The magnificent opening partnership of 337 between Nick Larkin and Greg Mail against Manly-Warringah last Saturday set a new record for Sydney University in the Sydney First Grade competition. Statistically, it’s an imposing achievement – in the 123 years of the competition, there has only been one higher opening partnership, the 423 shared by the incomparable Victor Trumper (who hit 335 not out) and Dan Gee for Paddington against Redfern in February 1903.
Even so, the mark set by Mail and Larkin fell just short – by only eleven runs – of the highest opening partnership ever recorded for the University 1st XI. That record – 348 – was set back in February 1889, four seasons before the establishment of what was then called “Electoral Cricket”, and is now NSW Premier Cricket.
In 1889, there was no formal club competition in Sydney. Instead, the “senior” clubs, as they were known, staged matches between themselves on an irregular basis. The oldest of these clubs was Sydney University; the Albert Club was another. It had once been a formidable club, virtually monopolising the cricketing talent of the colony, but by 1889 its strength had declined significantly. University and Albert usually played each other a couple of times each season, and agreed to meet in a two-day match, on 16 and 23 February, on the “Association Ground” – better known today as the Sydney Cricket Ground. The Referee thought that “the teams appeared to be rather equally matched”, even though Albert was without its wicket-keeper Syd Deane - a unique character who, after representing NSW in both cricket and Rugby, reacted to his omission from the 1890 Australian team by concentrating on his career in the theatre, before becoming the first Australian to act in Hollywood films. Sydney University was led by Tom Garrett who, at the age of 31, was in his seventeenth season with the club. He had earned his place in the very first Australian Test team as a fast-medium bowler but, as his prominence as a bowler declined, he had steadily improved his batting. When Garrett won the toss, he had no hesitation in batting, and he walked out to open the innings himself when play began at 2.15pm.
His partner was Herbie Lee, 23, a nuggetty right-handed batsman who was far better known as a Rugby Union forward – he played for NSW seven times between 1884 and 1890. According to one observer, “the bowling was fair enough for two or three overs, and then Garrett started making fourers in quick time. The old University trundler was in fine fettle, and scored off nearly every ball”. Frank Iredale, the future Test batsman, was called upon to do a good deal of the bowling – but his medium-pacers, which would dismiss only six batsmen in his 133 first-class matches, were not particularly threatening. “Almost every man of the Alberts was tried with the ball”, reported the Evening News, “but the bowling throughout was very inferior.” Before long, Garrett simply charged down the wicket to every delivery, connecting with some immensely powerful drives. This tactic might have brought about his downfall, as twice he skied the ball into the outfield, but both chances were spilled. On a third occasion, he hoisted the ball towards long-on, where the fieldsman, Joe Rowley, lost his footing as he ran in for the catch, fell flat on his back, and could only watch the ball sail over his head and into the fence. Garrett made no mistake with the next ball, which he deposited into the Ladies’ Stand – a hit which was then worth only five runs.
At two minutes to six, Garrett and Lee had been batting for 193 minutes, and the score stood at 348. Lee, who had 123 to his name, played back quietly to a delivery from Tasman Deane, only to see the ball hit the ground and spin back onto his stumps. There was no time for the new batsman to take his place at the crease, and so stumps were drawn with Garrett unbeaten on 220. The partnership was acclaimed as the highest for any wicket in senior club cricket in Sydney.
What followed on the second day of the game verged on farce. If the match had been played today, University would probably have declared its innings closed at the end of the first day, 348 being more than enough runs to win the game. But the Laws of Cricket did not, in 1889, permit a team to declare its innings closed, so University had no choice but to carry on batting. The new batsman, Test player Reginald Allen, missed a straight ball and was anti-climactically bowled for 0. But Garrett carried on cheerfully, whacking the ball around the ground until, on 274, he edged it to the solitary slip fieldsman. His innings remains the highest ever recorded for the University 1st XI. George Barbour, a Sydney Grammar schoolmaster and NSW Rugby representative, then scored his second century for University, and the veteran Theo Powell (who had played for NSW as early as 1871) thrashed out a furious 53, until eventually the last wicket fell with the total on 635. But it was five minutes to six – too late for the Albert innings to begin. The game was drawn, with Albert fielding throughout the entire match.
Twelve months later, the Laws of Cricket were altered to allow an innings to be declared closed. The first recorded declaration was made in an English county match between Nottinghamshire and Kent in 1890. That change undoubtedly improved the game: it also means that Tom Garrett’s record innings of 274, and the University total of 635, are unlikely to be surpassed.