Playing at Headingley in 1926, Jack Hobbs reached the coveted figure of 60 and raised the bat towards the enclosure that consisted of players’ wives and ex-cricketers. A confused Clem Hill enquired Mrs Hobbs of the reason. A bemused Ada Hobbs responded that Hobbs had just gone past Hill’s record of most Ashes runs.
Hill was a man like that. There have been cricketers – even legends of the sport who were not really keen on records – but Hill’s indifference towards them was on another plane. Lesser batsmen would have blamed fate about the distressing sequence of scores in the Australian summer of 1901-02. Not Hill.
On a wet pitch in the second Test at Melbourne, Hill, coming out at 48 for 5, scored a crucial 99 (the first-ever in the history of the sport) in the third innings of the match before Reggie Duff and Warwick Armstrong famously added 120 for the last wicket, thereby resulting in an Australian win to square the series.
Archie MacLaren won the toss in the crucial third Test at Adelaide. After a 149-run opening stand between MacLaren and Tom Hayward there was a slight collapsed as both openers were run out, and England quickly collapsed to 186 for 5. However, they recovered through Willie Quaife and Len Braund, and batted well into the second day, Braund scoring an unbeaten hundred while Hugh Trumble and Monty Noble shared three scalps each. England finished with 388.
Australia responded well. Victor Trumper added 137 for the second wicket with Hill; Hill followed his 99 with a 98. Hel was caught by Johnny Tyldesley on the bicycle track surrounding Adelaide Oval. Tyldesley tried to recall Hill, but he refused, citing that both captains had agreed to that the fence would be the boundary; he might have got a six today. John Gunn ran through the tail, eventually taking five wickets while Braund, opening bowling after his unbeaten hundred, picked up three. Between them, they made up for the injury of Syd Barnes. England had an important lead of 67 when they began their second innings on day three.
It was all Trumble from then. Attritional batting meant that England inched towards a target beyond Australia’s reach. However, Trumble kept on pegging away at the wickets, and eventually picked up six of the nine wickets to fall (Barnes did not bat). Not a single batsman crossed fifty, and when Duff and Trumper came out to open batting for Australia at 2.20 pm on Day Five, they needed to score 315 to secure a victory.
Duff began cheerfully, glancing Gunn for a boundary, but then trod on to the stumps while trying to play back. This was when Hill joined Trumper. They steadied the ship, and were generous with their strokeplay. Hill opened up in the company of Trumper. He cut Gunn so hard that his bat was broken and had to be replaced. He soon hit Braund out of the park and took 10 off the over. When on 19, Hill gave a stumping chance off the same bowler, but Dick Lilley muffled it.
Syd Gregory joined Hill as Trumper fell to Gunn for 25 with the score on 50. Hill did not lose the momentum; he hit Gunn straight past him for a four, and then repeated the stroke for an all-run five. He followed that with another boundary. Gregory joined in the fun, and accelerated before he edged one off Gunn to the slips after he survived a loud appeal in the previous over.
The Australian captain Joe Darling walked out with the score on 98 for 3, and in a fix of sorts. It was then that Hill took over. The 100 came up in 95 minutes. Hill played with caution, getting back to Colin Blythe and coming forward to Gunn – taking each ball on its merit. Eventually Hill saw Gunn off. He was replaced by Hayward, but not before the score reached 138 for 3. The batsmen ran hard, resulting in fielders of the stature of Gilbert Jessop overthrowing. Hill was 78 and Darling 22 when Australia reached 152.
Hill eventually glanced Hayward for an all-run four to reach 90 amidst a huge cheer from the crowd. He followed that with a two and a single, and the pent-up excitement in the ground was unbearable. After his 99 and 98, could he finally score that elusive hundred? Darling walked up to Hill and had a chat.
Hill reached 96, and MacLaren spread out the field to stop the boundary. Hill hit one hard off Braund, but the defensive field meant that he had to be content with a single. Gilbert Jessop was brought on from the other end. He bowled at a brisk pace, and managed to hit Hill’s pad. There was a ferocious appeal, but Bob Crockett seemed unperturbed, resulting in a tremendous applause.
Jessop ran in again to bowl the next ball. The illustrious left-hander stood up, if somewhat tensed, to face him. He played it well, but to his horror, the ball rolled in a sickeningly slow trickle towards the stumps. He tried to stop the ball with his bat – making that one last attempt – but the ball won the race. It hit the stumps, and the bails were dislodged. Hill had managed to follow his 99 and 98 with a 97.
Australia ended the day on 201 for 4, and Darling and Trumble batted splendidly to see them to a four-wicket victory. They won the next two Tests as well to clinch the series 4-1.
Hill’s sequence of 99, 98 and 97 has often been jokingly referred to as a “gradual loss of form”. However, the English author Simon Wilde had the final say on this: he called the run an “unparalleled spell of nonagenarian’s neurosis”. Hill went on to score 3,412 runs at a commendable 39.21 from 49 Tests, and despite scoring three more 90s, finished with seven hundreds in an era when runs were not easy to come by. He held the record for most Test runs for 22 years, and was inducted into Australian Cricket’s Hall of Fame in 2005.
Brief scores: England 388 (Len Braund 103 not out, Tom Hayward 90, Willie Quaife 68, Archie MacLaren 67) and 247 (Tom Hayward 47, Archie MacLaren 44, Willie Quaife 44, Hugh Trumble 6 for 74) lost to Australia 321 (Clem Hill 98, Victor Trumper 65, Syd Gregory 55, Reggie Duff 43; John Gunn 5 for 76) and 315 for 6 (Clem Hill 97, Joe Darling 69, Hugh Trumble 62 not out) by 4 wickets.
First Published: January 22, 2013, 11:19 am