May 1974

The legend of Gilbert Jessop

Gerald Brodribb
Gerald Brodribb profiles one of England's greatest cricketers

Gilbert Jessop in classic pose - leaping out to drive © The Cricketer

May 19, 1974 is the centenary of the birth of a cricketer to whom the epithet "unique" can genuinely be applied; he was a legend in his lifetime, and his name is still remembered in the adjective "Jessopian". No other player has created such use of his name.

In his first innings for Gloucestershire in 1894 Jessop went in after lunch to face the very fast bowling of Mold; two wickets had just fallen in consecutive balls, but Jessop hit his first ball for four, and hit another boundary in the same over. Has any other batsman in the first over of his debut made his intentions so plain? This attack on the bowling was maintained throughout a career which lasted for 21 years. Within a few seasons of his debut his big hitting was drawing comparison with great hitters of the past such as Thornton and Bonnor, but it was not so much the length of his hitting as the frequency of it that was his real achievement.

Today the average county rate of scoring must be about 50 runs an hour, which means that the individual batsman scores at about half this rate. Great batsmen have reached much faster rates, On the evidence of a high proportion of their innings, WG Grace and Hutton scored at 36 runs an hour, CB Fry and FS Jackson at 40, Hobbs, Hendren, Clem Hill and Hammond at 43, JT Tyldesley, Compton, Bradman and MacLaren at 47, McCabe and Ranji at 50, Duleepsinhji, George Cox, Macartney at 52, RE Foster, Trumper and Woolley at 55. The evidence of all Jessop's 179 scores of over 50 (some one in five of all his innings) shows that he scored these innings at a rate of 79 runs an hour. His 53 scores of over 100 were scored at nearly 83 runs an hour.

The only others to come near this pace are a few tailenders, sloggers of a quite different class such as Jim Smith or Watt. Jessop was a great batsman, who between 1894 and 1914 scored over 26,000 runs at an average of 32. If the law governing sixes had been amended before 1910 his aggregate would have been considerably increased. Up to that time you had usually to hit the ball right out of the ground to score a six, and many of Jessop's big hits brought him only four runs. He scored 53 centuries (five of them over 200) and at the time of the end of his career only 13 other batsmen had made a greater number. No less than four times Jessop scored two hundreds in the same match; CB Fry with five times was the only one to surpass this. His average score for innings over a hundred was no less than 140, which compares well with Grace 146, Richards 144, Boycott 140 and Hobbs 134.

The biggest draw in cricket © The Cricketer

But the value of his runs was really worth much more, because quickly-scored runs destroy the normal dimensions of cricket time; for example, an opposing captain always had a problem over declarations because of what Jessop might do if he got going. In case a speed of 79 runs an hour remains unconvincing, consider that in only 27 of his 179 scores of fifty did he score at less than a run a minute, that only once did he have an innings lasting more than three hours (a matter of 240 scored in 200 minutes), that only ten times did he bat for more than two hours, and that only 35 times out of his 840 innings did he bat for as long as an hour and a half.

Such batting made him the biggest draw in cricket, and spectators were frenzied with excitement at his hitting. If you heard that Jessop was batting you had to get quickly to the ground. At Hove, for example, in 1903, he knocked up 286 out of 355 in a matter of 170 minutes; what a Whit-Monday feast that was! His average time for reaching a score of 100 was 72 minutes - a time that would win a fastest-hundred prize in most seasons.

Twelve times he reached his hundred within an hour - a feat achieved only about 40 times in the history of the game. His fastest hundred was his 101 in 40 minutes against Yorkshire at Harrogate in 1897 - an innings divided by a lunch interval in the middle of it. In 1907 at Hastings when playing for the Gentlemen of the South against the Players he reached 100 in 42 minutes, and went on to score 191 out of 234 in exactly 90 minutes - an innings which is numerically faster than Alletson's better-known 189 in 90 minutes against Sussex in 1911. These two centuries of Jessop were the fastest on record until Fender reached one in 35 minutes against Northants in 1920 - in rather different circumstances, for Surrey already had a huge score when he went in.

Jessop still holds the record for the fastest double-century ever made, for in his score of 286 he reached 200 in two hours; he also holds second place with 200 in 130 minutes when he scored 234 against Somerset in 1905. In 1901 when scoring 233 in 150 minutes against Yorkshire at Lord's he reached 200 in 135 minutes. In many of his innings he would have scored more had the present law about sixes been in use: in his 191 at Hastings, for instance, he hit five sixes out of the ground, and also hit 11 balls over the ropes. This would have made his score 213 instead of 191.

Almost every big innings Jessop played would have been reckoned the high spot of any other batsman's career, and his remarkable innings were so frequent that the telling of them becomes almost monotonous.

