August 17, 1926. After a storm had raged across South London, turning The Oval pitch into a pudding, Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe scripted one of the most remarkable opening partnerships in the history of the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the Ashes win for England with Wilfred Rhodes and Harold Larwood, two inspired selections at the twilight and dawn of their respective careers, firing the Australians out on the fourth day.
A change at the helm
Arthur Carr stepped into the Test selectors’ meeting room in London and sensed something was very, very wrong.
The debonair and maverick captain of England had not been enjoying the best of times. After the first two Tests, he had already been feeling the pressures of leading in an Ashes series. It had been compounded by not having had a hit at either Nottingham or Lord’s. He had been criticised for allowing Australia some valuable batting time in the second Test. In fact, the irrepressible Carr, who had led Nottinghamshire with beer-guzzling nonchalance to the top of the county championship, had confided to the selectors that he was considering vacating his place in the side.
It was chief selector Plum Warner who had dissuaded him with a letter spreading sweetness and light with each stroke of the pen. “You are the best captain we have had for ages and you are worth a hundred runs an innings.” Carr had decided to play at Leeds, had looked at the wicket with Warner, Jack Hobbs and Arthur Gilligan, had consulted the groundsman, and had decided to field on winning the toss.
The first ball from Maurice Tate had moved one away and Warren Bardsley had snicked to Herbert Sutcliffe at slip. Carr’s decision had seemed a stroke of genius. And off the fifth ball, Charlie Macartney had edged. The ball had flown waist-high to second slip, where Carr himself had stood, one of the best slip fieldsmen in the country. He had grabbed at the ball in both hands and had watched in disbelief as it had popped out and gone down. Macartney had produced one of the most captivating exhibitions of batting in an Ashes Test, plundering the attack to compile a hundred before lunch. He had gone on to score 151, Australia had piled up 494. Carr had scored 13 as England had collapsed to follow on in the first innings. A sterling 156-run opening partnership between Hobbs and Sutcliffe had ensured a draw, but the cloud of the decision and its aftermath had plagued Carr for long.
And at Manchester, he had been brought down by tonsillitis on the second day. The only other amateur in the team had been the leg-spinning Middlesex all-rounder Greville Stevens, playing his second Test match. Hence, in a pioneering decision, Warner had asked Hobbs to lead the side in the field on the second day. It had been the first instance of a professional leading the England side on the field in a home Test.
As the series was locked 0-0 after the fourth Test, the International Cricket Conference (ICC), chaired by Lord Harris, met on July 28. It was agreed that the fifth and final Test at The Oval would be played till finish.
In the two-and-a-half-week gap between the two Tests, Carr had recovered and was ready to do battle in the deciding Test. The national prestige was at stake. England had not won the Ashes since the War and had defeated Australia in just one of the last 19 Tests. Carr was well aware of the enormity of the occasion as he arrived at the committee meeting on August 8.
“I very soon sensed that something was not quite right where I was concerned, and it was not very long before I found out what it was. I was sacked.”
It was Warner’s idea. Just two Tests after writing the flowery letter to Carr, he now prevailed upon the other selectors, Gilligan and Percy Perrin, to convince them that England needed a change at the top. Two hardened professionals, Jack Hobbs and Wilfred Rhodes, had been drafted into the selection committee. Rhodes was no longer playing for England, but still took plenty of wickets for Yorkshire. Both these pros stood up for Carr, but the selectors decided otherwise. In a pompous speech, Warner informed Carr that he found the business distasteful, but neither his health nor his form were good enough to keep him in the England team. For the sake of England, the captain should step down.
As the deposed captain left the room in a huff, Warner issued a public statement claiming that Carr himself had ‘generously offered to resign because of his tonsillitis’ and the selectors had accepted the decision with the ‘greatest possible regret’. This was plain nonsense. As would be revealed later during the infamous Bodyline series of 1932-33, Warner was often double-faced and slippery.
Carr’s version was honest and biting. “I am perfectly fit. I am exceedingly disappointed to be omitted from the side. It is not a question of ill-health. I have been dropped because of my form.” Later, he voiced the slightly mistaken claim that Gilligan and Rhodes had wanted to keep him as captain while Warner, Perrin and Hobbs had voted against him. “I suppose I was dropped as some sort of punishment for having fallen sick … and for taking, as a captain, the onus of putting the Australians in at Leeds.”
The man who replaced him as captain was Percy Chapman, who had been the 12th man at Old Trafford. He was enjoying a brilliant summer with the bat, had a fun-loving nature and ran Carr pint for pint in his love for beer. But, he was still 25, and had not even led Cambridge or Kent.
