Ex-England cricketer's picture of Norfolk sports history 100 years on

Jack Russell's painting of the 1921 match

Jack Russell's painting of the 1921 match - Credit: Jack Russell

Cricket fan and former skipper of the modern Old Buckenham club Tom Walshe on a lovely way to mark a key anniversary

It was arguably the most prestigious cricket match ever played in Norfolk.

And it saw Sir Jack Hobbs, one of England’s all-time sporting greats, hit a high spot in his long and illustrious career.

Now, 100 years on from what Hobbs regarded as “one of my best innings, if not the best”, that special occasion in East Anglia’s sporting history has been captured on canvas by another top English cricketer of more recent times, wicketkeeper turned renowned artist Jack Russell.

It seems incredible now that a top international match took place at a private ground hidden away in the quiet village of Old Buckenham, four miles south of Attleborough.

In the first week of May 1921, however, this unlikely setting saw the first full-blooded encounter on English soil between top-flight teams of England and Australia for nine war-interrupted years.

Jack Russell at Old Buckenham Cricket Club in June 2020

Jack Russell at Old Buckenham Cricket Club in June 2020 - Credit: Submitted

The match was a fulfilment of the aspirations of the owner of the ground, wealthy Australian stockbroker Lionel Robinson, under whose name the English 11 entertained the formidable Aussie touring team that would go on to demolish England in the Test series.

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As a self-confessed “Ashes addict” and a cricketer with many memorable performances against the “old enemy” – including a Test century in 1989 – Jack Russell became captivated after hearing about the game when he visited the ground a couple of years ago to paint the present-day Old Buckenham team.

“Cricket history has always been a passion of mine when I was a player, but even more so now that I’m a full time painter,” he explains. “I love trying to capture moments from the past on canvas.

Hobbs and Knight go out to open the innings at Old Buckenham in 1921

Hobbs and Knight go out to open the innings at Old Buckenham in 1921 - Credit: Submitted

“I was hooked; I simply had to paint it. I was very fortunate to have found out just before the 100th anniversary but, to be honest, it’s such a colourful encounter between two very good teams that I would have painted it anyway.”

So, aided by the discovery a few years earlier of the only known photograph of Hobbs batting at Old Buckenham on May 5, 1921, Russell returned to the ground last year to start work on a painting of the match.

The final result is a vivid depiction of “The Master”, as Hobbs was known, stroking a characteristic back-foot boundary shot on his way to a score of 85. His innings ended in disappointed when he had to retire hurt with a leg injury, denying him and thousands of onlookers a famous century.

“He said in his autobiography that due to the strength of the Australian bowling, plus the batting conditions, it was one of the greatest innings he ever played,” says Russell.

“For the man who holds the world record for scoring the most first-class centuries, that’s a pretty big statement.”

England's Jack White is bowled by Gregory in 1921

England's Jack White is bowled by Gregory in 1921 - Credit: Submitted

The artist was also captivated by the ground itself in its woodland setting which remains largely unchanged a century on.

Lionel Robinson had overseen its construction soon after buying and rebuilding Old Buckenham Hall in 1906.

The cricket-mad Aussie still had many influential family and business connections in Australia and entertained cricketers from Down Under at the Hall either side of the First World War.

This was the great era of country house cricket, and Robinson spared no effort in getting top-class cricketers to play at his ground, offering them first-class hospitality into the bargain.

A feature of the ground 100 years ago was a rustic timber pavilion with a wide, round thatched roof. It appeared in many of the photographs taken during the 1921 match and caught the artist’s eye at once.

“The circular thatched pavilion intrigued me, having never seen one before,” he says. “The unusual shape meant it had to take centre stage along with Hobbs.”

The story of the pavilion provides another twist to the story. Robinson was already a sick man when the 1921 match was played and died 14 months later. Old Buckenham Hall and its cricket ground later became the setting for a prep school but the Hall itself suffered a catastrophic fire in 1952.

The thatched pavilion in Jack's painting is now standing at Brettenham in Suffolk

The thatched pavilion in Jack's painting is now standing at Brettenham in Suffolk - Credit: Submitted

Eventually Old Buckenham Hall School was re-established at Brettenham in Suffolk and the thatched pavilion was dismantled and taken to the playing fields there where it still stands.

Jack Russell left no stone unturned in getting the detail correct, including the wide Norfolk sky.

“I asked two cricket-mad BBC weathermen, Philip Avery and John Hammond, to help me. They dug out the type of cloud seen on the second day of the match.

"And the fact that it was only around 8 to 10 degrees Celsius at the time meant that the Aussies would have been a little chilly having only just arrived from Down Under.

"That’s why they all have the top buttons done up on their shirts and are wearing long-sleeved sweaters.”

Jack Russell with his picture of the England v Australia match at Old Buckenham

Jack Russell with his picture of the England v Australia match at Old Buckenham - Credit: Jack Russell

Indeed, some of the Australian team who stayed at the Royal Hotel in Attleborough (now The Mulberry Tree) were so cold they telephoned Old Buckenham Hall to ask for coal to be sent up – the hotel having run out – which Robinson duly provided.

The match itself was eventually spoiled by the weather with wet and cold conditions forcing abandonment on the third day; it was a big anti-climax for the spectators as the English team was well on top after Hobbs’ heroics.

But the previous sunny day of dazzling English batting was witnessed by probably the biggest crowd ever to attend a cricket match in Norfolk.

Estimates suggested there were up to 10,000 spectators, many watching from the roofs of vehicles arraigned around the boundary.

Russell has painstakingly depicted the cloth-capped viewers and the cars, consulting a friend who is vintage vehicle collector to help with the latter detail.

“It’s been an absolute pleasure painting this picture,” he says. “I’m hugely honoured to be the first artist in 100 years to have captured this amazing match on canvas.”

As well as the original, Jack Russell is making limited edition prints of the picture available.

For more information visit: www.jackrussell.co.uk