The Gilbert Jessop Mystery is a tale of detection etched on a vast canvas. A cricket historian plays the role of an expert hired to solve an intriguing problem involving old scoring sheets, fast hundreds, modern-art masterpieces, antique wagon wheels and old Victorian letters.
As he puts together pieces of the puzzle, he gets entangled in a bizarre mystery which spans across a century in time encompassing subjects as varied as Victorian England, the last days of British Raj, Scientific influence on Art and the Internet.
This novella is available in the volume Bowled Over – Stories Between the Covers by Arunabha Sengupta.
The bumpy taxi ride did not end at the posh South Calcutta residence of Kumar as I had expected, but detoured on the way and came to a halt outside the Central Calcutta outlet of K.M. Sports Goods. The bespectacled Bengali secretary of Kumar led me past the floors crammed with treadmills and multi-gyms and racks full of cricket bats into an inner office. Kumar was there and with him sat a young western lady.
As I closed the door behind me, Kumar rose to welcome me. Dressed in a dapper blazer, with his clean cut looks and small trimmed moustache – still resisting the tide of age to retain its jet black hue – he looked suave and charismatic even at sixty seven. The energy and vigour that characterised him was evident in every movement.
“Hello, professor,” he extended his hand. “Glad you could make it at such short notice.”
I shook hands with him. “I thought it would be a nice little vacation,” I said.
“This is Professor Anand,” Kumar said to the girl who had stood up on my appearance. “And Professor, this is Sylvie Pemberton.”
I took her offered hand. She was a tall, attractive brunette in her mid-twenties with deep hazel eyes, casually dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt.
“How do you do, professor?” she said. “It’s so kind of you to come all the way to help us out.”
“My pleasure,” I replied. The mystery deepened. So, a young lady – a Brit from her accent – was involved in the curious problem that Kumar had hinted at.
“So, would you like a bit of rest after your rather long journey?” Kumar asked.
It was a rhetorical question. If his intention was to allow me to rest a while, he would have instructed his secretary to take me wherever he was putting me up. He had flown me across the country and I was sure he intended to get down to work as soon as possible.
“Well, I can hardly rest without dying from curiosity,” I replied. With a bit of experience, you master the art of speaking to ex-regalia.
We laughed together as I sat down. It was a small office with walls littered with framed photographs of champion sportsmen and teams. Vijay Amritraj, Prakash Padukone, the Prudential World Cup-winning Indian side of 1983, Michael Ferreira, Milkha Singh and several others looked at us from various corners and heights.
Kumar sat back and put his hands behind his head.
“Miss Pemberton, here is an authority on 20th century art from the Oxford University,” he began. This did not really help matters. Art was not one of my strong points. “Right now, she’s researching on the influence of Science – especially Geometry – on early 20th century art and sculpture. Did I get that right?” he looked at the young lady with a twinkle in his eye. Age had not withered his charm with the fairer sex.
Sylvie smiled. “All, except for my name and the part about my being an authority on Art. Please call me Sylvie; I am just a student. Yes, professor, I am working on the use and interpretation of geometry – and to a lesser extent all forms of science – in the art and sculpture of this century.”
I felt I needed to say something or the other on this rather obscure topic. I racked my brains and turned up with what I thought was acceptably decent.
“You mean like cubism and so on?”
Kumar chuckled. “Relax, professor, specifics of the art world is not something that we need your help with.”
I laughed. “Well, thank God for that. I am not quite initiated into that particular part of the world. However, I have heard of Cubism and I have read about the use of the Golden Ratio in art.” I strived to sound impressive. It was more than vanity. Sylvie was a very attractive person and I guess it was quite natural to try create the best possible impression.
An employee of the store came in bearing a tray of cold drinks and some of the well known Bengali sweets. Kumar was always princely in his hospitality.
Sylvie took a sip.
“Well, my work does not really go into much depth with the Golden Ratio except for a few references. Cubism enters the picture, though. My research encompasses everything from Geometric Abstraction, Cubism, Suprematism, Futurism… till the advent of Fractals and Chaos Theory and their influence on art and artists.”
She smiled at my dazed look. She was definitely quite attractive and had more than a decent helping of brains. “Sorry about that. Did I confuse you with all the names?”
I admitted it. “Yes, to an extent you did. My knowledge of the art world is severely limited. However, does your research bring you to India?”
Sylvie nodded. “It does. I came here specifically to study the Mandalas.”
“The Buddhist symbols,” Kumar explained. “They have a lot of interesting Geometric features according what our young friend tells me.”
“By now, professor must be wondering why he was rushed over across the country,” Kumar continued. “Okay, we’ll get down to business. Sylvie, as I have been telling you, Professor Anand is one of the foremost cricket historians of the country…”
“Come on now,” I said, trying to sound modest. I read a lot of respect in Sylvie’s eyes and was pleased. "If I was indeed the foremost, I would be going on television channels criticising the Indian team."
“And he's trying his hand at being modest too," Kumar laughed. "He’ll be telling you all that you want to know about Gilbert Jessop,”
Sylvie and Kumar both looked at me expectantly. I had been debating whether or not to sample one of the rasogollas, fighting a losing battle with the conscience of a thirty six year old weight watcher. This statement, however, made me lose interest in the sweets and look at the two of them.