The sacking of Carr generated a huge row in the press, and Daily Express regretted English cricket’s continuing obsession with amateur leadership. “There is a want of candour somewhere. Assuming a change is desirable, the public also wishes to know why Mr. Chapman was chosen over Rhodes and Hobbs?” But it would be another 26 years before England would have their first professional captain of a full side.
However, that was not the only surprise sprung by the selection committee. At Lord’s, Harold Larwood had made his debut, bowling 32 hardworking overs to capture two for 99. Hobbs had been assigned the role of his mentor. The famed reassurance of the great batsman had been, “You’re here because you’re fast enough.” Larwood had been omitted for the Tests at Leeds and Manchester, but now Hobbs pushed for his inclusion. And having decided on the slot for the fast bowler, the other selectors turned towards Rhodes.
The Yorkshire veteran had not played for England since 1921. Indeed, he had declined the invitation to play in the early summer Test trial, saying that England needed a younger man. He had appeared in his first Test in 1899, the last Test of WG Grace, a year before captain Chapman had been born, half a decade before Larwood had seen the light of the day. But now, with Ray Kilner proving ineffective, and Charlie Parker out of favour, the experience of Rhodes was deemed necessary. “You are still the best left-handed slow bowler in England,” Warner told him. Gilligan added, “And you make runs for Yorkshire.” Rhodes mumbled that he could get a few. Hobbs remarked, “Your fielding is all right.” At this the 48-year-old Rhodes smiled, “The further I run the slower I get.”
But, he accepted the offer. And within a day, he was having relentless second thoughts. “A man’s nerves do not improve with age and I was getting on for fifty.”
Hobbs and Sutcliffe: preview
Interest reached sky-high. Outside the Oval, a queue began to form from Friday night. Muffled lads from Camberwell, a burnt-cork banjoman, even a blind man accompanied by wife and daughter to experience the magic of Jack Hobbs.
They were not disappointed as Chapman won the toss and England batted. Hobbs and Sutcliffe, as they had done throughout the series, provided another sound start. Once more the total was pushed past 50 without any setback.
Sitting in the crowd was a 12-year-old John Arlott, who had travelled up from Hampshire for the day, clutching on to his packed sandwiches and the tuppence admission charge for boys. Here for the first time he saw his idol, the great Hobbs, batting in a Test. In his autobiography, Basingstoke Boy, Arlott recalled the distinct approaches of the two opening batsmen, “Only when one looked at Sutcliffe, painstakingly precise, was it possible to understand that Hobbs was doing it all with the untroubled, easy air of a man pottering in his garden. Unquestionably, Sutcliffe was a great batsman, fine in temperament and technique, but this unremarkable man at the other end was all but disappointing in making it all so simple; he pushed or stroked or flicked the ball away and had 37 of the 53 in under an hour.”
And then, Arthur Mailey in his final Test for Australia, floated a high full toss. Hobbs could have played it anywhere, and decided on placing it past mid-on. And he played over it to be bowled. Perhaps he had lost it against the dark background of the pavilion. Mailey, the eternal imp, burst out laughing. And Hobbs, after initial confusion, joined in.
Sutcliffe was at his dog-fighting best, sticking around in spite of uncertainties. Mailey, on the other hand, was enjoying himself for one last time for Australia. Frank Woolley was bowled by a googly. And Patsy Hendren pulled a ball from Jack Gregory onto the stumps.
Chapman’s entry brightened the proceedings, as the left-hander played Mailey with the turn and with élan. He jumped out to drive the leggie, and Australian captain Herbie Collins moved his fielders astutely to block his strokes. At the other end, Clarrie Grimmett was the miserly counterpart to Mailey’s generous length and flight. Giving nothing away, he kept the batsmen on the tighest leash.
Finally Chapman stepped out once too often and was stumped off Mailey for 49. The veteran leg-spinner had Stevens caught at the silly point after the youthful batsman had launched him into the pavilion awning. And after three and a half hour’s exhibition of patience, Sutcliffe was bowled by a sharply turning leg-break for 76.
From 214 for six, it was mainly the years of Rhodes which kept the bowling at bay for a while. Tate swung Mailey into the crowd over square leg on his way to 23. England ended at 280 with Mailey scalping six for 138.
The Australian innings got off to a shaky start, with Larwood’s pace and somewhat shortish length being rewarded with the wicket of Bardsley. But, while Bill Woodfull’s bat looked at least two feet broad, Macartney started with a brisk flurry of strokes that must have brought Headingley nightmares rushing back to the English minds. But, with Stevens put on to bowl, Macartney drove him like a bullet to the straight boundary and then was bowled trying to pull an top-spinner.
