The Yorkshire pro and prankster, dashing batsman and bon viveur, lived too long ago and died too young to be well remembered but Scyld Berry believes he played the finest innings ever for England against Australia
The best individual innings ever played for England against Australia was by Jack Brown. There is no absolute measure of course but, given the circumstances, the case can well be made and certainly Michael Vaughan or one of his colleagues will have to motor a bit this summer to surpass Brown's achievement in 1894-95. With the series standing at 2-2 and England chasing 297 to win the final Test, Brown went in at 28 for 2 and scored 140 to win the match, and the Ashes, and with such panache that his first 50 was, and still is, the fastest recorded in Test cricket in terms of time.
Brown might have received more recognition if he had lived beyond the age of 35 but he died of heart failure when he had plenty of runs left in him. He was a bon viveur who drank and smoked even though he had asthma as well as heart trouble. As one prank on England's 1894-95 tour of Australia he and his fellow northern pro Johnny Briggs persuaded a couple of spectators to put on flannels during an up-country match. Then Briggs and Brown asked their captain if they could field in the deep - so deep that they disappeared into the refreshment tent while the spectators fielded in their place.
He might have received more recognition, too, if he had been an amateur or more deferential but he was a professional who was not going to be put down. He was a friend of the Royal Valet, to the extent that King Edward VII sent his own physician to check out Brown's heart, not that it did Brown any good. According to Peter Thomas' book Yorkshire Cricketers, Brown came up with a fine example of late Victorian sledging at none other than Sir HDG Leveson Gower. When Leveson Gower was dismissed for 70, Brown caustically told him: "You have not played well enough to get out before."
Again he might have received more recognition if he had not been a flair player, the type traditionally not trusted by England selectors, a forerunner of Harold Gimblett, Colin Milburn or Ali Brown. The earlier Brown, short and stocky, seems to have been mostly a back-foot player, renowned for his late cutting and a daring variety of leg-side shots. He was not a consistent batsman, especially on uncovered northern pitches, but was skilful enough not only to be the first batsman after WG Grace to score two triple hundreds in first-class cricket but also to average 36.15 in Tests. When Brown opened for Yorkshire, he formed a famous pair with John Tunnicliffe. Dasher and blocker, they broke their own record opening stand of 378 against Sussex (set the previous season) when they put on 554 for the first wicket against Derbyshire in 1898 in five hours.
But it is for his Ashes-winning hundred that Brown should be remembered. The 1894-95 series was when Test cricket took off in the public imagination. It was only the second series of five Tests and the first which was comprehensively covered via the telegraph. While the fifth Test was going on in Melbourne in front of almost 100,000 spectators over the five days (the Saturday crowd of 29,000 was the largest for a single day in Australia to that point), large crowds waited outside newspaper offices in Sydney to read reports of every over about 10 minutes after it had been bowled in the neighbouring colony.
Down in Melbourne the Australians had won a toss that was so important that, when the England captain Andrew Stoddart called heads, he and George Giffen "ran to the coin and Giffen, with a joyous shout and a dive down on to the coin, exclaimed `it's tails!'" (Sydney Morning Herald). Both sides were desperate to bat first in case rain came and damaged the uncovered pitch, as it had famously done during the first Test in Sydney - the game when England followed on and set Australia only 177 to win but won by 10 runs after an overnight storm.
In the Melbourne decider Australia began with 414, which was all right but nothing special, and England replied with 385. Brilliant pace bowling by Tom Richardson then kept Australia in check, just about, as they made 267 second time round. A strong wind blew across the pitch so that Richardson could bring the ball into the Australian right-handers, bowling four of them and having a fifth leg-before, giving him 6 for 104. All England had to do now was accomplish by far the highest run-chase achieved so far in Tests (the previous most successful chase had been 199).
