Charles Kortwright © Getty Images
Charles Kortright © Getty Images

Charles Kortright, born January 9, 1871, was one of the fastest bowlers of all time. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the man, who once bowled a delivery which took off from the pitch and went out of the ground without a second bounce!

Gloucestershire needed 148 for victory. The wicket was treacherous and the bowling magnificent. In front of the Essex attack stood the 50-year old WG Grace

And the bearded giant was determined to take his side to victory. If anyone could face the fire-breathing, ferociously fast Charles Kortright, it was the old man.

In the first innings, Kortright had run through the Gloucestershire top order like a red-hot iron rod through a passive pound of butter. But even though he had hit Grace repeatedly on the gloves, the great man had not been perturbed. Grace’s response to Kortright’s continuous short-pitched bowling had been to advance down half the length of the pitch to pat the wicket where the majority of his deliveries were aimed. Grace had scored 126. Kortright had taken 5 for 41.

Now, in the second innings, the strapping Kortright, six feet tall and splendid of physique, charged down his long run up with infinite reserves of stamina, and hurled them down. Batsman after batsman surrendered to his pace. But Grace again rose magnificently to the challenge, with his unique combination courage, skill and gamesmanship.

When he hit a ball back to Walter Mead, the Essex team was so certain of the dismissal that no one appealed. But Grace calmly settled himself for the next delivery. On appeal, the umpire raised his finger only to retract it when Grace roared down the pitch, ‘what George?’

And Kortright fumed.

“It was quite clear that the man — as opposed to the wicket — in Kortright’s sights was WG. Gone was the off-stump line in the first innings. Now he aimed straight at the inviting bulk of the Champion and got him repeatedly. On one occasion he struck him on the stomach, and play was held up while Grace set off on a recuperative hobble round the wicket-keeper, who was standing many yards back…,” writes Simon Rae.
His last over of the second day consisted almost exclusively of bouncers, one of which Grace poked to the slips and was dropped.

The next morning, Gloucestershire started on 81 for 3. Kortright tore into the attack from the word go. Grace played him supremely and inched the score up to 96.

Now, the fast bowler produced a lightning fast delivery that hit Grace’s front pad plumb in front of the wicket and appealed with the heartfelt relief of a man who has reached his goal after a long arduous journey. And Grace looked at the umpire, somehow projecting his bearded personality to bear heavily on his psyche, telepathically ensuring that the finger was kept down.

Kortright snatched the ball and returned to his mark before launching himself like a sprinter. The scorching cherry got a hard snick and ended in the gloves of the wicket-keeper. And again, the umpire was unmoved as Grace glared down the wicket, his gaze bristling with hypnotic power.

Kortright grabbed the ball without mouthing a protest, walked back, before turning back for one final, fate-defying attempt. The ball, propelled out of fury, was perhaps the fastest ever bowled, by some yards the fastest ever seen till then. The middle stump was knocked out of the ground and the leg-stump flew halfway to the boundary.

The great man paused for a while, perhaps waiting for a belated call of no-ball or plainly gob-smacked by the delivery. And then he turned to walk back. And Kortright shot the immortal line after him: “Surely you’re not going, Doctor? There’s still one stump standing.”

Kortright finished the innings with seven for 57, but Gloucestershire squeezed home by one wicket.
The Doctor refused to speak to the fast bowler after the match. They made up a few days later when the two put their heads down together and almost batted Gentlemen to a draw versus the Players.

Fastest of his times

According to Sir Francis Stanley Jackson, Kortright was not only the fastest bowler of his times, but a very good one. He played between 1889 to 1907, and many a tall feat is associated with his name. Sadly, he never took part in a Test match.

William Gunn of Nottinghamshire, one of the greatest batsmen of the era, was bowled by a Kortright delivery during a Gentleman versus Players game. He confessed that the ball had been a yard faster than anything he had ever faced.

Kortright worked hard, training for hours — not a common trait among the amateurs of his era. And he was proud of the pace he generated from his long run.

It is from his own words that we come to know of the claim of the ball in a club match at Wallingford, which rose straight from the wicket and went to the boundary on the full — making him perhaps the only bowler to bowl six byes. The rules, however, would have kept it down to four.

He also claimed to have bowled Bill Brockwell of Surrey with a yorker, which rebounded from the bottom of the stumps and went back past the bowler almost to the boundary.

And he was vicious as well when his pace was slighted. Playing an army side he was once annoyed when he saw one of the officers facing him with a raised left toe. Kortright explained to the offender that he allowed no-one but WG himself to cock his toe at him. When the batsman continued to face him the same way, Kortright blitzed the offending foot with yorkers until he caught it with a direct hit and broke it.

Against Surrey at Leyton in 1895 Kortright took 7 for 72, all of them bowled, including Bobby Abel, Tom Hayward and George Lohmann within four runs. Against Surrey, at Leyton in 1893, he dismissed 13 men for 64 runs. The best bowling figures came against the strong Yorkshire line up in 1900, when he knocked over 8 of them for 57.

A hard-hitting lower order batsman, Kortright scored a couple of centuries as well, 158 in an hour-and-three-quarters against Hampshire, and 131 out of 166 against Middlesex.

Kortright claimed that contrary to popular belief the equation was not loaded in favour of the bowler in his days. According to him, the yorker was the weapon of his choice because of the shirtfront wickets that he had to bowl on. About the modern bowlers, Kortright wrote in 1948: “They have a slightly smaller ball — easier to get the hand round — a wider crease, which helps in varying the angle of delivery, bigger stumps at which to aim. There is also the new leg-before-wicket law by which it is possible to get a decision from a ball pitching on the off side of the wicket, a boon to the modern bowler. Last but by no means least among present-day benefits is the high standard of umpiring in first-class cricket, one respect in which I admit the game has made a great advance since my days.” Of course, brushes with Grace must have left a scar as far as umpiring was concerned.

“A basic principle of cricket which I feel is sometimes overlooked is that the prime object of a bowler is to get batsmen out. For this reason I do not favour the modern craze for such expressions as inswingers, outswingers, all sorts of spins and swerves. Some bowlers seem to concentrate on these dubious achievements so much that they forget to keep a length and to bowl at the stumps,” he commented before his death in 1952.

While some doubted the legality of his action, Kortright bowled with his arm splinted to silence them. And during his later career, he switched to wrist spin and captured quite a few wickets with his canny knowledge of the shortcomings of different batsmen.

Kortright ended his career with 489 wickets in 170 matches, at an average of 21.05. According to John Arlott, he was one of the greatest players never to have won a Test cap.

In his obituary, Wisden described him as “probably the fastest bowler in the history of the game”. A lot of old timers were known to agree.

(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://twitter.com/senantix)