The oldest world record

Cricket in the 19th century

Perhaps the oldest sport world record still current is that for “Throwing the Cricket Ball”, with the record being listed in Wisden’s Cricketers Almanack as 140 yards 2ft by Robert Percival on Durham Sands Racecourse around 1882. The length of the throw, and the inability of any others to throw that distance over the last 140 years, has resulted in considerable scepticism concerning its veracity and reliability. As a result of a recent newspaper article about Percival’s throw (Guardian 23/4/2019), the author began to consider whether it would be possible to actually calculate the flight of a cricket ball given certain assumptions about throwing speed and angle of throw and the like, and perhaps to come to some more quantitative conclusion about whether or not Percival’s throw was possible. This paper presents the results of these calculations, together with a historical survey of “Throwing the cricket ball” competitions, and an examination of the events (and in particular the weather) on the day the record was set. 

We begin by setting out some of the background for the event at Durham Sands “around” 1882 (it will become apparent why quotation marks are used in what follows), give a brief discussion of the event itself, and then move on to discuss the results of flight trajectory calculations (in very broad terms) before coming to some sort of conclusion about whether Percival’s throw was possible. 

Throwing the cricket ball as an activity has a long history. In 1792, Mark Richmond, gamekeeper to the Duke of Richmond, threw 119 yards at Goodwood Park to defeat the Earl of Winchelsea “who had never before been beaten” (Hampshire chronicle 3/6/1820).  In the 1820s, contests were vehicles for wagers amongst gentlemen (Morning Chronicle 25/12/1822). As an athletics event it was popular at sports days in the mid- to late Victorian era, along with other events that sound strange to a modern ear, such a place kicking and drop kicking for distance and target throwing with a cricket ball at stumps between 20 and 50 yards away (for example, see the Luton Times and Advertiser 29/5/1855). However, throwing the cricket ball did not ultimately make it into the list of accepted sports for athletic events and its popularity waned. This is illustrated by the histogram of figure 1, which shows the number of mentions the phrase “Throwing the cricket ball” receives in a search of the British Newspaper Archive by decade from 1800 to 1950. This is hardly a valid statistical approach, since it depends upon the vagaries of press reporting, but is nonetheless illustrative. After around 1900, the event goes into sharp decline and by the middle of the century is confined to school sports days. It seems odd that such a simple throwing sport did not ultimately find favour at an international level, as it seems one of the most physically natural of all events and one can speculate on the reasons. Perhaps it was because throwing the ball is not really a stadium sport, as the throws are too long to conveniently fit within athletics tracks;  or because it was not included as an Olympic sport.

Figure 1 Search results for “Throwing the cricket ball” in the British Newspaper Archive

The BNA is also useful in enabling us to get some idea of how competitions were conducted and how far a cricket ball could be thrown. The competitions usually involved between two and four throws per competitor, presumably from behind some sort of throwing line. Sometimes the throw was from the top of a barrel to ensure that there was no overrunning. On occasion, penalties in terms of a set number of yards were applied, presumably for overrunning the line, and some competitions were run as handicaps (Sporting Life 12/16/1878). There is even one record of a competition where the ball had to be thrown in the left hand, won with a throw of 38 yards, presumably with no natural left hand / arm users taking part (Sporting Life 25/10/1862). Figure 2 shows the winning lengths for throwing the cricket ball events between 1860 and 1900 from “The Sporting Life” published in London, but with a national reach, and for papers published in Edinburgh during the same period. This represents only a small proportion of all the newspaper reporting, but is at least geographically representative. In general, only those results from senior pupils in school sports; from University sports; from military competitions; and from Athletics Clubs have been used. Length of throw is given in yards, in deference to historical usage, although all other units in this article will be the S.I. units in which the author (an engineer) would normally work. 

Figure 2 Length of throw from The Sporting Life and Edinburgh newspapers 

The results, although again statistically rather suspect, are nonetheless illustrative.  The London and the Edinburgh datasets are consistent with each other, with competition winning lengths through the period were around 80 to 110 yards. The school sports results tend to be at the bottom end of the range, and the student, military and athletic club results being at the higher end. There are a relatively few results above 110 yards, and the recorded limit seems to be around 120 yards. However there were a few reports of longer throws. A letter in the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 9/1/1889,reports that a Mr. Fawcett of Brighton College threw 126 yards 6 inches (or possibly 127 yards 4 inches – two figures are given). Much later, the Nottingham Journal of 18/3/1925 gave the information that, in 1873, W. H. Game of Oxford University threw 127 yards 1 foot 3 inches; in 1876. W. F Forbes threw 132 yards at the Eton College Sports; and in Dundee in 1882, A. McKellar threw 130 yards, 1 foot 6 inches. There is also the (almost inevitable) report of the omni-competent W G Grace’s prowess in this field, with a throw of 122 yards (Edinburgh Evening News 10/8/1895). Wisden itself lists two throws of similar distance to that of Percival – in 1872, Ross MacKenzie is said to have thrown 140 yards and 9 inches in Toronto, and on December 19 of that same year “King Billy the Aborigine” threw 140 yards at Clermont in Queensland. 

