Ashes 1902: Gilbert Jessop blitz turns a near-certain defeat into a sensational win for England at The Oval

Gilbert Jessop Getty Images

August 13, 1902. The day that became immortal in the history of cricket for an incredible finish to an incredible Test match. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day when Gilbert Jessop launched himself at the Australian attack to score 104 in 77 minutes to turn a certain defeat into a sensational win by one wicket at The Oval.

We will be pleased if you play

“If ever an innings ought to have been filmed, that was the one,” wrote CB Fry. He was of course referring to Gilbert Jessop, that mighty hitter, letting himself loose like a catapult at the Australian bowling at The Oval, and scattering it to smithereens.

It was Jessop magic which transformed that August day of 1902 into a chapter of miraculous deeds chronicled in the pages of cricketing times in indelible ink. According to Fry, “I have seen the spectators at Test matches strained and excited, but this is the only Test match in which I have seen a spectator burst into tears when the winning run was scored.” He was not exaggerating.

And one shudders to think that Jessop very nearly did not play the match. Indeed, he had been left out of the Old Trafford Test and in one of the strangest act of selection, Fred Tate had been chosen in place of the Yorkshire all-rounder George Hirst. England had lost by 3 runs and had surrendered The Ashes.

On Tuesday, August 5, 1902, six days before the final Test of the series, Jessop received a letter from the chairman of the selection committee Lord Hawke. According to the Gloucestershire all-rounder, the missive was worded ‘in somewhat rummy fashion .

Dear Jessop,

Selection committee will be pleased if you will play at The Oval next Monday. They however wish me to tell you that Archie MacLaren has guaranteed that you will bowl at least half to three-quarters of an hour at a stretch, and they sincerely hope that this is correct as it materially affects the bowling strength of the side. (Tom) Richardson has given me a very nasty right thumb and I can t play this week.

Kindly reply to 107 Jermyn St.

Yours sincerely,

Hawke”

Jessop promptly informed the selectors that if the stipulation really mattered, they had better choose someone else, since his fast bowling days were virtually behind him. He was informed that the condition was not really important. If the decision makers had been slightly more insistent, the great Test might have not unfolded in its historic way at all. In the end he bowled just 6 overs in the first innings.

Sanity was restored among the wise men, and Hirst also got back into the side. The reason for the loss at Old Trafford had a lot to do with the missing skills of Jessop and Hirst on the field, two of the all-time great fielders in history. Writing about Old Trafford, Jessop himself observed: “No English team can ever have been picked with less regard for its fielding capabilities than this one, in which Australia just scrambled home by the narrow margin of three runs. Just three runs and if there was one run stolen by such cute judges of runs as Australia had always bred, there must have been in their two innings as many as twenty.”

This shortcoming was now rectified, and the all-round strength immensely reinforced.

While all this was taking place in the England side, the Australians, having won the Ashes, were enjoying themselves. Victor Trumper continued his delightful summer with twin centuries against Essex. Monty Noble hit 284 and Warwick Armstrong remained unbeaten on 172 against Sussex, giving the unfortunate Tate another pasting 41-9-136-0. Joe Darling and Noble scored centuries against Hampshire.

The social life was also hectic, with the coronation of Edward VII and the on-going celebrations for the end of the Boer War. It is possible that Darling s men might have lowered their guard a little. However, it did not reflect on the field when the game started.

The tall tales of Trumble

As 12,000 spectators flocked to the ground as play started and doubled during the bitingly cold autumnal rather than August afternoon, Australia got off to a poor start, but had recovered by the end of the first day to score 324. Hirst, generating massive swerve with his left-arm medium pace, rubbed salt into the wounds of the selectors by claiming the first 5 wickets and a more worthy five can seldom be listed as he scalped Trumper for 42, Reggie Duff, Clem Hill, Joe Darling and Syd Gregory. But Noble carried his excellent form into the Test and struck a defiant half century, and from the late order, coming in at number nine, Hugh Trumble top scored with an unbeaten 64.

Well, Trumble would go on to bowl unchanged in the match, snapping up 8 wickets in the first innings and 4 in the second. What drove him to such superhuman deeds? The answer can perhaps be divined from recent changes in his personal life.

