“Runs were scampered now, Jessop the athlete pushing Jackson to the fullest. The latter did not seem too pleased at the sprints. A single and Jessop had his 50, reached out of 70, in just 43 minutes”.

It makes one shudder to realise that Gilbert Jessop came within a whisker of not playing in the Oval Test.

He had been dropped for the Old Trafford Test, a match of catastrophic selectorial decisions. The best fielder of the world sat out, only to see the match and the series slip between the fingers of the worst fielder of the land. When Fred Tate dropped Joe Darling in the deep square leg fence, it sealed England’s fate. What should have been an easy win became a remarkable heavy weather of a rather simple task, and they lost by 3 runs. The series was lost. Australia were 2-0 up with one Test to go.

Six days before the final Test, Jessop received an invitation to play at The Oval in, according to him, ‘a somewhat rummy fashion’. Lord Hawke, the chairman of the selection committee, had the following missive:

“Dear Jessop,

Selection committee will be pleased if you will play at The Oval next Monday. They, however, wish me to tell you that Archie MacLaren has guaranteed that you will bowl at least half to three-quarters of an hour at a stretch, and they sincerely hope that this is correct as it materially affects the bowling strength of the side. Richardson has given me a very nasty right thumb and I can’t play this week.

Kindly reply to 107 Jermyn St.,

Yours Sincerely,

Jessop immediately informed the selectors that if this stipulation really mattered, they had better choose someone else, since his fast bowling days were virtually over. In response, he was informed that the condition was not important.

If they had insisted, and Jessop refused to play, one of the most spellbinding innings of all time would have remained unplayed.

The preliminaries

As it happened, Jessop duly turned up at The Oval. On an autumnal rather than an August afternoon, a description fit for the whole season, Australia won the toss and batted. The first five wickets were lost for just 126, the great George Hirst claiming all of them, his stupendous role in the match witnessing its foreword. With Jessop, Hirst had been left out of the Old Trafford Test. Whew!

However, the tail wagged merrily. Another man who would play a massive role in the match, Hugh Trumble, hit 64 unbeaten runs from No 9. The Australians were all out at the very end of the day, with the total reading 324.

Jessop sent down just 6 overs, conceding 11 runs.

A three day Test with one side batting all the first day. That leaves very little chance for the second side to come close to winning. Besides, the conditions were difficult.

Gilbert Jessop. Image Courtesy: Getty Images

Heavy rain had fallen early in the morning. After a few overs, bad light stopped play for 40 minutes. Trumble bowled  his medium-paced off-breaks unchanged, and but for 7 overs by Monty Noble so did Jack Saunders, the left-arm trundler.

A batsman as imposing as MacLaren scratched around for 45 minutes to score 10. When Jessop was bowled by Trumble for 13, after a furious 8 minutes at the crease, the score read 83 for 6, and follow-on seemed extremely likely.

Gilbert Jessop throwing a ball. Image Courtesy: ESPNcricinfo

But the sun broke through after lunch, the leg-spinning all-rounder Len Braund defended stoutly, and Hirst, in one of his many many roles in the match, batted exceptionally well. It was the latter’s 43 made in three-quarters of an hour that saved the blushes of a follow-on. Later Bill Lockwood swung his bat to good effect. But Trumble’s 8 for 65 meant a 141-run lead for the visitors.

It is sometimes reputations that make the difference, rather than the actual action. Thus it happened with Victor Trumper. The hero of the summer, in his last Test innings of the tour, played Lockwood to the off and started to run. Reggie Duff at the other end, seeing that the man towards whom the ball had been played was Jessop, refused to run. Trumper turned, slipped and fell, and Jessop’s throw was taken by Dick Lilley and the bails whipped off with the dashing batsman still on the ground.

In Jessop’s A Cricketer’s Log this incident is related as ‘Trumper was run out attempting a risky run’. No mention of himself.

The Trumper dismissal opened a dam. Lockwood, Braund and Wilfred Rhodes cashed in. By close of play, Clem Hill had also been taken brilliantly in the slips by MacLaren for 34. Australia were 114 for 8.

The wagers

But the English hopes that rose were dampened by dusk. Rain blew in from the west. Jessop was dining at the Great Central Hotel with some teammates, and he felt that only chloroform could have dammed the sound of the falling torrents. He tried to cheer everyone up by offering to take a 10-1 bet against anyone reaching a score of 50 on the morrow. He extended it to 20-1 for anyone reaching 100. The others took this bet and felt better.

Wednesday broke fine. But the ground was wet, and the heavy dew prevented it from quick drying.

Lockwood quickly did away with the remaining Australian wickets. And England needed 262 to win.

