George Summers:
A Cricketing Tragedy

Comment and Analysis | 18th June 2010

For a game that features a 5 ½ oz ball of leather often being delivered at dual carriageway speeds and often dispatched at even greater acceleration, cricket can often find itself being classed as one of life’s more lethal pastimes.

However, the chances of a fatality on a cricket pitch is still ridiculously low, with the most unfortunate recent example coming last summer when Alcwyn Jenkins, a 72 year old umpire in the South Wales League, was accidentally hit on the back of the head by an incoming return to the stumps by a fielder. This incident made the national press but we are fortunate that advances in helmet technology, as well as overall levels of concentration and fitness mean that life-threatening injuries in the professional game are incredibly rare.

This weekend marks the 140th anniversary of one of Nottinghamshire cricket’s most tragic stories – the untimely and some would say unnecessary death of batsman George Summers at Lord’s.

A Nottingham lad, Summers spent the majority of his short life in a house on Station Street in Nottingham. As a right-handed opening batsman, Summers was an effective run-scorer although he was also well-known for his powerful defensive blocks. He was also renowned nationally for his excellent fielding and also for his almost excessively smart appearance when on the outfield.

He had first impressed as early as 1864, when a Nottingham side crossed the Channel to play in Paris and a young George scored 90 in one innings. The odd appearance at a local and national level was countered with two seasons of relative obscurity, until he appeared for the Colts of England in 1867 and then went on to appear  for the North of the Thames versus the South of the Thames in a fixture at Lord’s in mid June.

He made a duck in his first innings and 6 in his second as the visitors fell to defeat by 27 runs in a low-scoring affair. He was joined in the squad for that game by Nottinghamshire luminaries Alfred Shaw, James Grundy, George Wootton and Sam Biddulph.

He made his debut for Notts the following week against Middlesex at Islington. He made 29 and 37 (falling to Russell Walker on both occasions) as Nottinghamshire triumphed by six wickets. In all, he made just three appearances in that first season for Notts, scoring 151 runs at an average of 25.17.

The following year saw his responsibilities enhanced for his home county, making six appearances in between opening for England in two matches against other counties and a handful of additional first-class appearances in exhibition games for the North of England. At the Oval in the middle of July, he made 57 in the second innings to register his first half-century for the county although it wasn’t enough to prevent a 74 run defeat against the hosts.

Appearances for the Players against the Gentlemen in 1869 allowed him to produce a couple of noteworthy knocks that meant he was almost an ever-present member of the Notts team that year, although a number of low scores meant his average at County level was just 12.58 and by the final game of the season against Kent at Trent Bridge, Summers was dropped from his regular opening slot to number five in the order.

In his fateful final season, he was part of the Notts team that made the trip down to the Kennington Oval in the second week of June. Summers came in at three in the first innings and failed to shine with a measly 7 before returning to open in the second innings, managing 19 before falling to the in-form Street of Surrey, as Notts convincingly won by 108 runs.

The squad stayed in the capital as they had a fixture against the MCC at Lord’s just two days later. The previous year’s fixture had seen W G Grace make a dynamic 121 and Notts’ Richard Daft make 103 with Notts the eventual victors. Summers had failed to perform in either innings and would therefore be looking to make amends.

The early team news was very much to Notts’ advantage, with the MCC missing both their regular wicket-keeper, Richardson, as well as two of their regular bowlers.

Having won the toss and elected to bat first, Notts’ openers fell early and in quick succession, but Summers’ steady hand allowed the visitors some breathing space as he made his way to 41 before being bowled by debutant John Platts, a Derby-born wheelwright. Notts were dismissed for 267 but through some well disciplined bowling from James Shaw and William McIntyre, which saw the former take six wickets and the latter four for 68 runs apiece, the MCC fell for just 183.

Having been asked to follow on, things went from bad to worse for the MCC as W G Grace fell with nothing on the board, but an authoritative stand of 121 by Dale and Walker for the third wicket allowed the home side to reach 240, giving Notts the target of 157 to win.

Batting at number three, Summers arrived at the crease to begin his second innings at 12.48pm. The first delivery he faced from Platts pitched up and struck him on the left hand side of the head just above the ear, fracturing his skull. Summers collapsed to the floor and was immediately retired hurt and replaced by the previous year’s hero, Richard Daft, who arrived at the crease with a towel wrapped around his head as a form of protest against Platts’ dangerous bowling. He went on to score 53. Few knew at that time of what was to follow.

The game continued despite Summers’ injury and Sam Biddulph went on to score the winning runs as Notts scraped home by two wickets.

Summers declined the option to stay and receive hospital treatment in London as he was keen to return home to his father’s hotel in Nottingham (having been away for well over a week). Just two days short of his 26th birthday, Summers fell to the floor and never got back up.

Following this tragedy, several prominent players and administrators, including Grace, criticized the Notts hierarchy for fielding Summers on such a hot day and then placing him on a train that operated on rickety tracks and was well known for inducing dizziness in many of its passengers.

As a consequence, Platts never bowled fast again and the game’s authorities made steps to improve both the pitch at Lord’s and also paid for his headstone, which read:

This tablet is erected to the memory of George Summers by the Mary-le-bone Cricket Club to mark their sense of his qualities as a cricketer and to testify their regret at the untimely accident on Lord’s ground which cut short a career so full of promise, June 19th 1870, in the 26th year of his age.

Sadly, Summers’ father never recovered from his loss and did not outlive his son by many months.

It is hard to believe that even a hundred years later, helmets were not commonplace and it is only since the late 70s that the stigma attached with head protection has been eradicated to ensure that today’s cricketers instinctively choose to protect themselves without fearing a loss of their masculinity.

It is important to remember George Summers and others like him who gave their lives so that the sport has been able to evolve into the game we all know and cherish today.

Alex Picker is a freelance author and blogger.

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