While the rest of the team had sailed to England on the SS Omrah along with the Englishmen returning from the 1901-02 tour, Trumble had arrived later on the Oceana with his new bride Florence Christian. And before the London county game, he had tried to field a drive from Hill at the nets and had broken his thumb, being rendered out of action till June 9. Hence, the couple enjoyed an almost undisturbed honeymoon and Trumble was perhaps spurred on by love s young dream.

Ashes 1902: Gilbert Jessop blitz turns a near-certain defeat into a sensational win for England at The Oval

Hugh Trumble picked up 8 for 65 in the first innings Getty Images

Whatever be his source of incredible energy, heavy rain early on the second morning made conditions most unsuitable for batting. The light was poor and players had to come off for 40 minutes almost immediately after start. MacLaren found it so awkward that he took 45 minutes to score 10. Tom Hayward, in for KS Ranjitsinhji, batted for 20 minutes without managing a run. Trumble, bowling his off-breaks at brisk medium pace, made the balls turn and bounce viciously. Wicket after wicket fell and Jessop was in at 67 for 5 when Johnny Tyldesley was bowled by Trumble for a-hard fought 33.

The Australian off-spinner revelled in teasing Jessop, especially when the latter patrolled the field to his batting. He was known to push balls to the off and scream, “Come on, two, it s only Jessop.” All the while he knew better than to budge from his crease, given the fearsome reputation of the Gloucestershire man s speed and aim. Now, he sent down searching deliveries at the hitter, and Jessop rattled up 13 in 8 minutes before missing one and having his stumps pegged back.

At 83 for 5 it looked as if England would not be able to avoid follow on. And with the sun breaking through, drying the pitch and making batting even more difficult, chances of saving the match looked bleak. But Len Braund, the leg-spinning all-rounder, put his head down to score a patient 22. And when he left at 137 for 7, Hirst carried on his excellent match by launching powerfully at the attack, scoring 43 in just 45 minutes. Bill Lockwood also went after the bowling, and Hill, who had claimed a ‘sinful catch at the most crucial moment at Old Trafford, dropped him in the deep.

England saved the follow on by just 9 runs, and ended at 183. Trumble s figures read 31-13-65-8. Jack Saunders, a left-handed trundler whose action Jessop always claimed to suspect, claimed the other 2 wickets.

Jessop runs out Trumper

At a quarter to four, Australia were in once again and almost immediately Hirst dropped Duff at mid-off while trying to take a sitter too close to his face. Fellow Yorkshireman Wilfred Rhodes was the unfortunate bowler, but the two would go on to combine immortally later on during the match.

Jessop s first pivotal contribution in the match came in the field. With the score on 6, Trumper played a ball from Lockwood to the off and started to run. From the other end Duff saw Jessop from the cover point pounce on it like a panther and bellowed his refusal, asking his illustrious partner to return. Trumper turned and slipped and was still sitting on the pitch as Jessop s throw was whipped into the gloves of Dick Lilley. It was not really an impossible single, and the wicket was lost as much due to Jessop s reputation as his speed and accuracy.

MacLaren later wrote that the dismissal of Trumper was the most critical moment of the game. And Jessop, the modest man that he was, documented in his A Cricketer s Log that “Trumper was run out attempting a risky run” with no mention of his own role in it.

Trumper s dismissal, as always, put the Australians on the back foot. The big lead notwithstanding, they were unable to force the pace. Lockwood, Braund and Rhodes bowled tight, accurate lines, and the fielding was magnificent. MacLaren caught Hill brilliantly in the slips off Hirst, and Tyldesley made a spectacular catch in the deep to send back Saunders off the last ball of the day. Australia ended the second day at 114 for 8.

Jessop s wager

So, Australia led by 255. The English spectators witnessed a faint glimmer of hope provided there was no rain during the night. The cloudless skies of the evening did lift the spirits of many.

But, rain did blow in from the west as Jessop dined with the other players at the Great Central Hotel. The pelting raindrops were loud enough to jar on the strained nerves. Jessop recalled, “Only chloroform could have dammed the sound of the falling torrents.”

The England team was morose. To cheer them up, Jessop, staunchly against gambling on the game, offered 10-1 against anyone scoring 50 on the next day. He followed it up by offering 20-1 against someone reaching three figures. The wager was as much to lift the spirits of the men as to boost himself.

