1899 November 22, 2014

Four afternoons into immortality

In 1899 a 13-year-old orphan at Clifton College established a world record which stands to this day

One hundred years ago, one of the early casualties of a war that was to claim almost 300 first-class cricketers fell during the first battle of Ypres. On November 11, 1914, 29-year-old Lieutenant Arthur Collins of the Royal Engineers was wounded during fierce fighting and carried back to the British trenches to die. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.

Collins made no mark on the adult game. A fifty for Royal Engineers at Lord's in 1913 was as good as it got, but he never played a first-class game. And yet over four afternoons in June 1899, at the age of 13 he scored 628 not out in a junior house match at Clifton College in Bristol, guaranteeing him cricketing immortality but also saddling him with a reputation that haunted him for the rest of his brief life.

Collins' feat should be put into context. House matches were a part of public-school life in those days, and participants ranged from the keen to the no-hopers. The game itself was played on Clifton's Junior School field (used by those under 14) and the playing area was far from conventional. The ground was only 60 yards long, and the boundary on one side was formed by a wall some 70 yards away, while on the other the field sloped away towards the sanatorium in the distance. All hits down the hill had to be run, while other boundaries earned only two runs.

On Thursday, June 22, Collins - described as small, stockily built, and fair-haired - won the toss for Clarke's House against North House and chose to bat. In only 150 minutes that day, he reached 200 not out, being dropped when on 50, 100 and 140. He resumed the following afternoon, and as news of his progress circulated, spectators, who had been watching the battle between the College and the Old Cliftonians on College Close, began to gather.

The Bristol Evening News reported that Collins hit the ball "into Guthrie Road, sometimes into the churchyard, and not infrequently sending the ball away down towards the sanatorium for five or six". It continued: "The boy's strokes all round the wicket were brilliant, his cutting and driving causing the greatest astonishment to the many cricketing veterans, who, hearing of the performance, were flocking to the ground."

At around 5.30 on the Friday - some five hours after he started - he overtook AE Stoddart's then world-record score of 485 to rapturous applause, and by the end of the second day he was unbeaten on 509. On the Friday his 309 runs had been made at over two runs a minute, and Clarke's House closed on 680 for 8.

After a weekend break - Saturday was the day for inter-school matches, and day boys like Collins would not have been in school, and Sunday a day of rest - the massacre resumed at Monday lunchtime. A large crowd gathered and Collins did not disappoint. In 55 minutes he scored 89 more, taking his score to 598, and surviving a fourth chance when on 556. Given that the ninth wicket fell early in the session, Collins had to thank Tom Redfern, the No. 11, for staying with him through to the close on 804 for 9.

The fourth day's play again got underway at 12.30, but the authorities extended the hours available for play in a bid to speed the end of the match. As crowds continued to gather and newspaper interest escalated, the disruption to school life was considerable. Collins played his part, his approach described as "downright reckless" as he hit out, being dropped twice more when on 605 and 619. The slaughter was brought to an end when Redfern was caught at point for 13. With Collins, he had helped add 138 for the last wicket.

In all, Collins batted six hours 45 minutes, and his innings was made up of one six, four fives, 31 fours, 33 threes, 146 twos and 87 singles. The scorebook hangs in the pavilion at Clifton, but the task facing the scorers at the time was unenviable and one of them, Edward Peglar, is reported to have said that Collins' score was "628, plus or minus 20, shall we say".

Coincidentally the other scorer was JW Hall, whose father had batted with Edward Tylecote in 1868, when he had set an early world-record score of 404 not out, also at Clifton College. In 1938, Hall wrote a letter to the Times in which he recalled: "The bowling probably deserved all the lordly contempt with which Collins treated it, sending a considerable number of pulls full pitch over the fives courts into the swimming baths to the danger of the occupants."

The bowling figures made wretched reading. Cyril Lindrea fared worse, finishing with 0 for 218; within a year he had died while at school. Three other youngsters conceded more than 100 runs.

Faced with such a daunting total, exhausted by chasing leather, and probably desperate to restore some normality to their lives, North House were skittled for 87 in 90 minutes. Collins, who opened the bowling, took 7 for 33 in 21 five-ball overs. Play ended at the completion of the innings. On the Wednesday, the fifth day, North House again meekly surrendered, making 61 in a little over an hour, with Collins taking 4 for 30, as his side won by an innings and 688 runs.

For a while Collins was public property. "Today all men speak of him," wrote one newspaper. "He has a reputation as great as the most advertised soap: he will be immortalised." But even when the immediate impact waned, Collins was constantly reminded of his achievement.

He continued to play cricket (and rugby, boxing, rackets, cross-country, and swimming) and won a place in the Clifton XI in 1901 and 1902, with some success. He chose to follow an Army career, and that severely limited his sporting opportunities, and he never came close to playing first-class cricket, although as a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers he did make 58 and 36 against the Royal Artillery at Lord's in 1913. The following year, aged 27, he returned to England on leave, and played a few games for Old Cliftonians, scoring two hundreds during their annual cricket week.

Collins married Ethel Slater in the spring of 1914, and a fortnight after the outbreak of war in August he was sent to France. Two of Collins' brothers - Norman and Herbert - also died in the war

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