The game's greatest box office attraction, 1975

Gilbert Jessop — the most exciting cricketer of them all

Rowland Ryder

At one end stocky Jessop stands,

The human catapult,

Who wrecks the roofs of distant towns,

When set in his assault

So wrote an American rhymester after Jessop had invaded the United States to play against the Gentlemen of Philadelphia.

"There will never be another Jessop," said H. W. Bainbridge. "He spreadeagled any bowler in ten minutes, however good, unless the stars were against him," wrote C. B. Fry. "It was a great treat to me," said George Hirst of Jessop's immortal century against Australia at the Oval, "watching their bowlers' faces change with wonder and consternation in their efforts to try and block his shots by changing the field." Gerald Brodribb, the Croucher's biographer, wrote recently, "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 on outstanding player."

"Jessop?" says Leslie Deakins of Warwickshire, "The greatest box office attraction the game has ever known. There's never been anyone like him." The statisticians' comment is perhaps the most breath-taking of all, for they tell us that Jessop got his runs at eighty an hour, whereas Hobbs, Hammond and Bradman were well under the fifty mark.

Jessop was an astonishing cricketer. His fast scoring figures only tell part of the story. The good batsman will generally play the right stroke to the good length ball; Jessop had an assortment of strokes to deal with anything the bowler could send down. A fast ball on the off might be swept to the fine leg boundary; a nagging delivery on the leg stump cut savagely through the slips; a length ball on the middle stump could be cut, pulled or lofted over the bowler's head, according to the placing of the field or the incalculable whim of the moment.

He was a very fast bowler and a brilliant field at cover point. In the fourth Test Match at Sydney in 1902, Hugh Trumble, Victor Trumper, Clem Hill and Syd Gregory fell to him for 23 runs in the course of a forty minutes spell before lunch. His throwing out of batsmen was lethal, as the Australians found out to their cost. A. C. MacLaren wanted him in any Test side that he captained, because, apart from his batting and bowling, there was always the likelihood that he would run out one of the great Australian batsmen.

Gilbert Laird Jessop played in cricket's golden age; more precisely from 1894 to 1914. W. G. Grace, Ranji, C. B. Fry, A. C. MacLaren, F. S. Jackson, P. F. Warner, C. L. Townsend, S. M. J. Woods, L. C. H. Palairet, Johnnie Tyldesley, Tom Hayward, Len Braund, J. B. Hobbs, A. A. Lilley, Lohmann, Hirst, Rhodes, Blythe, Barnes, Lockwood, Richardson, Bosanquet, Trumper and Noble, Clem Hill, Joe Darling, Armstrong, Trumble and Saunders; Faulkner, Vogler, Schwartz, Kotze; these were the men that he played with -- and against.

During this period many of the best bowlers were to be found among the professionals, or the professors as Jessop and other amateurs called them. This was also the age of the great amateur batsman. Apart from those already named, (Grace, Fry, MacLaren, Jackson, Warner, Townsend and Palairet), there were great English players in this category such as R. E. Foster, who scored 287 against Australia in his Test Match debut, C. J. Burnup, F. H. B. Champain of Gloucestershire, J. N. Crawford, F. G. J. Ford, a great hitter of the ball on days comparable with Jessop, A. O. Jones, R. H. Spooner, A. E. Stoddart, C. I. Thornton, -- another tremendous hitter, A. J. Webbe and Major E. G. Wynyard. Next to W. G. the chief stars in the galaxy of batsmen were Ranjitsinhji, Fry, and Jessop. Fry to some extent modelled himself on Ranjitsinhji; Jessop was a nonpareil.

The son of a country doctor, Gilbert Jessop was born on May 19, 1874 at 30 Cambray, Cheltenham. He had no inherited ability as a cricketer; he was a natural with an enormous dedication to the game. In his delightful and joyous autobiography, A Cricketer's Log, he writes of his boyhood; "To us cricket had no season. Any old time and any old place was good enough. Some of our most exciting matches were played after darkness had set in, played in an under-ground passage with a candle behind the wicket at one end, another behind the bowler, and one in the middle of the pitch. I'm not sure that this was not the most difficult wicket upon which I have ever played."

At the age of eleven, he went to Cheltenham Grammar School, and he was in the school first eleven two years later. Gilbert left school at fifteen on his father's death and taught for six years before going up to Cambridge. He was in fact appointed Senior Resident Assistant Master at Alvechurch Grammar School at the age of sixteen. What was more to the point, he was able to play plenty of cricket. Before going up to Cambridge in 1896 he spent a year teaching at Beccles College in Suffolk, known locally as Hockey's. It was the custom in those days for school terms to be strengthened by the inclusion of masters, and Jessop duly played for Beccles College in 1895. Wisden (1896) records his astronomical batting average (132) and his bowling figures of 100 wickets for 2.44 runs.

