In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
One Was Missing
It was a world record at the time, and it stood for forty-four years before it was broken. And yet, it very nearly didn’t happen at all, firstly just as the participants were setting out and secondly as they had reached the peak of their achievement. It was in June 1932, in a world which had not yet lost its innocence, a world still in the grip of the great recession, but one at peace. In seven short years that innocence and peace would be devastatingly shattered forever, by the flames of the Second World War.
The two record breakers were well known to each other and to the English public, or at least to those who followed sport. Herbert Sutcliffe was a tall, well groomed and very professional man, immensely proud of his chosen occupation. It was said that Herbert never, ever, had a hair out of place on his elegant head. He was thirty-seven years of age and had served as an officer of the Green Howards, Yorkshire’s Regiment, in the mud and death of the Western Front.
Percy Holmes was forty-four and almost crippled with lumbago, a distressing ailment which would end his career within a year. He was as tall as Sutcliffe, with whom he shared his birthday, but was an altogether jauntier character. He too had gone through the War, and the method by which he now earned his living had only been a seemingly impossible dream while he was in France. Percy was all smiles, while Herbert was serious. Holmes always wore a Yorkshire cap drooping casually over his left eye, while Sutcliffe went hatless. The great Herbert was too dignified for that kind of nonsense.
It was a warm early summer day, in the unlikely setting of Leyton in East London. The small cricket ground was leased by Essex County Cricket Club to play a handful of games on their summer circuit, or circus, as many of the more established counties referred to the tour. Brian Sellars, the only amateur in the side, and therefore the captain of Yorkshire, walked to the middle with Charles Bray, captain of Essex and also an amateur. The half crown glinted in the sun as it turned in the air. Both men peered at the coin resting on the wicket.
“Get your lads out here, Charlie. I think we’ll have a bat.”
Bray looked at the sun, now climbing in the sky, and then at the hard shaven wicket. “I thought that you might, Brian.”
Ten of the Yorkshire side were England players, the exception being Sellars himself. Essex had only one Test man, Maurice Nichols, and it was he who opened the bowling against Sutcliffe and Holmes. He was fast and accurate, and when the score was only four, he forced Holmes to snick the ball to the wicketkeeper James Sheffield, who dropped the not too difficult chance. Sheffield played nearly two hundred games for Essex and at the end of his career went out to New Zealand and turned out for Wellington. He died three days short of his 91st Birthday, in 1997, but the 15th June 1932 was a day that would haunt him for the remainder of his life.
It was the only chance of a long, long, hot day, as Essex toiled and Yorkshire went on and on to close at 423 for no wicket. Holmes had to be helped off the ground by Sutcliffe and the two sat exhausted in the dressing room trying to remember what day it was. Sellars came in.
“Well done, lads.”
“Have we got enough, skipper?” enquired Holmes hopefully, a beer in his hand.
“Have we buggery, we’ll rub their noses in it.”
The following morning was cooler, some relief to the openers as they walked out, or hobbled out in the case of Holmes.
“Let’s play ourselves in again Percy, and see what happens.”
“Aye, all right, Herbert.” Holmes was not convinced.
The score mounted, 450, then 500. Sellars sent out a drink to his men with a message. “The world record is 554 for the first wicket. Tha’d might as well stay there and break it.” The previous record had been set by two earlier Yorkshiremen, JT Brown and Long John Tunnicliffe.
At 551 Sutcliffe hit Eastman for four to set the new record, flailed at the next ball and was bowled. Sellars declared. Herbert Sutcliffe had 313 and Percy Holmes, now in acute agony, 224 not out. The two batsmen had their photograph taken under the scoreboard showing the new world record, 555, and the whole team gathered in the pavilion for champagne. Even Herbert allowed himself a glass and something approaching a smile.
Dick Harvey the Essex scorer came up to Sellars and said something quietly in his ear. The fiery Yorkshire captain exploded. “What’s that, Dick?”
The smaller, older man stuttered. “I’m sorry, skipper, but there’s one missing. It’s only 554. We checked it twice and we’re sure. It’s only 554. There’s no new record.”
After the initial shock, anger and recriminations set in.
“Tha’s bloody daft, Dick Harvey. One bloody missing! Herbert would never have gone and got out if he’d known.”
There was more of the same, before Tiger Smith, the umpire who had played for Warwickshire and England, intervened. “Let me see scorebook, Dick Harvey.” He examined it for full thirty seconds. “You’ve missed a no ball, Dick, in Eastman’s twelfth over. I remember signalling it. Put it in now.”
“You’re certain, Tiger?”
“I’m bloody umpire, Dick. Tha’ll do as I tell thee.”
And so the record was secured, and stood until 1976 when two young Pakistanis broke it
Ten days later Holmes and Sutcliffe opened for England against India at Lords. They scored 39 runs between them in four innings. It was the last of Percy Holmes’ seven Tests for England. He died in 1971. Herbert Sutcliffe played 54 times for his country, and scored over 50,000 runs in his first class career. He died in 1978. His son, Billy, captained Yorkshire as an amateur in the 1950’s. State Express produced a brand of cigarette in honour of the world record, called, of course, 555.
Oh, yes, Essex lost.
Written by BM