Friday, May 07, 2010

Quest for the Croucher!

I love cricket. I just think it is the finest game ever invented - a subtle mixture of sporting skill and mental toughness. Probably why I was so crap at it when I played! Much as I love watching cricket these days, being a historian at heart I am mostly attracted to cricket's past, and in particular the period of it's history referred to by all sundry as it's "Golden Age". This was the 15 year period leading up to the First World War where the superstars of cricket bestrode the Earth like Titans. And their names and deeds are still held in awe to this very day. Just mention names like W.G. Grace, Bobby Abel, C.B. Fry, K.S. Ranjitsinhji, Sydney Barnes, Charles Kortright, Wilf Rhodes and Jack Hobbs to a cricket fan and you will see their eyes light up and words of praise will come pouring forth.
For me, one man sums up the joy of Edwardian cricket more than anyone else. Gilbert Laird Jessop, affectionately known to all fans of cricket from that era as "The Croucher" for his hunched stance at the wicket when batting. He was initially famous as a tearaway fast bowler, but as his career blossomed he became World Famous for his destructive, aggressive batting style. No matter what the opposition or the situation in the match, The Croucher would launch himself at the bowling attack facing him, and destroy them with a bewildering array of attacking strokes, savage cuts and fierce drives. He had all the shots in his locker and was not afraid to use them. As he played by the sword, so he sometimes perished by the sword. For a leading batsman his career and test averages are surprisingly ordinary, but this is mainly because he attacked from the first ball he received and never seemed to bother about playing himself in and could often be out cheaply. But when he got in... wow.
In 1894 he made his first-class debut for Gloucestershire, and soon made his name for aggressive batting and taking over the play. In one match in 1900, for Gloucestershire against the first West Indian team to tour England, he made 157 in an hour. In 1902 against Australia at the Oval on a brute of a wicket, he went in to bat when England were 48 for five, needing another 225 to win. He made a century in 75 minutes, a feat described by Wisden as “what would have been scarcely possible under the same circumstances to any other living batsman”. It is still to this day the fastest hundred scored by any batsman in an Ashes Test Match. And still there was more - in 1903 against Sussex he made 286 out of 355 in just three hours and scored a half-century in just 12 minutes against Somerset a year later. How much would he be worth to the money laden teams of IPL T20 cricket if playing today?
Last night, finally driven to bed by the sheer tedium of the General Election coverage, I found myself sleepily flicking through Christopher Martin-Jenkins' book "The Top 100 Cricketers of All Time" and read his review of Jessop. It was in this write up that I discovered that Jessop spent his final years living in Fordington, a suburb of Dorchester, and is buried in St George's Church there. This is just down the road from me, probably about 20 miles at most. So when all my other chores were out the way this morning I drove down to Dorchester and sought out St George's Church. Fordington is a lovely sleepy leafy few lanes on the east end of Dorchester and the church of St George is not easy to miss. Inside are a wonderfully inscribed Roman tablet from the 1st century AD discovered in the grounds of the church, plus a couple of photos from the 40's and 50's of the then Vicar of the Parish, a certain Gilbert Jessop Junior! I wandered round the back to the slightly dislocated graveyard (it is across a car park and away from the church itself for some reason). I knew I was onto a cricket winner as soon as I began looking at the gravestones. Some of the first names I came across were Gooch, Gower and Chappell, but at first, no sign of Gilbert Jessop. The graveyard is long and L-shaped and on a gently sloping patch of ground. And it is big and after about an hour of fruitless searching I thought I would never find the final resting place of The Croucher. But then, right next to the path leading to a gate on to a main road and by a small privet hedge I found the grave.
It was overgrown, surprisingly small and quite sad really. And on the grave there was not a single mention of his great cricketing heritage and status, just his name and year of birth and death, and the same for his wife. I felt quite rotten for having come all this way and then not brought something with me, even some flowers or something. Or was I just being a bit soppy? As you can see from the picture on the left the grave has a small cross standing over it, then lying on the main body of the grave is a small stone shield with the inscription on it. It looks tired and in need of some attention - perhaps I shall go back and weed the plot and just tidy it up sometime.
I shall leave the final word on Jessop from the author, Gerald Broadribb who wrote a fine book about him called simply "The Croucher". Take it away, Gerald!
"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 19th
(Jessop's birth date), and resolve to bring to our own cricket some of his zest and spirit of attack."

1 comment:

Cyberkim said...

I'm not a cricket fan, but he sounds like an extraordinary bloke, so thanks for drawing his remarkable life to my attention.
Perhaps, as a small mark of respect, you might consider playing Roy Harper's "When an old cricketer leaves the crease" on your radio show.
If you're unfamiliar with the song, I seem to remember it was on the album "HQ".

Here's the chorus:

When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he's gone
If sometimes you're catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly mid-on
And it could be Geoff, and it could be John, with a new ball sting in his tail
And it could be me, and it could be thee, and it could be the sting in the ale
Sting in the ale.