The collapse

Wednesday, August 13, dawned bright and sunny, but the outfield was wet, and the pitch soggy. Lockwood quickly ended the Australian innings for 7 additional runs, and it left England 263 to win. Few expected them to get the runs. The conditions were bad enough to hint at a score below 100.

And after 20 minutes of batting, this looked a certainty. MacLaren, Tyldesley and Lionel Palairet were all clean bowled by Saunders, who was making the ball flip across with his flicky wrists. The ball that got Palairet hit wicketkeeper Jack Kelly between the eyes and put him out of action for a brief while. Hayward survived more by luck than intent, and was dropped at short-leg off Trumble. At the other end, Stanley Jackson was his usual cool, composed self. The total reached 28 when a shower forced the men off the field for 35 minutes.

And with the wicket freshened by the rain, Hayward snicked Saunders to Kelly immediately on resumption.

Braund put his head down while Jackson batting resolutely at the other end. But with the score on 48, the former snicked Trumble. The ball went through Kelly s gloves and soared high in the air, and somehow the wicketkeeper grasped it to his body as it fell.

The score was 48 for 5 and the conditions almost unplayable. Jackson was the only one who seemed to be comfortable, ‘with an uncanny prescience as to which ball to play at and which to leave alone.

As Jessop walked out through the pavilion, MacLaren called out behind him, “I bet you don t make a century.” The batsman immediately replied, “Done.” Perhaps this was in reference to the bet of the previous night, but it was one of those remarks overheard by the crowd and recounted forever in folklore.

The miraculous tornado

The spectators knew better than expect Jessop to play himself in. He did not believe in such niceties. He took a single off the first ball he faced, and scored off each of the next 5 7 off the next over from the deadly Saunders.

And now started the most destructive of Test match innings. Trumble was driven into the pavilion awning. The next ball ricocheted off the rails. All the while, Jessop was indeed more watchful than usual. He religiously avoided swinging across the line off Trumble, a stroke that had brought about his demise much too frequently.

Saunders was driven for four. And Jessop jumped out to the next ball and missed it as it kept low. Behind the wicket, Kelly missed it as well as it shot through him. The close escape did not bother the batsman. The next ball was carted over Armstrong at cover-point for four. Two runs later, he lashed out high on the off-side. Trumper ran full tilt at long-off but the strong wind made the ball swerve away from him. Few fielders would have got near it, Trumper got a hand. Jessop watched it with a dreadful sinking feeling and heaved a sigh of relief as it went down. England went to lunch at 87 for 5. Jackson was on 39, Jessop 29.

It is debatable whether PG Wodehouse really decided to give up his job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank after being forced to return to his workplace at lunch without even the time to grab a sandwich, having just seen the Jackson-Jessop stand get underway. But 18,000 other luckier spectators sat there in eager anticipation, with their heads telling them that the Jessop assault was too good to last while their hearts beat in fervent expectation of impossibility. The Australian supporters however thought it would be all over by tea. Some New South Wales lancers, in London for the coronation, were rather unflattering in their assessment of Jessop.

The sun came out after lunch, and Jessop crouched at the wicket, a big cap shading his bright grey-blue eyes. He started by late-cutting for four. The 100 was up in just 80 minutes, an incredible rate given the terrible start. But, Jackson was not as sure of himself as before lunch. A snick off Saunders touched Kelly s gloves and landed just short of Trumble at slip.

Jessop however continued to stroke with power and, sometimes, subtle cunning. Trumble was delicately manoeuvred through the slips to the fine corner of the Vauxhall end, the batsmen scampering 5 runs as the ball was retrieved from the long boundary. A run after that took him to 50, and he had won his first bet of the previous night.

He was still watchful of Trumble, but launched himself at Saunders like a whirlwind. He pulled him for four and cut him for another. Jackson, meanwhile, was beaten by a beauty from Trumble and then badly missed by Armstrong in the slips.

At the other end, Saunders had lost his length completely after the severe treatment. Jessop got down on his knee and pulled him to square-leg. The next ball was hit for another leg-side boundary. The third and fourth also disappeared towards square-leg. Seventeen runs came off the over. So, with the score at 145 for 5, the first bowling change was forced. Saunders, his figures 4 for 9 when Jessop came in, now sulked in the outfield with four for 75 against his name.

