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Cricketing legend

Print edition : Dec 02, 2011 T+T-

A remarkable book on Jack Hobbs, one of cricket's all-time greats.

As his years increased... he gradually slackened tempo and resisted temptation to show his virtuosity. He found a fresh vein, a rich one, by playing within himself. He ripened beautifully, became a classic in his own day...

- Neville Cardus on Jack Hobbs

FOR a cricket buff, the greatest charm of being in England in summer is to get to be among the first to savour some outstanding books on the game. There are biographies/autobiographies or simple narratives of a past international series. A few of them are readable, and the others, written in haste to make a quick buck, are to be scrupulously spurned. Accounts of seedy happenings on and off the cricket field do make interesting reading. Once in a while, however, a well-conceived, sedate and non-controversial book on a cricketer of yesteryear comes along and reading it is a sweet sentimental journey back to the days when the game had neither frills nor super monetary rewards. Who can deny the charm of a Neville Cardus or a Jack Fingleton, who gave such immeasurable pleasure at a time when cricket was merely a game that appealed to one's aesthetics?

Released earlier this year, Jack Hobbs: England's Greatest Cricketer by Leo McKinstry is a remarkable book on one of cricket's all-time greats. During a career that spanned almost 30 years (1905-34), Hobbs scored 197 first-class centuries (a record that is still intact) at an average of 50.65. Playing for Surrey right through his heyday, his highest score was an undefeated 316 against Middlesex at the Lord's Cricket Ground in 1926. He had 15 Test hundreds, 12 of which were against Australia. He still holds the record for the most number of runs (61,237) by any cricketer in first-class cricket. This is a case where the statistics give only a hint of the greatness of a man whose rags-to-riches story is something worth retailing over and over again, if only to inspire young cricketers.

Hobbs was born near Cambridge in 1882 to working-class parents. He was the eldest among 12 children, and his early life was austere to the core, marked by the Victorian values of respect, diligence, thrift and self-help. More than his father, John Hobbs he was passionate about cricket and played the game at the local level, besides being an umpire and a groundsman at Jesus College it was his mother, Flora Matilda, who influenced Jack's outlook on life. Flora once said: Young people should be encouraged to work. Work never did anyone any harm, and it does most a great deal of good. This was how Jack Hobbs the workhorse was groomed in his impressionable years.

John Hobbs died when Jack was just 20. Poverty hit the large family hard, and it was the goodwill its head had left behind that saw them through. Not outweighed by the chores that accompanied casual jobs such as a domestic help and a gas filler, Jack Hobbs made the best out of his continued access to the facilities at Jesus College. This was of great help in motivating him to play cricket seriously. It was, however, the incredible kindness of Tom Hayward a Cambridge cricketer of renown who was to become the country's greatest professional of the times that changed the course of Hobbs's life. Hayward first saw to it that Hobbs' abundant talent received local recognition. After making him play for Cambridgeshire county, which was still in the Minor Counties League, it was just a question of time before he succeeded in bringing Hobbs, reared on the banks of the Cam river, to glittery London and made his own county, Surrey, accept him. To Hobbs this was mind-boggling because he had hardly stepped out of his rural Cambridge before. Hobbs never looked back.

In his first match at the Oval, the headquarters of Surrey cricket, where he turned out in 1907 for the Players (professionals) against the Gentlemen (amateurs), he scored a brilliant 88 in the second innings. This moved even the great W.G. Grace, who captained the former team at the age of 58 and was not usually generous to fellow cricketers, to remark: Unless I am very much mistaken, he's going to be a star. Coming as it did from the difficult and obdurate character that the Grand Old Man was, the compliment gave more than a hint of Hobbs' flowering class. It naturally motivated him to reach the height of excellence. Interestingly, the ludicrous distinction between professionals and amateurs, which led to the institution of the annual fixture, where Hobbs got the first opportunity to reveal his abundant talent, was to confront the Cambridge lad during most of his career. He was, however, unaffected by the discrimination which entailed separate and inferior dressing rooms, hotels, train carriages and even entrances to the field of play. His amazing demeanour concealed his modest upbringing and utter dependence for sustenance on the playing fee, which was a mere 275 a year, including bonuses and the winter retainer.

His conduct in the dressing room a place notorious for its petty jealousies, intrigues and cold responses to a newcomer was equally remarkable. This is what possibly induced another great England batsman to say this of Hobbs: A quieter, more modest chap can seldom have played a big part in the cricket of the world success never spoiled Jack popular with his brother professionals remained so to his retirement. It was this disdain for pomp and glamour that made Hobbs uncomfortable at Lord's but so much more at home at the Oval.

Chosen to accompany the Marlyebone Cricket Club (MCC) team (as the England touring party used to be called then on overseas tours) to Australia in 1907-08, Hobbs made his Test debut at Melbourne, after England had lost the first Test in Sydney. He made a painstaking 83 which, aided by a century from the Kent batsman Kenneth Hutchings, helped England gain a substantial first innings lead. Although Hobbs failed in the second innings, England eventually registered a one-wicket victory. Referring to the criticism that he was too slow in his first knock, Hobbs denied he was nervous and said he was deliberately slow because he wanted to do his very best.

