For most old-school cricket traditionalists the new competition being foisted on them this summer – The Hundred – has only one redeeming feature. To make space for the new game, the season has been front-loaded with more traditional four-day county championship games, meaning a hectic schedule of first-class cricket in April and May before the shorter-form matches. Consequently, this year fans might see something not seen for over three decades – a batsman scoring 1,000 first-class runs before the end of May.
The cricket world likes to mark achievements in multiples of fives and tens: five wickets in an innings or ten wickets in a match, for example, are marks of bowling quality, while zero or 100 will spell triumph or disaster for batsmen.
More broadly, while the best batsmen in county cricket might routinely expect to score 1,000 runs in a season (excluding any scored in one-day cricket), these days bowlers rarely take 100 wickets. Kent’s Alfred “Tich” Freeman took more than 200 wickets in every season between 1928 to 1935, but such days are gone. In 22 years Freeman averaged about 26 first-class games a season; in a career only a little shorter, England’s Jimmy Anderson averages about half that number. In the last pre-COVID season of 2019, Simon Harmer from Essex came closest with 83 from only 14 first-class games, as cricketing calendars are increasingly filled with one-day cricket.
Chunkier bats and smaller boundaries are only two reasons why the modern game is felt by many to favour batsmen, and the ultimate indicator of a storming start to any season is to score 1,000 runs before May has ended.
In reality, “1,000 runs in May” means all of May and a large chunk of April, but even so, this cricketing milestone, notes cricket journalist Richard Whitehead, has acquired mystic properties “simply because it has been done so infrequently”. And that’s because, as the Telegraph’s cricket correspondent Scyld Berry suggests, “like the annual race to be the first clipper to bring tea from China to London” or “like the race to sail through the Northwest Passage”, conditions are unforgiving and prohibitive.
Early in the season, in a contest between bat and ball, the ball often prevails. Batsmen are still blinking to acclimatise to natural light after a winter indoors, while bowlers at their friskiest are helped by damp pitches that haven’t yet hardened under prolonged sunshine and where the ball is more likely to behave unexpectedly.
The weather, indeed, might mean that matches will be affected by the rain; or, like this year, even delayed because of snow. Cricket writer Martin Johnson – who died in March – noted that while 1,000 runs before the end of May is unlikely, “1,000 goose pimples before the end of April is pretty well guaranteed”.
A few good batsmen
The milestone has been reached only nine times. A household name in the Victorian era, WG Grace was the first to do it in 1895. It was especially astonishing given that his 18-stone frame was being supported by 47-year-old legs.
The next to hit the mark, in 1900, was Surrey’s Tom Hayward. A dedicated and reliable professional, he entered the season with ten days of intensive batting practice under his belt and showed early form “no other batsman could approach”.
Walter Hammond – the most elegant batsman of his age - was the next to reach the target in 1927, followed by Lancastrian Charlie Hallows the following year. Though much less famous than any of the other of the May champions, “before radio and television blew the bubble of cricketers’ reputations, the name of Charles Hallows was a household word in the north”.
The freakish Donald Bradman – by far the most prolific batsman of his time, and any other time - did it twice, plundering county bowlers in 1930 and 1938 when Australia toured England. Englishman Bill Edrich also did it in 1938, but it would be 35 years before it was repeated.
In 1973, the slightly built Glenn Turner – on tour with New Zealand but already well used to playing cricket in England with his time with Worcestershire - had the benefit of more innings than usual as the tourists “went round the country gently warming up”. No such feat would be possible nowadays, as touring teams play so few county games.
The small matter of a single innings of 405 was pivotal for the most recent man to do it, in 1988. Zimbabwe-born Graeme Hick was another Worcestershire batsmen who made county bowlers “look like cannon fodder”, albeit he was never quite consistent enough to secure a regular England spot after qualifying to represent the country in 1991.
In 2021, though, the elusive 1,000 runs in May is still possible. The new Hundred competition and an increasingly chaotic fixture schedule has meant more championship games. And, with the whole of May still to come, several county batsmen are well poised to become forever part of cricketing folklore, 33 years after it was last achieved. Should it happen, the great shame is that with spectators not yet part of domestic cricket’s post-COVID recovery, the much-merited cheering and applause is likely to be recorded and piped in over a PA system.
Richard Thomas receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for academic research not connected to this article.