Three of the finest batsmen whose careers straddled the First World War were England’s Jack Hobbs and Frank Woolley, and the Australian Charles ‘Governor General’ Macartney, all having been born in the 1880s, and making their first-class debut between 1905 and 1909. Test cricket was disrupted for seven years when they were in their prime.
The terms ‘master’ and ‘great’ are bandied about so often as to be bestowed on several of the undeserving by many who perhaps do not comprehend the true import of such encomiums. If one were to choose one batsman best suited to be awarded the distinction of a master batsman, it would have to be Jack Hobbs. If a batting technique can be perfect, then Jack Hobbs did indeed have the perfect technique for all types of wickets against bowling of every kind. That he was a great batsman follows naturally, whether viewed in terms of the runs and centuries that he scored or the averages he achieved against all the opposition that he faced on every surface.
In one of his letters to me, Bob Wyatt who played alongside Hobbs and later captained England, wrote: “Hobbs in my opinion was the greatest batsman on all types of wickets. He was always so well poised.” In another letter Wyatt elucidated, “Poise is more than balance. One can be well balanced and badly poised whereas one cannot be well poised and badly balanced. I would describe poise as being balanced in such a way that one can assume another position rapidly without losing one’s balance.”
Eldest of eleven children, Jack Hobbs was rejected by Essex. It was a decision the county was to rue very soon. In his second match for Surrey, Hobbs trounced the Essex bowling in a knock of 155 that was a precursor of things to come.
Wrote Hartland, “Before the war he played a more dashing game, in keeping with the spirit of the age and his own youthful instincts, but his batting was always based on sound orthodoxy and perfect technique. Hobbs remains one of the two greatest English-born batsmen – Grace is the other – his position resting on an ability to master all types of bowling on any wicket, turf or matting. More than any other batsman in history can it be claimed that he had no weakness. The more difficult the circumstances, and the greater the pressure, the more likely was Hobbs to make a hundred, without taking all day over it.”
Exuding the unfailing reliability and class of a Rolls Royce or a Rolex, Hobbs turned batting into a perfect art. E.W. Swanton observed: “Of all the batsmen he was the most versatile; the glazed wickets of Sydney and Adelaide, the matting of Johannesburg and Durban only enhanced his reputation.” It must also be remembered that Hobbs successfully countered swing bowling that was pioneered during his time by George Hirst.
The most prolific scorer in first-class cricket in a career spanning thirty years, Hobbs is the only batsman to score 60,000 runs, in the process notching up nearly 200 centuries. When he retired in 1934, Hobbs had amassed 61,237 runs at an average of 50.65 with 197 hundreds and a highest of 316 not out. No one is likely to score so many ever again. He was no less impressive in his 61 Tests, logging up 5410 runs, the record at the time, at 56.94 per innings, 15 centuries and a top score of 211, marking a career in which pedigree and numbers matched to the highest degree.
Hobbs had all the shots in the book which he played with utmost ease. He was able to score quickly, testimony to which are the twenty occasions when he rattled up a hundred before lunch on the first day of a match. He paired up with Tom Hayward and Andy Sandham for Surrey, and Wilfred Rhodes and Herbert Sutcliffe for England in many of the famous opening partnerships. Yet for all his run-scoring feats, Hobbs maintained a disdain for the record books. As Rhodes observed, “He was often content to throw away his wicket when he had reached a hundred and give someone else a chance.”
With Hayward, who was renowned as a defensive batsman, Hobbs put on 352 against Warwickshire at the Oval in 1909, and 313 versus Worcestershire at Worcester in 1913. The duo was associated in 40 century stands. Hobbs’ biggest opening partnership came in 1926, when he featured with Sandham in a 428-run saga against Oxford University at the Oval.
In Tests he combined with Rhodes in the then record partnership of 323 against Australia at Melbourne in 1911-12, and with Sutcliffe raised 283 against the same adversary, who had knocked up 600 runs in their innings, at the very venue in 1924-25. Perhaps their most crucial partnership was in the Oval Test of 1926, which played a significant part in regaining the Ashes. Hobbs scored a brisk 100 on a difficult track, rated as one of his finest innings, while Sutcliffe compiled 161. Earlier in the third Test at Leeds, they had put on 156 in the second innings to help salvage a draw. The famous Hobbs-Sutcliffe pair put up 15 century stands for the first wicket. In all, Hobbs’ century opening partnerships totalled 166. He was, doubtlessly, an opener beyond compare.
On the run-getting prowess of great batsmen, Len Hutton wrote in his Fifty Years in Cricket, “Genius is a born talent and a very special individualism. Wilfred Rhodes, who rose from no. 11 to set records as Jack Hobbs’ opening partner, always prided himself on being able to spot leg breaks and googlies. On the other hand, according to Wilfred, Hobbs was not able to do so and preferred to play the ball off the pitch. In a Test with South Africa, when the White-Faulkner-Vogler googly trio was much feared, Hobbs and Rhodes were batting together and Wilfred was congratulating himself that he was coping better than Jack. Then glancing at the scoreboard, he read: Hobbs 75, Rhodes 17.”
After the war, when he was already 36 years old, Hobbs scored 132 hundreds. Vic Marks noted: “His footwork was now less ambitious but still totally unhurried, and his ability on rain-affected wickets was the envy of everyone.” In 1924, against Somerset at Taunton, Hobbs surpassed W.G. Grace’s record of 126 centuries.
As a cricketer and as a man, Hobbs was the ideal role model. H.S. Altham gave a true insight: “A man of natural dignity, with at the same time an engaging twinkle that revealed a charming and constant sense of humour, utterly unspoilt by success and always prepared to help others, especially the young; he soon became and remained throughout his career the embodiment of the highest standards and values of the game.”
(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Published by Sporting Links, 2011
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