Gilbert Jessop, whose quickfire century at The Oval turned the game for England, was much more than just a big hitter, as Christopher Pierpoint recalls
England's victory over Australia by one wicket at The Oval in 1902 is often associated with the last-wicket stand of 15 between George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes and in particular with the (perhaps apocryphal) words of Hirst to his Yorkshire team-mate 'We'll get 'em in singles, Wilfred'. In my youth almost every schoolboy knew that they did get 'em, although not in singles. A century ago there were no Man-of-the-Match awards, but had there been one for this game it would have gone neither to Hirst nor Rhodes, but to the young Gloucestershire captain not long down from Cambridge, one Gilbert Laird Jessop.
England had started their second innings, on a bowlers' wicket, requiring 263 to win. When Jessop joined FS Jackson with the score on 48 for 5, it must have seemed all over bar the shouting. But Jessop raced to 50 in only 43 minutes and scored 104 out of 139 in an hour and a quarter; the initiative had passed to England, paving the way for Hirst and Rhodes to finish the job.
Jessop, known as 'The Croucher' for his distinctive stance, had developed a reputation as a hard-hitting batsman long before that innings. He had played for Gloucestershire even before he went up to Cambridge in the autumn of 1895, while Hirst and Rhodes would already have been acutely aware of Jessop's prowess for in 1897 he had hit 101 out of 118 in 40 minutes for the university against Yorkshire at Harrogate. He hit the ball over the ropes 12 times and out of the ground another six, at a time when six runs were only scored for hits out of the ground.
In Jessop's salad days, tours of America were as common as those to Australia and it was when Jessop toured America with Plum Warner's side in 1897 that a local poet, Ralph Paine, was inspired to describe him as: "...the human catapult who wrecks the roofs of distant towns when set in his assault".
The above words owed only a little to poetic licence, because Jessop scored a high proportion of his runs in sixes. In 1895 he hit 63 out of 65 in less than half an hour against Yorkshire at Cheltenham; in 1901 at Bristol he scored 157 out of 201 in an hour against West Indies. Even in Test matches, his innings at The Oval in 1902 did not stand alone. In 1907, against South Africa at Lord's, he hit 93 out of 145 in an hour and a quarter.
Although his fame rests chiefly on his batting, Jessop was nothing if not versatile. Whilst he did little against Oxford with the bat, he twice took six wickets in an innings against them for Cambridge. For Gloucestershire he took 8 for 29 against Essex in 1900, 8 for 54 against Lancashire in 1895 and 8 for 58 against Middlesex in 1902. Indeed at Sydney in 1901-02 he was good enough to open the bowling for England and to take the first four Australian wickets. In the field, Jessop was outstanding at cover point. He would stand yards deeper than was usual in that position, but such was his brilliance that few batsmen attempted a single when the ball was hit anywhere near him.
But Jessop's versatility did not just extend to cricket. A hockey blue at Cambridge was only denied by injury, whilst another blue (or half blue) for billiards was missed when he was subject to a gating. He played rugby for Gloucester, football for the Casuals, could run the 100 yards in just over 10 seconds and was also a top-class golfer.
A favourite story about Jessop is one told in the first person by Neville Cardus. As a small boy one day at Old Trafford when Lancashire were playing Gloucestershire, Cardus missed the last few minutes before lunch to buy his drink of lemonade for the interval. He was so short that his head barely came above the bar counter, and he had just given his order when there was a tremendous noise and the glasses on the counter, together with other items of crockery, were sent crashing in all directions.
Young Cardus thought the end of the world had come, but the barman had seen it all before and was able to reassure him. "Don't worry, son," he said. "It's only Mr Jessop just beginning his innings."
This article first appeared in the September 2003 edition of The Cricketer.