© Getty Images
Colin Blythe © Getty Images

June 1, 1907. Colin Blythe captured all ten wickets of the Northamptonshire first innings and followed it up with seven more in the second. He did all this in one single day’s cricket. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day the Northants were routed by this frail left-arm spinner of artistic temperament. Also covered is an early instance of leg-over.

Oil on canvas, wedding and wickets

Two days earlier, on the day the match had started, Colin Blythe had turned 28. He was in the prime of his life and we can say that his star was in ascendant.

The previous year he had injured his bowling fingers mid-season, and thereby missed a few matches. That had stopped him at 90 Championship wickets — the only season in the 13 leading up to the Great War (and his eventual death) in which he would not claim 100 or more.

Moreover, in 1906, Kent had won the Championship. Blythe, and comrade-in-arms fast bowler Arthur Fielder, had run through one opposition after another.

The celebrations had been heady. Lord Harris had convinced the members to commission a painting depicting Kent’s great triumph. The chosen artist had been the famed Albert Chevallier Tayler. The only conditions His Lordship had put forward were that the scene should be set in the St Lawrence Cricket Ground of Canterbury, and that the bowler depicted would have to be Colin Blythe.

Now, as the calendar flipped over to June, 1907, the painting was almost done. Blythe’s beautiful bowling action was captured forever in serious art. His figure, cutting between the umpire and stumps, was frozen in time with the ball about to be delivered. His fingers, used to rendering soulful pieces on the violin, were forever poised to release the ball with tantalising flight and venomous spin. Blythe and his bowling had been immortalised by oil on canvas.

That was not the only beautiful thing going on in his life.

The professional bowler usually spent the winter at his parents’ place, working as an engineer at Woolwich Arsenal or with the Maxim Gun Company. The previous winter he had met Janet Brown at Tunbridge Wells. She was very tall for a woman of that era, standing at 5 foot 10 inches, and had brown hair and big round grey eyes. With her great height, full lips and determined nose, she looked both attractive and strong as resolutely stood by the epileptic spin bowler as they signed their pact of marriage at the Greenwich Registry Office on March 11.

Barely a couple of months later, Blythe was back doing what he did best — running through sides.

The season started with 6 for 28 against MCC. When Kent played Northamptonshire for the first time Fielder took 8 wickets in the first innings and Ted Humphreys 5 in the second, hence Blythe had to be happy with just 6 scalps. But he continued to wheel in match after match, turning out figures of 4 for 35 against Somerset, 4 for 29 and 4 for 30 against Sussex, 4 for 53 against Lancashire in a thrilling six-run win, 4 for 27 and 3 for 19 against Derbyshire.

And now, it was time to journey up to Northampton.

Rains and an early instance of ‘leg over’

The host county were new to the Championship, having joined from the small fry of minor counties in 1905. They were hardly the strongest side around, having lost 8 out of 12 matches in 1905 and 10 out of 16 in 1906. However, nothing had prepared them for the devastation on that Saturday.

In the first encounter against Kent at Catford that season, they had been dismissed for 73 and 86 to lose by an innings and 100 runs. As mentioned, in the scurry for wickets, Blythe had managed just six. Perhaps he was determined to make it up to himself this time.

Kent arrived high on their innings win against Derbyshire, a rain-drenched match that ended in 106 overs and five balls, in less than one full day of play. Here too, the weather allowed no play on the first morning. When the rain stopped and three hours of play was somehow managed under gloomy, threatening skies, Kent decided to bat on winning the toss.

Frank Woolley, the graceful young professional who had joined the previous summer, gave the side a rousing start, adding 64 for the first wicket with Wally Hardinge. The latter and James Seymour added 71 more for the second wicket. Some sloppy catching helped Hardinge to top score with 73. There followed an innings of characteristically brilliant driving from Keith Hutchings. By the time stumps were drawn, the visitors had made 212 for 4.

The skies opened almost as soon as the day’s play was over. It continued pouring all through the night right up to two o’clock on Friday afternoon. And just as the weary cricketers were about to emerge on the ground, a heavy thunderstorm blew away any hope of cricket for the rest of the day.

