In the 19th century, throwing the cricket ball was a common event and often featured in the popular sporting meetings of the era - which also witnessed such diverse competitions as sack and three-legged races - rather than at cricket matches. To avoid participants gaining too much advantage from long run-ups, in some competitions throws had to be made while standing in a barrel!
Wisden lists the record throw as being 140 yards, two feet (128.60 metres) by Robert Percival on the Durham Sands Racecourse in 1882. It is, however, one of cricket's most disputed achievements.
Little is known about Percival - so little that for almost a century his first name was listed by Wisden as Richard - except that he was born near Sunderland, lived in Yorkshire, and was 25 at the time of his record. He was a decent professional cricketer, but only at club level.
The Sportsman magazine in March 1889 contributed to the confusion over the year of the throw when it stated that it took place on Easter Monday, 1884. "The throw was measured by the committee," it stated, adding that Percival had never been beaten at throwing the cricket ball." But less than a decade later, Sporting Records (1897) dismissively stated: "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."
Nevertheless, the record was first listed by Wisden in 1908, using the 1884 date, until David Rayvern Allen, the author, conducted extensive research into the throw that helped to clear confusion over the date - if not the distance - of the throw.
Rayvern Allen established from local newspaper reports that the record was set in 1882, not 1884, and the Durham County Advertiser on April 22, 1882 mentioned that Percival won 7s 6d (37p) in the throwing the cricket ball competition on April 18 (there were four other competitors). Other later reports show how the confusion could have arisen as Percival did compete in a sports meeting at the same venue in October 1884 where he won £10 in a wrestling competition. That report mentioned that Percival had "won no less than 40 prizes for throwing the cricket ball".
While the distance is now accepted as 140 yards and two feet, that does take some believing as it is more than the length of a football field. Wisden raises doubts, adding that the furthest recorded throw in the modern era is 138 yards by Keith Pont at Cape Town in 1981. Others - including Colin Bland and Janis Lusis (the 1968 Olympic javelin champion) - have been reported to have thrown distances in excess of 150 yards, but those records are unverified. Given the plethora of modern fielding coaches and new techniques, it would be interesting to see how modern players would fare. It somehow seems unlikely when every athletic record has been smashed in the 20th century, that Percival's distance remains. That more than anything, raises doubts as to its veracity.
In 2001, Durham held a competition among club players to try to challenge the record. The winner managed only 80.40 metres (almost 88 yards).
Wisden lists two other throws of similar distance. In 1872, Ross MacKenzie is said to have thrown 140 yards and nine inches (128.24 metres) in Toronto. MacKenzie was the vice-president of Canada's National Lacrosse Association and he still holds the record for throwing a lacrosse ball (140 yards two feet or 128.63 metres). In 1883 he toured England with the Canadian team and played a match at Lord's.
On December 19 of that same year an Aborigine known simply as Billy The Blackboy threw 140 yards (128.02 metres) at Claremount in Queensland. The report on Billy's throw, carried in Peak Downs Telegram is revealing in that it highlights the approximation of some of the measuring. Usually, distances were calculated using a chain, as it was not subject to stretching, but at Claremount a tape was used. The measured distance was 142 yards one foot and six inches, but the newspaper explained that two-and-a-half yards had been lopped off to allow for "deviation in measurement".
As for Percival, his serious ball-throwing days ended sometime after when he injured his arm, although in 1885 he was reported to have thrown 127 yards and one foot at Stoneycroft, Liverpool.
It would be an interesting exercise to have some of the top outfielders today to take part in a competition, if only to break one of the oldest records in Wisden and end the uncertainty for once and for all. For the time being, however, Percival remains at the top of the pile.
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The Cricketer - Various
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
Sporting Records H Morgan Browne (Methuen, 1897)
Sportsman magazine (March 1889)
Various local papers 1882 to 1885