Armstrong was brought on from the Vauxhall end, and with five men on the leg side he proceeded to bowl his awkward leg-breaks. Jessop stepped back and cut him for four. And immediately after that he pierced the crowded field on the leg-side for another boundary.

However, at 157, Trumble beat Jackson in flight inducing the elegant batsman hit one back to the bowler. The 49 runs he had scored were worth their weight in gold. According to Jackson, “Jessopus was going like a steam engine, hitting Trumble and the others all over the place. I was dying to have a go at the bowling, but I had to strangle my natural game while old Jessopus got the runs.”

Some of the spectators were feeling the strain by now. One kept muttering, “I can t bear to look any more,” and put his hands over his eyes. When the next roar broke out, he clutched his neighbour and asked desperately, “Is he out?” Thankfully, it was just another boundary.

Hirst came in and was immediately struck on the pads. Jessop waited with heart beating loudly in trepidation as the umpire took an eternity before ruling not out. Surrey cricketer Edward Dowson, writing to Jessop twenty years later, said that he was certain Hirst would be given out. From the top of the pavilion where he sat, it had looked the plumbest of lbw decisions.

After this moment of fright, Jessop immediately launched an attack on Trumble. He straight drove him twice into the pavilion galleries, the rules of the day getting him four runs for each stroke. Worcestershire batsman Harry Foster caught one of those shots as he sat on the top of the pavilion near Dowson.

And now, with a fierce cut off Armstrong, he reached his hundred in 75 minutes off 74 balls. The bowling had been massacred. “Hats were thrown in the air, handkerchiefs and mufflers these were a necessity at cricket matches in 1902 were waved; cheery voices became hoarse; and weak-chested yellers broke into coughs.” It was perhaps the greatest century against the run of play seen on the cricket ground, the most murderous under pressure.

After one more boundary hit, he swept at Armstrong and Noble clutched it behind square leg. Jessop walked back for 104, scored off 79 balls. The tornado had lasted 77 minutes and 80 deliveries, and had been scored out of 139. It included one five, 17 fours, 2 threes, 4 twos and 17 singles.

Even Wisden was moved away from its habitual sedate tone as it recorded, “All things considered a more astonishing display has never been seen.” CB Fry added, “I should say Jessop s 104 must rank as the greatest innings by a pure hitter ever played.”

Jessop s innings ball by ball

1 2 4 1 1 . . 4 4 1 . 4 . . . .

1 4 1 . 1 1 1 . 4 1 . . . 1 . 3

. 1 . 3 5 1 4 . . 4 4 4 1 . . .

. 1 . . . . . 1 2 . . . . . . 4 . . 4

1 . 4 2 . 2 4 4 . 4 . ct

According to Jessop, the greatest achievement in this innings was the suppression of the urge to hit Trumble across the line. “I smothered my greed and contented myself with singles.” So, in this hugely restrained innings he scored 104 in 77 minutes, on a bad wicket, coming in at the most critical of situations. But, then, he was Jessop.

He enjoyed an overwhelming reception as he walked back to the pavilion, the Australians joining most heartily in the applause.

Get them in singles?

But, work remained to be done. It was 187 for 7 and England still wanted 76 for victory. Yet, the Australian attack was shell-shocked and demoralised, and the spectators raucous and charged up by this electrifying Jessop innings. Hirst and Lockwood brought up the 200, and more hats were thrown in the air. After lunch, as Jessop s hits had echoed across London, the crowd had swelled to 22,000.

After several excited appeals, Lockwood was out leg before. Saunders came back after the departure of Jessop, and now almost had Lilley playing on. Four runs later, Lilley hit one back to Trumble, he just about reached it with his huge hands but could not hold on.

Noble and Darling flung themselves at rapidly travelling balls to bring off miraculous saves, but Hirst beat the field with a rasping square cut to take the total to 230. “So tense was the situation that the chronicling of the game became a difficult task,” read one newspaper report.

Lilley, amidst cries of ‘Play up for England drove Trumble for four. In trying to repeat the stroke, he hit it in the air, and Darling at deep mid-off hung on to it with a huge sense of relief. It was 248 for 9, and Wilfred Rhodes walked out to join his Yorkshire colleague.