“Gilbert Jessop? Was he in any way connected to the art world?”
Sylvie sounded a bit worried. “We were talking about Gilbert Jessop, the cricketer …”
Kumar stopped her. “Of course, professor knows all there is to know about the cricketer Gilbert Jessop. And that is where your expertise comes in. Tell me professor, this Jessop was a very attacking batsman, wasn’t he?”
I smiled, leaned back and made myself comfortable. Things were now right down my alley.
“Attacking would be an understatement. He was one of the biggest hitters of the cricket ball in the history of the game.”
Sylvie had fished out a diary and ball-point pen.
“And he played around 1897, didn’t he?” she asked.
I was a bit surprised.
“Yes, he was playing in 1897. In fact he played first-class cricket from 1894 to 1914. He was born in 1874 and played 18 test matches from 1899 to 1912. The 104 against the Australians at The Oval in 1902 is considered to be arguably the best counter-attacking, match-winning innings of all time.”
Kumar raised his eyebrows and looked at Sylvie. “What did I tell you?” he asked. “Professor here knows everything there is to know about cricket except for a few technicalities…” he winked, “ …such as how to play a ball outside off stump.”
I nodded. “Some of the esoteric skills are beyond me. But, tell me, why Gilbert Jessop? And why 1897?”
Sylvie looked at me.
“Did this batsman score very fast?”
The historian in me took over and corrected the minor deviation from fact.
“History remembers Jessop for his extremely fast scoring and amazing big hits. However, he was not just a specialist batsman… He bowled medium-fast and was also one of the main bowlers of his era. In fact, going purely by numbers, his bowling record is much more impressive than his batting. Additionally, he was also the best cover-point fielder of his time. He did score fast. The hundred that he scored in 1902 is the second-fastest in Test cricket in terms of time. It took 75 minutes. In terms of balls faced, it comes after the 56 ball hundred at St John’s by Viv Richards, the 67-ball century of Jack Gregory at Johannesburg and…”
Kumar interrupted me.
“How do you know the number of balls? Was that sort of record kept that early in cricket?”
Sylvie was busy making notes.
“Well,” I answered. “Not generally, no. Ball by ball recording came much later. Historians generally have to rely upon old, and often inaccurate, scorebooks to analyse and derive the number of balls faced by a batsman during matches of that era. However, for that particular match in 1902, a London newspaper had the unusual foresight of recording every ball. We know for certain that the century took 76 balls.”
Kumar thought for a while.
“Now let’s go back to 1897. Did Jessop do something equally remarkable during that year?”
I took a sip of the coke, blissfully ignoring my remonstrating, but feeble conscience, and let my mind delve back in the record books.
“Gilbert Jessop played for Gloucestershire. In those days, county matches were considered almost at par with Test cricket. Jessop’s most remarkable achievement in 1897, as far as I recall, was in a match against Yorkshire in July."
Kumar looked at Sylvie and there was strange excitement in their eyes.
“What happened in that match?”
I closed my eyes and spoke from memory.
“Jessop batted at number five. The Gloucestershire innings was opened by the Grand Old Man of cricket, WG Grace, with RW Rice. Jessop came in at 73 for three and was out 40 minutes later for 101. Bowled by Francis Stanley Jackson. Gloucestershire scored 370 and won the match by 140 runs. Jessop took nine wickets. It was an incredible all-round performance.”
Kumar was breathing heavily with excitement. Sylvie was jotting down whatever I was saying.
“But, Kumar, all these will be there in Wisden,” I said. “Why…?”
Kumar stopped me with a gesture. “Tell us about Jessop’s innings,” he said.
It was not too difficult. The innings was pretty well known.
“As I said, Grace and Rice opened the batting. With the score on 13, Rice was out. Grace was out at 45 and Wrathall at 73. Jessop came in with FHB Champain batting at the other end. The two of them added 118 before Jessop was out. It was a remarkable innings for many reasons. He hit four sixes and 16 fours. However, sixes in those days meant that you had to hit the ball out of the ground. Hits over the boundary were otherwise considered fours. It is believed that he hit 12 over-the-boundary shots in all, but no one can be sure. This included one over the slips. And all this against a thoroughly professional bowling attack consisting of George Hirst, Wainwright, FS Jackson and Frank Milligan.”
I paused. It was now Sylvie's turn to look dazed.
“Wow, professor, can you recall all the matches in that detail?”
I shook my head in modesty. “It’s a pretty big match in the annals of cricket.”
Kumar rose and walked around the table.
“Is there any record of the number of balls he faced?”
I thought for a minute.
“Well, scorebooks have been analysed, but they are really very sketchy. There are theories that he faced 46 balls for his hundred and was out on the 47th, but there are known errors in the scorebooks from which these have been derived and no one can say with absolute certainty. However, there have been faster centuries in first-class cricket. David Hookes scored one in only 34 balls. But, still, Jessop’s innings is a landmark in the history of the game. And there remain conjectures about how the modern rule for sixes would have affected the score. How many modern day sixes Jessop struck during the innings and how that would influence the number of balls for his century.”
This novella is available at John McKenzie Cricket Bookshop
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but cleanses the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two. His author site is at http://www.senantix.com and his cricket blogs at http:/senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com)