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.
I reached the National Library in the afternoon, after a leisurely half hour spent wallowing in the bath tub. For people like us used to academic austerity, five star comfort is difficult to resist. Sylvie had left for the British Council Library directly from the shop.
I went over volumes of Wisden and other available cricket literature. The name Jones and its variants littered the history of English, Australian and to a lesser extent South African, New Zeeland and West Indian cricket. Hard as I tried, I could not find any association to the world of Art with the cricketing Joneses. And what could a purely cricketing Jones create? Ranjitsinhji is credited with having crated the leg-glance. Did some Jones create the sweep or the hook? History did not give any indication of such a creation. And then, how on earth could one hide a painting behind, say, an on-drive?
I also tried to look for Jones the artist who might have something to do with cricket. But, it was a remote possibility. We had no real evidence of this creation of Jones having anything to do with cricket.
Three hours of frustrating search yielded nothing. I took a break from the Joneses who had by now got on my nerves. There was something else in the morning’s letters that had tickled my curiosity as a cricket historian.
I looked up Vipul Sareen and Dharamveer in the Wisden. Surprisingly, I found both of them quite quickly.
Dharamveer Singh had played first-class cricket for Rajasthan from 1946 to 1951. He had more than 2,000 runs to his credit with a couple of centuries, though his average was not very flattering.
Vipul Pratap Sareen had played just two first-class matches, both in 1946. He took nine wickets in the two matches, at 18 runs apiece, with a best of six for 67. I wondered what became of the young bowler who reminded cricket connoisseurs of Alec Bedser.
Having glanced at the figures, I went back to the thousands of Joneses. The library would close in another half an hour. I leaned back in my chair and thought hard.
So far, I had come up with nothing very useful. What was this creation of Old Jones? Did it have anything to do with cricket at all? Paul Hackensmith had mentioned it in a very matter of fact way, as if it was an everyday term between him and Elizabeth Hackensmith. What could be deduced from that? The lady was well aware of what this Jones Creation was. The other letters hinted at Elizabeth’s being acquainted with the world of art. So, if the item was an art masterpiece, she would naturally understand. Otherwise…what else were late Victorian ladies associated with? Corsets? Balls? Suffragettes? Books?
‘Books’ rang a bell. Had we been barking up a wrong tree all this while? Books, classics and Jones. Tom Jones came to my mind immediately. Did it have anything to do with Tom Jones? I tried hard to recollect those nine hundred plus pages read long back in my college days. Was there anything about a creation in the book? It had been popular, controversial and widely read. But, had it ...
I used the telephone of the Library and rang up the British Council. A foreigner in the library, someone from the United Kingdom at that, strapping and strikingly attractive, would be found very quickly and willingly. I was right. The sceptical tone of the BCL staff changed to one of eager helpfulness on the mention of Sylvie’s western name, age and hints of her charms. She answered after three minutes.
“Hello, Sylvie Pemberton here.”
“Hi, this is Professor Anand.”
“Oh, hello Professor.”
“Did you have any breakthrough?”
Sylvie’s reply was negative.
“Not yet. Nothing in the books. Nothing on the Internet.”
“Tell me something Sylvie, did you think of some angle other than cricket and art?”
There was a pause.
“What exactly did you have in mind?”
“Say, something other than art or cricket. Something like Tom Jones?"
“Yeah, I was just wondering if it can be something to do with a book like Tom Jones. If there is anything in Tom Jones which can be attributed to as Jones Creation.”
It seemed that Sylvie was thinking hard.
“You mean Tom Jones by …"
“Henry Fielding. I just wanted to know whether you had done any research with this angle of thought…”
I broke off. A new thought had struck me. I have always found the ways of the human mind intriguing. It can come up against so many dead ends and face completely away from the truth. Then by some fluke of nature, it can be diverted onto the correct track. Holmesian logic of scientific reasoning is often arrived at by pure manoeuvres of chance. Something of this sort happened now.
Sylvie was saying something about Tom Jones but I was not listening any more. With a mumbled good bye, I hung up and went back to the book shelves, my mind working in a torrent, trying to exhume memories buried under several years of fact and history.
After a stormy 15 minutes of frantic search, I got the article I was looking for in one of the compilations of John Arlott.
It was a small article written in the 1970s. It dealt with some of the best fielders of all time. The name of Henry Fielding had rung the bell.
The name of the article in question was Not one to Cover. Cover and cover point are considered to be key fielding positions in the game of cricket. This article paid tribute to some of the best cover fielders of all time, starting with Vernon Royle of the 1870s and ending with Colin Bland and Clive Lloyd. In the course of all the analysis, it also – in a queer coincidence – mentioned Jessop as a brilliant fielder and had a neat little anecdote involving the Croucher and WG Grace. However, while dealing with all the great fielders in the cover point region, it talked about one in particular who made all the pieces of the puzzle fit.
I looked up certain other books in the short time that was available to me, took another look at the Wisden, paid an exorbitant sum to get an instant photocopy of the Arlott article made and walked out of the Library with the satisfaction of a day well spent.
Kumar and Sylvie were already sitting in The Oriental, the Chinese restaurant of Hotel Hindustan International when I joined them. Sylvie did not look in the best of spirits and neither did Kumar. I was not surprised. There was no way that this break could have been achieved by looking at it from the angle of art.
