As fans erupt into ecstasy revelling in the big-hitting in the ongoing IPL, it’s a good time to remember Gilbert Jessop. With his crouching predatory stance, Jessop was perhaps the hardest hitter of all times.
Arunabha Sengupta pays tribute to the legendary cricketer on his 138th birthday.
“He was a force of nature, not to be accounted for in terms of cricketing talent. Nature breaks the mould in which her wonders are made. There will be no second Gilbert Jessop, the ‘Croucher’,” wrote Neville Cardus in The Manchester Guardian.
He was born on May 19, 1874, one and a quarter century before cricket woke up from the charming leisurely pace to trade the minute hand for strike-rate. Ball by ball records of his many innings that have entered the folklore of cricket’s Golden Age, have almost all been lost – the details as tattered and obscure as the first few pages of the ancient book of time.
Yet the speeds he clocked with his bat, and the distance he hit the balls, could well have given his contemporary Albert Einstein revolutionary ideas about time and space. Biographer Gerald Brodribb analysed that in the early days when overs were quicker, WG Grace and Len Hutton scored at a cautious 36 runs an hour, Jack Hobbs, Clem Hill and Wally Hammond at 43, Denis Compton, Don Bradman and Archie MacLaren at 47. In contrast, Jessop’s 179 half centuries in First-Class cricket came at 79 runs per hour and his 53 centuries at 83 runs per hour!
“The sight of Jessop merely going forth to bat would cause a cricket crowd to wonder what on earth was about to happen to the game. Before he had walked purposefully half-way to the wicket, four fieldsmen were to be seen journeying to far-flung positions, going there as though by instinct and not official direction,” Cardus described in Close of Play.
Stocky, only five feet seven inches, a cap always perched on his head, a determined air as he approached the wicket, one could easily mistake him for one of those dour, dogged stonewallers. However, from his low crouching stance, he erupted like a quantum of uncoiled energy the moment the ball was released. He jumped out as if on spring to the fastest of bowlers, driving them mercilessly, always hard and often high, forcing them to shorten the length; and then would cut and pull them with equal heartless brutality.
On quickest of feet, he played with the canniest of minds. For Gloucestershire, he reached 100 within an hour 12 times, the fastest being the famed Harrogate 101 against Yorkshire in 1897 notched in 40 minutes. His highest score of 286 was made in 170 minutes out of a total of 355, the 200 coming up in two hours during a spectacular Whit Monday in 1903.
In many of his innings he would have scored more had the present law for sixes held good. In his days, merely sending the ball over the ropes got a boundary while a six came only when one hit out of the ground. During his 191 at Hastings in 1907, he hit five legitimate sixes, along with 11 balls over the ropes. In the modern day, this would have added up to 213.
Miracle at The Oval
His Test days were limited. He was often considered a gamble, and toured Australia just once out of the many opportunities because of severe illnesses caused by sea voyages.
Yet, he did have one gorgeous summer day that can be referred to as his, Jessop’s. At The Oval in 1902, with England 48 for five needing 263 to beat Australia, he walked in on a crumbling track and plundered 104 in 77 minutes, leaving a wounded, bewildered opposition who watched stupefied as the match was stolen away by the last wicket pair of George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes.
Among the many tributes paid to this innings – one of those knocks that led Plum Warner to coin the adjective Jessopian – was a poetic effusion from Harry Dutton, told in manner and metre of Lord Macaulay relating the prowess of Horatius against the Romans – “To every corner of the green/ He drove with mighty power/ And turned despair to hopefulness/ In one brief fleeting hour.”
Nor was this the only poetic eulogy. When Jessop travelled to America with Warner’s side in 1897, a local poet, Ralph Paine, was inspired to describe him as: “...the human catapult who wrecks the roofs of distant towns when set in his assault.”
Jessop was also a genuine fast bowler who took 873 First-Class wickets, and was good enough to open the bowling for England at Sydney in 1901-02 and remove the first four Australians. It was mainly because of his bowling that he made it into the Test team.
However, even without his batting and bowling, he would have still left his mark on the game as a precursor of the Colin Blands, Clive Lloyds and Jonty Rhodeses. He prowled the covers, caught blinding streaks that travelled, picked up balls in blurry swoops and hit the wickets with throws of near perfect accuracy that left many a batsman perplexed and panting back to the pavilion.
In 1901-02, the Melbourne Evening Argus described two catches as “marvellous in their lightning-like rapidity” and added that “Jessop’s dash at a ball resembles nothing else but a greyhound trying to pick up a hare”.
Jessop devoted a lot of thought on fielding, and when in the New World, admired and picked up techniques of throwing from baseball. With Arthur Owen Jones, another legendary fielder credited to have created the gully as a fielding position, he often practised catching with a bar of slippery soap.
He was also a hockey blue, excellent at billiards, played rugby for Gloucestershire, football for Casuals, ran 100 yards in just over 10 seconds and was a brilliant golfer. However, he will always be remembered for his many innings that were cyclones of batsmanship.
Perhaps the greatest tribute paid to Jessop was by Harry Altham. In his A History of Cricket, Altham garnished Chapter 21,The Golden Age of Batting, with a fitting subtitle – Ranji, Fry, Jessop.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)