David Rayvern Allen investigates an old, important and apparently unverified record
One of the longest-standing records to be found in Wisden is that of throwing the cricket ball. The stark and in a sense almost elliptically-worded statement records that one Richard Percival threw the cricket ball 140 yds 2 ft, on the Durham Sands Racecourse, Co. Durham in 1884. Yet nagging insubstantiality surrounds this particular record.
A pedant's quibble might start with the fact that Percival's christian name was Robert not Richard. Described as a tall, raw-boned Yorkshireman, though born in the Sunderland area, with a height of 5 ft 10 ins (average height has altered slightly), he was 25 at the time of the alleged throw on April 14 at the Easter Monday Sports Meeting. This meeting, which was held over two days at the Racecourse on the south side of the River Wear, received extensive coverage in the Press of the time.
The Newcastle Journal said `the weather was wet and unfavourable, and the condition of the ground rendered the competitions for flat-racing and leaping very uncertain'. The Durham Chronicle reported `the weather on Easter Monday was as bad as could be, but there was still a large number of spectators, and at times the scene was quite active and merry'. The Durham County Advertiser remonstrated about `the ground being nearly ankle deep in mud in places, and made worse on the Tuesday by the Corporation depositing ashpit refuse. A proper programme should be drawn up, and events should start punctually.'
The Easter Meet at the Sands, promoted by the Freemen of the City of Durham, was the main local sports meeting of the year, and a, such had the competition results detailed by all the district papers. 1882 was the first year of the Easter Durham Sands Sports, as they were known. In pre-inflationary 1883 a penny gate money was charged, and nearly £20 taken over the two days. The listed events for 1884 were quoits, high leap, tug-of-war, pole-leaping, long leap, wheelbarrow A race, three-legged race, sack race, 120 yard: handicap footrace, even stone-picking together with itinerant shows, hobby-horses; swing-boats, and stalls- But no mention of throwing the cricket ball or indeed of Percival.
Now this is disturbing, because throwing the cricket ball was a fairly frequent and popular event in those days. There were three competitions held in a two-month period in the early summer of 1884, two of which were held at the Racecourse: On April 3: Durham Grammar School Sports. A schoolboy, C. Carr won with a throw of 91 yds, 1 foot, 1 inch. On May 15: University of Durham Athletic Sports (the opening event at 1-15 pin) won by J. M. Lazenby with a throw of 101 yards from 10 other entrants. June 3: Houghton-le-Spring Sports. A Dr Brown of Edinburgh triumphed by throwing 90 yards, 2 feet, 4 inches.
A scanning of local papers, the Durham Chronicle, County Advertiser, Newcastle Daily Journal, Courant, Sunderland Daily Echo, and the Sunderland Herald and Daily Post, for every day of the year 1884, and also the Easter meetings for 1882, 1883, 1885, 1886, by Arthur Appleton, to whom I'm much indebted, failed to throw any light, let alone a cricket ball by Percival.
The first cricket cartulary to give definite acceptance to the throw seems to be the Sunday Chronicle Annual of 1905 at 21 years' distance. The initial mention in Wisden is 1908, nearly a decade after Ashley-Cooper began his long association with the Almanack, though this tends to support Percival's throw as being deed, as surely such an authority would have verified the facts. Grace's Cricket Reminiscences of 1899 includes a list of prominent throwers, with Percival being notable by his absence.
In Sporting Records published by Methuen in 1897, H. Morgan Browne makes an interesting observation: `Throwing the cricket ball 140 yards by Billy the Aboriginal at Clermont, Australia, 19 December 1872. The full distance was said to have been 142 1/2 yards; two and a half yards have been deducted to allow for any deviation. This scrupulous anxiety about 2 1/2 yards makes one a little doubtful with regard to the 140. It has been claimed for R. Percival that he threw 141 yards at Durham Racecourse in 1884, but this is regarded as so doubtful that few authorities even mention it.'
