The Ashes is less than a month away and, with that in mind, Telegraph Sport has gone back through the history books to pinpoint the most important and remarkable centuries that have defined matches and series.
This is part one. Read part two here.
Jack Brown 140 at Melbourne 1894-95
It was 2-2 going into the fifth and final Test, and England’s target turned out to be 297. It was the second five-Test series but the first that people in Britain could follow after the telegraph through Darwin and Colombo had just been opened. Queen Victoria wanted to know the result, not least because her Royal valet was a friend of the Yorkshire batsman Jack Brown, who was a dasher, more Harry Brook than Geoffrey Boycott.
To the first ball on the final morning, England lost their second wicket, that of their captain Albert Stoddart, leaving them at 28 for two: their target was now distant in a low-scoring era. Brown, a stocky 25-year-old, marched out, took 11 runs off the first over he faced (second of the day) and raced to the fastest 50 ever recorded for England (Brook included) in terms of time: only 28 minutes.
It is still the third fastest ever in Test cricket in terms of time. The number of balls is unknown as the scorebooks do not survive, but for certain the over-rate was quicker than today, as most of the bowling then was spin or medium-pace, at around 20 overs per hour. Brown probably faced about half of the approximately 60 balls bowled in those 28 minutes. The fastest England 50 recorded in balls was by Ian Botham in 28 against India in 1981-82.
Brown sounds like a back-foot player. He specialised in pulling and late cutting, but a team-mate noted his “driving along the ground and over the in-field’s heads together with short-arm hook of any ball at all on the short side”.
Brown’s stand of 210 for the third wicket with Albert Ward was the highest in Tests to that point. When he was dismissed for 140, England were all but home, winning by six wickets (neither the time nor balls are recorded but England scored 298 in 88 overs). He returned home a hero.
He set a record for the highest first-class partnership, 554 for Yorkshire’s first wicket against Derbyshire in 1898. He was so popular that his benefit amounted to £2,282 in 1901. In 1904, suffering from a heart condition, asthma and the effects of heavy smoking, and in spite of treatment by King Edward’s doctor, he died aged 35.
Victor Trumper 104 at Old Trafford 1902
It was the first century before lunch on the opening day of a Test. It was made in the fourth Test of the 1902 series at Old Trafford, and – even though no footage of the cricket exists – we can at least understand the setting. Some old film, which was recorded in the Old Trafford pavilion and nets at the turn of the century, shows Lancashire members standing around in thick moustaches and hats, smoking cigarettes or cigars; smog rather than sunshine; and a train chuffing along the line on the other side of the ground from Manchester to Altrincham. And a square indistinguishable from the rest of the field as it is so green.
Australia won the toss on a damp Thursday morning, after a lot of rain in the night. Our orthodoxy says: stick them in. Their orthodoxy cried out: bat first. When a match began on a wet pitch (no covers allowed even if there were any), the objective was to get runs on the board before the turf cut up and divots flew everywhere, making subsequent batting even harder. After sunshine or wind had partially dried the pitch, it was most treacherous.
After Australia won the toss and batted, England’s captain Archie MacLaren of Lancashire was subjected to that dreadful feeling of a match draining away in front of his eyes – and the series, too, as Australia were 1-0 up with only the Oval Test to come.
Trumper was his most imperious self. He danced down the pitch - right foot crossing behind the left to give him an even longer stride – and he seized the moment when the turf, and the ball, were soggy. Australia were 50 for none after half an hour, 80 for none after 50 minutes, 135 for none after 90 minutes. At lunch, after 108 minutes of play, Australia were 173 for one, Trumper unbeaten on 103.
To this day only five other batsmen have scored a century before lunch on day one of a Test. After lunch the sun came out, the ball gripped in the turf, but England were behind the eight-ball, and there they stayed, although Australia’s winning margin was only three runs.
Gilbert Jessop 104 at the Oval 1902
This innings is the exception to the rule. All the other centuries were scored when the series was still alive. This was a dead-rubber game as England went into the final Test 2-0 down. So the pressure was reduced, but not by too much: England had expected to win this series, as they had one of their best-ever teams, and wanted to salvage something.