Bill Ponsford was the next great name in, and in a bundle of early nerves he pushed to the leg and darted out for a single. Young Larwood pounced on the ball and sent in an arrow like throw, and Bert Strudwick whipped off the bails.
As the shadows lengthened, Larwood demonstrated his class as a fast bowler. Tommy Andrews raised his bat, shouldering arms, to allow a wide ball go harmlessly past. Duncan Hamilton likened his gesture to that of a ‘gentleman gesturing to let a lady enter a room before him.’ The ball broke back about five inches and hit the lower half of the off stump. Hamilton writes, “Andrews looked like a man who had just been spat at by a stranger.” Later, the batsman hesitantly claimed that the ball must have been deflected by a piece of dirt on the pitch. Larwood scoffed at the suggestion. “You don’t get pieces of foreign dirt on a Test wicket.” He had been striving to bowl an in-swinger. And then he had placed his middle finger to the right of the seam, and whipped it down his right thigh. The ball had broken back like an off-spinner.
Australia finished the first day struggling at 60 for four.
The see-saw Day Two
Under bright sunshine on Monday morning, Collins started striking the ball with the middle of the bat. As Rhodes settled down to line and length that would have been the envy of a man 20 years his junior, Collins kept batting watchfully while punishing the loose deliveries. However, at the other end, Woodfull played on to Rhodes, and the off-spinning all-rounder Arthur Richardson was caught brilliantly off the Yorkshireman by George Geary at mid-off.
At 122 for six, the innings seemed destined to end with a huge lead in favour of England, but the inimitable Jack Gregory proceeded to delight the crowd with some scorching hits. Missed at the wicket at 20 off Geary, he continued to smite at the bowling. A couple of snicks went through the slips, but as many as ten boundaries resulted from his efforts. By the time Stevens held him at short-leg off Tate, Gregory had scored 73 and added 127 with Collins.
Stevens took another smart catch at backward point off Larwood to dismiss Collins for 61, and at 231 for eight, it again looked as if England would run away with a small lead. But Grimmett and Oldfield put on a stubborn 67 before Tate finished off the tail. Australia had scored 302, acquiring a 22-run lead. The last four wickets had put on 180.
There was just an hour to play on the second day, and Hobbs and Sutcliffe walked out again. The match hung on a knife’s edge. Losing any one of these two pillars before close would hand serious advantage to Australia. Plum Warner confessed he could “hardly bear to watch the cricket.” And unknown to the spectators, the long day in the field had brought on one of Hobbs’s painful migraines. The charged atmosphere was enhanced by the rumble of distant thunder. But, the pair batted with usual calm, Warner observing, “they are even greater, if possible, in temperament than in skill.”
The great day’s cricket came to an end with England having wiped off the deficit, on 49 without loss. The crowd left the day in throes of optimism.
It was a dark and stormy night
Having changed into his street clothes, Hobbs returned to his home in Clapham. He was in bed, in exhausted slumber after the long day, when he was awoken by a thunderclap at two in the morning. A violent storm had broken over South London. Hobbs was soon convinced that the Ashes had been lost. The Oval was lashed by unceasing rain. According to Ronald Mason: “When spectators began assembling on Tuesday morning, the wet seats were smoking in the warmth. The storm had passed and the sun was beginning to break through. The feeblest imagination saw that stretch of grass as a potential cauldron of unholy hates. The confidence of last night had gone down the swollen gutters of Kensington.”
Sutcliffe too had a disturbed night. “I was always fortunate to sleep soundly, but on this particular occasion, I was awakened by peals of thunder. My thoughts turned to the Oval wicket, and I wondered if fortune had once again ruined our chances of victory.” Curiously, Neville Cardus reported that Sutcliffe was actually surprised when he witnessed the deluge, having slept undisturbed through the night. But then, the Cardusian flights of fantasy are legendary.
Policemen on duty protecting the middle had to run for shelter. The pitch was drenched. The rain kept falling all night and the outfield was covered in a pond like stretch on which one could see the reflection of angry lightning that played across the sky. In the early morning, it stopped pouring, but the pitch was like pudding.
Hobbs looked morosely at his garden, the dampness of the ground starkly visible. It was in a pensive mood that he left his home after breakfast and took a three-halfpenny tram ride to The Oval. The pitch was almost dark with the moisture. The sun was trying to peep through and steam was rising from the turf. Batting would be a herculean effort.