Herein a further complication and pointer to the likely fallibility of some accepted throwing-the-ball statistics. The purported Percival throw summarily dismissed yet given an extra foot in length. Is it possible that Morgan Browne was confused? I quote Cricket Walkabout by D. J. Mulvaney in a passage from a chapter dealing with the Aboriginal Sydney tour of 1867- `according to information possessed by Hugh Field, a throw of 141 yards was achieved later in the century by King Billy, a Queensland Aboriginal from Charleville. It was measured by Donald Wallace, an MCC committee man and owner of the famous racehorse, Carbine. But Wisden refused to allow this record.'
So in fact King Billy was apparently accorded differing distances even before suffering deviation deductions. 1872, of course; is the year that Ross MacKenzie is recorded as having thrown the ball 140 yds 9 ins at Toronto.
What is indisputable? We do know that Robert Percival was quite a character. A left-hand all-rounder who joined New Brighton CC as their professional in 1885 (as a result of the throw?), he stayed seven years until 1892, when he became groundsman to the Liverpool Police Athletic Society. He possessed a pair of very large and safe hands bowled subtle spinners, and batted some what unscientifically but with occasional brilliance. Percival soon became established as favourite player with the New Brighton hoi-polloi, especially youngsters who afforded him heroic status in regard to such deeds a off-driving a ball out of the ground: it was recaptured over 300 yards away outside the Queens Arms Hotel, Liscard, Wallasey. The road does run slightly downhill so there is no reason to doubt authenticity.
Percival was paid 25s a week as club professional, and there was county level interest in acquiring his services, although a surviving relative living at Hatfield reveals that demon drink was great-uncle Robert's problem. It could have been the reason for the termination of his contract at New Brighton when he was still in his early thirties. After his spell as a groundsman Percival became coal-minera shifterbefore dying in obscurity of broncho-pneumonia at 43 Gordo Street, South Shields, on May 13, 1918, aged 60. Not surprisingly, Wisden failed to mention his death in their obituary.
Are there any conclusions to be reached? Certainly to throw a cricket ball (5 1/2 oz - 155 grammes - 140 yds 2 ft (422 ft, 128.6 m) would be prodigious effort - further than the maximum length of a football pitch. In those days contestants often threw from buckets is order to prevent advantage being gained by stealing feet from run-ins. The measurements of the throw were sometimes ascertained with chains. The obvious handicap of throwing from a bucket is redolent of fairground gimmickry; the impedimenta of the more serious competitions was less inhibiting.
The distance certainly seems within human reach - there are several throws of between 120 - 135 yards. Spofforth threw 12 yards in 1867; W. F. Forbes, an Eton College schoolboy, threw 132 yards at the age of 18 in 1876; D. G. Foster of Warwickshire twice threw over 130 yards.
Recent competitors, however, have finished woefully short of the Percival distance. In the jamboree which prefaced the Haig Village final at Lord's, most winning throws barely exceeded three figures. Nevertheless it's a great pity that this annual tourney is to be discontinued. Such an event properly staged would seem to be of great spectator interest. Staging the throwing competition before the Village final at Lord's, and also at lunchtime, was surely bad planning. Why not start the match slightly earlier, or even in the morning, and then hold the competition over an extended break at teatime? There would then be a captive audience. Other opportunities for worthwhile throwing ventures would be prospective World Cup competitions.
One can think of several modern cricketers who might have, or perhaps still could, come within hailing distance of around 140 yards. Bland, Boyce, Rice - certainly the last two named have thrown competitively without coming close to the 140-yard mark, though it's fair to point out that the premium for successful jet-age athletes to risk `pulling an arm' might be too high to pay.
I wonder if payment was in Robert Percival's mind if indeed he made that throw in 1884. There is nothing in this article which presents irrefutable evidence for the throw being a myth. The `smoking fires' syndrome would reason that something must have happened somewhere, and at some time. It does, however, seem extremely unlikely that Percy's throw superseded the stone-picking and the swing-boats at that Easter meeting at the Racecourse in 1884.
We are almost certainly a few years too late for first-hand evidence of the day's events. It would be gratifying to receive second-hand verification. The other alternative is for somebody to break the record.