Jessop played in his first match for Gloucestershire on July 31, 1894 at Old Trafford. Gloucestershire were bowled out for 99 but Jessop hit Mold for four off his first ball, and scored 29 in less than no time. "Well, we've found something this time," said the Doctor. His diagnosis was correct.

In 1895 Jessop scored 51 out of 53 against Yorkshire in eighteen minutes. The following year he went up to Cambridge, but although he got his blue, he did nothing out of the ordinary. 1897 was the first of his great years. In the 'Varsity match, which Cambridge won by 179 runs, he took six for 64 in Oxford's first innings and made 42 in Cambridge's second innings. This is how one of the Oxford bowlers, F. H. E. Cunliffe, described Jessop's innings. "Jessop started by hitting Hartley's first ball smash up against the wall of the pavilion, whence it rebounded far into the field of play; he followed this up by hitting everything we gave him and for five or six overs we had a lively time. We reckoned afterwards that he had only received 15 balls, but he got 42 runs off them, and it was a relief to see him caught at cover point."

University fixtures completed, Jessop played during the last half of the season for Gloucestershire. At Bristol he scored a brilliant century against the Philadelphians, and at Edgbaston when all seemed lost, against Warwickshire, he scored 126 out of 176 in ninety-five minutes and nearly won the match for Gloucestershire. A few days later, against Yorkshire, in a fantastic display of hitting, he scored 101 out of 118 in forty minutes and despite the terrific pace of his innings, gave no chance.

Wisden chose him as one of the five cricketers of the Year for the 1898 issue, and wrote of him, "We have never before produced a batsman of quite the same stamp. We have had harder hitters, but perhaps never one who could in twenty minutes or half an hour, so entirely change the fortunes of the game." The section devoted to Gloucestershire in the same issue of Wisden refers to him as rivalling the feats of great hitters such as C. I. Thornton, G. J. Bonnor, H. H. Massie and J. J. Lyons and makes the compelling assertion that until he was disposed of no one could say what was likely to happen. All this when his career had barely started.

In June 1899, he was selected to play for England against Australia at Lord's -- chiefly for his ability as a bowler, Tom Richardson being off form and Lockwood unfit. In a match that Australia won by ten wickets Jessop bowled 37.1 five-ball overs in the first innings, despite a severe back injury at the start of the game, taking three wickets for 105, his victims being Gregory, Trumble and Howell. He scored 51 of England's first innings total of 206, enjoying a partnership of 95 with F. S. Jackson.

In 1900, Jessop was reaching the zenith of his career. He was appointed captain of Gloucestershire in succession to W. Troup, who had taken over the previous year from W. G. and who now had to return to India. Jessop remained captain until 1912. "I cannot honestly say" he wrote, "that I found my duties unduly harassing. For one thing -- and a very big thing too -- my relations with the Committee during thirteen seasons association were always of the friendliest." The cares of captaincy certainly did not affect his individual prowess, and he celebrated his first year of office by scoring over two thousand runs and taking over a hundred wickets. He was at the time only the third person in the game to have done so, the other two were W. G. Grace and C. L. Townsend, both of Gloucestershire. The following season he scored 2,323 runs in first-class cricket; this was his highest aggregate in his career.

It was on Wednesday, August 13, 1902, at Kennington Oval, in the fifth Test Match against Australia, that Jessop played what has been described as the greatest innings in the history of cricket. England had been set 263 to win on a wicket that was helpful to the Australian bowlers. The score was 48 for five, the game it seemed, as good as lost when Jessop went in to bat. For the space of an hour and a quarter he proceeded to savage the Australian bowling. There were two streaky shots before he had made thirty; after that there was no holding him. Field adjustments were in vain, for in this mood no one could set a field to him. George Hirst, who was with him for ten minutes while thirty runs were scored, never forgot the amazement on the faces of the Australian bowlers. When Jessop was out, he had scored 104 out of 139 in seventy-five minutes, and England went on, amid a crescendo of excitement to win by one wicket. Describing his innings years afterwards, Jessop wrote that he was chiefly pleased with the restraint that he had shown when batting against Trumble; it is interesting to conjecture what would have been the views of Trumble himself on this matter.

