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Speed guns have been around for a few years now, but nowhere near long enough for that favourite debating point of cricket tragics, who is the fastest bowler to have played the game, to have become plagued by statistics. Those numbers that can be found are the least trusted in the game – and not without good cause – even if the technology were the same, and it seldom is, conditions can never be exactly replicated.

When the subject crops up there are a few ‘usual suspects’, but never a consensus. Views are strongly held though, and few ever change their minds. Personally I would like to think the answer is Harold Larwood, although in truth I suspect it is Jeff Thomson. It is a curious feature of the debate that most who make their judgments on the basis of those they have seen rather than what they have read tend to remain mired in their childhood memories. Perhaps distance in time speeds things up in the mind’s eye.

Back in the days when I decided Thommo was the quickest most of my elders and betters, by which I mean my father’s cricketing friends, would nominate Larwood or Frank Tyson, with the odd mention of Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist. These were all names I knew, but then occasionally the conversation would be joined by someone of an older generation still, and then the name of Charles Kortright would be thrown in. That was one that stumped me, as nowhere on the list of Test cricketers did the name Kortright appear, and he held no records – all that Wisden’s births and deaths of cricketers section told me was that he had been born in 1871, died in 1952, and had played for Essex.

It was to be a few years before I learned much more about Kortright, but as I read more about the game his name continued to crop up, and the theme was a constant one. He was at his peak for just a few years, between 1893 and 1898, but he clearly made a huge impression on all who saw him, and his reputation endured, as flicking through some old copies of The Cricketer confirmed to me.

In 1932 an article by EJ Metcalfe expressed the view that, in my time I am sure Kortright at his best was the fastest in England. Five years later SF Hayes, another writer for the magazine, made much the same point when commenting on the bowling of the then current Essex spearhead, Kenneth Farnes, in the 1937 Gentlemen v Players fixture. His description of Farnes was that he taking a little longer run than usual and making the most of his height, sent the ball down at a pace unequalled at headquarters since the days of CJ Kortright.

Both Metcalfe and Hayes would have seen Larwood at full tilt, yet their views seem to be representative of those who had seen both men bowl. Pelham Warner, the first editor of The Cricketer, shared that general view of Kortright so much so that when, in 1928, he had run a piece by George Brooking that suggested the South African JJ Kotze might have been marginally quicker he went so far as to add an editor’s note in support of Kortright. And it wasn’t contained in a footnote at the end either, Warner actually interrupting Brooking’s prose to make his point.

One or two expressed the view that Kortright’s Australian contemporary , Ernie Jones, might be quicker. Jones himself, who legend has it once sent a bouncer through WG Grace’s beard, scotched that one though, his view being; Kortright was fastest and I was next. In those days international cricketers rarely went on to become writers. One of the few who did, and who played with and against Kortright, and against both Jones and Kotze, was Gilbert Jessop. The view ‘The Croucher’ held in respect of Kortright was that he was the fastest of his time. According to John Arlott another England batsman, William Gunn, the patriarch of the famous Nottinghamshire family, told him that the delivery from Kortright that bowled him in the Gentlemen v Players fixture in 1893 was a yard faster than any other of my experience.

Inevitably there is no film of Kortright’s bowling available, so in the 21st century we have to rely on the descriptions of those who did see him for an idea of what he looked like in action. The fullest description I have seen is that his run, which was very long even for a fast bowler, was begun and continued at full speed. His right arm was thrust forward and the hand grasping the ball made a curious rotatory movement. His action must have involved an enormous expenditure of energy, but seemed one of the most untiring of bowlers. Time and again reference is made to the length of the Kortright run up. The Rev RL Hodgson, better known between the wars by the soubriquet ‘A Country Vicar’, was present at the famous Gentlemen v Players fixture in 1898 and thirty years later wrote I doubt whether I ever saw anyone bowl so fast as did Kortright that Monday morning, adding that his run up consisted of thirty paces.

