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Jessop’s Match?

Caricature by Leslie Ward of Mr GL Jessop. Caption read "the Croucher". Published in Vanity Fair, 25 July 1901, as "Men of the Day" Number 816.

In his 1979 book Figures on the Green, Derek Lodge included a chapter on the greatest ever Test innings. Using a mix of objective and subjective analysis, he determined that the greatest ever Test innings was that played by Gilbert Jessop in the fifth Ashes Test of 1902 at the Oval. His assessment of Jessop’s innings rated it to be significantly better than any other and, although the study was published in 1979 prior to such classics as Gooch’s 154* at Headingley against West Indies in 1991 and Lara’s 153* against Australia in 1999, the gap between Jessop and the next highest rated suggests that had the study been published today Jessop’s would still be at or near the top.

I have always felt that Jessop’s innings, while undoubtedly a magnificent effort, has been over-rated for several reasons. When I say over-rated, I mean from the point of view of it being possibly the best ever. My reasons are as follows:-

a) this innings, like Botham in 1981, saw a big hitting batsmen walk to the crease with the match in an apparently hopeless position and with nothing to lose if he went for it;
b) although Jessop dominated the strike while at the wicket (as he invariably did), he was by no means alone in his efforts to achieve victory among English batsmen;
c) the match was a dead-rubber;
d) the conditions were not as bad as some have claimed;
e) it was largely the manner of his display which elevated its ranking and its legend.

Gilbert Jessop, “The Croucher”, was not a batsman who could readily be described as polished or multi-faceted, rather it appears he had only one game and that was to hit out in every innings – more often that not he would throw away his innings with lusty attempts at big hitting. In an interview, the great CB Fry had this to say about Jessop’s batting technique, such as it was:-

“It just happened that his method was to fling his bat at the ball as if he were throwing the bat away, and yet to keep a grip of the handle which applied the blade to the ball with terrific accuracy. He did miss the ball occasionally, but not often. He was not only called a slogger, he was called “The Croucher” – he took his stance at the wicket, literally crouching over the handle of his bat, and when the bowler delivered the ball he dipped his head down within a yard of the ground; and then, having taken a look upwards at the ball he chased down the wicket, and he let fly and neither he nor anyone else knew whether the ball would streak past cover point or whether it would be lifted over the square leg boundary.”

That last sentence confirms that his technique was as much, if not more devil-may-care as careful placement – imagine his prowess at Twenty20 had he been born a century later. A glance through the pages of Wisden though will confirm that when he was on song there was no more thrilling sight – there are a number of innings described in glowing terms detailing his big hitting at unheard of rates, but also almost as many lauding his brilliant fielding. It was the latter which had been brought to the fore prior to the match in question, following the famous dropped catch by Fred Tate in the fourth Test which was blamed (rather unfairly in my opinion, as I detailed in the linked feature) for the loss of the Ashes. Even before the crucial fourth Test some were calling for Jessop’s inclusion on the strength of his fielding alone.

The Sporting Life, commenting on the absence of Jessop from that precipitous fourth Test, stated that “the Gloucestershire captain scored 12 and 55 against Australia at Sheffield, and thereby looked to have made his place secure, especially as he is the most brilliant fieldsman now appearing in first-class cricket. It may therefore be presumed that his wretched batting against the Colonials at Bristol last week has caused the Selection Committee to leave him out. Certainly two worse displays than his on that occasion are not often given by a leading batsman. He only scored 13 at his first attempt, and his 21 on Wednesday was nothing more than a piece of slogging. Those people who saw his splendid fielding at Birmingham and at Sheffield must, however, regret his absence.”

Indeed his fielding in the final Test was singled out for particular praise in the newspapers with the assertion that “[England] owed him the saving of as many runs as the Colonials owed to Clem Hill”. With the assistance of, among other things Jessop’s great work in the field then, England came to the last innings requiring 263 for victory. Just how much of a tall order was that? The Manchester Evening News claimed that the wicket “although bumpy in places, was in a condition favourable to the batsmen”. Meanwhile the Sheffield Daily Telegraph had this to say:- “There was no rain overnight, but there was heavy dew, and in the opinion of those who batted early on in the last innings the wicket was not a great deal better than it had been on the second day”, then continued “the wicket was bare in places, and altogether against the batting side obtaining [263 to win]”. Others such as Brodribb have written that it was “a brute of a wicket” and “totally unfavourable to batting”, but that a shower just before Jessop came in made it a bit easier. It seems that the conditions caused some disagreement between those who were reporting at the time, so we should probably from this distance consider the conditions to be fifty-fifty between bat and ball. Interestingly the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, despite the comments above by correspondent “Looker On” regarding the wicket, reported that when MacLaren and Palairet strode out the spectators “felt confident of an English victory”. Nonetheless, five runs later, both MacLaren and Tyldesley were out and with only 48 on the scoreboard five of the cream of English batting were back in the dressing-room, the England supporters having by then become reconciled to approaching defeat.

