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Bob Wyatt: Combative, correct and a respected captain

Bob Wyatt © Getty Images
Bob Wyatt © Getty Images

Bob Wyatt, born May 2, 1901, was a combative batsman who played 40 Tests for England leading them in 18. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the amateur cricketer who was one of the most respected names in world cricket. 

Crossing the pain barrier

West Indies, 1935.

The first Test at Barbados had been won after a sequence of bizarre batting order reversals and uncanny declarations. Captain Bob Wyatt, having opened in the first innings, had come in at number eight in the second and had helped the great Wally Hammond put on 27 runs which clinched one of the strangest Tests ever played.

However, after that things had been tough for the England skipper. Powered by George Headley and Learie Constantine, the West Indians had drawn level at Trinidad. And then Ken Farnes had struck him a painful blow on the head during net practice.

He did play well enough to score 71 at Georgetown, and then was struck down by influenza. As he was in the process of recovering, Wyatt received a ‘thoughtful’ present from a local cricket fan. It was a miniature coffin, with an exquisitely-carved corpse within. The photo of the England captain was pasted on the head of the tiny corpse with the cheery message: “This is what Martindale do to you!”

It almost came true. On the Kingston wicket, after Headley had plundered the England attack to post 270 not out, Wyatt walked out at the top of the order. He had just got off the mark with a single when Manny Martindale’s bouncer climbed up on him and struck him a shattering blow on the jaw that echoed across the ground. Wyatt’s fell on the ground, unconscious, his jaw broken in four places. He was carried to the dressing room on a stretcher and stirred back to life when he reached there. Almost immediately he asked for a pencil and wrote down an amended batting order. After he reached the hospital to have his jaw wired, he sent a letter to the West Indian pace bowler absolving him of all blame for the accident.

He took six weeks to recover before playing his first game, for Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) against Surrey at Lord’s. On the way to the ground he survived a collision with a lorry in Earls Court. And he walked out to open the batting against the pace of Alf Gover and scored a steady 103. The day after the match ended, he was at Birmingham, scoring an unbeaten century for Warwickshire against an Gloucestershire attack of Charlie Parker, Tom Goddard and Hammond. The hundreds were as correct and composed as ever, Wyatt’s remarkably brave heart beating in rhythm to his steadfastness to the tenets of theory.

By the time the South Africans came over that summer, he was ready to lead England again.

The respected amateur

By the time he retired, Wyatt had scored 85 centuries. Among life-long amateurs only WG Grace himself had notched up more. Yet, Wyatt had none of the privileges enjoyed by the ‘shamateurs’ of the early days. He was neither affluent nor quite well-to-do. It was not mere coincidence that Hammond, in his days as a professional cricketer and not one for minting close friendships, often asked Wyatt to share rooms with him. Wyatt was not an amateur because he deemed himself superior in the social hierarchy. One obituary called his attitude “classless in the socially divided game of his time. Perhaps his main qualification for the status of amateur’ was that, in the literal sense, he was enamoured of his sport.”

Even the hard playing Yorkshiremen, against whom Wyatt scored 11 of his centuries, were full of admiration for the man. When Yorkshire sings your praises you can rest assured it is purely because of cricketing reasons. As the premier Yorkshire professional Len Hutton wrote, “No cricketer I have known had a greater love of cricket or was more knowledgeable about this complex game than R.E.S. Wyatt. We in Yorkshire had enormous respect for Bob, as he was always known by the fine Yorkshire team of the Thirties . . . It was earned by his ability, his attitude to the game, and the number of runs he made against Yorkshire.”

Early days

Robert Elliott Storey Wyatt was born in Milford, Surrey, on May 2, 1901.His father was a prep schoolmaster, whimsical and impractical, who had captained the Oxford University Shooting team and had played cricket for the Worcestershire Gentlemen. His mother too had played the game as a young girl.

In his boyhood days, Wyatt received some valuable instruction from his father. While studying at King Henry VIII School in Coventry, his game was chiselled unwaveringly based on the grammatical correctness of technique while playing with Coventry and North Warwick Clubs.

As a youth, Wyatt left school and joined the Rover Car Company as a trainee in the repair shops. Initially, brusque with strangers, he was not a very popular youngster with his co-workers to start with. However, with exposure, he became increasingly likable. Warwickshire invited him to play for the county side in 1923 andhis garage colleagues sent him a fountain-pen on the occasion of his first half-century.

Those were the days when Warwickshire had little or no bowling resources after the ravages of the First World War. Wyatt, the watchful and correct batsman, had to run in and send down quite a lot of medium paced overs to fill the gap. But, his main occupation remained focused on the willow, with the accent on technical perfection — even though he was not the most gifted of players.

