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Bert Hopkins: The man who was never used

Bert Hopkins amassed 509 runs in 20 Tests at 16.41. He also took 26 wickets at 26.76 for Australia. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Bert Hopkins amassed 509 runs in 20 Tests at 16.41. He also took 26 wickets at 26.76 for Australia. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Bert Hopkins, a New South Wales (NSW) stalwart, was born on May 3, 1874. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man who had been a crucial man for Australia and NSW during the Pre-World War I days.

The two decades preceding World War I were labelled as the Golden Age of Cricket for a reason. Seldom has cricket been played with such abundance of joy: there were WG Grace and Victor Trumper, Archie MacLaren and Clem Hill, Syd Barnes and Wilfred Rhodes, Tom Hayward and Charlie Macartney, KS Ranjitshinji and CB Fry, Aubrey Faulkner and Monty Noble, Gilbert Jessop and, of course, a young Jack Hobbs.

Among them was an oft-forgotten New South Welshmen called Albert John Young Hopkins. Had he been born a century late he would have become one of the finest all-rounders with his powerful hitting who often opened batting for his side, an accurate slow-medium pacer who could bowl curly in-swingers, and an outstanding fielder given the standards of an era. In Australian Batsmen from Charles Bannerman to Neil Harvey, Alban George Moyes mentioned that Hopkins was “a remarkably useful right-hand batsman who did big things for his state.”

Hopkins had also met the generally accepted criterion of a good all-rounder: his batting average was more than his bowling average, albeit marginally. From 162 First-Class matches his tally read 5,563 runs at 25.40 with eight hundreds and 271 wickets at 24.39 with ten five-fors.

He also played 20 Tests in a period spanning seven years (which was a decent count given the frequency of Tests in the 1910s) and was surprisingly under-bowled (at 11 six-ball overs a Test) thanks to some baffling strategies by the Australian team management; in fact, he never got a bowl in five of the Tests he played. Despite this inexplicable treatment, Hopkins finished with 26 wickets at 26.76. His batting never got going, and 509 runs at 16.41 did not really make justice to Hopkins’ potential.

Early days

Albert John Young Hopkins was born in Young, New South Wales (NSW), which made him a part of a rather unusual band of cricketers who shared a name with his birthplace (Sydney Callaway, born in Sydney, and Warren Bardsley, born in Warren, are other examples, while SCG MacGill’s home ground was SCG).

Hopkins made his First-Class debut against Queensland at Brisbane in 1896-97, scoring ten. Matches were sporadic in those days, but Hopkins held on to his NSW spot. He routed Victoria at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) two seasons later with figures of two for 19 and five for 24 in less than 15 overs. Promoted to open batting, Hopkins scored 117 against the leg-breaks and googlies of Warne (well, Tom Warne, but a leg-spinner nonetheless). Soon afterwards he was picked for the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) Test of 1901-02.

Test debut

Australia already led the series 2-1, but MacLaren led the fight-back at SCG, top-scoring with 92 as the tourists scored 317. Jessop then reduced the hosts to 48 for four; Noble and Reggie Duff resisted a bit, and Hopkins found himself walking out at 160 for six.

Hopkins added 45 with Warwick Armstrong and 47 more with James Kelly, taking Australia closer to the England score. He was eventually caught-behind off Len Braund for 43 (it would remain his highest score in Tests), and Australia conceded a mere 18-run lead. Jack Saunders and Noble then bowled unchanged to rout England for 99, and Australia cruised to a seven-wicket victory. He scored four and a duck in the dead-rubber Test at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), but Noble and Hugh Trumble led Australia to another win.

Surprisingly, Hopkins was not asked to bowl in any of these Tests. Despite his ordinary display, however, Hopkins was selected for the Ashes tour of 1902 — possibly because his genre of bowling would be ideal under English conditions.

Standing (from left): Bill Howell, Clem Hill, Hugh Trumble, Wardill, Warwick Armstrong, Ernie Jones, Bert Hopkins, Reggie Duff. Sitting (from left): Victor Trumper, Monty Noble, Joe Darling (c), Jack Saunders, Jim Kelly. Front: Sammy Carter, Jack Gregory. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia
Standing (from left): Bill Howell, Clem Hill, Hugh Trumble, Ben Wardill, Warwick Armstrong, Ernie Jones, Bert Hopkins, Reggie Duff. Sitting (from left): Victor Trumper, Monty Noble, Joe Darling (c), Jack Saunders, Jim Kelly. Front: Sammy Carter, Jack Gregory. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

First sight of Blighty

Batting at eight, Hopkins had his first decent outing against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, scoring 80. A string of failures followed, but he eventually made it to the first Test at Edgbaston. He eventually got a bowl, but England scored 376 before catching the tourists on a “sticky”: Australia were bowled out for 36 (Trumper scored 18 of them) and held on to a draw as rain washed most of Day Five.