This sense of responsibility and determination to play for his side was the hallmark of his career. England lost the series 4-1 despite a good showing by Hobbs in the fourth and fifth Tests. His innings (57) at Melbourne in the fourth Test Sydney and Melbourne each got two Tests a season in those days demonstrated his ability to play on a turning wicket. According to McKinstry, Hobbs' swift footwork, ability to judge the length of each ball and his skill in playing it as late as possible accounted for his success.

Wisden honour

He was to display the same grit and technique the following summer in England when he scored six centuries for Surrey. His innings against Kent at Blackheath is still remembered because the rain-affected wicket was an actual glue pot and was unplayable. Colin Blythe, Kent's masterly left-arm spinner, mesmerised all but one of his opponents. Hobbs' century on the occasion was so authentic and made under such adverse conditions that one of his teammates, Bill Hitch, said: To be at the opposite end to Jack that day was blinding. You realised your batting wasn't even the same job. The depressing thing was he made it look so easy. Rightly, the following spring, Wisden named him one of the five cricketers of the year, an honour that many cricketers the world over even now look upon as the pedestal of recognition. Hobbs went on to dominate the international scene for another two decades when he gave bowlers of the class of Clarrie Grimmett, Arthur Mailey, Jack Gregory and Charlie Macartney a hard time.

A part of his success was accounted for by the capacity to forge many memorable partnerships on the field, the most significant of which were with Herbert Sutcliffe and Wilfred Rhodes, with whom he opened 38 and 36 Test innings respectively. The famous Surrey and England wicketkeeper Herbert Strudwick was another with whom he struck a life-long bond. Interestingly, Strudwick was Hobbs' landlord and neighbour in the Mitcham area of south-west London. The two shared many qualities: they were both quiet, genial and conscientious. Both were practising Christians who made it a point to attend an Anglican church whenever Surrey played away from London.

The landmark in Hobbs' career was his surpassing the record for the most centuries (126) in first-class cricket held by W.G. Grace for nearly 20 years. There was the general view for decades that no one would be able to better it. Hobbs belied this belief and overtook Grace while playing against Somerset at Taunton on August 17, 1925, amidst scenes of great jubilation. The best part of McKinstry's biography is its first eight pages, which are dedicated to the build-up and the drama that surrounded the momentous achievement.

As soon as Hobbs completed the hundred and acknowledged the crowd's wild cheers, he took an already written-out telegram from his pocket and beckoned the groundsman so that it could be despatched at once to the addressee, none other than his wife, Ada, who was away on a holiday with their four children. The cryptic wire read: Got it at last, Jack. Such was the feverish expectation about beating Grace's record that gripped everyone, including his family.

While writing about Hobbs and describing him as an all-time great, the question that obviously arises is, Was he greater than Don Bradman? Such comparisons are odious but nevertheless help one understand the qualities of the two equally great sportsmen whom posterity will never forget. According to many critics, Hobbs' greater ability to play on bad wickets those regarded as real turners gave him the edge. The comments of the game's legendary umpire Frank Chester, however sweeping they may be, bring out the facts clearly: For all his greatness, Bradman had neither the technique nor the skill of Hobbs to succeed on a sticky wicket.... Sadly, it is not possible to vouch for the accuracy of this painful downgrading of the Don.

Hobbs went to Australia with the MCC for the last time in the 1928-29 season despite the fact that he was going to turn 46. He scored one century and averaged 50.11. In the summer of 1930, in his last season as a Test cricketer, he played all the five Tests in the Ashes series at home. He made a modest 301 runs with an average of 33.44. His final innings was at his home turf, the Oval, when he was dismissed for just nine. There was, no doubt, all-round disappointment over this anti-climax to a remarkable career. It looked as if Hobbs had erred in agreeing to play, unmindful of the fact that he was already 47 years old and well past his prime. In all probability he was allured by the excitement of signing off against his country's greatest adversary. He continued to play county cricket, averaging 50 runs a season until 1934, when the figure dropped to an appalling 36.70. This was signal enough for him to call it a day from first-class cricket at the end of the season.

After retirement

Life after retirement was comfortable, with none of the worries about having to make ends meet that he had when he started playing the game. He had set up a sports goods shop on Fleet Street, which gave him a steady income. His many books also brought in attractive royalties. He settled down in the elegant suburb of Wimbledon, where he first bought a detached house and later moved into an apartment. More satisfying was his decision to keep himself fit with rounds of badminton, table tennis and billiards. He adored his wife, and when she passed away in 1962 after 56 years of marriage, Hobbs was heartbroken. The emotional toll of this loss was evident from the rapid decline of his health thereafter. He passed away in December 1963. He died in his sleep, a fitting end to a man who was unassuming and quiet and rarely lost his equanimity.

Tributes came pouring in from different parts of the world. Many of those who spoke at the memorial service held in February 1964 at Southwark Cathedral in London alluded to his skill and character. No tribute, however, was more eloquent than the one from his dearest friend, Herbert Strudwick, who said: No finer man ever lived. Who could dispute this assessment of a cricketer and human being par excellence?