the wrath of the powerful Lord Frederick Beauclerk. That eminent cricketer of foul temper and vindictive soul ensured that Lambert was banned from taking part in great matches at Lord s. This unfortunate turn of events cut off Lambert s career in serious cricket in its prime.

Like most of the pioneers of lob-bowling, apart from David Harris, Lambert excelled with the bat as well. In fact, his 3,014 First-Class runs came at an average of 27.65. This makes for unusually healthy reading even in the modern context if we consider that he also accounted for 187 wickets, and many more which are not attributed to him due to the scorekeeping rules of that era. However, if we consider the days in which he batted, a batting average in the late 20s was almost unthinkable.

 

To put things in perspective, his great contemporary batsman, Silver Billy Beldham, considered the best of his era, got his 7,043 runs at 21.47. While Lambert scored 4 hundreds in his 114 innings, Beldham got 3 in 348.

The other great batsman of the era, William Ward, scored 4,022 runs at 18.97 with 3 hundreds in 235 innings. Tom Walker got more hundreds, 6 of them, but consumed 335 innings and got his 6,000 plus runs at 19.25. The Squire George Osbaldeston scored 1,002 runs at 18.90.

Only Lord Beauclerk, the man who hated his guts, came close with 25.11 for his 5,525 runs. But even then, his 5 hundreds were scored over 240 innings.

Lambert was head and shoulders above the rest. He dominated the slow bowling of his age like no other. Standing at the crease with his left foot advanced by a yard, he waited swaying his bat and body as if to attain momentum. The picture is curiously reminiscent of a baseball batter. Almost always he reached forward to where the ball would have pitched. And the power of his drives was tremendous. With slow bowling his return was so quick and forcible that his whole manner was really intimidating to a bowler, recalled contemporary great EH Budd.

His peer Beldham acknowledged, He hit what no one else could meddle with.

In July 1817, Lambert created history. Batting for Sussex versus Epsom at Lord s, he scored 107 not out in the first innings, fired out four men in Epsom s innings, and proceeded to hit 157 in the second. This was the first time in the history of the game that someone had hit two hundreds in the same match.

Unfortunately, Beauclerk ensured that it would also be his final First-Class match. More of that later.

The batting exploits of Lambert amounted to only half the story. As a bowler he was one of the very best in his generation and had lasting effect on the history of lob bowling.

 

Lambert s bowling was much like Budd s. His balls were delivered high from underhand, with a twist, slow, rising high, and turning in from the leg. According to Budd, by 1818 both he and Lambert had evolved their deliveries into a speciality that bested the front-line batsmen of their time. William Ward could not play it, and hence complained against the new type of action which raised the arm almost to the shoulder level.

It had been Tom Walker who had pioneered this type of bowling, and Beauclerk also sent down balls of the same kind. But, while Walker and Beauclerk were both slow, often tediously so, Budd and Lambert were several degrees faster.

Later, the greatest lob bowler of all, William Clarke, confessed that he had modelled his bowling action on Lambert s. The style of bowling was later concurred as Clarke s style. However, it had been pioneered by Lambert.

The Wrath of Beauclerk

With his all-round skills, it was natural that Lambert became a champion single-wicket player. And it was at a double-wicket match in 1810, between Osbaldeston and Lambert against Beauclerk and TC Howard, that the unfortunate professional incurred Beauclerk s wrath the first time.

The story has been recounted by Abhishek Mukherjee in these pages, and has been touched upon in brief in this series while covering the lob bowling exploits of both Beauclerk and Osbaldeston. But here is it again.

The match was staked for a sizable sum, and on the morning of the fixture Osbaldeston woke up sick. Budd was sent along to Beauclerk to inform of his great friend s sickness. I went to Lord Frederick, recounts Budd, and asked him to put off the match. No, play or pay, said his lordship, quite inexorable.

Beauclerk was not really known for his sporting nature. Osbaldeston declared, I won t forfeit. Lambert may beat them both.

Indeed, the young talent had it in him to do so.

So, Osbaldeston tottered to the wicket, faced three balls, made a single notch and withdrew. Lambert faced the bowling with great aplomb, made 167 hits from the 203 balls and managed 56 before Howard bowled him.

Now he bowled his lobs with uncanny craftiness. After making 21, Beauclerk pushed at him to find Lambert had rushed in after delivering the ball and was there to take the catch very near the bat. His Lordship complained about unfair play, but had no alternative but to walk back. Howard was bowled for 3 and after the first innings, Lambert and Osbaldeston led by 33.

In went Lambert again and faced 78 balls scoring 24 before Howard bowled him again. And he proceeded to send down wide balls to Beauclerk, testing his patience. The rules of the day did not award a run for wide deliveries. Beauclerk, frustrated and seething by now, fell for 18. Howard battled manfully, lasting 166 balls, but was finally bowled for 24. Lambert had won the match literally singlehandedly by 15 runs. Osbaldeston took no part in the match after the first three balls, and a substitute fielder was also denied. But even then Beauclerk found himself in the losing side.

Lambert carried away the purse. Besides, Osbaldeston s mother had been watching the match from her carriage. After the match, the triumphant cricketer was called to the carriage and came away bearing a strange package. Some conjectured it contained a gold watch, some suspected bank-notes. Lambert never disclosed the contents. In March 1851, Reverend James Pycroft sent a letter to Lambert asking for the details of the gift. However, he received no reply and after a few days there was a brief paragraph in a Surrey newspaper announcing the death of the once-celebrated player, William Lambert.

But along with the rewards, the match also earned him the wrath of Beauclerk.

It was some years later, in 1817, that Lambert clashed with Beauclerk again. This time it was during a match between England, led by Beauclerk and including Osbaldeston and Lambert, and a Nottingham XXII.

Lambert did take six wickets in the first innings, but the match was obviously fixed with several players underperforming. To make things worse, Beauclerk, not in on the fix, broke a finger trying to stop a deliberate overthrow. When England lost by 30 runs, Beauclerk fumed, finding himself bested by Osbaldeston and Lambert yet again.

Osbaldeston was involved in hunts in Nottingham and there were obvious connections with the county implicating him in the swindle. Besides, with Joe Dennis for Nottingham, The Squire was the organiser of the match from the England side. He was busy enjoying a shooting party in Scotland and could not make it to Nottingham in time to make all the arrangements. The English cricketers were thus left with plenty of financial losses. Besides, the scorecard shows that Osbaldeston got a pair, being run out in one of the innings. It does sound suspicious.

However, he was a gentleman, a moneyed amateur, and therefore beyond Beauclerk s vindictive reach. Not so Lambert.

When the Gentlemen vs Players fixtures were started in 1806, both Lambert and Beldham had been loaned to the Gentlemen to balance the sides. However, other than that exception, he was always a professional. And it did not take Beauclerk long to find a witness ready to testify Lambert s role in the match fixing.

It was Beauclerk who ran MCC those days. And in 1818 Lambert was banned from the club, and hence from Lord s for life. After that scintillating swansong with hundreds in each innings, he never played First-Class cricket again.