Join the club
History tends to repeat itself but some things in cricket we can say with near certainty will never happen again. It seems implausible that another Test batsman will average almost 100 over a career. It is unlikely that many men will play Test cricket into their forties, let alone their fifties like Wilfred Rhodes. The days of the five-month tour are past. And, as a colleague from Oldham has been known to growl, you can throw in Lancashire ever winning the County Championship again too. He would love to be proved wrong on that.
To the endangered species list we will soon be able to add another "never again". When Mark Ramprakash, Surrey's evergreen batsman, makes his third century this summer he will join a select band of 24 men who have scored 100 first-class hundreds. He will be the first for a decade and the last possibly for ever.
Scoring 100 hundreds requires more than longevity. You need brilliance, luck and stubbornness. Plenty of great names have ended a long career without quite crossing that line. Mike Gatting, Maurice Leyland and Gordon Greenidge each played for more than 22 years but could not do it. Ramprakash, 38, may also have been left frustrated if it hadn't been for an astounding last two seasons in which he made 18 hundreds.
These days, with a slimmed-down Championship schedule and the proliferation of international fixtures, Ramprakash's achievement is an anachronism. In 21 years as a first-class player, he has played only 664 innings, yet the fact that he has got to 98 hundreds is due to an extraordinary conversion-rate. To make a comparison, CB Fry, Garfield Sobers and Rohan Kanhai, among the top drawer of history's great batsmen, all played more than 600 innings, yet the first reached only 94 first-class hundreds, the latter two 86 apiece.
"There's no doubt that the landmark is on my mind," Ramprakash tells TWC. "I'm really looking forward to this season for a lot of reasons but there is certainly a strong incentive to get to 100 hundreds. I remember five years ago [when he reached 66] people were talking about it and I thought I would have my work cut out. I couldn't have predicted that the past two years would have gone so well."
As Ramprakash points out, "there are a lot of fantastic names on the list". It begins with WG Grace, who reached his 100th hundred when he was 46, and continues through the likes of Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond, Don Bradman, Viv Richards and Graham Gooch. Graeme Hick was the last to reach the landmark, ten years ago at Worcester.
"It was more than a relief to reach the landmark," Hick says. "It stopped people asking 'When's he going to do it?'" The end for Hick came in a hurry, with two centuries against Sussex at New Road taking him from 98 to 100. In doing so he became the second youngest to reach the milestone - two weeks behind Hammond - and took fewer innings than anyone bar Bradman and Denis Compton.
Hick gained the historic runs by pushing Mark Robinson for two through midwicket, at which point Tom Graveney, another Worcestershire hero who had reached his own 100th hundred at New Road 34 years earlier, emerged from the pavilion with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. Graveney dropped one of the glasses on the wicket, where it broke, but the other was presented to Hick later.
"I've got it framed at home," Hick said. "There's still some dried champagne residue on the glass. It was very enjoyable to score the runs at New Road as Worcestershire have been a fantastic family for me. I remember the wicket was pretty flat and Vikram Solanki also made a hundred, his first in the Championship, so that made the day special for both of us." Several members of the "100 Club" were lucky enough to score their historic century on home turf and Ramprakash, who has been with Surrey since 2001 and is in his benefit year, admitted that "the thought has flickered through my mind of making the runs at The Oval, but I'm taking nothing for granted".
At least Ramprakash will not have the uncertainty that Gooch did. "There was a bit of confusion over whether a hundred I scored on the rebel tour of South Africa in 1982 was first-class," Gooch says. "Ten years later, it was noticed that I was getting near to 100 and when I scored a hundred at Cuttack, I thought I'd made it. Then someone told me I hadn't. It was a bit of a cock-up."
Gooch returned to England and made his 100th hundred (again) against Cambridge University at Fenner's at the start of the following summer, raising a few eyebrows when after reaching three figures with a six over long-on he immediately walked off, having "retired out" at 105. "I went straight home after the match; there was no celebration," he says.
Gooch was not the only batsman to find his record altered by statisticians. The first member of the 100 Club, Grace, reached what he thought was his 100th hundred at Bristol in 1895. The celebration was similar to that which greeted Hick's - except it was a magnum of champagne - and there was much jubilation. And then, many years later, two of his early hundreds were ruled invalid Fortunately, Grace had gone on to reach 126 hundreds, so the deduction did not cost him his membership of the club.
Conversely, both Herbert Sutcliffe and Hobbs were granted two extra hundreds after runs they made for the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram's XI in Ceylon were ruled first-class. Although Hobbs' total of 197 first-class hundreds is as much a common-lore statistic as Bradman's Test average, he actually made 199.
Ramprakash said his most satisfying hundred had been his third, in 1990 for Middlesex against Somerset at Uxbridge. "We were set about 360 to win in 60 overs [actually 370 in 69] and got there in the last over," Ramprakash said. "I remember I broke a few bats while making 146 and I needed 12 off the last over. It was especially important as Middlesex won the Championship that year."
Gooch has fond memories of his maiden ton. "It was 1974 against Leicestershire at Chelmsford and they had Garth McKenzie, who I had watched bowl for Australia when I was a kid ten years earlier," Gooch said. "I remember I hit a six off McKenzie into the hospital that used to be by the ground and immediately apologised to him."
Two players reached their 100th hundred in a Test - Zaheer Abbas against India at Lahore and Geoffrey Boycott at Headingley - but the chances of Ramprakash doing the same are slim. "Plainly, they don't want to come back to me," he says. "I've told them that I'm fit and playing well but I'm not playing to please the selectors. I just want to enjoy my remaining days."
For Graveney, who became the 15th man to join the club in 1964, that idea is poppycock. "Ramprakash should be playing for England now," he says. But perhaps Graveney is remembering the days when it was possible to earn an England recall at the age of 39. Graveney's 100th hundred came at New Road when he was 37.
"I remember I got a sudden run of scores and made three hundreds in four matches," Graveney says of his feat in 1964. "I was on 99 and David Larter bowled a very good over at me. Finally he sent down a bouncer, I went to hook and got a bottom edge over short leg and ran a single. It was not an impressive shot.
"Keith Andrew was behind the stumps and just before Larter bowled he said, 'Do you want us to give it to you?' I would have loved to have said yes. It was a different game in those days and sometimes you did someone a favour. In Sydney once, Keith Miller gave me my hundred. I was on 97 and he bowled me a slow long hop, which I missed, so he sent me another one. But then we were great friends."
Graveney was eventually recalled by England and made four more hundreds for his country, including the one that he rates as the best of all his 122 centuries. "It was on a turner at Lord's against India in 1967 and I was batting with my great friend Basil [D'Oliveira]. We put on 108 together in the morning and I had 80 of them. At lunch Basil told me to piss off because I was making him look bad. I made 151 and when I was out the last five wickets fell for nothing."
As Graveney points out, the number of matches played these days militates against anyone reaching 100 hundreds. Of active players, Justin Langer has 80, Matthew Hayden 79 and Stuart Law 78, but none of them will play for long enough to get to 100. Ricky Ponting has 68 but will need to play until he is 40 if he continues to score hundreds at the present rate; Robert Key (35 hundreds) is the most likely of the present county crop, but at 28 time is short even for him.
The fact that Marcus Trescothick has scored only 28 first-class hundreds - 14 of them for England - illustrates a point that Gooch makes. "These days if you are good you will get picked by England and then you will simply not play many games," he says. "Alastair Cook is young enough and talented enough to get to 100 hundreds - but if he does he will be 40 and have scored 70 of those hundreds for England."
Patrick Kidd is a staff writer on the Times, for whom he writes the cricket blog, Line and Length