As the handful of die-hard spectators sat in futile wait, they actually saw the most important part of the game taking place. The rain and storm lashed across the ground and prepared a wicket that was meant to instil devilry into the left-arm spin of Blythe.

With rain in the air, the final day started on time with little or no prospect of concluding the match. Kent decided to bat on, aiming for as many runs as possible in as short a span of time.

And this resulted in an anachronism of sorts, 84 years before its time. As Kent added 42 in 40 minutes, Fred Huish, the wicketkeeper, struck a sparkling 19 not out. It was in fact during the partnership between Huish and Blythe that the incident took place.

Blythe had just driven Bill East for a couple of twos on either side of the wicket when Huish faced the bowler. It was a deceptive ball down the leg side and the stumper was caught in two minds. His indecision to go front or back unbalanced him to such an extent that he had to leapfrog the wicket to avoid knocking the stumps down. In 1991, Ian Botham was not as dextrous, leading John Agnew and Brian Johnston into their famed attack of giggles.

Indeed, the Northampton Chronicle reported: “Blythe, the famous slow bowler, off and on drove East for twos, and then Huish caused some amusement by putting his leg over the wicket in an attempt to make a leg hit.” The paper of the day did not use the bold and italic fonts, though …

The first innings massacre

The innings was over at 254, and the Northants came in to bat. Blythe, his fingers itching at the very sight of the wicket, opened the bowling from the pavilion end.

The fourth ball had wicketkeeper-opener Walter Buswell leaning forward. The batsman was beaten in flight, overbalanced, and Huish whipped off the bails. The following ball reared up and took the shoulder of the bat of Charlie Pool and was caught by Fielder running in from point.

Billy Kingston survived the hat-trick, and in Blythe’s next over scored the side’s first run streakily through the slips. There were some ironic cheers which greeted this event. But in his third over, Blythe had the other opener, Mark Cox, reaching out, beaten by the turn and Huish took the bails off yet again.

There followed a few balls of relative inactivity as George Thompson and Kingston ran two leg-byes. And then, with the final ball of his fifth over, Blythe turned one past Thompson’s bat to bowl him for a duck.

At the other end, the tidy Bill Fairservice had bowled four straight maidens. He was sending down medium pace, although with the pitch not really helping quick bowling his off-spin variety might have been more useful. It was in his fifth over that the streak of quiet overs was broken. Kingston hit him over cover point’s head for a single. And then, with the score reading 4 for 3, Blythe came in to bowl his sixth over.

The first ball did not turn, and Kingston was leg before for 2. Well, at least he had scored. No one else of the top seven would manage that.

The third ball of the over pitched up and turned. Northampton captain Edmund Crosse drove at it. It flew to Fairservice at cover point.

In walked East, far too early for his comfort. He survived two balls before hitting out off the final delivery of the over. It went skywards and Huish ran towards the leg side to take a smart catch. Blythe had taken four wickets off the last seven balls. His figures read 6-5-1-7. Northants were 4 for 7.

The ‘fightback’

George Alfred Turner Vials was a good batsman, much better than the No. 9 where he found himself coming in. There was no other option for him now but to swing hard. He hit the last ball of Fairservice’s next over for four. Runs had overtaken the wickets.

Alexander Richard Thomson was the batsman at the other end. He finally succeeded in middling a Blythe ball for a run. It was a good enough stroke and brought Vials on strike.

The first ball Blythe sent to Vials was flighted and totally misjudged by the batsman. He hit it hard and it went straight up. Blythe got under it, hardly needing to move. Woolley later remembered it as a sitter. And the Kent professional dropped it.

Had he taken it, the score would have been 9 for 8, and Blythe would have 8 wickets for 2 runs. Given that William Wells was eventually out to Blythe for a duck and the last man, Lancelot Driffield was always of a more miss than hit sort, the mind boggles to imagine what could have happened. 10 for 2 for Blythe perhaps?

Woolley later remembered, “Poor Charlie (Colin Blythe)! I think the miss so upset him that he could not bowl another ball.”

Like so many old cricketers, Woolley was obviously having problems with his memory. Blythe did continue to bowl, as many as 9 more overs, on the trot. However, 7 were taken off his seventh over. It was a disastrous one for Blythe given the context of the match. The batsmen were cheered loudly, especially when Vials took them into the double figures. There was another round of applause when Thompson saw them past the lowest score by a Championship county side, 13 posted by Nottinghamshire against Yorkshire in 1901.

Blythe took a couple of overs to regain his composure. And then he struck again. Thomson was taken by Seymour in the slip for 10. And almost immediately thereafter, Wells drove and was caught by Humphreys at mid-on for no score. The eighth wicket stand had amounted to an ‘enormous’ 20, but the Northants were still 26 for 9, Blythe had figures of 10-7-13-9.

But now Vials hit out, and took 12 off the next four overs of the left-armer. His figures were ‘ruined’. Driffield held on by the favour of fortune. They went past 32, the previous lowest score of the Northants. And then they bested 37 scored by Derbyshire in the previous match against Kent.

At 41, captain Ted Dillon, desperate to end the partnership before lunch, put on Fielder for Fairservice. The move backfired. He was hit for 9 in his first couple of overs. At the other end, Vials lofted Blythe over cover for four. Excited spectators cheered every run.

What had seemed unbelievable a while earlier had taken place. The Northants had gone into lunch while still batting in their first innings. The score read 54 for 9. Vials was on 30, Driffield 9. The spectators stood to give the two batsmen an ovation fit for returning heroes.

The second massacre

After the break, it took three more overs for Blythe to complete the rout. It was five minutes to three when Driffield was bowled for 10. Vials remained unbeaten for a splendid 33. The pair had put on 34 in 12 overs. Blythe’s figures no longer as magical, nevertheless he finished with 16-7-30-10.

There were just 25 previous occasions when this feat of capturing all ten wickets had been performed in First-Class cricket. The first to do so in an 11-a-side match was another Kent bowler, Edmund Hinkly. He had taken 10 for Kent against England at Lord’s in 1848.

The most remarkable feature of Blythe’s deed was that he had scalped all ten while throughout bowlers of the calibre of Fairservice and Fielder were trying to fish out the wickets against the poor batting side on the dreadful wicket. It must be said, however, that the pitch was not suitable for faster bowling at that stage.

But, Blythe was not done yet. He was eager to have a go again as the Northants followed on.

This time Vials was sent in first, a reward of his courageous 33 not out. Or did he not feel like taking off the pads? Blythe started bowling again.

In the third over of the innings, with as yet no run on the board, Blythe flighted one up. Vials struck it and mistimed horribly. The ball went spiralling in the air, and Fairservice ran in from mid-off. Would Blythe get all 20?

But, having positioned himself under the ball, Fairservice let it spill through his fingers. The batsmen crossed, Vials was off the mark.

And now, to add insult to injury and dash the dreams of Blythe and cricket statisticians, Fairservice ran in … and with the first ball of the next over shattered the stumps of Vials.

It seemed that the spell cast by Blythe had been broken after this dismissal by another bowler. Pool on-drove Blythe for two. Cox drove Fairservice for four and two. The score reached double figures for the loss of just one wicket. The previous innings had seen a desperate scramble between wickets and runs before the runs had won the race to double digits with the wickets on 7. It had been a remarkable improvement.

But, Blythe had by now got over his disappointment of not getting 20. The fifth ball of his fourth over was flighted tantalisingly. It fooled Pool in the air and Huish whipped off the bails. Was the batsman’s foot grounded? Many thought so, but the finger was up. The following ball trapped Kingston leg-before.

George Thompson survived the hat-trick ball the next over. But, having stayed in for a few minutes, he struck hard and high and was caught on the boundary by a running Hardinge.

Cox, the second and last batsman to reach double figures for Northamptonshire in this match, was stumped by Huish.