A decade down the line, Rhodes would rise up through the batting order and put on 323 with Jack Hobbs at the top of the innings. The familiar joke ran ‘no one knows the name of the best all-rounder of the world, but he bats right handed, bowls left handed and was born in Kirkheaton. Both George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes fit the bill.

However, in those early days of his career, Rhodes was still very much a tail-ender. Additionally, he had been the non-striker when Tate had been bowled with 3 runs separating the teams at Old Trafford. Legend has it that as the great left-arm spinner had walked out, his Yorkshire mate met him and said, “Let s get em in singles.” This is surely apocryphal. Fifty years later Hirst said that one can t really remember what one says in such circumstances. Besides, ‘singles was not a commonly used term in those days.

Did they decide to get them in ‘ones ? Debatable. Hirst being the set batsman would have wanted most of the strike. In any case, they did get nine singles in their brief 37 ball association.

To quote HS Altham: “Fifteen to win, and two Yorkshiremen to do it.”

Hirst took a single off Noble s first ball of the next over and it brought him his fifty after 65 minutes of excellent application. Cheers were laced with hysteria by now. One old man was seen folding his gloves quite methodically and making a parcel of them in his scorecard.

Ashes 1902: Gilbert Jessop blitz turns a near-certain defeat into a sensational win for England at The Oval

George Hirst carried England home with an unbeaten 58 in the second innings Getty Images

Rhodes got an edge off the next ball and it went through the slips for four. In the same over an edge almost carried to the outstretched hands of Armstrong. The big man lost his balance and dropped it.

In the next over again Hirst took a single, and Rhodes almost hit one back to Trumble. Hirst added to the tension by taking his time to face every ball, rearranging his huge pads one by one. He ran each single with caution, raising his hand ‘like a semaphore telling Rhodes to stay his ground and take no unnecessary risk.

Trumble s next over produced a single to Hirst, a single to Rhodes, and then a single again to Hirst which turned into two through an overthrow. It hit Hirst on the shoulder and bounced away. Hirst laughed, Rhodes smiled, and the Australians scowled. Off the last ball Hirst took another single.

Three remained to win, the sun behind clouds, and raindrops announcing themselves in an uneasy patter. Noble bowled and Hirst played the first five balls as coolly as possible, before taking a sharp single off the last. And off the first ball of the next Trumble over, Hirst pushed for another single. Pandemonium broke loose. Australia could not win anymore. A spectator charged into the ground, miscounting, miscalculating, delirious with joy, and was discovered to be a parson.

Rhodes played the next three balls carefully. Trumble rubbed the ball in the sawdust heap, paused a moment and ran in. It was pitched up. Rhodes pushed it past mid-on, charged down the wicket and continued running all the way to the pavilion. Hirst at the other end was not so lucky. The onrushing crowd caught him and carried him away. The spectators rushed in and yelled and yelled and yelled. Perfect strangers shook hands and embraced. “It was truly a memorable occasion and the throng gave vent to their pent-up feelings.”

Even the usually restrained gentlemen of the press let themselves go. Charles Stewart Caine, editor of Wisden, stood up in his seat and waved his hat. Some of the lesser pressmen ‘cooeed back at Australian spectators who had been gloating over England s apparent defeat.

Trumble later said, “Only one man living who could beat us, beat us.” That man was Gilbert Jessop.

Years later, The Evening Standard invited readers to name a sporting event at which they would have liked to be present. The Oval Test of 1902 was the clear winner.

Jessop s match winning innings has been recounted in poetic effusion by Harry Dutton, who tells of the story in the manner and metre which Lord Macaulay used to relate the prowess of Horatius in playing an equally good innings for the Romans against the men of Tuscany. A stanza is reproduced here

“Oh! Jessop fierce and slashing bat,

The deed that thou hast done

Makes Chelt nham point with pride to thee

Her best and greatest son.”

Brief scores:

Australia 324 (Victor Trumper 42, Monty Noble 52, Hugh Trumble 64*; George Hirst 5 for 77) and 121 (Bill Lockwood 5 for 45) lost to England 183 (George Hirst 43; Hugh Trumble 8 for 65) and 263 for 9 (Stanley Jackson 49, Gilbert Jessop 104, George Hirst 58; Hugh Trumble 4 for 108, Jack Saunders 4 for 105) by 1 wicket.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)