England were 48 for five when Gilbert Jessop got to the middle, 215 runs behind. The pitch was tricky, soft, and pitted from where they had been playing on it after the rain, and Australia’s spinners, Hugh Trumble and Jack Saunders, had swept through the best of the batting, Archie MacLaren for two, Johnny Tyldesley for a duck, Lionel Palairet for six, three wickets for 10 runs in as many minutes, then Tom Hayward and Len Braund, both caught behind in single figures. The bookmakers chalked up odds of 50-1 against on the blackboards around the ground. And here’s Jessop. “I bet you don’t make a century,” MacLaren told him as he walked out. “Done.”
You should know this story by now, or at least, over a century later, have an idea how it plays out. “‘Jessop’s in,’” wrote a journalist under the byline A Country Vicar, “the words caused a shiver of excitement, a cold sensation down the spine.” You can feel a little of it now just reading about it.
Jessop started hitting straight away, seven runs off his first over from Saunders, and soon after, a six off Trumble that landed on the pavilion awning. “Why in the name of sense,” said a “long-faced man” in the pavilion, “why can’t he go steady for a bit? He’ll slog another couple of fours and then give a catch in the deep, and we’ll have lost the match.” The next moment, Jessop was nearly stumped as he leapt out of his ground to try and hit Saunders to the boundary. “There, what did I tell you?” Soon after that, he was dropped at long-off. According to the Guardian’s report, one “amateur critic” said then “schoolboys would play better”.
It was around now that a young PG Wodehouse cut out of the ground so he could get back to his desk at the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, a decision which, he would joke later, made him pack the job in and take up writing. In his next hour or so of batting, Jessop “hit twice as many of the balls sent down to him as most other batsmen would have attempted to hit. He would go down on one knee to crash an off-side ball through the covers; down on the other knee to sweep a ball on leg-stump around to square leg. He pulled and cut and drove and glanced every sort of ball to every part of the field.” He took 17 runs off one of Saunders’ overs, twice drove Trumble into the pavilion.
It was, Neville Cardus said later, “a cyclone of batting”, a five, 17 fours, two threes, four twos, and 17 singles. He made his hundred off 76 balls, which, 120 years later, is still the fastest Test century ever made by an Englishman, although the way this England team are batting the record won’t last much longer. Jonny Bairstow took a run at it against New Zealand at Trent Bridge earlier this year, when he made 100 off 77, Harry Brook pushed it twice in Rawalpindi last week, when he made 100 off 80 in the first innings and 87 off 65 in the second, and Zak Crawley, 100 off 86 in that same match, wasn’t so very far away. One of them will do it soon.
There is something very endearing about the fact they are chasing after a mark set so long ago, it’s as if the world’s best sprinters were still competing to beat times clocked by men with waxed moustaches running in plimsolls on cinder tracks, its swimmers measuring themselves against records set in striped bathing suits. Only in cricket. Amid all the lists of the records set, or threatened, during that first Test against Pakistan it was surprising to see just how many of them dated to Jessop’s era, the “golden age” of cricket, so long ago, now, that it’s almost impossible to have any real idea what the game they were playing was like.
So when Crawley was closing in on his century on the first morning of the game, up popped Australia’s Victor Trumper, from the fourth match of that same 1902 Ashes. Crawley didn’t make it, he finished on 91 off 79 balls at the end of the session. But Trumper did. He made an unbeaten 103 off 104 balls during the fourth Test at Old Trafford, still the fastest century anyone’s ever made on the first morning, an innings which, like Jessop’s, now only exists in what was reported at the time and then set down half-remembered after. Reading through the literature, you feel the way the game’s played now isn’t so very new, and that Jessop’s, too, was an era of hell for leather cricket.
And, just like it is now, it was played against the expectations of the “long-faced man” in the pavilion, in refutation of his idea that there’s a right and proper way to play and it’s not to come skipping down the pitch to try and hit the spinner out the ground right away. That way of thinking has been the prevailing wisdom of the last century of Test cricket, especially in England (batters in other teams, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, India and West Indies, went past Jessop’s record years ago) where generations of players seem to have been bound by them. It’s just as thrilling to see them being dismantled now as it must have been for everyone watching Jessop’s match all those years ago. He would, you guess, be delighted to find he still has the record now, and even more pleased at the prospect that it will finally be beaten.