A century of centuries, 1951

Leslie Ames

Leslie Egbert George Ames has joined the ranks of the immortals. He has scored a hundred centuries, a feat which raises him to the pinnacle tenanted only by the game's master-craftsmen. Craft and art, let it be noted, are indissolubly linked. J. B. Hobbs, E. Hendren, W. R. Hammond, C. P. Mead, H. Sutcliffe, F. E. Woolley, W. G. Grace, D. G. Bradman, A. Sandham, T. Hayward and Ernest Tyldesley, in quantitative if not necessarily qualitative order of priority, were his predecessors. Not that anyone would argue about the No. 1--if all types of wickets be taken into account.

Hobbs still stands alone. Yet even the great Surrey master could not lay claim to the dual combination of talent which makes Ames possibly the foremost all-rounder the game has yet produced. Statistically, at least. Otherwise George Hirst might get some people's vote, and certainly that of all Yorkshiremen, though Hirst's tally of centuries amounted to no more than sixty. His wickets, of course, were innumerable, but in this context that is beside the point. We are dealing primarily with centuries, and even sixty are insufficient. Depressing thought for anyone whose world has taken on a new look after even one three-figure innings.

As for your bowler, whose Valhalla is written in simple double figures, all this probably savours of airy fantasy or purely theoretical mathematics. But read on, unless interest in the game's superman is marred by personal shortcomings. I have mentioned Ames as a all-rounder. It will be appreciated, by those old enough to read before the outbreak of the latest world war, that he also kept wicket--superbly well. Well enough, for the benefit of those prepared to argue, to fulfil that role in the most discussed and not least successful team ever to leave England for Australia, Douglas Jardine's bodyline buccaneers of 1932-33.

Jardine was too knowledgeable a captain to include a man in his side for his batting if his wicket-keeping did not fulfil the requisite standards. Ames's records in the stumped and caught department still stand alone as a target for successors to emulate. In 1928 he caught 69 batsmen and stumped 52, setting a new high of 121 for others to follow. Not content with that, he raised the total to 127 in the following year, with 79 stumpings and 48 catches making up the bag.

In all this his arch accomplice was that wiliest of googly bowlers, tiny Tich Freeman of Kent, gremlin of the green-sward if ever there was one. Freeman, with his unique total of 304 wickets in the summer of 1928, owed much to Ames's cool and deft dexterity behind the stumps. That total owed even more to the combined reputation of the two in destruction which had many a batsman dithering with fright before he went in and contributed almost inevitably to his downfall. Ames and Freeman, in fact, became as formidable a combination in their sphere as Hobbs and Sutcliffe in theirs, and as mutually identified as Alec and Eric Bedser.

In the summer of 1932, if a personal note may be introduced, it fell to Glamorgan to be honoured as one of the sides to visit Kent during Canterbury Week. At that time the Welsh county was still something of a novelty, had a reputation for playing attractive, if sometimes eccentric, cricket, and perhaps a sidelong glance was cast on the possibility of this adding to the gate takings. If so, the object was miserably thwarted. Ames and Freeman, assisted by the band of the Buffs, put an end to the matter in two days, to the detriment of the Kent coffers.

Much advice circulated in the visitors' dressing-room on the subject of how to play Freeman. "Don't play back to him--he'll get you l. b. w. with his top-spinner", was one item freely quoted. "Move down the wicket to him", was another. Hence my acquisition of an appendage not much relished at the time but treasured in retrospect--st Ames b Freeman 3. Admission to an elect freemasonry, as it were.

Annihilation, when it came, was brief and painless; just a quick flick of the bails, a hopeless backward look, and, from Ames, a tolerant, sympathetic smile. All very dignified, like the conferring of an accolade. For Ames behind the stumps was no shrieking dervish. Quiet, almost apologetic destruction was his way, with no frills or fanfares to stir the rustics from their seats; but the record books, unassailable in black and white, bear witness to its effectiveness.

In that same match at Canterbury, Ames rounded off the festive proceedings with a typical century, full of dazzling footwork--no one ever excelled him in quick approach down the wicket to the slow bowler--and punctuated every so often with full-blooded hooks and drives that had finality written on them from the moment the ball left the bat. Movement by the fielders was superfluous, and the umpires worked overtime signalling the fours and sixes. An innings, in fact, worthy of the scene and the occasion, and the crowd loved it.

Ames has made many a hundred at Canterbury since, but, strangely enough, never another one during the Week itself until the crowning effort against Middlesex last summer which occasions this article. It was a single to fine leg off dapper Jack Young which brought him to his goal and broke a tension which had existed over several previous unsuccessful attempts to reach that final century.

Only a few thousand spectators were present on this last day of the match, but Ames has confessed that the reception they gave him more than made up for any lack of numbers. He admits, too, that a cold shiver went up his spine and he felt that catch in the throat that achievement of a supreme ambition brings to anyone. So much so that he broke out into a cold sweat for several seconds.

One can well understand it. Even the most modest men are only human, and Ames is nothing if not modest. Douglas Jardine, introducing him with other members of his team to a packed audience at Adelaide Town Hall in 1932-33, had this to say of him: "He is a great keeper and a very fine bat, but at the moment has nothing more lethal to offer than a blush." Jardine, amongst his many other accomplishments as a captain, was an astute judge of men.

Harold Larwood tells a story which illustrates that Ames had that intuition, too, that all great cricketers, and for that matter games-players of any kind, must have to succeed. Fellow battlers on many a field for England, the two became fast friends. Whenever Kent played Nottinghamshire they stayed at one another's homes and spent their leisure hours together. Thus it was that at Trent Bridge, after Ames had defied all the great fast bowler's attempts to shift him, that Larwood, as friends will, decided to have his little joke. Until the last ball before lunch he had been bowling normally on a length to an off-side field with the usual army of slip fielders. Then, for old time's sake or devilment maybe, he decided to let go a bumper--"one of my specials", as he describes it. Ames, right foot across and in position almost before the ball was bowled, hooked it magnificently over the square-leg boundary for six.

Going in to lunch together, the pair laughed over the incident. "It was almost as though you knew I was going to bowl it," said Larwood. "I did," replied Ames, "but don't ask me why--I just did." Thus can friends come to know one another's innermost thoughts and scoffers at telepathy be held to ransom.

Much can be written about Ames; much has been written already, a century of centuries of superlatives, as well as runs. But one innings he ranks above his others and members with special pride. Naturally, for there could have been no more appropriate setting, no doughtier opponents or more valiant cause--England v. Australia at Lord's in 1934. England were up against it; five batsmen, Sutcliffe, C. F. Walters, Hammond, Hendren and R. E. S. Wyatt, had gone for 182 runs when Ames joined Leyland. Grimmett and O'Reilly--could there have been a greater test?--spearheaded the Australian attack, the fielders were on their toes for the kill. Yet the pair put on 229 before they were separated, Leyland 109, Ames 120. England totalled 440, and Australia were beaten by an innings and 38 runs. Hedley Verity completed the rout with his memorable fifteen for 104.

Thus Ames set the most precious jewel in a collector's piece that has brought joy untold to watchers wherever the game is played--in lands across the seas and on county grounds throughout the length and breadth of England. On their behalf as well as our own we salute him, a cricketer now linked with the game's greatest, a sportsman worthy of all that tradition demands, and a man big enough to wear whatever honours have come his way.

© John Wisden & Co