Kortright lent his name to an article in the 1948 edition of Wisden which tells us a little more about his bowling and, more particularly, that he was not a man who looked for very much in the way of swing or seam. When Neville Cardus pressed the great Lancashire batsman JT Tyldesley on the subject of what Kortright did with the ball, and was reluctant to accept ‘nothing’ as an answer, Tyldesley’s retort was there was no time for anything. His interest was in hitting the stumps, and he bowled very many of his 489 First Class victims. Unsurprisingly he was a great advocate of the Yorker, particularly to a new batsmen. He was no great fan of the bouncer either. As late as 2000 Trevor Bailey wrote of a conversation he had with Kortwright at the beginning of his own career when he had asked him about the short-pitched delivery, and been told that I just bowled as fast as I could at off stump so the batsman had to drive me through the covers. The evidence of his peers was slightly at odds with that in that whilst no one suggested that Kortright’s main aim was other than to hit the stumps, he was a bowler who was easily riled and with his tail up he certainly wasn’t averse to digging the ball in at a batsman who he was displeased with.

A career average of 21.05 was a good one and it is curious that Kortright never played for England. It is true that his career at the top was short, but despite being an amateur he was never unavailable either to play at home or to tour Australia in 1894/95 or 1897/98. Given his speed in English conditions the prospect of his bowling on the hard Australian pitches is a tantalising one. It is occasionally suggested that his action was questionable although that seems to arise out of a particulary story being misrelated. The rather more straightforward reason for the omission is that in Arthur Mold and the Surrey pair of Bill Lockwood and Tom Richardson there were three fast bowlers who were ahead of him. Mold’s career average was 15.54 and those of Lockwood and Richardson 18.34 and 18.43 respectively. It is also relevant that in the case of the tour Kortright was best placed to be selected for, that to Australia in 1897/98, the selectors in their wisdom chose to take only 13 players. There was just one pace bowler, Richardson, who was bowled into the ground and was never the same again

The misinterpreted story involves Mold. More than a century on the consensus is that the Lancastrian did have an illegal action and Kortright certainly believed that. Always a man keen to make his point in a match between Essex and Lancashire Kortright pointedly threw one delivery. The umpire, clearly not looking for it, did not no ball him, but many did notice and the story was told and retold. To that extent therefore Kortright certainly did throw, but just the once.

As noted why Kortright, described in Wisden by Stanley Jackson as not only a very fast bowler but a very good one, never played for England is probably that even if he was more than fast enough he wasn’t quite good enough. But it is unlikely that Kortright himself was troubled by the omission. In his day Test cricket was far from being the be-all and end-all, and it was not unknown for men invited to play for England to prefer to play in an important county fixture. The biggest game in the cricket calendar was the Gents and Players at Lord’s, and Kortright produced a couple of memorable performances in those.

The Wikipedia page on Kortright states that it was his proud boast that he never did a day’s work in his life. That is not strictly accurate, but he was an interesting character who certainly didn’t do very much in the way of work after his First Class career began in 1893. He was one of seven children but the family had a considerable property portfolio so he had a privileged upbringing. His father clearly believed he should work, and gave Kortright his interest in a Kent brewery. Kortright moved to Oxfordshire to learn the brewing business with a different company although, as he did with the rest of his life, he seems to have spent most of his time playing either cricket or golf. His time in the Thames Valley did however give rise to one part of the Kortright legend. Whilst playing for Wallingford, one of a number of teams he represented in the area, a delivery he bowled took off with such ferocity that it carried the boundary for six byes.

It is not clear to what extent Kortright ever involved himself in the brewing business although one suspects very little. In any event in 1894, at 23, he sold his stake in it and the capital raised by the sale was sufficient to ensure that he had never had to contemplate working again and he spent the rest of his long life as the epitome of the gentleman amateur. In terms of family Kortright never married, so there was no one to whom the genes could be passed on. In fact he and his three brothers were unsuccessful in producing a male heir who would continue the name through a further generation. Kortright did have two nephews, both named Mounteney. They shared similar fates, dying in France whilst serving their country, the elder in 1917 and the younger in 1940. The last of the Kortright siblings was the youngest sister, Caroline, with whom the legendary fast bowler lived throughout his adult life.

