Kent’s Best – Blythe’s 17 for 48 at Northampton 1907

Friday 13th September 2013

This year's match against Northampton at Wantage Road is the 106th anniversary of the best ever bowling performance by a Kent bowler in the County Championship. Indeed, the best in all first class cricket excluding Test cricket. Colin Blythe took 17 for 48 against Northamptonshire which included all ten wickets in the first innings. This feat has been achieved by three other Kent bowlers (Tich Freeman, George Collins and Arthur Fielder although Fielder was representing The Players against The Gentlemen at Lord's when he secured his clean sweep).

Only two Kent bowlers however, have taken 17 wickets in a match. Blythe at Northampton in 1907 and Freeman against Essex at Southend in 1930 – but his 17 were at the hugely expensive cost of 67 runs!

Northamptonshire had first played in the Championship in 1905 but did not play Kent until 1907. Kent were the reigning County Champions having secured their first Championship the previous year and, like the other “top” counties, were a little slow to arrange fixtures with the newcomers. Northamptonshire had already played at Catford in the opening match of the 1907 season where they had been trounced by an innings and 100 runs. Kent had batted first and made 259 largely due to 99 from a 20 year old Frank Woolley playing his second season. Northants were then shot out for 73 by Pip Fielder who took 8 for 42. In the second innings, they did a little better in mustering 86 with the left arm spin of Blythe and Ted Humphreys doing the main damage but also with Fielder collecting two wickets to give him 10 for 57 in the match.

Two weeks later, Kent arrived at Northampton – auspiciously perhaps, on Blythe's 28th birthday. There was no play on the first morning due to the weather, and when Kent won the toss, they batted first. In the three hours play that was possible on Thursday, the batsmen produced 212 for 4, with 73 from Frank Woolley and Kenneth Hutchings 49 not out when the rain intervened and called a halt to the days play. Further rain and a heavy thunderstorm prevented any play at all on the second day, and when the players arrived at the ground on Saturday, the forecast was still uncertain and the prospect of a result looked bleak.

Kent resumed their innings, but at 219, lost three wickets. It was left to the wicket keeper Fred Huish to steady the ship with 19 not out and achieve a modicum of respectability with a total of 254. During the latter stages of the innings, Huish nearly hit his own wicket as he overbalanced in playing a delivery from the Northants bowler William East. The Northampton Chronicle reported "Huish caused some amusement by putting his leg over the wicket in an attempt to make a leg hit". Eighty four years later, in 1991 at the Oval, Brian Johnson and Jon Agnew received slightly wider, national coverage for their commentary on a similar incident involving Ian Botham.

By the time Northamptonshire batted, the pitch was still wet but hadn't yet achieved the status of "sticky dog". It is described by Chris Scoble in his excellent book on Blythe as "slow and puddieny". Nevertheless, it was well suited to the Kent spinners in the form of Blythe and Bill Fairservice with Woolley, Humphreys, Hardinge and Fielder in reserve. Blythe started in spectacular manner and by the 12th over, Northants were seven down with a mere four runs on the board – all of them to Blythe. The next Northants batsman, George Vials, very nearly went to the first ball he received from Blythe having taken the attack to Fairservice in the previous over, but the chance went begging. Had that been taken, it is unlikely that Northants would have made 20 but Alexander Thomson (10) and the amateur Lancelot Driffield (12) helped Vials (33 not out) raise the score to the relatively lofty heights of 60 all out. Blythe, bowling unchanged throughout the innings had figures of 16 overs, 7 maidens, 10 for 30.

Following on, Northants changed the batting order second time round and Vials, the “hero” of the first debacle, was sent in first. In Blythe’s second over, he attempted a shot which sent the ball high into the air towards Fairservice who ran in but dropped the catch. The prospect of Blythe taking all 20 then immediately disappeared when Fairservice bowled Vials with the first ball of the next over. Nevertheless, Blythe continued to weave his spell over the home side and finished with 7 for 18 as Northants slumped to the even lower total of 39 in their second innings. He had bowled unchanged throughout the match and had taken his 17 wicket haul within the space of a single day – a record that lasted until 1933 when Headley Verity did it for Yorkshire against Essex in 1933. With the exception of Jim Laker’s 19 for 90 against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956, Blythe’s 17 for 48 remains the most wickets for the least runs in all first class cricket and the best match analysis in county cricket.

The match at Northampton has passed into Kent cricket legend as much for what Colin Blythe could have achieved – all 20 wickets – as for what he did achieve. A few authors, in recounting the events of that day, overlook the fact that Fairservice took the first wicket in the second innings and speak of Blythe as having taken the first 7 wickets in the second before Fairservice dropped his catch. The distortions are probably far from a deliberate attempt to rewrite history and are undoubtedly due to a spot of wishful thinking! They may even be due to the manner in which the scorecard of the match was drawn up. In most instances, the scorecard is published with the batman’s name shown in the position he batted in the first innings. As Vials was shown batting at number nine in the Northamptonshire first innings, his position in the scorecard would not have changed for the second innings and, without knowing that the batting order changed, it might well be assumed that Blythe had also taken the first seven to fall in the second innings.

Martin Moseling