In the fourth innings England were set 263 to win. Given the conditions of a wet pitch that had been cut up during the game, this target was the equivalent of 400 or even 500 now. Australia had exactly the right type of bowlers: brisk finger-spinners. England slumped to 48 for five: it was going to be 3-0.
The Australians, privately and even publicly, did not rate Jessop: a slogger to cow corner rather than a proper batsman in their eyes. Jessop himself decided to play straighter in this innings before he walked out to partner Stanley Jackson, the coolest head in the England team, or even England. Playing straighter did not stop Jessop scoring off his first five balls, and playing what sounds (from match reports) and looks (from an old photograph) like a slog-sweep as he went down on one knee to pull to leg.
Jessop gave a stumping chance when 22, and was dropped off a hard drive to long-off when 27, before he settled. He then hit the left-armer John Saunders for four consecutive fours. He drove three balls into the Oval pavilion but such hits counted only for four: before 1910 the ball had to go out of the ground to count six. Jessop rattled along at such a furious pace that he reached his one Test century off only 76 balls, which stands as the England record until today. Not even Jonny Bairstow or Brook have beaten it. In a hair-raising finish - Jessop, now watching, said it was the most nerve-racking moment of his career - England won by one wicket.
Sir Jack Hobbs 100 at the Oval 1926
It was, without much doubt, England’s finest partnership to that point and possibly ever. Herbert Sutcliffe went on to score 161, but most of the honours – like the first knighthood bestowed on a professional cricketer – went to Hobbs. The overall context was much like the Ashes of 2005: England had beaten Australia in only one Test since 1912 – or 14 years of hurt as the headline-writers would have said - while Australia had won 12 Tests.
The first four Tests of the 1926 series consisted of three-day games, and rain ensured a deadlock at 0-0. The fifth was to be a timeless Test, the first in England, but customary then in Australia. Australia took a first-innings lead of 32 runs. England, through Hobbs and Sutcliffe, responded with 49 for no loss by the close of day three. Promising, until England’s two stalwarts were woken up by a thunderstorm in the early hours, Hobbs in his Clapham home, Sutcliffe in the team hotel.
England were trapped. Steam was rising from the Oval square, which had been completely uncovered, when England’s players arrived. The August warmth would turn the pitch to glue. One of the umpires, Frank Chester, expected dismay when he looked into the England dressing room, but Hobbs was smoking his pipe and Sutcliffe combing his hair, which was never out of place. This was outward show, however. When they walked out to bat and saw the pitch, Hobbs said to Sutcliffe: “Pity about the rain, it’s rather cooked our chances.” He thought England would be lucky to score 80 more runs.
Hobbs, as senior partner, took the lead as the sun shone. He scored the first 26 runs on day four. Sutcliffe remarked later: “It was a vile, sticky wicket from the start, but when the hot sun began to bake the ground just before noon, it was one of the worst glue-pots I have ever experienced. The ball responded to the least spin applied by the bowler, turning viciously, quickly and popping most disconcertingly.” No modern batsman has had to face anything similar. Chester said: “I did not give England a chance.” The Ashes were not going to be regained.
But such was Hobbs’s delicacy of touch with a light bat, and so swift his footwork in getting behind the ball and playing it down, that England reached lunch at 161 without loss, Hobbs on 97. The two batsmen did not march straight off at the interval; as no roller was allowed during a Test, they first patted down divots of turf.
Hobbs was bowled straight afterwards for 100 but by then the wheel had turned. Australia’s captain Herbie Collins called it “the finest piece of batting I have ever seen”. Chester said it was “the greatest century I have ever watched”.
Prime minister Stanley Baldwin and most of the Cabinet watched from the pavilion as Sutcliffe’s 161 took England to an insuperable lead. Australia were tumbled out for 125, England winning by 289 runs and regaining the Ashes 1-0. And Sutcliffe was to do it again in the following series when England were set 332 on a Melbourne glue-pot, and he scored 135 to see his team home. It is still England’s third-highest successful run-chase.
