Rob Steen: Napier blitz invokes the ghost of Alletson

“I happened to be recuperating from a strained back sustained in the Derbyshire v Sussex match and saw this inspired innings. Sir Harry Preston was my companion and he was converted by Ted’s innings into a much keener cricket ‘fan’ than ever had been previously. He had always said the game was too technical and slow; but later he declared that he had never enjoyed a sporting event with quite such a thrill.”

Thus did Fred Root, that formidable seamer and early leg-theorist, recall Edwin Boaler “Ted” Alletson’s astonishing seaside assault at Hove on May 20, 1911, the day the Nottinghamshire all-rounder shook, rattled and rolled his way into cricketing lore.

Almost exactly one hundred years on, Graham Napier’s ferocious mauling of Surrey’s bowlers at Whitgift School – where on May 19 in a County Championship second division match the Essex all-rounder hit a world record equalling 16 sixes in an innings of 196 and scored his last 103 runs from a mere 29 balls – fittingly recalls and celebrates Alletson’s great feat.

Alletson’s headline figure was 189 in 90 minutes; startling enough, you might reasonably conclude. Delve deeper and the image of the punishment meted out to the poor old ball – make that half-a-dozen of them – becomes positively X-rated.

Before the start of the third and final day of the match, a Saturday, Alletson, a forester on the Duke of Portland’s estate at Welbeck House, took a bathe in the sea to soothe an injury. Call it a lucky dip.

Striding into perilous waters 50 minutes before lunch, with Notts seven down and a paltry nine runs on, he made merry to reach 47: so far, so bothersome. What followed was a great deal more than a nuisance.

Energies stoked, the burly Alletson shifted into overdrive, surging from 50 to 100 in 15 minutes, then eased into hyperdrive – the final 89 gushed from his blade in 14 minutes. His contribution to a 10th-wicket stand of 152 in 40 minutes was a somewhat greedy 142, including 115 in a seven-over span; estimates suggest that his last 139 consumed just 37 minutes.

All told, that 189 came out of 227, comprised of eight sixes, 23 fours, four threes, 10 twos and 17 singles. It’s a wonder he found time for that many. The Duke of Portland reportedly gave him a cheque for £100 – a colossal sum then. Others say his employer’s reward was a gold watch.

Unsurprisingly, the last thing Tim Killick wanted was to be summoned into the firing line, as Root related: “I remember [him] fielding in the long field near me and when HP Chaplin beckoned him and asked him to bowl, Killick, who wore very large-lensed glasses, turned to me and said, ‘He’ll kill me Fred, if I am not careful; you know I can’t see ’em very well.’” Fearful that Alletson would hit one straight back, Killick was happy merely to survive, but his ego took a pounding. One over (including two no-balls) cost 34 (three sixes, four fours), smithereening the first-class record.

That’s not all Alletson broke. “Apart from savage square cuts – one of which wrecked the pavilion bar while another smashed the clock – most of his runs came from long, low drives between mid-on and extra-cover,” related John Arlott, who was inspired to write a book, Alletson’s Innings, and interviewed witnesses.

Five balls were lost: a prima facie case of a smiter slowed by his own strength. But for the time spent looking for them, one can only marvel at the rollicking heights of fast-forwardness Alletson might have conjured up for Sir Harry.

George Gunn, who regarded Alletson, in prime nick, as the hardest hitter he had ever seen, told Arlott: “He sent his drives skimming; you could hear them hum: the two Relfs and Joe Vine were in the long field and the ball fizzed through them as if they were ghosts.” Composing a letter to Arlott nearly half a century later, Sussex’s Bob Relf was still pinching himself: “My chief memory is that shower of cricket balls going over the boundary and the crowd going mad with delight. Of course, it cost us a match we were winning but I don’t think anybody minded much about that – it was such an experience to watch it.”

The human hurricane had indeed transformed the contest. Having smelled victory an hour before lunch, Sussex were left to make 237 in three and a half hours and lost their eighth wicket with 10 minutes left; only narrowly did the coup de gras elude the visitors. Ian Botham’s 1981 eruption at Headingley springs inevitably to mind, but few other innings have ever turned the course of a match quite so emphatically on its head.

“A story once gained currency that, after this innings, Alletson tried to play correctly and never played another hitting innings,” attested Arlott. “In fact, his defence had always been orthodoxly sound: and, in his next match – at Bristol – he made 60 in 30 minutes; and in 1913 he made 69 in 47 minutes (v. Sussex), 88 in 60 minutes (v. Derbyshire), 55 in 25 minutes (v. Leicestershire): in that year, too, he drove three consecutive balls from Wilfred Rhodes for 6.” On another occasion he straight-drove Lancashire’s Walter Brearley with such ferocity that he uprooted the middle stump at the bowler’s end and sent it cartwheeling 10 yards even as the ball scorched to the boundary.

Indeed, that Hove heave-ho earned Alletson a Test trial, but scores of 15 and 8 did little to suggest he was destined for greater things. His bowling was highly-rated but being called for throwing scotched any hopes for that string. Notts dropped him a couple of years later and his professional duties were over come the outbreak of the First World War; he never did make a second first-class century.

NOW LET’S CONSIDER THE COMPETITION, which has been mounting appreciably ever since Twenty20 invaded our lives. Napier’s two remarkable modern-day performances, at Whitgift this week and also against Sussex in a Twenty20 Cup game at Chelmsford in 2008, must obviously be on the list.

Also in 2008, Brendon McCullum launched the IPL with afterburners ablaze, walloping a script- and pitch-perfect 158 off 73 balls, 118 of them in boundaries – still a competition high. Then there was Shane Watson’s record-busting 185 off 96 balls in Dhaka last month, complete with an ODI-record 15 sixes and comprising a staggering 79.74% of Australia’s total. True, both these innings were aided by fielding restrictions; but this is counterbalanced, surely, by the vast advances in fielding standards since Alletson’s time.

In first-class cricket, the fastest authentic hundred (as Wisden discreetly puts it) belongs to Surrey’s Percy Fender (35 minutes at Northampton in 1920) and, in terms of balls, South Australia’s David Hookes. Livid at a delayed declaration by Victoria during the 1982-83 Sheffield Shield campaign, “Hookesy” took vicious vengeance, manhandling the bowlers with extreme prejudice to reach three figures from 34 prunes. Mind you, watching the footage on YouTube is a sobering experience– the bowling is horrendously short and wide when it isn’t straying to leg.

Unsurprisingly, the nearest comparison to Alletson comes courtesy of Gilbert Laird Jessop, the Virender Sehwag of the Edwardian era, Entering at 25-3 for Gentlemen of the South against Players of the South at Hastings in September 1907, the “Croucher” sped to three figures in 42 minutes, 150 in 63 and eventually departed for 191 after an incendiary hour and a half.

Yet whereas Jessop could wreak such havoc at will, Alletson had just that solitary afternoon in the sun. A century on, as the epitome of the one-off, the very personification of every-dog-has-his-dayness, his capacity to inspire, as a timeless nourisher of dreams, endures.

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