The iconic 555-run partnership between Herbert Sutcliffe and Percy Holmes reflecting in the scoreboard at Leyton © Getty Images
The 555-run partnership between Herbert Sutcliffe and Percy Holmes reflecting in the scoreboard at Leyton © Getty Images

On June 16, 1932 Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe reached their 555-run stand against Essex at Leyton amidst a lot of confusion. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the one-time highest opening stand in First-Class cricket.

Charlie Bray and his team were already psychologically down when they reached Leyton for the match against Yorkshire. In the previous match at The Oval that had ended the previous day, Surrey had chased down 252 against them for the loss of one wicket. They had got Tom Barling out with the score on 20, but Jack Hobbs and Robert Gregory had put on an unbeaten 232-run partnership to pull off a victory on Day Three.

After the leather-chasing on the previous day, all Bray wanted was to win the toss and bat: he could not. Brian Sellers did, and had absolutely no hesitation in deciding to bat first on an absolutely placid pitch against a tired lot. As Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe walked out to bat, the Essex fielders had no idea whatsoever about what was about to follow.

Day One

Sutcliffe was never under any trouble whatsoever against the Essex attack, which, to be fair could hardly be classified as exceptional. One of the greatest openers of all time (and statistically the greatest ever), he was never bothered about the fact that he had never received the kind of accolades some of the lesser cricketers of his time had. There was a reason that Don Bradman had used the words “Herbert Sutcliffe had the best temperament of any cricketer I ever played with or against” to describe the great man, while Holmes himself had used the words “if only I had Herbert’s patience!”

Holmes, on the other hand, was not at his confident best since his bout of lumbago some time back. The man whom Neville Cardus had once called “versatile and impulsive, always alive by instinct” and someone who “seemed to brush an innings, comb it, making the appropriate whistling noises” was not at his nimble best. He edged one off Arthur Daer, but Roy Sheffield grassed the chance. Essex would rue the opportunity missed by the gloveman for the next day and a half.

Thus reprieved, Holmes grew in confidence, and supported Sutcliffe in the run-accumulation. Yorkshire reached 113 without loss at lunch. Sutcliffe, on the other hand, started in the businesslike manner that was so characteristic of him, and set about scoring runs.

Once his seamers failed to break through, Bray had to fall back on his young leg-spinner Peter Smith. Smith toiled on, but could not stop the flow of runs. The Essex attack, consisting of Stan Nichols, Daer, Smith, Jack O’Connor, and Laurie Eastman seemed completely ineffective against Sutcliffe’s dominance and Holmes’ resilience. At tea Yorkshire were 237 for no loss.

The real fun began after tea. Sutcliffe began to open up, and Holmes, after passing his hundred, joined him in the furious onslaught that followed. Sutcliffe passed his 150, and then raced to his double-hundred. Holmes, too, brought up his 150, and at stumps, Yorkshire were 423 without the loss of a single wicket with Sutcliffe on 231 and Holmes on 150.

Day Two

By now Essex had conceded 655 runs without taking a wicket, that too over a period of two days. England’s most famous opening pair — Hobbs and Sutcliffe — had contributed to their misery, albeit in separate partnerships. When they took field on Day Two they were almost defeated psychologically.

To make things worse, a huge crowd had gathered at Essex’s home ground — to cheer for Sutcliffe and Holmes as they took on the challenge to go past the existing world record for the first wicket — 554 set by Jack Brown and John Tunnicliffe against Derbyshire at Chesterfield in 1898.

The duo continued from where they had finished the previous afternoon. When he reached 245, Sutcliffe reached a thousand runs for the season, and at 256, he went past his previous First-Class best. Holmes, meanwhile, went past his double-hundred, and the pair looked on track.

Before play had started that day, Sellers had announced that he would declare at 1 PM. Holmes was at home with the statement, acknowledging that Sellers “had come to get the 15 points so that [the announcement] was fair enough. Sutcliffe, however, was not happy: “Percy, do you or do you not want to go for this record?”