They went in at 11:35. Before the clock announced mid-day MacLaren, Tyldesley and Palairet, the cream of glorious batsmanship, were back in the pavilion, 8 runs between them, 10 on the board. All were bowled by Saunders, who was making the ball flip across with his flicky wrist.

Gilbert Jessop. Image Courtesy: Getty Images

Stanley Jackson looked confident as he joined Tom Hayward. After all, he was perhaps the best batsman of the land between Ranji and Hobbs. Hayward, the Surrey legend playing in his home ground, was, however, very tentative. At 28, the game was halted because of showers. At 31, Hayward, already dropped once at short leg, was caught at the wicket off Saunders.

Braund was sent in, ahead of Jessop. 17 were added, with Jackson looking unperturbed. And then Trumble bowled and Braund’s edge went high up after hitting Jim Kelly’s gloves. But as it came down Kelly clutched it to his body.

48 for 5, with another 214 to win. The bowling was top class on a brute of a wicket. As Jessop walked out, MacLaren called after him, “I bet you don’t make a century.” The batsman’s short answer was ‘Done’.

Jessop’s innings

Was it more worthwhile to see some fireworks while this great hitter was there? Or did the spectators want circumspection from him, given the strained situation?

Jessop, however, had a particular approach to the game.

A single was taken off the first ball. As he played himself in, the next five balls were scored off.

Seven came off the deadly Saunders in one over.

And then Trumble was driven high into the pavilion awning. These strokes got just four those days, unless one cleared the ground.

The next ball was hit to the rails.

This simply could not last. It was just too exhilarating. Should Jessop be a tad more watchful? Or should it be this good while it lasted? The onlookers could not decide.

But, the more serious observer could see a method behind the mayhem. Jessop was determined not to lash out across the line to Trumble’s off-breaks. The Australian had got him too often off a cow-shot.

He turned his attention to Saunders. A drive for four. He was quickly on to 22. And then he jumped out and the ball kept low. He missed it. So did Kelly. The spectators gasped, and sighed.

Undaunted, he hit the next ball over the head of Armstrong at cover-point. Four more.

Two runs later, he lashed out again. Trumper ran in full tilt from long off. He got a hand to it as Jessop and the crowd looked on in deathly silence. The ball did not stick.

It was 87 for 5 at lunch. Jackson 39, Jessop 29.

176 to win. No batsman in the world whose nerve is so surely to be relied on as Jackson’s.

Jessop? Too unreliable, too erratic. Could this be his day?

It was at this juncture that a youthful PG Wodehouse morosely made his way to his desk at Hongkong Shanghai Bank. His lunch break was over. In an essay penned years later, he claimed that this dreadful experience of returning to the office just after Jackson and Jessop had launched their partnership made him give up his job. In other places he blames it on a moment of weakness which had induced him to write a short story in one of the numbered pages of a ledger.

But then, the truth is perhaps less important in some cases. The spirit of the tale is what matters. And Wodehouse did not hustle back to his seat at The Oval when the pavilion bell rang. He did not even have his sandwich that day.

But some 18000 spectators did resume their seats. The New South Wales Lancers, in London because of the Coronation, were quite unflattering about the merits of Jessop the batsman. “All over by tea,” some of them predicted.

Jessop resumed his crouching stance, ready to face the bowling, as the sun came out.

A late cut for four. And a ball missed by Kelly ran for four byes. 100 up in just 80 minutes, incredible given the disastrous start to the innings.

HS Altham wrote, “He found the ball at once and went at a firm pace.”

Jackson was dropped at slip, Trumble failing to hold a snick that came off Kelly’s glove. And then Jessop sent Trumble the bowler through the slips to the distant corner of the Vauxhall end.

Runs were scampered now, Jessop the athlete pushing Jackson to the fullest. The latter did not seem too pleased at the sprints. A single and Jessop had his 50, reached out of 70, in just 43 minutes.

One bet was won. Applause and some sighs. “If only he had been in Manchester.”

CB Fry recalled: “Jessop let him loose like a catapult at the bowling and shattered it to smithereens.”

Saunders was pulled for four. Cut for another boundary.

At the other end, Jackson was missed at slip by Armstrong off Trumble.

Gilbert Jessop. Image Courtesy: ESPNcricinfo

Then Saunders, under attack, lost his length completely. Jessop pulled him for four, going down on his knees to play the shot. The second ball was hit for four more towards the leg. The third, a full toss, was sent to the square leg fence. The fourth, a half-volley, was dealt with the same way. The fifth saw a single to the off. 17 runs off an over.

So, at 145, the first bowling change was made. His figures, at one point 4 for 9, read 4 for 75.

Armstrong came on, with five men to the leg, on the edge of the ring, bowling leg breaks from the Vauxhall end.

Jessop stepped back and cut him for four. And then he hit him through those five men for four on the leg side.