This, of course, was Jessop's greatest innings. It was possibly the greatest innings that any cricketer has ever played; even so, his 93 against South Africa in the first Test Match at Lord's in July 1907 must bear comparison. England were 158 for five when he joined Braund; Jessop scored his 93 out of 145 that the pair put on in seventy-five minutes. He was batting against the South African googly bowlers for the first time, and playing them without difficulty; but the most astonishing thing about his innings was the way that he hammered and pulled the fastest balls that the formidable Kotze could send down.

Scores and Biographies sums up the innings with dramatic brevity: Fourteen 4's, scored off 39 of 69 balls received. England made 428 in that innings, but the match was drawn.

On July 1, 1909, at Leeds in the third Test Match, against Australia, Jessop strained the muscles of his back so badly that he was unable to play for the remainder of the season. He was right back on form in 1911, scoring 1,907 runs for an average of 42.37. In 1912, the year of the Triangular Tournament, he played in two Test Matches against South Africa.

Altogether in first class cricket Jessop scored 26,698 runs -- including 53 centuries -- for an average of 32.63; he took 851 wickets at an average of 23 runs a wicket; he made 451 catches and he ran out a remarkable number of batsmen who learnt too late that a quick single to cover point was not on if Jessop happened to be the fielder.

The longest that Jessop ever batted was against Sussex at Bristol in 1907, when he scored 240 out of 337 in three hours and twenty minutes. His highest score was also against Sussex; this was in 1903 at Brighton when he made 286 out of 355 in five minutes under three hours. He made 234 against Somerset in 1905, 233 against Yorkshire in 1901 and 206 against Nottinghamshire in 1904; on all three occasions he was at the wicket for about two and a half hours.

Four times he scored a century in each innings; on twelve occasions he scored a hundred in under an hour. It is astonishing that a high proportion of his 53 centuries were scored without his giving a chance. In 1901 he scored 66 out of 66 in twenty-eight minutes -- Sussex again were the sufferers. He made 76 out of 79 against Nottinghamshire in 1901; 81 out of 89 in forty minutes against Somerset in 1903; and so it went on. In 1904 at Bristol, he hit Len Braund for 28 in an over -- 446446. This was off a good over from Braund when he was one of the best slow bowlers in the country. According to C. J. Britton, for the fourth ball Braund posted a man at square leg and bowled a faster ball on the leg side, whereupon Jessop stepped back and cut the ball for four.

It should be mentioned that the law about sixes was not changed until 1910; up to that time the ball had to be hit out of the ground rather than simply over the boundary for a six; otherwise many of Jessop's huge number of fours would have sixes.

G. L. Jessop was no village slogger. He was a great batsman with massive powers of concentration; he had the eyes of a hawk, the heart of a lion and the timing of an angel. His genius lay in the split second thinking that enabled him to choose from an armoury of strokes to deal with anything that Rhodes or Trumble or Kotze or a hundred others could bowl.

Of course, sometimes he failed. A ball that kept low in his first over might bowl him -- a glorious sweep to leg intended -- when a lesser player would prod and survive. Test selectors were sometimes grieved at his over-exuberance and suggested a more cautious approach; but a cautious Jessop would have been a contradiction in terms.

Although nearly every stroke he made was an attacking stroke he showed remarkable flair for avoiding risks. Nor is this surprising; the international racing driver knows more about safety precautions than the average motorist. Jessop himself has this to say about C. B. Fry in A Cricketer's Log: "The elimination of risks he reduced to almost an exact science. He saw that the most fruitful method of a bowler's devices lay in his power to entice batsmen to flick across the off ball, and he set himself to remove all temptation in this way."

Here is clear indication of Jessop's own interest in the elimination of risks. Further evidence is to be found in the ways that he was out. In first-class cricket Jessop made 836 visits to the crease; he was caught 517 times and bowled 193 times. On only 62 occasions -- an average of three times a season -- he was stumped; and, most remarkable of all, for someone who was always anxious to keep the scorers busy, in twenty years of cricket he was only run out eight times: despite his astonishing stroke play, such as cutting balls outside the leg stump, he was out hit wicket--twice! Less than half a dozen times in his career, he relates, was he dissatisfied with an umpire's decision.

There will never be another Jessop. A gentle, friendly and amusing companion, he dominated the game when he was on the field; the better the bowler and the tougher the odds, the more he liked it. Peaked cap on head, sleeves rolled up, stocky, fearless and five feet seven, he faced the bowler, prepared for death or glory. And it was pretty often glory. Gilbert Laird Jessop, the Rupert of the cricket field, was surely the most exciting cricketer of them all.

© John Wisden & Co