Now let us consider the world record event itself. The Sportsman magazine in 1889, states that it took place in 1884 at Durham Sands Racecourse (Sportsman Magazine, 3/1889). However, Rayvern Allen as reported on Cricinfo, states that this is a mistake and that it took place on Easter Monday April 18thin 1882. Something has clearly gone wrong in the transmission of information however, as Easter Monday in 1882 was on 10thApril. It was however on the required date in 1881, and the event is duly mentioned in the report in the Durham County Advertiser of 22/4/1881. Durham Sands Racecourse, was, and is, a large stretch of level ground next to the River Wear in Durham. It is shown on a map from the 1860s in figure 3. It is basically oriented east to west along the river.

Figure 3 Durham Sands Racecourse in the 1860s (from Edina Digimap)

1881 was the first year of the Sands Sports and was bitterly cold (in the author’s experience, typical of an Easter Monday on whatever date it occurs in whichever century one might be in) with a moderate easterly wind. This will be seen to be of some significance in what follows. There was a significant crowd, but visibility of the events was poor, and there was only one small stand that was poorly occupied. In addition to the Sports “there were a good number of shows, roundabouts, shooting galleries etc, …while two quadrille bands provided unlimited pleasure to numbers of young people and dancing was freely indulged in”. There was a short and rather cramped 300 yard track that was used for a horse races  – flat races for horses above 14 hands, for ponies below 14 hands, and a hurdle race for horses, all with an entrance fee and cash prizes for the winners and placed horses. For human competitors the events were a 220 yard flat race, quoits, high leap, 220 yard hurdle race, long leap, donkey race, pole leaping, put stone, one mile walking competition, 100 yards boys races, a mountebank race (!), an open flat race, and, of course, throwing the cricket ball. All had prize money for winners between 7s 6d and £1. The prize for throwing the cricket ball was the lower value. The results of the competition are simply stated as follows.

1stPercival, 2ndGnatt, 5 competitors

No throwing distances are given. It would seem that Percival was something of an expert in this event, and won many prizes, and thus supplemented his earnings as a miner quite well. At the time of the throw he was 25 years old. The census records give contradicting birth locations – Alston (1861/1871), West Auckland (1881/1891) or Northead (1901/1911).  In 1881 he lived with his family in East Thickley in County Durham. In the years following he was often to be seen at open weight wrestling competitions and was thus clearly a strong and well-built individual. The Cricinfo report of Rayvern Allen’s work suggest that in October 1884 he won £10 in a wrestling competition at Durham Sands – hence the confusion about the date of the Throwing Event. The author has not been able to trace any reference to this, but Percival did win a best of seven falls wrestling match worth £10 against G Stockdale of Spennymoor, at Wood View Gardens, Tudhoe Grange in October 1884, so again there is possibly some confusion in the transmission of information (Durham County Advertiser 24/10/1884).  He was married to Mary, and they had 6 children. In the mid 1880s and early 1990s he was firstly the professional at New Brighton CC and then  groundsman to Liverpool Police Athletic Society. But by the early 1900s he was again a miner and died in South Shields in 1980 of broncho-pneumonia. There was no obituary. 

In terms of the claim for a world record length, the Sportsman magazine in March 1889 stated that it took place on Easter Monday, 1884 (3 years too late) and “the throw was measured by the committee“. In 1897 Sporting Records was more skeptical writing “It has been claimed by R Percival that he threw 141 yards at Durham Racecourse in 1884, but this is regarded as so doubtful that few authorities even mention it.” Note that Percival himself seems to have been making the claim, and it was clearly contentious even at that stage. The record was not listed in Wisden until the 1908 edition. Also note there were other claims to the world record around at that time – on 8/11/1889 the Sporting Life reported that in Australia a certain “Crane” threw 128 yards 10½inches, beating the world record by 2 yards and 7 inches, in a competition with a touring American baseball team. Who set the “old” record, and who designated it as such, is not clear. 

So it can be seen that while Percival’s claimed throw is very much above the run of the mill competition winning throws of around 80 to 110 yards of the period, there are a number of other recorded throws of rather greater distances, and Percival’s throw seems to be at the upper end of what was possible. However, its claim to be a world record has always been treated with skepticism. Can any more be said about the likelihood of him being able to make such a throw? We thus move on now to briefly consider the trajectory calculations. They are described in a little more detail in the Appendix for those who are interested.  In simple terms the calculations use Newton’s laws to determine the trajectory of the cricket ball, allowing for air resistance and the somewhat peculiar aerodynamic properties of the cricket ball. The maximum distances are always achieved at an initial throwing angle of around 40 degrees (so the trajectory is rather like that of a javelin rather than the normal cricket throw). This results in trajectory heights of the order of 30 to 40 m. Figure 4 shows the maximum distances achieved against initial throwing speed for a new cricket ball and an old cricket ball, for no wind. Paradoxically the aerodynamic resistance of the latter is less than that of the former (just as dimpled golf balls have lower drag than smooth golf balls), and this is reflected in the distances travelled. To give some context to the throwing speeds, 40m/s (≈90mph) is the bowling speed of a current international fast bowler – but as the throwing angle and ball orientation needs to be precisely controlled, this is probably less than the maximum speed obtainable in a less controlled throw. Major League baseball players have been known to throw at up to 50m/s (≈110mph). From this figure one can conclude that, at least in still air conditions, an old ball and a high initial speed are necessary to approach the 140 yard mark. One might expect that it would be normal to use a used ball in such competitions rather than waste a new ball.

