If there is a heaven this can’t be a bad blueprint for it.

A County Championship match played in fine weather before a decent-sized crowd at Wantage Road with 1,475 runs scored over three days at four-an-over, and a world record-breaking innings for good measure.  Close to perfection; only a Northamptonshire victory was lacking.

Surrey had provided the opposition in the County’s opening fixture of the 1920 season, at The Oval in May.  The outcome – a comfortable victory for the brown-hatters – set the tone for the remainder of the campaign for both sides.  Surrey prospered and finished third in the final table, behind Middlesex and Lancashire, while Northamptonshire were third-from-bottom after losing (at this stage) 15 of their 19 games.

Nothing much there to indicate that the return  match would be a classic – and indeed its best-remembered feature nearly didn’t happen at all.  In its preview, the Northampton Daily Echo reported the visitors ‘will be well-represented although PGH Fender will not be playing’ and accordingly his name wasn’t one of the 12 listed.  A blow for those cricket-lovers looking forward to enjoying the skills of Surrey’s livewire all-rounder, already selected for that winter’s MCC tour to Australia.  ‘Percy George’ would become arguably the most easily recognisable figure in English cricket as the 1920s progressed with his spectacles (which he started wearing a couple of years after this match) and elongated sweaters, and by the end of the decade was acknowledged to be the most imaginative leader on the county circuit – too imaginative and insufficiently compliant, perhaps, to be installed as captain of England.  As he commented many years later, ‘I never really hit it off with Lord Harris’ – which in English cricket at the time was a sin roughly equivalent to beating your boss at golf.  However, his prowess as a hard-hitter was already well-known, and about to become even more so.

Why Fender didn’t feature in the original team isn’t entirely clear.  In the excellent biography written by The Times (and former Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph) journalist Richard Streeton, it states that his plans seemed to change when opening batsman – and fellow amateur – Donald Knight dropped out injured.  Streeton speculates that Surrey might have intended to rest Fender for the Championship showdown against Middlesex immediately after the trip to Wantage Road, or he might have had business commitments.  Either way, he was on skipper Cyril Wilkinson’s team sheet when he tossed up with his opposite number ‘Punch’ Raven; Wilkinson called incorrectly, Northamptonshire opted to bat and Surrey took the field – without Fender, who arrived late – on Wednesday August 25, 1920.

Harry Harrison fielded as substitute for Fender and got into the game with a catch to dismiss Bob Haywood early on as the County slipped to 24-2.  But Rawlins Hawtin and ‘Fanny’ Walden steadied the innings either side of lunch, Hawtin’s careful knock of 34 in two-and-a-half hours eventually ended by Fender (coming on as third change with his leg-breaks) who grabbed a return catch ‘cleverly with his left hand.’  Walden battled on, and his 128 at nearly a run-a-minute, with useful support from Stuart Humfrey, later a distinguished eye specialist, boosted Northamptonshire to a respectable 306 all out.  Surrey began their reply shortly before the close and it proved a memorable mini-session for Wollaston’s Ben Bellamy.  He joined the playing staff in 1912 but in the summers immediately before and after the First World War found his path into the first team blocked by long-serving wicketkeeper Walter Buswell.  The established man had injured himself batting in a minor match at Long Buckby which gave Bellamy a chance (only his third first-class appearance), and the first of his 645 dismissals for the County was the great Jack Hobbs, caught behind off fellow Wollaston man Vernon Murdin before stumps were drawn at 12-1.

The Sporting Life reckoned Surrey had ‘a stiff task ahead of them this morning’ – but, as we know, you can’t always believe what you read in the newspapers.  Some of them at any rate.  The Daily Echo declared the second day’s play ‘brimful of sensation’, and that wasn’t overstating the case.

In fact, the opening session wasn’t particularly sensational.  The visitors progressed to 160-4 at lunch with the medium pace of ‘Dick’ Woolley accounting for Wilkinson, Tom Shepherd and Hobbs’ regular opening partner Andrew Sandham.  Andy Ducat, already an England football international and a Test cricketer the following summer, joined Alan Peach in a fifth-wicket stand and the pair made merry against opposition that wilted badly as the afternoon wore on.  ‘They both flogged the bowling unmercifully,’ reported the Echo, ‘and the Northamptonshire attack has rarely looked so cheap.’  When Ducat fell to ‘Taffy’ Thomas for 149, Surrey were 448-5 and Fender walked to the crease just after four o’clock.  ‘He flailed the air with his bat one-handed,’ according to Streeton, ‘capless and (wearing) neither a sweater nor the neckerchief he often wore.’  Percy should have been walking back again almost immediately; after scoring just a single he skied a catch to cover point.  Walden, a brilliant fielder, would normally have been there, but he was off the field with a knock and Ned Freeman – a Cobblers footballer and County occasional – spilled the chance.  What the West Stand had to say isn’t recorded, but Fender made Northamptonshire pay with hefty interest.  In a shade under half-an-hour up to the tea interval he flayed 93 runs, 36 of them in two overs off Thomas and Murdin.  Peach, although the man well-set, was happy to take a single and watch the fun from the non-striker’s end. 

Another possible chance went begging with Fender on 34.  Humfrey was ‘credited’ in the press with a drop in the deep, but Streeton spoke to both Fender and the fielder about it (admittedly 60 years later) and neither recalled it as a catch.  Humfrey did so much good work in his subsequent professional career that we can perhaps allow him the benefit of the doubt.

