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Guelph-born cricket player was known throughout the world

Dyce Willcocks Saunders learned to play as a boy and joined the Guelph Cricket Club
The Guelph Cricket Club circa. 1890.

What is a googly? Or a top spinner, a beamer, a leg-break, or a flipper? What spectator sport do they belong to?

Replace those terms with slapshot, wrister, five-hole, icing, and poke-check; and most Canadians know instantly that you’re talking about hockey. But “googly” and those other terms are from the game of cricket.

While that team sport certainly does have its followers in Canada, it isn’t one with which Canadians are usually associated. And yet, a man who was hailed as a star cricketer a century ago came from Guelph.

Dyce Willcocks Saunders was born in Guelph in 1862. He was the son of lawyer and police magistrate Thomas W. Saunders and his wife Jemima (nee Wilson). A large percentage of the Guelph in which Dyce Saunders grew up was composed of British immigrants, and emotional and cultural ties to the “mother country” and the Empire were strong. Guelph was one of those Canadian communities said to be “more British than Britain.”

Dyce Saunders played cricket as a boy, and when he was old enough, he joined the Guelph Cricket Club.

Cricket was considered a gentleman’s sport, the preserve of a social elite who shunned the very idea of professionalism. Matches between local clubs were social affairs, although great importance was attached to international contests.

Saunders started out as a bowler – a player who bowls rather than throws the ball towards the batsman with the intention of putting him out. He played his first game for Guelph in Berlin (Kitchener) on Aug. 18, 1876. A teammate would recall years later, “I can see him now as in his grayish knickerbockers … he sent down orthodox round arm deliveries with good success for a youth of his

In spite of the rookie Saunders’ “good success,” Guelph lost that game. However, Saunders went on to become one of Canada’s greatest cricketers and would one day be known as “the Dean of Canadian cricket. “

"He became one of the game’s stalwarts,” said the Toronto Star, “and no outstanding representative team could spare his invaluable wicketkeeping and batsmanship.”

After graduating from the Guelph Collegiate, Saunders was enroled in Trinity College in Port Hope and was made captain of the school’s cricket club. In 1879 he was admitted into the Law Society of Upper Canada College in Toronto. He studied at Osgoode Hall and resided with his sisters who operated
a private school in Yorkville. Naturally, he joined the Toronto Cricket Club. It would be his “sporting home” for over 40 years.

Saunders was admitted to the Ontario bar in 1884 and joined Toronto’s prestigious Kingsmill law firm. He remained with that firm for his entire career, eventually rising to senior partner. He was also influential in the Anglican church. But in spite of his distinguished career as a lawyer and a churchman,
Dyce Saunders is best remembered as a cricket star.

Saunders first played in international competition in 1881. Over the years he would represent Canada 20 times in games against teams from the United States, England, Ireland and Scotland. His name was known to cricket fans as far away as South Africa and Australia.

In 1892, Saunders was a founding member of the Canadian Cricket Association, based in Toronto. He was its president from 1904 to 1908. He was honorary vice-president of the Toronto Cricket Club and the Toronto District Cricket Council. In 1911 he became a trustee of the John Ross Robertson
Cricket Cup, which was awarded to the winner of international competition.

In 1924, Saunders was presented with a portrait of himself painted by Toronto artist Edmund Wyly Grier, known for painting Canada’s most famous people.

The portrait was given an honoured place in the Toronto Cricket Club at Armour Heights, and the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord’s Cricket Grounds in London, England.

Saunders crossed the sea to play as captain of all-star Canadian teams in tournaments in the United Kingdom three times. Following the first trip – in 1887 – he and teammate (and fellow lawyer) George Goldwin Smith Lindsey wrote a book in which they described how they, as gentlemen of Canada, travelled “to learn upon the English cricket fields by the lesson of experience the best features of the good old game.”

Saunders’ last cricket-related overseas trip was in 1922, when, at age 60, he was part of a campaign to revive the game’s fading popularity in Canada. However, the very structure in that era of organised cricket as a game for the well-heeled gentry meant  it fell behind sports like hockey and baseball in wide public appeal. The Canadian sports press paid it diminishing attention.

In 1889, Saunders married Amy Brehaut. They had three daughters and three sons. Their eldest son, Thomas, was killed in the First World War. Saunders maintained family and social connections with Guelph – one daughter, Mrs. H.O. Howitt, lived there at the time of his death – but he always resided in
exclusive Toronto neighbourhoods.

Saunders had a lifelong interest in education. He was a member of the governing body of Trinity College School and of the corporation of Trinity University. He was on the Council of Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, and was Secretary of Bishop Bethune College in Oshawa.

Among his numerous business interests, he was a director of the Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo Railway Company.

Saunders was a chorister for the Anglo-Catholic congregation of St. Thomas’s Church in Toronto. He was involved with the Missionary Society of the Church of England in Canada and belonged to the National Committee of the Layman’s Missionary Movement. He was also chancellor of the Anglican
diocese in Toronto from 1927 until his death.

As a prominent Toronto lawyer, Saunders was president of the County of York Law Association in 1906-07. He was named KC in 1908, at a time when those letters carried prestige.

In 1930 Saunders went to England to argue a case before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. He fell ill and died in London on June 12 following surgery. The trustees of the John Ross Robertson Cup sent out a request to cricket umpires and team captains to observe a minute of silence to mark the passing of Guelph’s Dean of Canadian cricket.