September 2006

A summer without equal

Stephen Chalke
A hundred years ago George Hirst scored 2,000 runs and took 200 wickets in a season for Yorkshire. Stephen Chalke tells how he did it

George Hirst: 'Cricket is a game, not a competition' © Getty Images
George Herbert Hirst turned 35 years old during the summer of 1906 and was carrying an old injury that required him to bowl with a strapped-up knee. At home his nights were broken by the cries of a baby born in the last week of April. He was a muscular man, a left-arm quick bowler with an awkward run-up and, in the words of one observer, "a wearing, caring action which takes so much out of him that he ought to be tired out after a dozen overs". Yet in eight weeks, from May 7 to June 30, playing two three-day matches each week for Yorkshire, he bowled 639 overs and took 104 wickets.

But that was only half his work. In a fragile batting line-up he went in at No. 5, able to score quick runs or to defend his wicket as the game required, and by the end of June he had scored 1,113 runs. His double remains by a full fortnight the fastest in the history of the first-class game.

Hirst was born in 1871 in the village of Kirkheaton, three miles outside Huddersfield, and he grew up in the Brown Cow inn which his grandparents ran. He left school at 10 to work for a local hand-loom weaver and he spent his evenings playing outside, drawn towards the field where the cricketers practised.

Some say that the loom-owners, for all their religious principles, bet on the inter-village matches and were happy to give their best players time off to practise. Others say that the speed of the shuttle and pick, in those pre-powered days, increased the hand-eye co-ordination of the operators. Whatever the reason, a high standard of cricket was developing in the area and in 1888 - when Hirst was 16 - Kirkheaton Cricket Club paid the former Yorkshire professional Allen Hill, taker of Test cricket's first wicket, to coach its youngsters. It was the only coaching Hirst ever received.

By 1893 he was a regular in the Yorkshire team. Four years later he was playing for England in Australia. By the turn of the century his bowling was starting to fall away but in 1901 he developed an extraordinary 'swerve' that saw the new ball swing in several feet from outside the off stump. "Well, really," complained one batsman, "I don't know how I can be expected to play a ball that, when it leaves the bowler's arm, appears to be coming straight but, when it reaches the wicket, is like a very good throw from cover point."

Hirst was a wholehearted cricketer, a man of happy disposition and a great team player. "His smile used almost to meet at the back of his neck," his captain Lord Hawke said. And Pelham Warner, England captain, called him "the ideal cricketer, so straight, so strong, so honest. It does one good to see him laugh."

"Cricket is a game, not a competition," Hirst would say. "And, when you're both a bowler and a batter, you're twice as happy. You enjoy yourself twice as much."

Yorkshire had won the Championship in four of the fi rst six years of the century and in 1906 they were locked in a close-fought race with Surrey, Lancashire and Kent. Every game was vital, with the arithmetic of the competition especially hard on a defeat. At Catford against Kent Hirst was the match-winner, with a century and 11 wickets, and in the return game at Sheffield he took eight wickets and saved the game with a battling 93. At Bradford his 6 for 20 demolished Lancashire and in the return at Old Trafford he turned the match with an 85 that Wisden reckoned better than any of his six centuries that summer, though The Times thought his 87 on a fiery Oval pitch "one of the greatest innings he has ever played for Yorkshire".

In the words of Lord Hawke, "It was not only what Georgie Hirst did but how he did it, coming off when an effort seemed most necessary and playing his best against the more formidable sides."

He became only the second Yorkshireman to score two hundreds in the same match in August 1906 © Getty Images
At Bristol, on Saturday August 25, Yorkshire were set 234 to win and their unexpected one-run defeat cost them the Championship. For once Hirst failed but at that stage of the season he had scored 1,837 runs and taken 184 wickets. In the next match at Bath he achieved a feat unique in the history of cricket. In oppressive heat he hit a chanceless century on the Monday, then took six wickets in 26 overs on the Tuesday. His captain, conscious that the bowlers needed a rest, opted not to enforce the follow-on but Hirst was soon back in action, sent in at No. 3 to score quick runs, and he became only the second Yorkshireman to score two hundreds in the same match, in the process passing 2,000 runs.

On Wednesday he added another five wickets, thus becoming the only man to score two hundreds and take five or more wickets in an innings twice in the same first-class match.

The early finish at Bath allowed them to leave on the 3.13 train and, with two changes, they arrived in Scarborough at 11.33. Years later Hirst told the Yorkshire bowler Bill Bowes how in the latter stages of that summer his legs felt like iron and how he massaged them night and morning with neat's-foot oil. When he asked his doctor about it, the reply was blunt: "Don't you realise, Mr Hirst, you've given your legs more use than five ordinary men in a lifetime. You're lucky if you can keep them in order with a drop of oil."

So hot was it that week, the hottest for 30 years, that, when the football season started on the Saturday, in the match between Manchester City and Woolwich Arsenal, two of the City players did not reappear after half-time and three more retired with heat exhaustion before the final whistle.

The first day at Scarborough, Thursday August 30, saw Yorkshire in the field, and in the heat Hirst bowled 33 overs at "the strongest team to represent the MCC this season". In the first over he knocked out the off stump of the Lancashire captain Archie MacLaren; he had Worcestershire's Harry Foster caught at slip in his next and by lunch he had taken his season's tally to 198, with one more following in the afternoon. At tea he may have resorted to his favourite restorative, a small gin-and-sherry mix, and off the first ball after the interval he had Somerset's Len Braund caught off a skyer at short leg. The cheers rang out, reaching the ears of his mother who had become so anxious that she had taken to walking the streets outside the ground.

In 32 matches, all for Yorkshire, all between May 7 and September 1, he scored 2,164 runs and took 201 wickets, and he added a further 221 runs and seven wickets in other matches in September. MacLaren called him "the most untiring and enthusiastic cricketer who ever wore flannels".

Bob Appleyard took 200 wickets for Yorkshire in 1951 but he scored only 104 runs. "I was absolutely jiggered after what I'd done," he says. "How he had the energy to bat as well I can't imagine."

This year Yorkshire are playing at Scarborough on August 30 and at tea-time, one hundred years almost to the minute later, Appleyard, now the Yorkshire president, will go out on to the square with a member of Hirst's family and with the ball with which Hirst took that 200th wicket.

Hirst was asked if anybody would ever match his achievement. "If they do," he said with a smile, "they'll be very tired." It was a line that Fred Trueman borrowed, adding an adjective or two, when he took his 300th Test wicket. Time has proved Trueman wrong, as the merry-go-round of modern Test cricket has seen bowlers go past 500 and 600 Test wickets. But time has left George Herbert Hirst and his summer of 1906 on its own - a summer without equal.

A fuller account of Hirst's great season is contained in Stephen Chalke's A Summer of Plenty, a £10 paperback available from Fairfield Books, 17 George's Road, Bath BA1 6EY