At the other end, East slashed at Fairservice and Huish tumbled to hold a brilliant catch. The batsman was not happy with the decision and showed it. But the scoreboard read 21 for 6. Blythe had figures of 4 for 6.

There seemed no way that the match could be saved. Buswell and AR Thompson now decided to go on the attack. Buswell lofted Blythe to the on side boundary. Thompson hit him to the leg side for two. Blythe’s tenth over was extremely expensive, going for 7.

At the other end, Humphreys came on and saw Buswell dropped at point. Blythe himself dropped another gentle return catch from Thompson. Then Buswell lofted Humphreys and was dropped at long off. The batsmen were living charmed lives, trying to whip up a few runs through strokes of fortune.

However, the luck did not hold. Buswell chanced his arm again, this time off Blythe, and it went spiralling to Woolley at mid-off. As we all know now, Woolley was not in the habit of dropping many.

Now the principal adversary was the weather. Seven wickets down, rain started to fall. There were ominous signs of the match being abandoned. Yet, Crosse was in no mood to play for possible interruption. To be honest, it was almost impossible to survive with defensive play. He lofted Blythe to the vacant on side field for a single before being caught by Hardinge on the boundary.

Wells played on to Humphreys. At 35 for 9, there was yet another chance of obtaining the lowest score of the season.

But, Driffield held firm once again, and a single to the leg off Humphreys took them to 38. By now, however, the scorers were too busy with the wickets column to bother about the runs. The scoreboard at the ground did not show the actual score.

Now Blythe ran in to bowl his 16th over. Thomson hit out and Humphreys held him at mid-on. Northants were all out for 39, losing the match by an innings and 155 runs. The second innings figures of Blythe read 15.1-7-18-7.

For the match he had 17 for 48, all taken during the course of a single day. In the Championship history Lancashire fast bowler Walter Brearley had taken 17 against Somerset at Old Trafford in 1905, and before that Walter Mead of Essex had taken 17 in a match against Hampshire in 1895. But Brearley had given away 137, Mead 119.  And no one had taken 17 in a day before Blythe.

However, the Northamptonshire cricketers had to be commended for playing on in the drizzle and continuing to bat positively. In fact, just after the players left the ground it started coming down in a torrent. The rain splashed across the ground for the next several hours.

What followed?

The following week the Northampton Independent published a cartoon with Blythe on a monument, ball in left hand, right hand on hip, with the Northants team kneeling in a circle at the foot in submission, heads bowed or looking rather sheepishly. The caption is “Bowing the Knee to Blythe.”

The Northants managed to reach ‘decent’ scores of 60 and 39 that day. However, ten days down the line, George Dennett took 8 for 9 and Gilbert Jessop 2 for 3 as they were bowled out for 12 by Gloucestershire at the Spa Ground, Gloucester.

The following year they were destroyed at home by the great Yorkshire pair of George Hirst and Schoffeld Haigh for 27 and 15.

Blythe’s feat of 17 wickets had been done in the past, and was repeated again in future. Another Kent bowler, Tich Freeman, claimed 17 twice, against Sussex in 1922 and against Warwickshire ten years later. Harry Dean, Frank Matthews and others achieved the feat as well.

However, none of them did all that in a day’s play.

Blythe’s 17 for 48 in a day stood as a unique feat for 26 years before Hedley Verity captured 17 for 91 for Yorkshire against Essex at Leyton in 1933. The combination of the ground and the teams obviously had a fascination for records, since the previous year the same fixture on the same ground had seen Herbert Sutcliffe and Percy Holmes put on 555.

In 1939, Tom Goddard claimed 17 for 139 in a day at Bristol, with Kent being at the receiving end for a change.

These remain the only instances of 17 wickets in a day. And Blythe’s figures remain by far the best of them all.

Brief Scores:

Kent 254 (Wally Hardinge 73, Kenneth Hutchings 52; Bill East 5 for 77, Lancelot Driffield 4 for 50) beat Northamptonshire 60 (Colin Blythe 10 for 30) and 39 (Colin Blythe 7 for 18) by an innings and 155 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)