Here are some of the century's cricket seasons, in their different ways and for various reasons: 1912... 1913... 1934... 1938... 1948... 1953... 1956... 1966... 1977... 1999. As the man said, eternal summer gilds them and they shall not fade. (We talk here of English summers, of course, which are more precious than anyone else's.)
Then, having listed them, in turn we eliminate them, tweezer them out one by one as though it were an ongoing knockout cup or, to be sure, like the first long and long-legged chorus line of an old Miss World competition: Sorry, darlin', not tonight. If we are talking about summers of the 20th century, not a single one of those evocative years makes the bag for the final shake-up -- not one is in the top dozen.
Only 90 years qualify for this lark. Ten were lost to war, and the utter poignancy fore and aft of the guns demands that a romantic at least genuflects to those anguished seasons -- 1914, 1919, 1939, 1946-- in a list like this. On September 3, 1914, the German Army were camped scarcely 100 miles from Kilner and Hirst batting out time for a draw against Sussex. But, no, even that end of an era cannot make the shortlist.
Begin almost at the beginning. On the morning of January 1, 1902, in the first-ever heavyweight clash of the century, the Australian champ Victor Trumper was dismissed by Sydney Barnes's second ball for a duck-- to signal precisely the start of a cricketing twelvemonth which was to set the standard for quality, the yardstick for the lore, by which all other years would be measured. By March, Australia had won that series 4-1. By May 29, a serene English summer already in the bud, Joe Darling's same Australians were in Birmingham for a new Test rubber against Archie MacLaren's men. Edgbaston's first Test is still said to have hosted the finest XI ever to be put out by England-- MacLaren, Fry, Ranji, Jackson, J. Tyldesley, Lilley, Hirst, Jessop, Braund, Lockwood, Rhodes. The series, a thrilling one, pinned back the ears of the nation -- Fleet Street's burgeoning popular press had discovered sport, and Gilbert Jessop's ravishing match-winning century in the final Test at The Oval remains hymned and hurrahed to this day. Like Jessop's 104, the year 1902 was going to take some beating.
In one of those minor classics which were his introductory essays to the Wisden anthologies, that quirky Autolycus, Benny Green, lights on the seemingly nondescript year of 1911. Although there were no Test matches in England, there was All India's rigorous introduction to the implications of western pragmatism in the shape of Sydney Barnes (14 for 29 in one day for Staffordshire at Stoke); F. R. Foster's 105 at No. 7 for Warwickshire against Yorkshire, followed at once with nine for 118; Leicestershire's C. J. B. Wood carrying his bat (107 and 117) through both innings against Hirst and Rhodes at Bradford; and, crowning glory, Ted Alletson's almightiest of one-offs down at Hove, where in an hour or two he fashioned a monument to himself that will stand as long as the game is played.
There was a heck of a year in 1926. Arnold Bennett was there for the Test when England regained the Ashes: Monday, August 16. At 11 a.m., suddenly decide on The Oval. Crowd very quick to take up every point. Every maiden over cheered. Women fainting here and there. Attendants to look after them. Cricket cautious and slow. Great roar when Woodfull's wicket went. Heat of crowd, and great difficulty seeing anything at all. Woodfull had been bowled by Rhodes, recalled aged 48 to play alongside 21-year-old Harold Larwood. They shared 12 wickets.
The most rewarding interview of my life was with Larwood, in 1994 in his 90th year. He was sparrow-tiny and stone-blind, but chuckled merrily at each recall. Rhodes was a one, he said. He fetched me up, closer and closer till I was all but standing on Ponsford's toes. 'What's going on, boy?' said Ponsford. 'We'll both soon find out, sir,' I said, nervous-like. Two balls later, a fraction more quick and lifting, and I catch Ponsford, easy, for 12, don't I? At the end of 1926, far away from England, a small-print one-paragraph abridged cricket score from a one-day match appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald-- SCG -- 1-day Boys' Trial: Probables 302 for nine ( A. F. Kippax 58, A. A. Jackson 53 retd). Possibles 237 (D. Mullarkey 64 retd, D. G. Bradman 37 not out).
Bradman was just 18. It was the first time the country boy had trodden the Sydney Cricket Ground. For 22 years, Bradman was the earth and the sun, ensuring that England's summers of 1930, 1934, 1938 and 1948 remain ripe and bounteous in a wincing but everlasting memory. But it is the first one that makes the shortlist -- that was when good, misguided Maurice Tate taunted You're my bunny, boy! when he bowled him for eight, first innings at Trent Bridge, to which nerveless young Bradman vengefully answered with 131, 254, 1, 334, 14 and 232.
If his 99.94 remains the most lustrously garlanded four digits in cricket, ways, 1981, 1993 the three Ws are the most esteemed collection of capitals. The century's very middle summer unquestionably makes the list. It provided a vivid prophecy for almost the whole of the next half-century. The unconsidered West Indians heavily lost the First Test at Manchester against Norman Yardley's unconcerned English. Then, at Lord's, Hutton and Washbrook reached 62 with imperious and threatening calm before visiting captain John Goddard made a double bowling change. At once, the little printing-press in the scorecard office began to clank and chanter:
Things would never be quite the same for England's cricketers and, though the Ashes were imminently to be regained and then retained, from 1950 on they would be permanently looking over their shoulders.
Frank Worrell's side played a glistening series in 1963, a year which had history's permanent asterisk thrust upon it with the inauguration of the one-day Gillette Cup competition. In 1970, England lost a Test series to a thrilling Rest of the World team hastily recruited on the banishment of South Africa. Even if Lord's had to be dragged, kicking and apoplectic, into compliance, the cause and effect -- the ban and the substitute series- made for a refreshingly glorious summer.
The sun was as happily high as the shirtsleeves in 1975, when a compelling first World Cup was held. For the same sort of reasons, but in their different ways, 1981, 1993 and 1994 also irresistibly clamour for inclusion here. It was under the bright suns of those three summers -- laud and log them permanently -- that Ian Botham, Shane Warne and Brian Lara each leapt with such heart and heartening hooraymanship to their meridian.
So: 1994... 1993... 1981... 1975... 1970... 1963... 1950... 1930... 1926... 1911... 1902...Eleven summers for the century in reverse order. Make 1902, 1926, and 1950 -- nicely, exactly 24 years between each -- place money runners-up. Now, roll those drums and clash those cymbals, and stop rabbiting on and open the ruddy envelope...
It just has to be, doesn't it? 1947. The sun shone, the pitches were uncovered, it was the innocent year before the beastly new and faraway government of those nice chaps in green caps espoused apartheid, and from May to September, it seemed, Compton and Edrich were batting.
I was nine in 1947. I went to the Cheltenham Festival for the first time and, at lunch and tea, our hundred or so tennis-ball cricket games criss-crossed the sun-blessed field. Plums cost 3d a pound, and glorious Glorse came second to mighty Middlesex in the Championship. And a bloke called John Arlott was word-painting wondrous stuff on the wireless. In 1947. Summer of the Century. Summer of Summers.
Frank Keating is sports columnist on The Guardian and author of Frank Keating's Sporting Century (Robson Books).