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10 Highlights from Cricket's Strangest Matches

by Andrew Ward

You might not know how to play. But that shouldn't stop you from learning how to deal with cricket's most common problems. Like: what to do when a monkey keeps interrupting play. And who to bet on when you're watching a team of one-armed players take on a team of one-legged players. We've asked sportswriter Andrew Ward, author of Cricket's Strangest Matches, to give us a primer on what we need to know.

Remember that Hollywood chestnut that you should never work with animals or children? Well, cricketers certainly agree about the animal part. Bulls, cows and emus have all threatened cricket pitches in recent years. Here are a few tips:

1. WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU BEES, SUMMON A BEEKEEPER

Cricketers prefer not to share a field with the 6-leggers. While play has been stopped by flying ants, midges and wasps in the past, perhaps the biggest pests of all are the bees. During a match between Oxfordshire and Worcestershire in June 1962, the situation got so bad that players had to hide in the dressing-rooms until a beekeeper was summoned. But that's hardly the worst of it. In 1981, a cricket match in Bangalore was abandoned after thousands of bees--disturbed by children throwing stones--swarmed across the field and took revenge. Six players and an umpire needed hospital treatment!

Bee attacks aren't just relegated to the past, though. Recently, during a test match between Sri Lanka and England in December 2007, swarms of bees flew across the Asgiriya Stadium field in Kandy. An experienced umpire set a good example by lying down on the floor. The players did likewise. Play was suspended for while everyone waited it out facedown on the pitch.

2. PUNCHING THE MONKEY

Occasionally, cricketers have to deal with the business of monkey business.

During a match in Poona, India, in December 1951, play was interrupted several times by a monkey running around the field. While Maharashtra were playing an England team, the monkey kept sneaking into fielding position close to the wicket. As the bowler ran in, the monkey watched with all the concentration of the fielders. Finally, a boy came on with a stick and chased the monkey away. And though he left his courtside seat, the monkey wasn't quite done. He climbed to the pavilion roof and watched the rest of the game from there.

3. FOR THE BIRDS

Cricketers know all about the bees, but they've had to educate themselves about working with birds as well. During a 1930s test match, a sparrow was struck by a fielder's throw. The crowd shouted for the poor bird to be put out of its misery, so a spectator ran on the field with that intention. He stopped down to kill the bird, but the sparrow flew off, sending the crowd into hysterics.

4. AN ARM AND A LEG

Charity cricket matches are often contrived to be strange "“ Married v Single, Left-hand v Right-hand, Bearded Players v Shaven Players, Over-30 v Under-30, Smokers v Non-smokers, and so on.

The most unusual of these matches took place in the 1850s and 1860s, where a team of one-legged players took on a team of one-armed players.

The participants were usually veterans of the Crimean War, hoping to raise money for their own cause. Sideshows and family events enhanced the occasions.

For those of you curious to know who won these matches, the one-legged teams usually dominated these encounters. Fielding with one leg is comparatively easier than batting with one arm. One reporter described a contest in 1862 as something "painfully wonderful and ludicrously horrible."

5, IT'S A MATTER OF CLASS

As for the most established contrived match, that had to be the annual fixture between Gentlemen and Players. The teams were selected from the best amateur players (the Gentlemen) and the best of those who earned their living from playing cricket (The Players). The first Gentlemen"“Players match was in 1806 and the last in 1962. The Gentlemen won 68 of the contests, Players 125, with 80 drawn and one tied. But the Gentlemen did not win any of the last eighteen matches.

6. WALK ON WATER (BUT DO IT CAUTIOUSLY!)

Bramble Bank, a sandbar in the middle of a stretch of water off the south coast of England, is a disaster area for shipping. But what's bad for industry is apparently great for cricket. Twice a year, for about an hour on each occasion, the sandbar surfaces as a temporary two-acre island. Despite the fact that pools of seawater cover the pitch, and players have to wear galoshes instead of their standard cricket boots, sportsmen take full advantage of the challenge: to play a cricket match during the hour when the island is available. Of course, the winning team is usually one of the local sailing clubs; generally the one that can get the most players to the shore.

Similarly, Goodwin Sands is another target for hasty games. Most of the year the sandbar hovers dangerously just below the surface. But unlike Bramble Bank, Goodwin Sands has come dangerously close to causing a cricket catastrophe.

In November 2006 a BBC television team attempted to stage a Goodwin Sands cricket fixture. Unfortunately the escapade showed how easy it was to be caught by the rising tide. The television crew lost an estimated £100,000 worth of equipment and the cricket club lost equipment as lifeboats rescued stranded crew and players.

7. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF (INTER)NATIONAL BOUNDARIES

In 2006, a Dutch team called the Fellowship of Fairly Odd Places CC played a game that took place in two countries. Half the field was in southern Holland and the other half was in Belgium. The international border ran across the wicket.

Cricket matches have also taken place on a frozen Lake Geneva, an Icelandic glacier and a North American ice-hockey rink. Harry Thompson's book about a local cricket team's world tour, Penguins Stopped Play, featured an attempt to play in the Antarctic Circle. That was how the book got its title.

The most common addendum to a cricket score in England is "Rain Stopped Play." Occasionally the game continues in light rain, but cricket becomes a mockery if bowlers can't hold a wet ball or water is dripping off a cricketer's cap. Here are a few tips for dealing with Mother Nature.

8. TRUST THE ATHLETES

On one Saturday in May 1951 the east coast of Yorkshire was so foggy that many cricket games were affected. Captains couldn't see where their fielders were. The people keeping records of the match had to rely on relayed accounts from the players in order to keep the books straight.

9. BEWARE OF THOSE JUNE SNOWSTORMS

Just because your calendar says "summer," it doesn't mean Mother Nature's paying attention. In June 1975, a three-day match in Buxton, Derbyshire, missed an entire day's play because of a snowstorm. It was a game of three thirds. The first day Lancashire got a huge boost scoring 477 for five (declared) in excellent conditions. Then, there was no play on the second day because it was the snowiest summer day on record in England. On the third day, in dreadful batting conditions, Derbyshire scored 42 in their first innings and 87 in their second innings.

10. LET THEM PLAY BALL

Sometimes, the game just has to go on. In the Fenlands of East Anglia, during the 1870s, the frozen fields of winter were sometimes used for cricket. Fielders chased and slid across the ice, and batsmen often tipped over from the overbalance when taking too big a swing at the ball.

It's also become traditional for certain local English cricket teams to play a match on Boxing Day (December 26) whatever the weather. Sometimes a matting wicket is laid on the top of snow or a muddy field. It is a real contrast to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia, where Boxing Day Test matches usually begin in glorious summer sunshine.

If you like this piece, be sure to pick up Andrew Ward's excellent book Cricket's Strangest Matches: Extraordinary but True Stories from 150 Years of Cricket here.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
Brett Deering/Getty Images
Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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#TBT
Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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