“Yes, professor,” Kumar stood up as I approached the table. “I dare say that I desperately hope you have had some success. Sylvie here has been very downcast after …”
“…a day of dead-ends,” Sylvie completed for him. “So, Professor, did your Tom Jones theme bear fruit?”
I took my seat.
“Well, not in the way I would have expected it to,” I replied.
Kumar dismissed the waiter with the order of a special Chinese non-vegetarian platter for all three.
“Professor, I detect a faint hint of good news in your tone,” he said. “Tell me, is it just my wishful thinking?”
“Not really, but first, I’d like to clarify some doubts,” I turned towards Sylvie. “Sylvie, Paul Hackensmith lived in Blackheath Towers, didn't he?”
Sylvie nodded. “Yes. That was their ancestral home. His father was the Earl of Blackheath.”
“I read that much in the short pieces on Hackensmith that I found in the Library,” I said.
“Well, it’s also given in the book we went through. But, then, you read just four of the letters.”
“Blackheath Towers is in Nottinghamshire, isn’t it?"
“Yes,” Sylvie confirmed. “In Rushcliffe, alongside Staunton.”
“And how far would it be from Shelton?” I asked.
Sylvie seemed surprised at this.
“Very close I would say. You are speaking of Shelton, Nottinghamshire?”
“Then it would be a neighbouring town."
I paused as the waiter placed empty bowls and spoons for the soup in front of us.
“Is it possible that two men born within a year of each other, living in the adjoining places of Shelton and Blackheath would know each other?”
Sylvie made a gesture with her hand. “Of course, it seems most likely.”
“And if one of them happens to be Jones, then if he creates something remarkable, can his close friends refer to it as Creation of Old Jones without being ambiguous?”
Both Sylvie and Kumar nodded this time. Their eyes were once again growing animated, glistening with anticipation.
“Professor, could we have the whole story? The suspense is killing me,” Kumar said, a half-smile on his lips. He knew that I had something up my sleeve.
I took out the photocopy of Arlott’s article.
“Here is an article by John Arlott. No doubt Kumar is aware of him, and Sylvie, no one from England can have not heard of him ..."
“Yes,” Sylvie nodded. “John Arlott needs no introduction."
“Well, this is an article on some of the great cover and cover point fielders in the history of the game. You see Sylvie, I had this idea when I was telling you about 'Tom Jones' by Henry Fielding. Now, in one paragraph, Arlott speaks about some cover point fielders who were so good and had such sharp reflexes that they were moved from orthodox cover point and posted closer to the wicket. He speaks of fielders like Keith Miller, Percy Chapman, Patsy Hendren and … AO Jones. The last mentioned is credited with invented the fielding position now known as gully …”
“The Jones Creation,” gasped Sylvie and Kumar in chorus.
“I had thought of creation of strokes like the leg-glance and so on,” I said. “But I never thought about fielding positions being invented before we talked about Tom Jones and Henry Fielding. This Arthur Owen Jones was born in Shelton, Nottinghamshire in 1872.”
“That’s within a year of Paul,” Sylvie exclaimed. “And within a stone’s throw of him as well.”
I nodded. “And he played from 1892 till his untimely death due to tuberculosis in 1914. He appeared in twelve test matches for England. He was a decent batsman, not exactly great, but as you can make out from Arlott’s piece, he was a brilliant fielder.”
Sylvie cried out. “In one letter, Paul does talk about old Arthur’s funeral. That was during the early days of the First World War.”
I was ecstatic. “I think we have hit the bull’s eye. And remember the phrase creation of Old Jones – so curiously Indian in its own right? It’s Indian because gully is a word used in Hindi. It means a small lane.”
“Wow!” Sylvie’s eyes shone.
Kumar was listening to the exchange with restrained excitement. As the waiter served the soup and left, he spoke.
“Professor, what does this lead? How can one hide a treasure trove beneath a gully?”
I leaned back with a satisfied sigh and smiled.
“Come on Kumar, I thought it would be easy for you,” I said with relish. “Picture the RRCC Clubhouse. What strikes you when you enter it?”
In an instant, Kumar was smiling. Along with the solution to the puzzle which his astute mind had arrived at instantly, was the knowledge of the financial implications of this discovery.
“Professor, if you have nothing else to hold you back in Calcutta, would it be too much trouble to accompany us to Jaipur tomorrow?”
Kumar was probably warming to this new diversion of moving people across the nation at a moment’s notice, and I said so with a laugh.
Sylvie protested. “Just a minute, gentlemen. Could you let me in on this gully thing?”
Kumar got up from his seat.
“Professor, please fill Sylvie in while I arrange for the tickets.”
I looked at Sylvie. The excitement made her cheeks glow. Her hazel eyes were animated. She looked almost childish and extremely pretty.
“I’ve seldom had such singular attention from someone so attractive,” I observed, the triumph making me into quite a Don Juan.
Sylvie giggled, sounding surprisingly coy.
“Thanks, but I’m dying to hear all that about the gully.”
“Well, Kumar’s father, Ajaysingh, collected a lot of strange cricketing paraphernalia. Among his collection is an oddly shaped table, a huge monstrous piece of furniture. What makes it unique is that there are eleven seating positions in it. These positions correspond to eleven fielders on a cricket field. Apart from the two heads of the table in the positions of the wicketkeeper and the bowler, there are positions corresponding to a slip, a gully, a cover and so on…”
“And you believe that the painting is hidden …”
“…along with a lot of other treasures, under the chair posted at gully.”
“This is really most amazing!” Sylvie almost screamed in excitement.
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)