Hobbs and Sutcliffe: The Magnificent Men
Groundsman Bosser Martin was not very comforting. “It’s drying quicker than I thought,” he informed Hobbs. Playing the spinners would be well-nigh impossible. Yet, when he and Sutcliffe sat in the dressing room that morning, umpire Frank Chester was amazed by their composure. Hobbs was puffing at his pipe and Sutcliffe was brushing his sleek-black hair.
The Australian team ran out in joyous confidence. And the 28,500 people applauded with apprehension as the two great openers walked out. Sutcliffe with his gelled hair gleaming on his bare head, and Hobbs under his three-lions England cap. The only remark Hobbs supposedly made to Sutcliffe was, “Pity it rained in the night.”
Grimmett started with a maiden, the balls turning sharply from the leg. With the need of the hour on a wet wicket being left-arm finger spin, Macartney bowled from the other end, a maiden during which the ball cut into the turf before spinning away. Reaching 100 would be a stroke of luck.
But, they batted on. Both watched the deliveries to the very end. The balls bit into the pitch, spun viciously, rose sharply. They were either ‘killed’ at the pitch or watched all the way, left alone by means of last minute dropping of the wrists in which both the batsmen were veritable masters.
Hobbs mixed watchful defence with judicious aggression while initially Sutcliffe was solely bent on keeping the balls out. The first 26 runs that morning all came from Hobbs’s bat.
However, the conditions were getting worse. The sun came out and the drying wicket became spiteful. Collins took off Macartney and replaced him with medium-paced off-spinner Arthur Richardson. Three short legs, a silly mid-on and a leg-slip were posted. Sutcliffe thought they were done for. “It was a vile sticky wicket from the start, but when the hot sun started to bake the ground just before noon, it was one of the worst glue-pots I have experienced and continued to be so throughout the day.” Even the least spin imparted made balls unplayable.
The first ball from Richardson turned and lifted prodigiously. However, it was short. Hobbs, pulled it over the three short legs for four. It brought up his fifty.
The only thing in England’s favour was the absence of a genuine left-arm spinner like Rhodes or Colin Blythe from the Australian line up. Macartney was more of a batsman. Now, Richardson bowled his off-breaks from round the wicket. This move was thoroughly criticised for years to come. According to many, with the ball turning remarkably, an off-stump line might have done the trick. But, there is no evidence to suggest that such a line would have actually worked. Anyway, Richardson persisted to the round the wicket, leg stump attack. And soon the two openers dashed across for a single to bring up another hundred run partnership, the most valuable and the most excruciatingly difficult of their many many collaborations.
There is a story that Hobbs deliberately feigned discomfiture over after over to persuade Collins to keep Richardson on. The master batsman himself however always denied the charge. And Sutcliffe backed his partner saying that bluff was never the Hobbs way of doing things.
The champion from Surrey took guard nearly a foot outside the leg stump, so that the bowler could not range on his pads; and after judging the length and pace of the ball, he glided and sometimes ran into position to make the stroke.
At one point, 10 Richardson overs brought just a single. Seven fielders were on the leg-side. But, it was argued that the pitch was hardly ideal for leg-theory.
Frank Chester said that it was the worst sticky he had ever seen. “I did not give England a chance.” Yet, Hobbs played the balls dead in front of him or allowed them to hit him on the body. And Sutcliffe, as he always did, fought without giving an inch.
Now Mailey was brought on. Hobbs called out, asking him not to bowl full tosses. The first ball pitched outside leg, beat the outside edge of bat and went past the off-stump. The second, a googly, pitched on the line of the off-stump, straightened and hit Hobbs on the pads. At the non-striker’s end, Sutcliffe died a thousand deaths, expecting the immediate appeal and the instant verdict. Frank Chester was ready to raise his finger. “It would have been one of the easiest decisions I had ever made.” Yet, Chester, Sutcliffe and Hobbs stood shocked when no appeal was made. It seemed that the bowler and ’keeper were both convinced that the googly had pitched outside the off-stump, and according to the rules of the day that meant not out. “All I recollect is that I thought I had appealed too much during the match and was a bit tired of hearing my own voice crying in the wilderness,” Mailey said later.
Hobbs understood how lucky he had been. Chester confided that he had been plumb in front and he half smiled in response.
With time, Sutcliffe became more confident and enterprising. He and Hobbs hit Mailey out of the attack. Hobbs broke free against Richarson as well, driving him for four past mid-on.
At lunch, England were 161 for no wicket, an unbelievable score line given the circumstances. Hobbs was on 97 and Sutcliffe 53. The Australian shoulders dropped as they went off the field. Hobbs and Sutcliffe remained at the wicket for a while, flattening the pitch with the backs of their bats.
