Inglis Thornton
Charles Inglis Thornton (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

On August 31, 1886 and the day after, Charles Thornton hit some of the biggest sixes cricket had seen till then. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the goings-on at Scarborough that day.

Almost a century before the first ever ODI was played, there was one Charles Inglis ‘CI’ Thornton, who hit some of the monstrous sixes of the era. He never wore gloves or even pads (though he sometimes appeared with one glove). A shin-pad concealed inside his sock was generally sufficient.

Indeed, so good was his footwork that he didn’t need anything. “Individual in style, he jumped quickly to the ball in making his magnificent drives,” described Wisden of his aggressive batsmanship. This was in stark contrast with the other big hitters of the era, especially George Bonnor, who relied entirely on power and didn’t care much for stepping down the pitch.

Thornton was no Jessop. He did not score rapid hundreds (he scored only 5, in 217 matches, and averaged 19). He played mostly cameos. However, when he hit sixes they went many a mile, often enough to put today’s superbat users to shame. Numerous contemporaries went gaga over his strokes, and there is data to back that as well.

Playing for Eton in 1868, Thornton hit a six that cleared the Lord’s pavilion. While this pavilion was lower than the pavilion erected in 1890, it must also be remembered Thornton was still at school. James Lillywhite hailed it as the biggest straight drive he had seen.

Playing for South (England) at Canterbury in 1871, he hit William Rose for a six that “strictly measured” 152 yards. In the nets in the same year at Hove he made two hits that covered 162 yards and 168 yards 2 feet (we will discuss the second hit later). And on another occasion he hit every single ball of a four-ball over from Vynell Walker out of the ground, at Canterbury.

In 1871 Thornton was touring Malton with Scarborough Visitors. Bets were placed (but at 2:1 odds!) that he would not be able to clear the ground. He did it five times.

He threatened James Southerton that he would hit him out of The Oval — and did it (“I told you I would do it, Jim”). He even lofted Southerton out of the ground on three different sides. It must be mentioned here that Southerton often got his revenge.

I had promised to return to that monster six of 168 yards 2 feet. There have been numerous recollections of the shot, most significantly in WG Grace’s Cricket. However, Grace, like many others, was not present and had received second-hand information.

Did the shot really travel that distance? Gerald Brodribb, that doyen of researchers, obviously curious, investigated the authenticity. Brodribb wrote of his research in details in the January 1975 edition of The Cricketer. Not only is it worth a read, it also makes little sense to try and investigate further: the case has been closed for good.

James Pycroft, who apparently measured the shot, had mentioned 160 in places. Thornton himself was quoted estimating it at 162 and 160 on two occasions. Sources suggest that Pycroft was not actually present when Thornton hit, but was told the spot where the ball landed.

Even if we estimate it at 145 yards (one, and only one, eyewitness mentions says “140 yards to 150”), that amounts to 132 metres, comfortably bigger than the distance covered by almost any six of recent time.

There is no doubt that Thornton was one of the biggest hitters of all time. He was also the reason behind the success of the Scarborough Festival — to the extent that he was honoured with the Freedom of the Borough.

The match in question was a part of the 1886 Festival. Thornton led Gentlemen of England despite the presence of Grace and Drewy Stoddart. Thornton and Grace added 21 for the opening stand, but AG Steel ran through them, bowling unchanged for 7 for 61 and skittling them out for 90. Then I Zingari secured a 209-run lead.

The Gentlemen lost two wickets before Grace provided support to Stoddart. Thornton walked out at 131 for 4. They were bowled out for another 135 at stumps. Thornton scored 107 of these and remained not out. All this lasted 70 minutes.

There have been faster innings in First-Class cricket, but not many of them were achieved in only 26 scoring shots — that too in an era when you had to hit the ball out of the ground (not the fence) for a six.

Arthur Pullin (who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Old Ebor’) provided the array of scoring shots of the complete 107-run innings: 6164621146461444I64446I644I42. Indeed, he had cleared the ground no fewer than eight times.

What were these sixes like? One of them went over the houses into Trafalgar Square (there is one in Scarborough too). Grace was present that day: “Unfortunately this hit could not be measured, but it was thought to be the largest hit he ever made.”

It was measured, however, as Thornton told Pullin: “The hit sent the ball over the third chimney from the space between the houses, and it was off A. G. Steel. The late Mr Baker, the Scarborough secretary, and I measured it next day, and we found the distance to be 138 yards. It was therefore not a record by any means.”

It was indeed a spectacular innings, but it did not contribute to a win. I Zingari duly collected the 58 they needed on the third morning. To keep the crowd entertained, a one-innings match was arranged, between Gentlemen of Middlesex and Gentlemen of England.

Here Thornton scored 54 with 5 sixes, 2 of them off consecutive balls. This was a match where they decided to have five-ball overs, and so big did Thornton hit that they needed four separate balls to finish an over, for he kept sending them on a field outside the ground.

One of them was monstrous. “The ball went through an open window on the second floor of one of the houses, and was thrown back through a window on the first floor. How it made the descent from one floor to the other — whether it rolled down or was taken down — we never ascertained,” recalled the man himself.

This was cleared up by a resident of Trafalgar Square in a letter to Manchester Guardian: “I lived in the Square at that time, and witnessed the incident referred to. The house in which I lived was No. 45; the house whose window was smashed was No. 39. We were only two houses apart. The first ball of an over went crashing through the glass of the second-storey window of No. 39. The next ball did the same, and the cricketer suggested that the window had better be left open. I also saw that marvellous hit when Mr Thornton lifted the ball clean over the same house — a four-storeyed building — into the garden in the centre of the square. When the height and distance are taken into account I very much question whether a bigger hit has ever been made.”

Some hitter, eh?

Brief scores:

Gentlemen of England 90 (AG Steel 7 for 61) and 266 (Drewy Stoddart 57, Charles Thornton 107*; AG Steel 3 for 135) lost to I Zingari 299 (Cecil Wilson 86, GB Studd 55; William Collins 5 for 108) and 58 for 2 by 8 wickets.

Gentlemen of England 153 (Percy de Paravicini 3 wickets) lost to Gentlemen of Middlesex 215 (Charles Thornton 54; Harry Leadbeater 4 wickets). Gentlemen of Middlesex batted on after match was over.