Surrey had romped from 160-4 to 574-5 in the session – with Peach on 175 and Fender seven short of his hundred.  The latter told his biographer that had he been captain instead of Wilkinson he may well have declared earlier, regardless of the impending personal milestones.  But out they went again and it took Fender just six more minutes to complete a stunning century, securing the milestone in the grand manner with a six.  When his skipper finally halted the carnage – at 619-5 – Fender was 113 not out, with five sixes and 16 fours, after 42 minutes’ batting.  Peach’s unbeaten 200 was somewhat overshadowed; Murdin, Thomas, Woolley and ‘Bumper’ Wells (who all conceded over 100 runs in the innings) the unwilling accomplices in a piece of history.

Fender’s 35-minute century set a new world record, although in those days before the internet and high-powered statisticians such things were not recorded as diligently as they are now; it was, the Daily Mail declared next morning, ‘an astonishing piece of forceful cricket but by no means a record.’  Modern cricket followers will query – rightly – the use of minutes rather than balls faced as the determining factor.  Traditional scorebooks were not (and indeed are not) designed to easily keep track of balls, and it’s worth noting that the only scorebook that survives from the Fender match – Northamptonshire’s – doesn’t even add up…

Streeton consulted the late Laurie Newell, the club’s diligent statistician for many years, who had done his best to reconstruct the innings based on scorer Leo Bullimer’s original record.  Given the whirlwind rate of scoring on that second day it’s no great surprise that Leo and his colleague struggled to keep up.  Tot up the totals in the scorebook and you’ll find Fender on 112 rather than 113, Peach on 195 not 200, Ducat 142 instead of 149 and Surrey 604 as opposed to 619.  Does it matter 100 years on?  In the greater scheme of things, not much.

Mr Newell did try to calculate how many balls Fender faced and concluded he made his century from between 40 and 46 deliveries.  Not bad going when you consider that the Test record, even today, is 54 balls, set by Brendon McCullum for New Zealand against Australia at Christchurch in 2015-16.  David Hookes reached three figures off just 34 deliveries in an Australian domestic match in 1982, now reckoned to be the fastest by that measure in first-class history.  But whichever way you cut it, Percy’s performance was pretty prodigious.

Northamptonshire had suffered a severe battering – and now trailed by 313 on first innings with roughly three-and-a-half full sessions remaining.  It would have been the easiest (and least surprising) thing in the world to capitulate meekly and gift Surrey their expected victory early on the final day.  Instead, Raven’s men set themselves to battle it out – although the cricketing fates seemed to desert them again in the closing overs when opener Bill Adams, a local farmer and hugely patient left-hander, fell to a catch by Hobbs at cover off Fender’s bowling.  Many spectators felt it was a bump-ball and shouted at Adams to return to the crease as he began to walk off – he hesitated but the umpire gave him out.  The County closed on 59-2, boosting the day’s tally to a staggering 666 runs – the devil’s number if you happened to be a bowler.  All watched by a midweek crowd of around three thousand.

Haywood and Woolley resumed next morning and right from the start there was no question of attempting to block their way to safety.  They added 107 runs in the first hour – trying to save the match, remember – with Haywood (who would enjoy a golden summer in 1921 with eight centuries, still a club record) hitting three sixes and 13 fours in a typically robust 96, moving to within 13 runs of his 1,000 for the season.  But a newspaper critic once wrote of him that ‘Haywood would easily be one of the finest batsmen in England, if only he would use his head better’, and on this occasion it looks as though a lapse of judgement cost him and his side as Peach took a good catch in the deep.  Whether he later informed Raven “it’s just the way I play” isn’t recorded.

The resistance didn’t end there, though.  Still 60 runs behind at lunch with six wickets standing, Northamptonshire wiped off the arrears thanks to Walden (again), Humfrey and a timely spot of biffing from Wells who smacked eleven fours in his 71.  The County were dismissed for 430 and Surrey went in again at 4.50pm needing 120 for victory.  Not an overly difficult task with play able to continue until seven o’clock if the extra half-hour was claimed, and in the event they got home for the loss of Hobbs (bowled by a ‘jaffa’ from Walden) and Sandham at half-past-six.  Fender wasn’t required to reprise his first-innings heroics.

The agency copy that appeared in most newspapers around the country next morning praised Northamptonshire for putting up ‘a splendid fight’ following their second-day mauling.  ‘The wicket was one of the best that has ever been played on at Northampton,’ enthused columnist ‘Roger Roundabout’ in the Daily Echo.  ‘Some of the Surrey players were kind enough to say it was the best they have batted on this season – and they get some good ones at The Oval.  It was certainly a pitch on which Alf Stockwin, the groundsman, deserved hearty congratulations.’  ‘Roger’ then turned his attentions to rugby, it being late-August, and commented on the Saints’ first practice session at Franklin’s Gardens which showed ‘distinct promise.’  Elsewhere in that newspaper, a review of the County’s season noted that while public interest and enthusiasm was high – in Northamptonshire as elsewhere in the country less than two years after the end of the First World War – ‘it remains to be seen whether receipts will cover expenditure, for the costs of running county cricket have increased heavily.’  A century on, many of the same questions are still being asked.

It will have been some years since the last participants and spectators from this extraordinary cricket match returned to the great pavilion.  Ducat achieved the melancholy distinction of passing away at the crease after collapsing while batting in a wartime match at Lord’s in 1942.  Sandham left us in 1982, Fender in June 1985 and Bellamy just before Christmas in the same year.  At 94, Ben had been the oldest surviving County Championship cricketer.  He made 354 first-class appearances for Northamptonshire up to his retirement in 1937, more than any other regular wicketkeeper in the club’s history to date – but none of them, surely, more memorable than this.