Don Bradman 254 at Lord’s 1930
Sir Donald Bradman hit 10 double-centuries and two triples in Tests, so he might have supplied every entry in this list. But the best, by his and most estimations, has to be this innings in the second Test of the 1930 series, when he was only 21.
England had been confident, even complacent, going into this series. They had won the previous two Ashes series, the first narrowly in 1926, the second comfortably in 1928-9, 4-1. But Australia, after sticking too long with their pre-war players, had found a prodigy from Sydney: he was called Archie Jackson. They had found another batsman who looked useful but he had been dropped during the previous series, called Bradman.
After making a modest 131 in the opening Test of 1930, won by England, Bradman walked out when Australia’s openers had batted sedately to score 162. Test cricket was never to be the same again. The age of chivalry - Jack Hobbs would get himself out after reaching a century, often presenting it to the most deserving bowler - was gone. “The Don” had arrived, introducing a new era of huge innings quickly scored.
The difference between Bradman and lesser mortals was laid bare in this game. Duleepsinhji, as talented as Bradman or his own uncle Ranjitsinjhi, scored a delectable 173 in England’s first innings and was going like a train on the first evening, hitting two fours in the final over by Clarrie Grimmett, then assaying a third and caught at long off. Bradman, not giddy, was 155 not out on the second evening, and carried on next day to make the highest Test score by an Australian.
“None who saw it,” wrote EW Swanton, who was a young spectator, “will forget the utter precision of that innings of Bradman’s, the complete harmony of eye and brain that found a safe stroke, deft and crisp, and never an inch off the turf, for every ball bowled: the refinement of timing that so frequently beat the field, the tireless and swift running that extracted the maximum from every hit… His tally for the series was 974, another ‘best of all time’. But it was that 254 that hoisted him to the pinnacle, a faultless illustration of batsmanship, and in his own mind the best innings he ever played.”
Bradman agreed that it was "technically the best innings of my life. Practically without exception every ball went where it was intended to go, even the one from which I was dismissed, but the latter went slightly up in the air, and Percy Chapman with a miraculous piece of work held the catch."
More prosaically Wisden recorded: “In obtaining his 254, the famous Australian gave nothing approaching a chance. He nearly played on at 111 and, at 191, in trying to turn the ball to leg he edged it deep into the slips but, apart from those trifling errors, no real fault could be found with his display. Like [Bill] Woodfull, he scarcely ever lifted the ball and, while his defence was generally perfect, he hit very hard in front of the wicket. Altogether he batted five-and-a-half hours, his chief strokes being twenty-five fours, three threes, and 26 twos.” So only 43 singles, and 376 balls faced, as he propelled Australia to the highest Test total of 729 for six declared.
Don Bradman 334 at Headingley 1930
The Don kept on raising his bat, to acknowledge landmarks, and the bar. Having made the highest Test score for Australia at Lord’s, he became in the very next game the first to reach 300 in an Ashes Test.
The Headingley pitch was “emphatically in favour of the batsman” according to the Telegraph, but it was still a decent attack, led by Harold Larwood and Maurice Tate, which Bradman flogged throughout day one of the third Test. He reached his hundred before lunch, added another in the afternoon, and by the close of play had made 309. “One cannot exaggerate the feat of the young man from New South Wales, or overstate the magnificence of it.”
“During the long hours he was at the wickets he paid no respect to any of our bowlers,” the Telegraph went on. “When it suited him to drive, he did so with power and accuracy. By an almost imperceptible twist of his bat, he would steer the ball through the slips… we were utterly perplexed as to what stroke he would execute next.”
A remarkable feature was the reaction of the crowd: pure enthusiasm. “A thunder of applause” greeted Bradman’s century. “There was a great cheer when Bradman after tea equalled his Lord’s score of 254, and it was renewed again and again when he had beaten the previous highest individual score”: the 287 by England’s Reggie Foster. “He waved his hand to express his joy, and for the first time indulged in a happy and expansive smile.” Bradman was human after all.