“Wilfred, we’ll get them in singles”.
George Hirst to tail end partner Wilfred Rhodes, The Oval, August 1902.
Words: Richard H Thomas
Trent Bridge, August 2005, the fourth Ashes test. The series is level, with England on the cusp of a victory meaning a draw in the last Test would be enough to regain the urn. England were seven down when Matthew Hoggard joined Ashley Giles with 13 needed. “Collywobbles time for the third Test in a row” wrote Derek Pringle. Mike Selvey reported that Giles greeted Hoggard with the inspiring news that Brett Lee was “reversing it at 95 mph”.
The Oval, August 1902, the fifth Ashes Test. England needed to turn 0-2 into a face-saving 1-2. Gilbert Jessop – “The Croucher” – had already partly rescued England with 104 in an hour and quarter, including 17 fours. “A more astonishing display has never been seen” said the normally reserved Wisden, but the game was not yet won. Fifteen were needed, and barrel-chested all-rounder George Hirst greeted his Yorkshire teammate Wilfred Rhodes with words more calming than Giles uses for Hoggard 103 years later. True, Rhodes was more than your average hit-and-hope merchant – he made almost 40,000 career runs with 58 centuries but that was all ahead of him and he needed fortitude. “Wilfred,” said George reassuringly, ”we’ll get them in singles”. Hirst already had over 40 on the board and got about his business said Wisden, “scoring again and again by means of cleverly placed singles”. Rhodes made the final run, but by now the salivating Wisden was on a roll. “Hirst’s innings was in its way almost as remarkable as Jessop’s” it said, and Sporting Life reported that “the crowd yelled with delight – and cheered until they were hoarse”.
Denzil Batchelor added a “morsel to this folklore” when he explained that years later, a friend asked Aussie captain Joe Darling whether he’d have preferred Hirst and Rhodes or England’s openers MacLaren and Palairet to face those last overs. Darling “chewed his heavy black moustache” wrote Batchelor “and distained to reply”. The two Yorkshiremen remain legends, and by coincidence were born very close to one another. For years the famous answer to the question “who is the world’s best all-rounder” was a fence-sitting “he bowls left-handed, bats right and was born in Kirkheaton.”
All very good, except that these now famous words “we’ll get them in singles” probably never happened. Marking the centenary of the Oval escape, in 2002 The Guardian suggested that Neville Cardus – “granddaddy of modern sportswriting” – was occasionally prone to “inventing cricketers’ quotations to colour his descriptions”. Cardus’ defence would invariably be “he might not have said it but he certainly should have”, but in the instance of “we’ll get them in singles” the Guardian asserted that “till the day they died” both Hirst and Rhodes “denied ever uttering such tripe”.
It’s like finding out the truth about Father Christmas, but seemingly it’s not the first time that Hirst has been misquoted. In a letter to the Telegraph in 2007, M. Aldred claims the paper had “wrongly attributed a famous cricket saying about surpassing milestones to Fred Trueman”. It wasn’t Trueman, it claimed, that suggested that whoever beat his record of 307 Test wickets would be “bloody tired”. These words, it continued, were actually spoken by Hirst, when he made over 2000 runs and took over 200 wickets in 1906. Except he didn’t. In a fierce defence of her grandfather George, Lindsay Watkins assured Telegraph readers that “in fact my grandfather said ‘very tired’ not ‘bloody tired’. He never swore, and did not allow his children to swear either”.
George Hirst – one of the world’s greatest ever cricketers, and perhaps one of the most misquoted.