Partly as a result of his county, Essex, not having First Class status until 1894 Kortright was at the relatively advanced age of 22 when he made his First Class debut for the MCC at Lord’s against the touring Australians in 1893. Showing no sign of nerves he took eight wickets, running through the tail in both innings, hitting the stumps six times. He was widely praised and his efforts earned him selection for his second match, the season’s showpiece at Lord’s between the Gents and Players, and the legend was born. The Morning Post reporter wrote Kortright’s pace seemed altogether too much for the batsmen, as he bowled 23 overs and took 7-73 as the cream of England’s professional batsmen capitulated for just 118. He was less successful as the Players followed on, and in the end the game was drawn, but that mattered little as Kortright’s fearsome reputation had been established. If there were any doubt about Essex getting their First Class status the following year that went when, a couple of weeks later he had match figures of 8-59 as the then Minor County swept aside the previous season’s County Champions, Yorkshire, on home turf at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. To reinforce the point a month later Surrey were dismissed for 54 and 76, Kortright 13-64, hitting the stumps for all bar one.

With Kortright as their spearhead Essex swiftly found their feet in the Championship. Not all the counties would play them to start with and Gloucestershire, captained by the redoubtable WG Grace didn’t arrange a fixture until 1898. Perhaps a certain sniffiness on the part of Grace’s side contributed to the ill-feeling that developed through the game. The Essex players saw various aspects of their opponents’ behaviour as at best gamesmanship and at worst cheating. The game was a battle royal and Grace and Kortright stood centre stage. Essex batted first and, 7-44 from Grace, just over a week short of his fiftieth birthday, saw them dismissed for 128. Kortright bowled at his fastest in the Gloucestershire reply and his 5-41 helped restrict the visitors lead to 103. But he couldn’t stop the grand old man scoring 126.

Essex did better in their second innings and the victory target was 148. Kortright, bowling as quickly as he had ever bowled, ripped through the defences of Grace’s opening partner and number three with just a single on the board. Grace somehow survived the burst of speed but matters came to a head when he refused to walk after being given out caught and bowled by Kortright’s opening partner Walter Mead from a shot that he, but seemingly no one else, considered to be a bump ball. The power of the champion’s protest persuaded the umpire to change his mind. Kortright was livid and gave WG what sounds pretty much like a burst of bodyline. Despite that the old man survived to be there on the final day, which Gloucestershire began on 81-3..

There was no loss of speed next morning and a titanic struggle between Grace and Kortright ensued before, at 96, Grace fell to Kortright for 49. The story of the dismissal contains one of the best of all sledges, and whilst the story of Kortright’s hat trick is surely to some extent apocryphal it became part of the folklore of the game. First Kortright caught Grace on the pad plumb in front, but didn’t get the decision. There followed a hard snick to the ‘keeper, duly clung onto but with the umpire’s finger again staying down before an incandescent Kortright finally sent one through Grace removing the middle stump and knocking its leg-side neighbour back. Kortright sent Grace on his way with the observation; Surely you’re not going Doc’, there’s one stump still standing.

In the end Gloucestershire, their lower order marshalled skilfully by Jessop, crept home by the narrowest possible margin of one wicket despite Kortright’s 7-57. The ill-feeling between the two powerful personalities lingered but Grace and Kortright were to bury the hatchet a few days later in another memorable Gents v Players encounter, a match that has come to be known ‘WG’s 50th Birthday Party’. The match did not go too well for either Grace or the Gentlemen. By the time the amateurs set off in the fourth innings in search of a distant 296 their captain had a damaged hand and heel and was at number nine in the order. When last man Kortright joined Grace the score was 80-9 and there was an hour and a half to go and an early finish anticipated. As things turned out the pair got within three minutes of securing the draw before Lockwood, brought back as a last throw of the dice, fooled his fellow quick bowler with a slower delivery. Kortwright drove at it far too early and put up a straightforward catch. He had top scored for his side with 46, leaving Grace unbeaten on 31. Any remaining emnity disappeared as Grace and Kortright left the field, arms linked together, to a rousing reception.