Following a career-best spell of 8-2-10-7 against Cambridge University at Fenner’s Ground Hopkins was retained for the second Test at Lord’s, and Joe Darling surprised everybody when he got Hopkins share the new ball with Ernie Jones was MacLaren walked out with Fry.

Hopkins brought one into Fry before a run was scored; Hill completed the catch at short-leg. Ranjitshinji  walked out, and was bowled off his pads almost immediately: England were nought for two, the unheralded Hopkins having sent the Sussex legends back to the pavilion. Unfortunately, rain played spoilsport again as there was no more cricket in the match after MacLaren and Stanley Jackson took the score to 102 for two.

Despite his double-blow Hopkins was not given a bowl in the third Test at Bramall Lane; he did a decent job with the bat, scoring 27 in the first innings and 40 not out in the second in a low-scoring Test. Unfortunately, Hopkins did nothing of note amidst all the action in the classics at Old Trafford or The Oval.

He also had two excellent performances against Gloucestershire, scoring 105 not out at Bristol and returning figures of four for 11 and five for 65 at Cheltenham. He finished the season with 1,100 runs at 23.91 and 34 wickets at 18.61.

The Rainbow Nation and the third Ashes in two years

Australia toured South Africa later that year, winning the three-Test series 2-0. Once again he did a bits-and-pieces job (to borrow a contemporary phrase) and was surprisingly under-bowled. He might have missed the Ashes next season, but a haul of two for 57 and five for 70 in a defeat against Victoria at MCG sealed his spot for the first Test at SCG.

The mantle of the Australian captain had passed on to Noble, but he, too, under-bowled the man who had been picked for his bowling. He got to bowl a mere 11 overs in their defeat at SCG (though he scored 39 and 20), and 22 more in the next Test at MCG, which resulted in another defeat. The strategy of picking a player for his bowling, including him in the squad, and still not giving him a bowl was baffling, to say the least.

Trumper, Duff, Hill, and Noble all batted well as Australia scored 388 in the third Test at Adelaide Oval. Noble got Hopkins on second-change, and he had Ernest Tyldesley caught-behind almost immediately; he added Braund and Bernard Bosanquet to his tally, and finished with three for 68.

Set an improbable 495 to win, England started off well with Pelham Warner adding 148 with Hayward for the opening stand. Hopkins, however, had finally got a long bowl, and he opened the floodgates by trapping Hayward leg-before; he added Ted Arnold and Tyldesley almost immediately, reducing the tourists to 160 for four. He also removed Bosanquet later, and finished with a career-best four for 81.

Surprisingly, he was under-bowled again despite bowling well at SCG (he had match figures of 22-8-53-3); Australia lost the Test, and once again Hopkins did not get a bowl in the final Test at MCG.

More of the Blighty, and final years

It was the same saga in England; he got picked for the second, third, and fifth Tests (at Lord’s, Headingley, and The Oval) respectively, batted low down the order, got to bowl 38 overs, and finished with four for 115. Exactly why he was picked and dropped remains a mystery. His highlight of the tour was definitely the 154 against Northamptonshire.

Back home he rediscovered his batting skills, scoring 120 not out, 63, 51, and 108 in consecutive innings for NSW (he also had six wickets from the four matches). Against South Australia at Adelaide Oval in 1908-09 Hopkins opened batting and added 283 with Noble for the second wicket. Hopkins scored a career-best 218, Noble got 214, and Hopkins chipped in with three for 31 in the first innings to secure a win by an innings and 527 runs. Once again he was picked to tour England.

Not unsurprisingly, Hopkins got to play only the final two Tests at Old Trafford and The Oval, batted down the order, was used sparingly with the ball, and finished with four for 122. Noble finally turned to Hopkins at Liverpool with Lancashire on 121 for two target chasing 198: Hopkins finished with six for 15 as the hosts were bowled out for 150. Though he failed with the bat, Hopkins finished the tour with 51 wickets at 21.72.

Hopkins toured New Zealand before calling it quits in 1910-11. He made a solitary comeback four seasons later as the captain of NSW against Queensland at The Gabba: he scored an unbeaten 33 to take NSW to 255, and with nobody around to under-bowl him, he ran through the hosts, finishing with five for 17 as they crashed to 110. NSW won the match by 86 runs.

Final years

The Hopkins legacy was followed by his brother Cyril, eight years younger to him. Cyril moved to New Zealand and played Plunket Shield matches for Otago, the highlight of his career being an emphatic 132 against Canterbury at Lancaster Park. Herbert, the nephew of Bert and Cyril, played for Worcestershire.

Bert Hopkins passed away on April 25, 1931 at North Sydney. He was 56.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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