Figure 4 Calculated length of throw against throwing speed for old and new cricket balls

However, as noted above, on the day of Percival’s throw it was somewhat windy. The wind speed increases with height above the ground, and this effect has been modeled in the calculations using the same methods as would be uses in calculating the wind load on buildings in modern structural engineering codes of practice. Figure 5 shows the calculated contours of throwing distance for an old ball, plotted against initial throwing speed and wind speed at 10m above the ground, assuming a following wind. The annual average wind speed in England is of the order of 4 m/s at 10 m above the ground. It can be seen that wind speeds above the average can have a significant effect on the throwing distances at any one throwing speed. In particular a 6m/s following wind will allow a throw of 140 yards to be achieved with the same initial throwing speed as a 120 yard throw with no wind. These calculations show that the trajectory of cricket balls are much more sensitive to wind conditions than, say, javelin trajectories, largely because cricket balls are aerodynamically bluff rather than streamlined

Figure 5 Contours of length of throw plotted against initial throwing speed and wind speed at 10m height.

Now the wind conditions on the day of the throw can actually be quantified with some precision. The Durham University Observatory(figure 6), which has the second oldest sequence of continuous meteorological measurements in the world after the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, is just over 1 km away (see figure 3). Prof Tim Burt of the University Geography Department, who now has charge of the Observatory, has kindly provided the author with meteorological data for April 18th1881. Basically the wind speed that day, at the 10.00 observation, was 6 m/s from the north east. This is probably a mean value and one might expect gust wind speeds to exceed this. Presuming this was a direct following wind (and there is no indication of the throwing direction on the day, but somewhere in the east / north east quadrant is quite possible looking at the layout of the Sands) then this level of wind speed couldhave significantly assisted the throw, although, there can be no certainty on this.

So what then are we to conclude? Robert Percival was clearly one of the top throwers of the age judging by the number of competitions he won, and his wrestling activities suggest considerable innate strength. It seems to the author that, there is a prima facie case that he would have been capable of propelling the ball at the necessary speed for a 120m plus throw of an old cricket ball in still air. The conditions at the Sands on the day of the record were such that the winds may have given him considerable assistance. A throw of 140 yards seems a realistic possibility. That such a throw is possible is further confirmed in Wisden which lists a number unverified, throws of around the 140 yard mark in recent decades (in particular Ian Pont, in Cape Town in 1981 was said to have thrown 138 yards) and an unverified world record throw has appeared on Youtube.

Figure 6 The Durham Observatory

Before we conclude, some other points come to mind. 

  • Firstly the press reports tell us that on the day of the throw the conditions were quite chaotic at the Sands, with a considerable crush of people, and there was difficulty of finding space for the events themselves.  This would hardly have made for accurate measurement of the throw and perhaps gives pause for thought as to the accuracy of the measurements.  
  • Secondly, can a throw be described as a world record if it is heavily influenced by wind conditions, as the calculations suggest was the case on Easter Monday in 1881?  This point of course is a general one that reflects on the actual integrity of all results for throwing the cricket ball as the required ball trajectories are quite high and can be expected to be affected by the wind even on relatively calm days. 
  • Finally was there perhaps an anti-north, anti-working class bias in the reporting – most of the athletics reports between 1860 and 1900 concentrated on the activities of the public schools, the military and the southern clubs, and the exploits of a miner in an open Durham meeting would not be likely to gain great acceptance. Perhaps this is partly why there was a reluctance to accept the record? 

Appendix. More details on the flight calculations

The author has reported calculations of cricket ball trajectory in normal play in “A unified framework for the prediction of cricket ball trajectories in spin and swing bowling”, and the method that was developed in that paper will be used here .  The aerodynamics of cricket balls is quite complex and varies depending upon whether the ball is new or used. Basically there are three aerodynamic forces acting on the ball – the drag, the lift force due to the spin of the ball, and a side force due to differential separation on either side of the ball because of the presence of a seam. The force due to spin is only of relevance at low-ball speeds and will not be considered here. Similarly the side force relies on the seam of the ball having a fixed orientation to the flow, and a spin to stabilize it. Neither of these will be possible in a long throw, and thus this force will also not be considered. With regard to the drag force, the Reynolds’ number of the ball during flight means that the ball will pass through the “drag crisis” associated with the transition from laminar to turbulent separation. In the trajectory calculations it was assumed, based on earlier work, that for a new ball this occurs between Reynolds numbers of 1.8 x105and 2.2 x 105, whilst for old balls, it occurs between 105and 1.4 x 105. In both cases, the low Reynolds number drag coefficient was taken as 0.5 and the high Reynolds number coefficient as 0.3. For the trajectories calculated, the ball passed through the critical Reynolds number range both on the upward part of the trajectory, and on the downward leg. 

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