As might be expected, when Jessop was batting he tended to get most of the bowling, not because he was greedy, but because it was really more sensible for his partner to stand back and enjoy the fireworks from the other end. An analysis of his 53 centuries shows that in these innings he made 72% of the runs put on while he was in. His most remarkable monopoly was when he went in against Sussex in 1901 with the score at 4 for 1, and was second out with the score at 70, having made ALL the next 66 runs.

He frequently went in when runs were badly needed, and had very few 'cheap' runs when everyone on his side was scoring freely. He was in fact top scorer of his side in every one-in-four of the innings he played - an amazing proportion.

He would make his way jauntily to the wicket, stocky and only 5ft 7ins, always with a cap on, and with an air of great determination. His stance at the wicket was utterly misleading; with feet apart, he crouched low, going even lower as the ball was delivered; he held his hands apart on a very heavy bat with a long handle. If you didn't know, you might think he was a grim stonewaller bent on survival. But the moment the ball was delivered he leapt at it like a spring unwinding, and swept it in all directions. He watched the ball as closely as anyone ever has, was quick as a cat on his feet, had very loose joints and wrists like steel, and, above all, an acute tactical brain.

He went down the wicket even to bowlers of extreme pace with the intention of making them drop the ball short, and when they did so, he would cut or pull the ball savagely. No hitter has ever cut so well, and his footwork enabled him to cut balls even on his leg stump, or pull them to leg from outside his off stump. He had an enormous variety of strokes which meant that he recognised no such thing as a good-length ball, though he always said that he liked to bat against good bowlers; hence his remarkable success against the Yorkshire bowling, the greatest of which was the scoring of 104 and 139 at Bradford in 1900, where he struck Rhodes eight times right out of the ground for six, and also made another eight hits over the ropes which were worth only four.

Jessop lofts Hugh Trumble into the pavilion during his hundred at The Oval against Australia in 1902. The sketches, by ST Dadd, appeared in the Daily Graphic © The Cricketer

His Test match appearances covered the years 1899 to 1912, but the selectors found him a problem; some were ready to regard him as an automatic choice, others regarded him as too much of a gamble. His greatest day was at The Oval on August 13, 1902, when England wanted 263 to beat Australia on a bad wicket. They lost three for 10, and five wickets were down for 48 when Jessop went in. Defeat seemed inevitable, but he scored 104 out of 139 in 77 minutes, and in the end England won by one wicket. An article in the recent Cricketer winter annual has supported by analysis the general feeling that this was the greatest innings ever played in Test cricket. His hundred remains the fastest in Anglo-Australian Test cricket - some 16 minutes faster than anyone else.

Another brilliant Test innings was at Lord's in 1907 when he scored 93 in 75 minutes against the battery of South African googly bowlers whom he had never seen before. His Test appearances overseas were much limited because sea travel made him very ill. He went once to Australia and was invited for three other tours, but he refused.

His policy of attack was continued in his bowling. In his early days he was very fast and lively, and in 1900 he became only the third player ever to make 2000 runs and take over 100 wickets in a season - a feat previously performed only by WG Grace and CL Townsend, both also of Gloucestershire. It was mainly for his bowling that Jessop was chosen for his first Test match in 1899, while still at Cambridge.

If he had never made a run or taken a wicket, Jessop's name would still be among the immortals. His fielding in the cover area was unsurpassed, and the photos of his throwing action in the Beldam and Fry book have become classics. He was so fast over the ground that he could afford to stand deeper than most, and he delighted in luring the batsman to destruction; it is reckoned that he seldom missed the wicket when he threw at it.

One season he threw out 30 batsmen © The Cricketer

Fielders like Bland and Lloyd at their best give some idea of what Jessop was like, though he was a smaller man. In one season he threw out 30 batsmen, and AC MacLaren said that he wanted him on any Test side he captained because of the likelihood of his running out some top Australian batsmen.

Jessop typified the fundamental principles of the game to perfection. In batting to hit the ball and score runs, in bowling to attack the batsman and get him out, in fielding to stop the enemy scoring and take every chance to dismiss him. In fact that is what cricket is all about.

Some 50 years ago Sir Neville Cardus wrote a piece entitled "A Cry for a Jessop", and soon afterwards Learie Constantine provided some cricket that on a much-limited scale was genuinely reminiscent of Jessop's. There have been no others who have come near to matching his speed of scoring or his completely unorthodox style. He was unique, and perhaps the greatest tribute to his batting was when Harry Altham, in his A History of Cricket, Chapter XXI, ("The Golden Age of Batting"), put a subtitle naming three batsmen: "Ranji, Fry, Jessop."

It is strange and sad to think that if a new English batsman came to light and scored innings at even half the pace of Jessop he would soon be hailed as an outstanding player.

Let us remember the glories of Gilbert Jessop on May 19, and resolve to bring to our own cricket some of his zest and spirit of attack.