There is no doubt who had the most imposing moustache. From left: Joe Darling, George Giffen, and Ernie Jones; Clem Hill is sitting on the staircase © Getty Images
There is no doubt who had the most imposing moustache. From left: Joe Darling, George Giffen, and Ernie Jones; Clem Hill is sitting on the staircase © Getty Images

Ernie Jones, born September 30, 1869, was one of the fastest bowlers of the pre-War era. There were anecdotes involving him as well. Abhishek Mukherjee  narrates two, both of which involve sparrows.

Mention Ernie Jones, and the first thing you remember is that he once sent a ball through cricket’s most famous beard — this, after he hit The Doctor with each of his three previous balls. When an obviously annoyed WG Grace asked what was going on, Jones simply replied: “Sorry, Doctor, she slipped.”

That was in 1896. In 1897-98 Jones became the first man to be called for throwing in a Test match. He was fast, very fast, and never seemed to hesitate when it came to hitting batsmen. He also had the one of the most imposing moustaches in an era when they were in vogue.

But this is not about the frightening fast bowler who looked every bit of it. This is a story of, as promised, two sparrows.

Shooting a cannon at it

The first instance took place in the 1899 Lord’s Test, as narrated by Monty Noble in Adelaide News. Jones bowled brilliantly in the Test for figures of 7 for 88 and 3 for 76, and Australia won by 10 wickets.

Jones was fielding on this occasion somewhere near the ropes. The last ball of an over came to him. As he picked it up and prepared himself for the throw, he spotted a sparrow flying across the ground.

It is not clear exactly what passed through his mind at that point, but he playfully hurled the ball at the bird. Of course, a mild throw from Jones was quick enough to kill any creature of that size if it hit — which it did.

The sparrow fell lifeless on the Lord’s turf. The angry crowd hooted at Jones, and Jones — big, bad Jones — broke down. One must remember that this was an era when hunting was a popular sport.

“Though perhaps not so sensitive as the little girl who dissolved into tears when a fly bumped its head on a window-pane Jones was absolutely devoid of cruelty,” Noble concluded. “He was a long time in living the incident down.”

Worth two in the bush

If the first incident was an unfortunate one that revealed a lesser-known side of Jones, the second is nothing short of hilarious.

This one also took place at Lord’s. It seems unlikely that a cricketer can come across two birds of the same species on the same ground during his career, but multiple sources corroborate both incidents (though none points out which match), including Cecil Parkin in Strand.

It was a very hot afternoon, and Jones was having a breather at “long field”. He was tired, presumably after a long spell or two of furious bowling, and had probably fallen into a stupor of sorts.

He woke up with a start when he heard the familiar voice of Syd Gregory yelling “look out, Ernie!” Jones instinctively stretched his hand and held it in a tremendous display of reflex action.

The Lord’s crowd broke into spontaneous applause — but not all of them. The ones seated close to the boundary wondered exactly what had happened. The ball, after all, had rolled harmlessly for four, so what was the fuss about?

It turned out that Jones had caught a sparrow and missed the ball. Of course, this would later be bettered by Petero Kubunavanua of Fiji. Annoyed by a flying swallow on one occasion, Kubunavanua immediately caught it and tucked it away in his sulu pocket (yes, he used to field in a sulu) for the rest of the session.

Let me quote Parkin here, for he gave the entire thing an astonishing philosophical angle: “I have known men stand in their lot with half-alert senses, suddenly awake to the fact that a great opportunity was on them, hurriedly force themselves into action, fling out their hands and catch — sparrows; and sometimes less than sparrows. You can’t afford to drowse wherever your place in life is cast, for the great opportunities for which you pine and hope generally come at a surprising moment, and are missed by you unless you are always alert and ready. There’s little cause for self-congratulation if you catch a sparrow but miss the catch of the season.”