One hundred years ago this month 13-year-old Arthur Edward Jeune Collins entered cricket history. His passport was an innings of 628 not out, scored over four afternoons in a junior house match at Clifton College. No higher score had ever been made, nor, in any corner of the earth, has a higher been made since.
Around the world millions of games of cricket have been played since June 1899; in none of them has Collins' sextuple-century been matched, though he was run mighty close by Charles John Eady just over two years later, in Tasmania. Eady, playing for Break-o'-Day against Wellington at Hobart in March 1902, scored 566 in under eight hours.
Clifton College, although founded in 1862, had a thriving cricket tradition by the end of the 19th century, not only because W G Grace sent his sons there. The college ground, Clifton Close, had witnessed no fewer than 13 of W G's first-class hundreds for Gloucestershire in the County Championship. A Clifton schoolboy named Edward Tylecote had scored 404 not out on the Close in 1868, then the all-time highest individual total.
However, by the time Arthur Collins entered Clark's House as a new boy at Clifton in 1897, five higher quadruple-centuries had been made, including A C MacLaren's 1895 first-class record of 424 for Lancashire v Somerset, and A E Stoddart's 485 for Hampstead v The Stoics in 1886.
Furthermore, Clifton Close achieved literary immortality during Arthur's first year at the school when Henry Newbolt, an Old Cliftonian, published a slim volume of poems entitled Admirals All, which included the poem Vitai Lampada with its celebrated last line, "Play up! play up! and play the game!"
Arthur was born in India in 1885, the son of a judge in the Indian Civil Service. By the time he started at Clifton he was an orphan whose guardians lived in Tavistock, Devon. He was a reserved boy, short and stockily built, fair-haired and pale. He was remembered by contemporaries as one who led by example, rather than by inspiration, although paradoxically he was regarded as likely to fall short of the highest standards as a cricketer because of his recklessness at the crease.
A photograph of Arthur as a schoolboy reveals a serious, handsome countenance. He was academically bright, and popular. He was modest - throughout his life more annoyed than grateful for the attention his childhood feat brought him. He Played the Game.
A E J Collins led the Clark's House XI to face the North Town Junior XI in a game that began on Thursday, June 22, 1899. The boys (all around the ages of 12 or 13) were not playing on the sacred Close, but on a lesser school ground of irregular dimensions. Hitting the ball over short boundaries on three sides counted just two runs, and on the fourth there was no defined boundary at all, so all runs had to be fully run out.
Collins opened the batting and in the 2.5 hours of play that afternoon scored 200. On Friday he continued in even more commanding form. By the end of the second day he had passed Stoddart's record 485 and reached 509 not out, having been dropped on a mere 400 by 11-year-old Victor Eberle at point.
For some reason the game was not continued over the weekend, but resumed on Monday afternoon, after class. There was only time for 55 minutes' play, and Arthur advanced to 598, still undefeated at the close of play. None of his partners had contributed much in the way of runs, the No 7, Whitty, hit 42 to claim the next highest innings, but several hung around for quite a while as Collins moved serenely on. None more so than the last man, Tom Redfern, who came in with the score 698 for nine, of which his captain had made well over 500.
With much more cricket time on the half-holiday of Tuesday, June 27, Collins, with the dogged Redfern, added yet more to his mind-boggling total. His concentration was perhaps not what it was, for the hero was dropped in the slips at 605 and at square leg at 619. Shortly after the second reprieve, the youngest player on the field, Eberle, made himself highly unpopular with the crowd, hoping for the game's first 1,000, by catching Redfern at point. A E J was left stranded on 628 (out of 836).
His domination of the match nonetheless continued unabated. North Town were dismissed for 87 and 61, Collins taking 11 for 63 in the two innings. On the sixth day Clark's House wrapped things up by an innings and 688 runs. On the seventh day, no doubt, Arthur Collins rested, having become as instantly famous as it was possible to be in 1899.
The score of this truly epic innings survives, and while some have cast doubt upon the recording skills of the youthful scorers, there can be no doubt that Collins made well over 600. One scorer, Edward Peglar, in later years cast an "element of doubt on the last two digits of Collins' total" but stated that "the score was substantially correct - 628 plus or minus 20, shall we say".
So Arthur at worst made 608, and might even have reached 648. The exact figure really doesn't matter; the innings was indisputably the highest ever compiled and is rightly being celebrated at Clifton College 100 years on, with commemorative games, a dinner, a special coaching day and the manufacture of 628 special ties.
Unlike Eady and Stoddart, who actually played against each other in the 1896 Lord's Test, Collins never played first-class cricket. Indeed, he returned to the ranks of mortals in matters sporting. He played for the Clifton XI with some distinction, and for Old Cliftonian teams up until 1913. He became a soldier and played many Army cricket matches. He played once at Lord's, in 1912, scoring 58 and 36 for the Royal Engineers against the Royal Artillery. He was commissioned and returned to India. He married Ethel Slater in the spring of 1914, and barely four months later Lieutenant A E J Collins, RE, was one of the first to leave to fight in France. (Commander-in-Chief Earl Haig was also a Cliftonian.)
Many obituaries in the 1915 Wisden instil into the reader a shocking sense of wasted life, destroyed youth; none more so than that of Arthur Collins, killed in action in November 1914, aged 29.