Like Bradman, Hobbs and Lara, Robert Percival’s record may never be broken

Like Bradman, Hobbs and Lara, Robert Percival’s record may never be broken

Wisden states the all-rounder once threw a cricket ball 140 yards and two feet, a distance that several tried to reach and none have been confirmed as bettering.

Some numbers are records fixed in the minds of every cricket fan. Bradman’s 99.94, Hobbs’s 197, Lara’s 501 – anyone who ever nosed around a Wisden will know those like they do the digits of their parents’ old home phone. They’re fossilised at the top of the lists in the back of the Almanack, and, since it is unlikely they’ll ever be beaten, will stay that way until the ravens finally fly the Tower of London.

And then there’s Robert Percival’s 140.2, which has been around longer than any of them. Wisden publish that one every year, too, in an obscure corner called Miscellaneous Records, but if you know what it represents, your youth really was wasted on you.


140 yards and two feet, Robert Percival, on the Durham Sands racecourse, Co. Durham c1882

Now, 140 yards is, by the standard journalistic measures, around 14 double-decker buses, two and a half Nelson’s Columns, or one hell of a throw, from deep square leg all the way to deep cover, from the Lord’s Grand stand to the Tavern. Of course it would need to be, because it’s stood for so long that you have to wonder whether it ever really happened at all. Wisden also lists a close second, Ross MacKenzie’s 140 yd 9in, and a third, by “King Billy the Aborigine” of 140 yards flat, both set in 1872. But in the official competitions held since, no one has ever been able to come near those distances. There have been a couple of organised attempts on the record, one in 1978 was won with a throw of 106 yards, another in 2001, with 88 yards.

Percival made his record-breaking throw on 18 April, 137 years ago last week, at Durham’s annual Easter Monday sports meeting. Even then, there were people who doubted whether it was true or not, and a magazine called Sporting Records said Percival’s claim was “so doubtful that few authorities even mention it”.

It doesn’t help Percival’s case that for years Wisden actually had his record all wrong. He was listed as Richard Percival, not Robert, and the date was two years out. That was eventually corrected by the historian David Rayvern Allen, who also discovered that Percival was a left-handed all-rounder for New Brighton CC. He was famous for once hitting a ball clean out of their ground and into the Queens Arms hotel 300 yards away. “The road does run slightly downhill,” Allen noted, “so there is no reason to doubt authenticity.” Percival was good enough to be a county player, but he had a drink problem, and ended up working as a coalminer.

Plenty of sober men have tried to beat him, and Wisden lists some of the better attempts in a footnote that describes Percival’s record as “probably authentic if not necessarily wholly accurate”. The South Africa all-rounder Colin Bland was supposed to have once cleared 150 yards, so was the Latvian javelin thrower Janis Lusis. Bland died last year, but Lusis, who won the Olympic gold in 1968, is still alive. On Monday I called him at home, but neither of us could speak the other’s language, and it was a short conversation. Another javelin thrower, Mick Hill, was apparently just a couple of yards shy when he tried in 1991.

And then there’s Roald Bradstock. I first met Bradstock in 2012, when he won a silver medal in the javelin at the Olympic trials. You could not really miss him, he was the 50-year-old wearing a hand-painted union jack bandana. Bradstock is a curious man, a painter and performance artist who currently holds the world record for throwing, among other things, an iPod (154 yards) a soft-boiled egg (118 yards), a copy of the 1976 Guinness Book of World Records (58 yards) as well as a toothpick, a water balloon, a tennis racket, a dollar bill and, yes, a kitchen sink.

 Roald Bradstock claims to have broken Robert Percival’s benchmark in 2010 with a throw of 145 yards 18in but the record is unverified by Guinness. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Bradstock says that back in 2010 he broke Percival’s record with a throw of 145 yd 18in. There were two people filming him – the video is online – and a third measuring the distance. Bradstock’s new mark was accepted by a group called Record Setters, which, he tells me, is “a contemporary American rival to Guinness”, with “less stringent requirements for ratification”. Unfortunately, Wisden is with Guinness on this, and the last time I brought it up it explained they would need more proof, too.

Bradstock doesn’t think it is so strange that Percival’s record has stood all these years. After all, Percival was a specialist in an age when the event was taken pretty seriously. There were regular cricket ball-throwing contests around the country, and, according to contemporary reports, he won at least 40 of them. Besides, according to Bradstock, throwing for distance has less to do with size, strength and fitness, which have improved over time, than good technique, which hasn’t.

So it seems Percival’s 140.2 will stay right as it is – in Wisden at least, honoured in the observance rather than the breach.