Sutcliffe soon went past his first triple-hundred. Then, as the leg-spinner Eastman bowled a long-hop, and the Harrogate legend pulled him for a four to bring up the magic figure of 555. He was bowled the very next ball for 313 with 33 fours and a six, and Sellers declared immediately; Holmes remained unbeaten on 224 with 19 fours. The partnership had lasted 465 minutes.

The crowd was jubilant, and the dressing-room celebrated in unison with them. Sellers recalled: “Stacks of 555 State Express [sic] cigarettes arrived in the dressing-room for Herbert and Percy. Later Herbert bought an AC car with 555 on it.”

There is an urban legend that the famous cigarette brand State Express 555 (mentioned by Sellers in the quote above) was named so after this partnership between Sutcliffe and Holmes. The brand name, however, was coined in 1896, 36 years before the partnership.

Essex, on the other hand, had ended up conceding 787 runs between partnerships in approximately two days of playing time!

Percy Holmes (left) and Herbert Sutcliffe after breaking the record for first wicket stand © Getty Images
Percy Holmes (left) and Herbert Sutcliffe after breaking the record for first wicket stand © Getty Images

The confusion

It took half an hour for Essex’s innings to commence, though — for a reason that has not really happened very frequently in Championship matches. In Bray’s words, “the scoreboard often went wrong at Leyton because the scorers sat underneath and could not check visually.”

The scorers — Billy Ringrose of Yorkshire and Charlie McGahey of Essex (a former Test player Tests) — had mutually agreed that the score was actually 554, though the scoreboard showed 555. McGahey had also appeared late on Day One, which complicated matters even more.

The media, meanwhile, was completely confused and tried desperately to find out the proceedings, but Ringrose was adamant. It was then that umpire Tiger Smith intervened: he claimed that he had missed a no-ball from Daer before McGahey had turned up. As Ringrose reluctantly agreed, McGahey rushed to the Essex dressing-room.

McGahey reported to a completely exhausted Bray, who had no idea regarding what was going on outside: “Sorry to disturb you, skip, but all hell is going on out there. They want us to find an extra run to beat the record and I won’t do it without your permission.” Bray, somewhat graciously, responded: “Find a run for them, Charles. They’ve batted magnificently and more than deserve the record.”

Everyone agreed on the 555-run partnership at this point, and poor Daer ended up with an extra run against his name.

The rest of the match

Essex was completely demolished cheaply twice by some quality bowling from Bill Bowes and Hedley Verity. Play ended soon on Day Three as they were bowled out for 78 and 164. Nichols, with 59 not out in the second innings, was the only one to put up some resistance. Bowes finished with match figures of 9 for 85, but Verity’s figures were even better — 10 for 53.

What happened next?

- Bray got accused for breaking the laws by the Sussex captain Percy Fender a week later. Fender also accused the umpires, Smith and Frank Field: Yorkshire won the Championship that season with Sussex coming second.

- A young EW Swanton was covering the match for Evening Standard. He could not get the report of time (mostly due to the fact that the only mode of quick communication out of Leyton was a solitary public telephone). As a result he was not allowed to cover the Bodyline trip with the words “if you can’t file on time from Leyton then I don’t trust you to do so from Australia.”

- Sutcliffe and Holmes’ record stood for over 46 years till Waheed Mirza and Mansoor Akhtar added 561 for the first wicket for Karachi Whites against Quetta in 1976-77.

Brief scores:

Yorkshire 555 for 1 decl. (Herbert Sutcliffe 313, Percy Holmes 224*) beat Essex 78 (Hedley Verity 5 for 8, Bill Bowes 4 for 38) and 164 (Stan Nichols 59*; Hedley Verity 5 for 45, Bill Bowes 5 for 47) by an innings and 313 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components — cricket and literature  though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)