With five wickets down and 215 still to get, England basically had at that stage no chance of winning. The English supporters were in despair when Jessop, “thick-set and fearless”, “volatile and uncertain”, strode to the crease. Jessop proceeded to launch into a display of big hitting to rival any seen before – here are the recollections of English playwright Ben Travers, a great lover of cricket who sometimes travelled with the touring MCC sides, who was present at the match as a callow youth:-

“Jackson put up a wonderful defensive performance, a sensible innings, at the other end Jessop went absolutely crazy. This menace, Saunders, had already dismissed all our batsmen; Jessop hit him for four 4s, in the square leg and long on district. Hugh Trumble was bowling at the other end, Jessop hit him onto the awning in the pavilion; the ball came back, he hit him there again the next ball, and so he went on. In those days, the enthusiasm was absolute of course…England had utterly no chance at all, but…hadn’t they? It began to dawn, with this man going crazy…”

Prior to 1910 a six had to be hit out of the ground, however twice Jessop hit the ball onto the awning in front of the pavilion and once onto the roof of the pavilion, other historical accounts describing a fourth hit which would have counted six today. However, though he hit with fury his hitting was apparently never wild. He wasted no time and had added 39 in 20 minutes by lunch; when Jackson was dismissed the pair had added 109 in only 68 minutes (of which Jessop had made 83). Try as they might, the Australians could not contain him, the field was described as being “away in the far country” as the Australian fielders “began to beat a hasty retreat towards the terraces and pavilion rails”, according to the Edinburgh Evening News, eventually resulting in there being no fewer than five fielders out on the boundary. In total, Jessop blasted his way to 104 made out of 139 in 75 minutes from 79 balls faced, hitting a five and 17 fours and bringing England back into a game which only an hour before looked to be irrevocably lost. Travers continues:-

“In those days the bowler hat was the fashion, everyone had a bowler hat, and I remember when Jessop made his century staid citizens removed their bowler hats and threw them like boomerangs into the air. Unlike boomerangs they didn’t return to the owner, which was a great sacrifice as they must have cost at least three shillings a time. Oh, a wonderful sight”.

There is some doubt as to whether the hats would have been bowlers or boaters, but the potential loss was presumably just as costly. With 76 still to be made and three wickets remaining however, the chances of England winning were “none too bright”, according to the Manchester Evening News; in fact, the chances of an England win at that point were statistically significantly less than than fifty-fifty. Nonetheless, with Hirst playing brilliantly and with great confidence, the score crept up to 214 before the eigth wicket fell. A further 34 runs were added before England lost its ninth wicket, Lilley being dismissed with the score on 248, such that when Rhodes joined his Yorkshire team-mate 15 runs were still required for English victory. An oft-repeated but possibly apocryphal quotation, popularised by Cardus, has Hirst opining to Rhodes “We’ll get ’em in singles”, however in a subsequent interview Hirst stated:-

“With regard to the Oval Test, it has often been mentioned in the press that I said to Wilfred Rhodes that we could get the runs in singles. To tell the truth probably I said, having confidence in him, I should play your ordinary game and we should win.”

Whatever the truth, they proceeded to do just that, each run scored being greeted by hearty cheers from the huge crowd. Adding to the growing excitement, had the Australians held a chance from Rhodes the great work done by Jessop and Hirst would have been for nought, but fortunately for England the chance went begging. With two runs needed for victory, another single was added “amid waving of hats and frantic cheering”. Trumble began the last over, and here Ben Travers once more captures the scene at the end:-

“He [Trumble] served Wilfred Rhodes up with a slow half-volley on the leg stump – almost anybody in the world would have said “Ah, here we are, crack-wallop, hit it into the air and get caught by Duff; not a bit of it, Wilfred Rhodes gently tapped it past square leg and ran the one run, and there we were”.

The fact that England had not beaten Australia for some time (not for six years in England) had also increased the euphoria felt by those present and of the journalists reporting on events. Nonetheless, I must admit in researching this particular Test I have become more impressed with Jessop’s performance; the Edinburgh Evening News waxed that “the one and only Gilbert represents at once the uncertainty and splendid possibilities of cricket.”

But still, the importance of Hirst’s contribution cannot be overstated; Hirst was described as having done much to preserve his partners from suffering from nervousness. It should be remembered that Hirst had also, in common with Jessop, been restored to the side after missing the pivotal fourth Test. Wisden stated that Hirst’s innings was “in its way as remarkable as Jessop’s”. Prior to seeing England home in the fourth innings, Hirst had caused an Australian batting collapse with 5/77 and then helped England avoid the follow-on when top-scoring with a fine 43.

Like Sir Ian Botham some eighty years later, Jessop took an apparently lifeless match and by fabulous hitting gave it a breath of a chance, but needed Hirst, as Willis did Botham at Headingley, to bring it fully to life, and while I’m not suggesting that Hirst (or Willis, for that matter) should be given top billing, I do feel they should at least be credited as co-stars.

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