England, or Mr AE Stoddart's team as they were then called, reached 28 for 1 on the fourth evening, then made the worst possible start to the fifth morning. The game was due to resume at noon but prompt starts were rare in those days and it was 12.08 before the first ball was delivered. Those few belated minutes were well used by the two Australian spinners, the off-spinner Giffen and leg-spinner Harry Trott, who bowled to each other on the outfield while Stoddart took guard. Then, when Trott "was satisfied that his arm was swinging all right", he began with something that was not his normal leg-break but a quicker, straight ball. Stoddart the previous evening had been happily playing back and working Trott's leg-breaks to the on-side. But this time he was lbw, first ball of the day, and "Stoddart's face as he passed in plainly indicated that he was seriously disturbed". There the game and the Ashes stood in the balance, with England 28 for 2 in pursuit of 297, waiting for a match-winner. Everyone knew it too, as the Australians "were fielding for their lives". For bowling, Australia had Giffen and Trott and his younger brother Albert Trott, who bowled pace in those days; and they also had a bowler who sounds as though he was the first mystery spinner seen in Test cricket and not the last with a dodgy action. Tom McKibbin bowled off-breaks mostly, with an occasional leg-break "thrown in".
In the same over that Stoddart was out Brown edged Trott low towards slip, to the fielder's feet according to the SMH correspondent, who did not count it a chance; and he got off the mark as well with a four through mid-off when the last ball of Trott's over was "a poor one". At the other end Giffen tried to tempt Brown "to hit one up", then he tried to york him on leg stump but the wind made the ball drift further down leg-side and Brown helped - swept? - it round for four more. He did the same next ball, then square-cut a three, making 11 off Giffen's six-ball over.
The SMH did not report on every ball and every over, so we do not know exactly how many balls Brown received for his fifty. But we are told that he reached 40 in 18 minutes and 51 in 23, although Wisden has enshrined the time of his 50 as 28 minutes. In reaching it Brown glanced and cut the younger, faster Trott for boundaries and snicked another four while his partner Albert Ward played the dogged opening batsman. "Bravo, Brown" was shouted as he reached the landmark more quickly than anyone before or since - including Jacques Kallis against Zimbabwe in March this year.
Under the pressure imposed by England's third-wicket pair McKibbin faltered. "He was either pitching the ball so far to the off that the batsmen were cutting his trundling to ribbons, or else he was dropping the ball right on to the line of the stumps and the break carrying it away to leg enough for the batsmen to hook." In the century stand Brown made 64 to Ward's 36. There were no extras, until the harassed McKibbin bowled an off-side wide. When the mystery spinner and potential match-winner over-compensated next ball, "Brown had it round like a shot to the fence at fine-leg". At lunch England were 146 for 2 (Brown 80, Ward 41), and "at the table and in the gossip after luncheon the general opinion seemed to be that the Englishmen would get the runs" - especially when Jim Phillips, the umpire the English team had brought with them to stand in the Tests, said the wicket was as good as ever.
Brown kept attacking after lunch, so rattling the fielders that Syd Gregory fumbled at mid-off to concede a single "and the public was quite astonished". When 88 Brown gave his only chance, dropped by Giffen at slip off Harry Trott; it might have been his quicker ball again as it had "a lot of pace on". The batsman? Chastened? "Brown signalised his let-off by stepping out to Harry Trott and hitting him almost on the fly to the fence in front of the members' pavilion. The slow bowler was evidently tempting him to hit and Brown, nothing loth, walked down the pitch and, meeting the ball, a full toss, hit it to deep on to [sic] the boundary, bringing his score to 102 out of 173." That was how Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff would have reacted to the let-off but they were or are allrounders, not specialist batsmen. Brown's hundred is officially listed as taking 95 minutes and was the fastest to date, even though it had been interrupted by the lunch break.
He kept going at almost a run a minute until he was out for 140 in "not more than two hours and 28 minutes". His partnership of 210 with Ward was the highest in Test cricket to that point, making England 238-3 and leaving a simple task against deflated bowlers. "The spectators rose in a body and cheered Brown again and again as he came in after his grand innings" the SMH recorded, while outside their Sydney office "a deafening cheer went up that showed a sportsmanlike recognition of the brilliant playing of the Englishmen, although it meant the defeat of the Australians."
Afterwards Giffen said: "The Englishmen's batting at the finish was phenomenal." One of the Australian selectors Jack Blackham remarked: "Brown and Ward batted so well that all the finest of our bowlers could do nothing against them." The Australian umpire, Mr Flynn, said: "I think Brown's batting about the best I have ever seen." Praise indeed from the Australians, as we have come to expect from them. It would just be nice if his own fellow countrymen had given Jack Brown more recognition.
Scyld Berry is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph