A short history of cricket hat-tricks: from Sheffield's hills to Naseem Shah

Sheffield, as the locals will proudly tell you, is surrounded by hills. There are seven of the things, each looming over the steel city, hinting at the greenery of the Peak District just beyond. On one such hill, dominating the skyline behind the train station, is the brutalist Park Hill Estate, nowadays an emblem of gentrification while also serving as a backdrop for TV series such as This Is England and in music videos for the city’s most famous musical sons, Arctic Monkeys.

Above Park Hill lies Skye Edge Fields, a hilly green expanse offering views over the city, its tranquillity today at odds with its 1920s nickname of Little Chicago, named because of the number of gangs that operated in the area. Today you are more likely to find picnickers armed with a lunch box in search of a scenic snack than a Don Valley Al Capone tooled up with a switchblade. On the north-eastern cusp of Skye Edge Fields is Manor Oaks Road, an area of winding streets and newly built houses that stand on the site of cricketing history.

This whole area was known as Hyde Park. At its peak in the 1840s this stretch of cricket pitches was South Yorkshire’s equivalent of the Mumbai maidans, boasting nearly six acres of hillside land that would stage numerous games simultaneously. WG even graced the spot, recalling the steep locale in his 1899 book Cricketing Reminiscences and Personal Reflections: “The ground stood on the top of a high hill, and I began to despair of the cab ever getting to the top.”

So what brings me to the Sheffield hillsides (on foot, unlike the good doctor) armed with some hastily printed map coordinates? We’re hunting the home of the hat-trick.

Sports as varied as lacrosse, water polo, darts and marbles all employ the term hat-trick in some way to celebrate something happening thrice. In ice hockey, the occurrence of a player scoring three goals is often met with the home crowd removing their own head gear and hurling it onto the ice. Can’t see that catching on at Headingley.

A hat-trick is most commonly associated globally with football. In France they celebrate the coup du chapeau, in Italy they cheer a tripletta, in Japan a Hattotorikku. A player who scores three goals in a game is rightly lauded, those who bag a perfect hat-trick – goals scored with right foot, left foot and a header – even more so.

The Premier League has witnessed 345 hat-tricks since it was started in 1992, and there have been 52 World Cup hat-tricks in the 21 tournaments since the first in Uruguay in 1930. Some are iconic, Pelé in 1958, Paolo Rossi in 1982. Others, rather less so. Harry Kane’s 2018 hat-trick against Panama, anyone?

But what about cricket? A hat-trick is used to describe three wickets falling in successive balls by the same bowler. The hat-trick in cricket is a more special feat, given the laws of possibility are more stacked. There have been only 48 hat-tricks in the history of Test cricket. That’s just 48 passages of play, lasting no longer than 10 minutes each, across 2,555 Test matches, most of which stretch over a number of days. Test hat-tricks are as magical as they are fleeting. Three is the magic number when it comes to hat-tricks but it is the three-in-a-row that makes a cricketing hat-trick particularly special, the BAM-BAM-BAM! adding to the allure, a giddy relentlessness that contributes to the seduction of player and viewer alike. Three quick wickets can turn an innings, a match or even an entire series on its head. A hat-trick can dismantle the top order of a batting line-up, rip out the guts or blow away the tail. They can be the cherry on top of a victory or a mast to cling to in defeat. Die 48 hat-tricks in Test cricket all have their own tale to tell.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1879 was the scene of the first Test triple. Fittingly, it was in the third Test match on record, Australia’s Fred Spofforth the man to achieve it. The Poms got their revenge over the next 20 years with the next four hat-tricks falling to Englishmen, three of them coming against Australia. Billy Bates in 1883 became the first Englishman to take one, with the MCG again the scene. Bates was later joined by Johnny Briggs (Sydney, 1892), George Lohmann (Port Elizabeth, 1896) and Jack Hearne, who became the first to take a hat- trick on English soil, at Headingley in 1899.

The hat-trick pendulum then swung back to Australia with Hughie Trumble’s fast off-spinners snaring him two separate hat-tricks at the same venue (Melbourne) against England in 1902 en 1904, the latter in his final Test appearance. Only one other player in Test history has taken a hat-trick in his final appearance, but where Trumble’s capped a long and auspicious career, Geoff Griffin’s (1960) was the opposite. The South African remains the only bowler to take a Test hat-trick at Lord’s but his feat was overshadowed by what followed: called for throwing 11 times during the game, he never played Test cricket again and “retired” aged 23.

Trumble is one of only four players in Test history to take two hat-tricks. He is joined by the Australian Jimmy Mathews, who is the only man to take two hat-tricks in one game – on the same day even, against South Africa at Old Trafford in 1912, the unfortunate Tommy Ward being his crowning wicket on both occasions; Wasim Akram, whose brace of three came just nine days apart against Sri Lanka in 1999; and Stuart Broad, whose first came at the expense of India – via a huge inside edge from Harbhajan Singh’s bat – at Trent Bridge in 2011. Broad’s second, against Sri Lanka at Headingley in 2014, was less memorable – even the bowler himself had to be informed by the umpire before the “threepenny” dropped.

Here we come to another phenomenon: the hat-trick of unperceived existence. If a hat-trick is taken but the players, crowd, viewers and listeners don’t realise, is it really a hat-trick at all? Yes, the stattos chalk it up, on paper it fulfils the criteria, but without any of the drama, something is lost from the “trick”. Broad was foxed by the over that fell between, breaking up his first wicket from his second and third. Sometimes the gap is longer, with Courtney Walsh’s 1988 hat-trick at the Gabba the first to be spread across two innings. The very next game, Merv Hughes’ triple whammy was in danger of contravening the hat-trick-trade-descriptions-act altogether, coming as it did in three separate overs and across two innings. No surprise big Merv also didn’t realise his achievement at the time. Technically, they do still count, but these elongated affairs just aren’t the same.

Hat-tricks are about momentum. They are lessened if something gets in the way. DRS has done bowlers many favours since 2009 but does serve to diminish a hat-trick moment. The T-sign, even if deployed merely to delay the inevitable, dilutes the magic. There’s something primal in seeing a stump cartwheel, a catch be snaffled or an umpire raise a digit with the finality of a Roman emperor in the face of a 30,000 strong appeal and knowing the hat-trick has been sealed. There’s no doubt to dampen the abandon. Moeen Ali’s 2017 hat-trick against South Africa at the Oval was blighted by DRS, so too Peter Siddle’s 2010 birthday special in Brisbane. DRS is to hat-tricks as a health and safety officer is to an all-night rave, flicking off the music just after “the drop” and insisting everyone pays attention to the permutations on their clipboard.

Test hat-tricks have come in all shapes and sizes. They come on debuts (Damien Fleming in 1994, Maurice Allom in 1930, Peter Petherick in 1976); the first over of a game (Irfan Pathan’s spectacular 2006 effort v Pakistan is right up there with the very best), or incredibly in the case of Sri Lanka’s Nuwan Zoysa against Zimbabwe in 1999, the first three balls of his opening over, just the second over of the match.

Some stick in the memory due to the skill or sense of theatre – Shane Warne in 1994 or Darren Gough in 1999. Some rely more on luck: Harbhajan’s 2001 triple against Australia belonged more to questionable umpiring, much as Broad’s a decade later. Some are achieved by players approaching the end − Rangana Herath is the oldest of the 45, aged 38 when he grabbed his in Galle, or by those who are just starting out – Naseem Shah is the youngest, the Pakistani’s 2020 hat-trick against Bangladesh coming aged just 16.

But what about that name? Hat-trick. It may conjure up the image of a magician lifting a rabbit from a stovepipe but its origins aren’t to be found in the magic kingdom, rather in those hills above Sheffield.

Heathfield Harmon Stephenson, the legendary Surrey ‘roundarm’ seam bowler, is the ‘Houdini’ of the hat-trick. At Hyde Park in 1858, ‘HH’ took three wickets in three balls playing for an All England XI against local side Hallam. The batsmen weren’t the only ones bowled over by Stephenson; those in attendance were so moved by his exploits that they held a whip round, put the collected bounty in a hat and presented it to the bowler. The hat-trick was born, the term ubiquitous globally over 160 years later.

And we’ve found the place, or near enough. The coordinates of the old Hyde Park ground lead to a cul-de-sac off Manor Oaks Road, but it’s not an “X” that marks the spot. It appears that the locals these days might be less enamoured with HH Stephenson’s exploits. Midway up a beige brick wall sits a sign: “No Ball Games.”

This is an article from Wisden Cricket Monthly. Subscribe to the digital edition and pay just £2.99 for three issues or subscribe to the print edition and pay just £5 for three issues.

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