The man simply puts it as: “This happened to be one of those days when I could do nothing wrong.”

At 157 Trumble bowled to Jackson. The great amateur batsman hit him back and those hands, the biggest ever seen in Test cricket, closed around the ball as they grasped the return catch.

However, Jessop was going ‘like a steam engine’. One of the spectators put his hands over his face, murmuring, “I can’t bear to look anymore.”  Every time a roar broke out, this man would clutch his neighbour and ask whether Jessop was out.

109 had been added between Jackson and Jessop in 67 minutes.

The new man in was George Hirst.

Jessop now attacked Trumble, but was still cautious about not hitting him across the line.

He straight drove him twice high into the pavilion galleries, HK Foster catching the second hit at the top of the pavilion. Of course, these got him four apiece, taking his score to 96.

The next over he cut Armstrong for four, reaching his 100 in 75 minutes. The fastest in Test till then. In terms of balls, he faced 76 of them.

“Hats were thrown in the air, handkerchiefs and mufflers were waved, cheery vices became hoarse and weak-chested yellers broke into coughs.”

Jessop had won his bets. But did he remember them?

Another boundary followed, not far from Hopkins at square leg. And then he swept Armstrong again, and Noble at square leg held the catch.

Jessop caught Noble bowled Armstrong 104. Scored in 77 minutes, off 80 deliveries. The last 29 runs had come in 16 balls.

Gilbert Jessop. Image Courtesy: Getty Images

187 for 7.

The bowling had been massacred. The Australians were shell-shocked. The match had been turned on its head.

According to Wisden, it was the most astonishing display ever seen.

England were now in with a chance, against a demoralised bowling unit.

There was an overwhelming reception as he went back. The Australians joined most heartily in the applause.

Jessop said later that his one triumph was the overcoming of the temptation to hit Trumble across the line with his sweep-pull.

There was still work to be done.

Hirst and Lockwood brought up the 200 amidst tumultuous cheers. At 214 Trumble trapped Lockwood leg before.

Hirst continued to play with great calm. Lilley gritted his teeth and stuck there. The Australians brought off some miraculous fielding, but the score edged along.

Lilley, amid cries of ‘Play up England!’ drove Trumble for four. And then he tried an encore, hitting it high to Darling at deep mid-off.

Hirst and Rhodes

248 for 9. 15 to get. Wilfred Rhodes joining George Hirst.

Did they discuss about getting them in singles?

No, Rhodes confided later to David Frith that they did not. ‘We could have got a two’.

Altham, however, said, “Fifteen to win and  two Yorkshiremen to do it.”

9 of those 15 were singles. There was an edge from Rhodes that went between the slips for four. There was another chance he provided, which Armstrong grassed. He also hit one almost back to Trumble.

In some modern analysis, although I should have stopped at the fourth letter, if these chances had been held, Jessop’s great innings would have changed from a match-winning to a useless one.

Before each ball Hirst would rearrange his large pads, first one leg, then the other. No sense of hurry. No sign of doubt. No anxiety.

A single turned to a two through an excited overthrow. It hit Hirst on the shoulder and bounced away. Hirst laughed, Rhodes smiled. The Australians frowned.

Another Hirst single. Three runs to win. The sun had gone in. rain had started to fall again. Noble to Hirst in the next over. All the balls played with the full face of the bat. And then a single off the last ball.

Trumble continued. A push and a quick run. Scores tied. England could no longer lose. Pandemonium in the stands. A parson rushed on to the pitch, quite demented.

Rhodes played the next three balls carefully.

Trumble went to the sawdust heap. Rubbing the ball. He paused, ran up and bowled. Rhodes came forward, pushed firmly past mid-on, and ran.

Later he recalled: “I just ran and went on running. George was at the other end, and the crowd caught him.”

England had won. Hirst was indeed caught and carried the last few yards. The crowd yelled and yelled and yelled.

Perfect strangers shook hands, cried together. Even the women threw their hats in the air.

Even Charles Stewart Caine, editor of Wisden and a stickler for correct demeanour, stood up in his seat and waved his hat.

Hirst, 43 and 58*, 5 for 77 and 1 for 7, was the man of the hour, having finished things off.

But when Jessop came up on the pavilion balcony, it set the crowd alight. They remained there, cheering, until the rain, coming down in earnest, drove them home.

Harry Dutton later wrote of the innings in the manner and metre which Lord Macaulay used to relate the prowess of Horatius for the Romans against the men of Tuscany. The lines included:

“Oh! Jessop fierce and slashing bat,

The deed that thou hast done

Makes Chelt’nham point with pride to thee

Her best and greatest son.”


As Trumble recalled, “The only man living who could beat us, beat us. Gilbert Jessop”.

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