In 1899 Kortright might well have been at his peak but, sadly, he missed the entire season. It must be likely that, after his 1898 performances, he would finally have secured the elusive Test cap in that summer’s Ashes series. Of his great rivals Lockwood was injured, Richardson past his best and Mold out of favour. The reason for the long lay off was a back injury although the cause is unclear, Kortright’s biographer referring simply to an ‘accident at home’.

Despite missing a whole season Kortright was fit again as the new century dawned and played a full season in 1900. He wasn’t as fast as previously, and the introduction of the use of marl in the preparation of wickets helped batsmen generally. The introduction that summer of the six ball over, not something that would obviously cause too much distress to the bowler, was certainly something that Kortright himself did not like. In the circumstances his return of 65 wickets at 19.47 was impressive. He also enjoyed his best season with the bat to that date as he scored 591 runs at 20.37 with the highest score of his career, 131, coming against Middlesex in the last game of the season.

The verdict of the man himself was that I do not profess to be a batsman, I make runs occasionally, but that is because I hit out and take my chance. Despite that self-deprecating observation Kortright’s career average was 17.61 and he had also scored a century against Leicestershire in 1898 as well as the innings in his famous partnership with WG. In an era when there were plenty of batting rabbits around whatever his own views might have been it is quite clear that for a batting side all was never lost until Kortright was back in the pavilion.

By the next summer, 1901, despite being just 30 years of age Kortright was no longer a force with the ball and just 25 wickets at a price of more than 40 runs apiece were ample testimony to that. The following season, in which Essex fell to 13th in the Championship, he played almost exclusively as a batsman. He took to bowling a bit of leg spin too, but only managed two expensive wickets with it. There were no more centuries for Kortright the batsman, but he did managed four fifties and his season’s aggregate of 736 at 24.53 was to prove the most impressive of his career.

Their travails of the previous season persuaded Essex to offer Kortright the captaincy for 1903 and it proved a good appointment. Some fine new talent prospered, particularly batsman Frank Gillingham and future England skipper Johnny Douglas. With the bat the cares of captaincy adversely affected Kortright’s performances, but 28 wickets at 14.21 meant that his leg spin was rather more use than hitherto. That was however it for Kortright as an Essex regular. He resigned the captaincy at the end of the season and although he continued to play plenty of cricket for a few years, occasionally for Essex, most of that was at club level. His last First Class match was for his county against Middlesex in 1907. He scored just four on his only visit to the crease in a drawn encounter, and after not being called upon to turn his arm over at all in the visitors’ first innings he was given four overs in the second innings, and had the scalp of Plum Warner to show for them.

After he retired from cricket Kortright had more time to play golf, and he also enjoyed angling and shooting, so his workless life was far from empty. During the Great War he even did something analogous to working, serving as a Special Constable. As a man Kortright was something of a throwback, never seemingly comfortable outside of what was familiar. The owner of the property that he rented for many years described him as reserved and inhibited with late Victorian ideals. Another member of the landlord’s family described him as an eccentric and rather spoiled man, who was extremely lucky to have such a devoted sister to make a fuss of him. Kortright’s own niece told Kortright’s biographer that her uncle was a gruff and sneering man.

As he grew older the golf course and his club at Thorndon became the centre of Kortright’s world. When he wasn’t playing he was sat in the bar on an armchair that no one else was permitted to use. According to one employee at the club he was a very bad tempered player and hell to caddy for, and former Essex skipper Tom Pearce described him as a ferocious character on the course. A stickler for the game’s complex etiquette Kortright was quick to anger and admonish, and that seems to have applied equally to those who joined him in the clubhouse at the bridge table. At the same time it does seem possible that some chose to wind the old boy up a little, as despite those observations he seems to have been well-liked, and to enhance his popularity he was always ready to buy a drink for those who reminded him of his glory days. Korty was 81 when he died in 1952. His funeral was extremely well attended and the tributes were numerous and fulsome. In its leader, not tucked away in an obituary, The Times mentioned an aside often uttered by those who had seen the old fast bowler play, and the same words were the last of Charles Sale’s 1986 biography. So apt are they that I will trot them out again in closing this feature; Ah, but you should have seen Kortright

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