The teams had lunch with the Prince of Wales, and after they got back on the field Collins brought on Gregory. Hobbs took a brace to move to 99. And then as Gregory bounded in, Hobbs played the ball straight to the sharpest fielder, Andrews, in the cover. But, Sutcliffe had taken off as soon as the stroke was made and Hobbs had responded with almost telepathic commune. Young Andrews was taken aback and could not shy at either end. The most miraculous hundred was thus brought up. The bat was waved and then the cap and the stadium exploded in ‘the most wonderful tribute ever made to any cricketer.’ In between the roars of delight, someone called for three cheers. And the crowd exploded again.
Immediately after the landmark, a ball from Gregory flicked his off bail. Hobbs walked back for exactly 100, the crowd stunned into silence — a great many of them had come in during the break after the news of the epic had spread across London. And as the master walked in, the cheering broke once more. It was unanimously agreed that Hobbs had played his greatest innings. Gilligan remarked, “This must be regarded everywhere as one of the greatest innings Hobbs ever played, and therefore, naturally, one of the greatest in the history of cricket.” The score stood at 172 for one.
But, Sutcliffe was not done yet. The wickets tumbled at the other end. Woolley, Hendren, Chapman, Stevens all got starts but then fell to the vagaries of the track. It was the last ball of the day when Mailey bowled Sutcliffe with a fine leg-break. The Yorkshire opener had scored 161. He had batted eight minutes past seven hours and hit 16 boundaries. It had been a chanceless innings — a chanceless 161 on the worst wicket ever seen, a limpet at the crease if there ever was one. As great an opener as Hobbs, as great as any in the history of the game was Sutcliffe. And as he walked back, not a hair was out of place. The England total stood on 375 for six.
When Hobbs returned home that evening, his family rejoiced. “Even my dog seemed to have a special welcome for me.” He went out for dinner in the Trocadero restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue. As he ate, the conversation in every table was about the Test match.
Rhodes and Larwood
The following morning Tate and Rhodes added 43 to rub salt into the Australian wounds. And when rain fell till three o’clock with England nine down, it was perhaps the final blow for Australia. In the end they required 415 to win.
If it had been Hobbs and Sutcliffe with the bat, now it was Larwood and Rhodes with the ball. The two bowlers, looking like a father and son duo, 27 years separating them, got into the act. Larwood made the ball shoot back and kick up. Rhodes sent down his perfectly pitched left-arm spinners.
Woodfull was taken in the third slip off Larwood for a duck. Macartney cut a short ball to the right of Geary at third slip who held on to a blinder.
Rhodes had spotted a worn patch at Vauxhall end during Australia’s first innings. He now positioned Larwood at short backward point and made one cock up at Ponsford. The batsman went back and fended. Larwood pounced at the dying ball to take a superb low catch.
No further fight remained in the Australians. Rhodes and Larwood ran through the innings, finishing with four for 44 and three for 34 respectively. It was a splendid team performance and the selectors could not have been more vindicated. Hobbs and Sutcliffe brought about the miracle, but the inspired selections, Rhodes and Larwood, did perform star turns. And young Percy Chapman was most impressive in the marshalling of his resources, although Rhodes joked that England’s success in the field was because Chapman did ‘what me and Jack [Hobbs] told him to.’
At five minutes past six, on that Wednesday afternoon, Geary knocked down Mailey’s wicket to complete the win. After a gap of 14 years, England had reclaimed the Ashes. A massive swarm of spectators ran through the field and the players raced to safety of the pavilion. Hobbs, manning the covers as usual, was cut off from the rest and had to be escorted by the police.
According to the lyrical cricket writer AA Thomson, “I have never seen a crowd rush so determinedly before or since. They were swarming everywhere, making joyful if irrational noises. There they were, jammed in a solid mass, pressing against the pavilion railings and stretching right back to the latterly abandoned pitch.”
Among those who celebrated in the pavilion were Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and most of his Tory cabinet. The country had been in a dismal mood a few months earlier, when the General Strike broke out. Now, the Ashes triumph had cleared the discord and happiness and champagne flowed across the land.
Hobbs described it as ‘one of the most magnificent scenes I have ever taken part in.’
England 280 (Herbert Sutcliffe 76, Percy Chapman 49; Arthur Mailey 6 for 138) and 436 (Jack Hobbs 100, Herbert Sutcliffe 161) beat Australia 302 (Herbie Collins 61, Jack Gregory 73) and 125 (Wilfred Rhodes 4 for 44) by 289 runs
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)