Test cricket

The first few years brought not too impressive returns, but a new leaf was turned in 1926. He scored 1,485 runs, for the first time averaging in the 30s, and captured 92 wickets at just less than 30. This got him selected in Arthur Gilligan’s MCC side to tour India. When he returned from the tour with over a thousand runs and three centuries under his belt, Gilligan predicted that he would play for England. The highlight of the trip was achieved at Colombo when Wyatt scored 124 and claimed a hat-trick on the same day.

His impeccable form continued the next season, as he once again amassed over 1000 runs during the summer. Wyatt was rewarded with selection in the team bound for South Africa.

His initiation into Test cricket was tough. Louis Promnitz trapped him leg-before off the very first ball he faced at Johannesburg. In the second Test, he failed in the first innings. But, when England batted in the second knock 117 behind in the first innings, he shepherded the lower order from No 6 and was the last out for 91. England triumphed by 87 runs, and Wyatt’s performance demonstrated a trait of flourishing in tough situations that would remainthe hallmark of his career.

The tour saw some low scores and another half century, yet another feature of Wyatt’s career. He remained a combative batsman but seldom became a consistent one.

The summers of 1928 and 1929 saw him at the peak of his abilities.He became the first man from Warwickshire to score over 2000 runs in a season for the county. In these two seasons, he amassed over 5,000 runs with 16 hundreds.This included his first Test century, at Manchester against South Africa in 1929, on his first Test appearance on home soil. Wyatt added 245 runs with Frank Woolley, a partnership of contrasting styles, and became the first amateur batsman to score a Test hundred since the War. He was named a Wisden Cricketer in 1930.

Unlucky to miss out on selection for the tour of Australia in 1928-29, he was included in the side that went to West Indies in 1929-30. As in South Africa, he started with a duck, but in the second Test hit a steady 58, as Andy Sandham scored the first triple hundred in Test history.

In the top league

His next Test appearance was pivotal, and controversial. Four years ago, in 1926, Percy Chapman had been the hero at The Oval, captaining England to the famous Ashes triumph, riding on the brilliance of Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Wilfred Rhodes and Harold Larwood. Now, four years later, he was under fire. The series had moved to The Oval once again with the teams level, at 1-1. But, this time Chapman was faced with a freakish genius called Don Bradman.

Chapman, not really enjoying the confidence of the selectors, was removed from the team and Wyatt was made the captain. There was a storm of protests. Chapman, after all, had been a darling of the nationsince winning in 1926 and retaining the Ashes in 1928-29. He had also scored an astounding century in the Lord’s Test. However, the selectors wanted solidity in the middle-order, and Wyatt supplied it scoring 64 good runs from No 7 to take the total to 405 after Sutcliffe had hit 161. However, Bradman replied with 212, and Bill Ponsford with 110, Australia piled up 695. The home batsmen succumbed to Percy Hornibrook who claimed seven of his 17 Test wickets in the second innings.

Wyatt lost the Ashes, but can be considered unlucky. George Duckworth, England’s brilliant wicketkeeper, dropped both Bradman and Ponsford twice each. But, this defeat made the makeshift captain an easy target for the press who remained in favour of Chapman. Wyatt would remain a name for taking pot-shots for the remainder of his career.

After a low key series in South Africa, Wyatt was appointed vice captain of Douglas Jardine in that most infamous of all cricket series in 1932-33. It was under Wyatt that the Bodyline tactics were applied for the first time, after the ball had lost its shine during the match between MCC and an Australian XI. During the match Jardine was away fishing with his friends. Although Wyatt denied it till his last day, and claimed that “Fast and short-pitched Leg Theory came into being by spontaneous combustion”, it is generally agreed that his moves were based on the strict instructions of Jardine. Wyatt, on his part, maintained that Jardine was a kind man of tremendous charm, who perhaps unwise to have returned to Australia after having developed an aversion for the people.

During the series he produced some gutsy knocks in the Adelaide and Sydney Tests. Besides, when Bradman was bowled by Bowes after trying to pull the first ball he faced in Melbourne, Wyatt turned to the barrackers in the crowd at intervals and kept asking, “When’s your Don coming in then?” His approach was copybook, serious, but he was not without mirth.

Full time captain

After the Bodyline contest, Jardine played just two more series for England. And Wyatt was the man chosen to lead England in the Ashes series of 1934. It was a critical tour, mainly because of all the bad blood that had flown incessantly in 1932-33 and Wyatt carried out his responsibilities with aplomb, with the right mix of professionalism and diplomacy.

A broken thumb kept him from playing the first Test at Trent Bridge, which was won by Australia with just10 minutes remaining in the game. The following Test at Lord’s saw Wyatt bat with a thumb protector made out of metal. On a rain affected wicket, Hedley Verity picked up 15 wickets to pull England abreast in the series. However, when the series moved to The Oval, once again tied 1-1, Wyatt came up against the same Bradman-Ponsford duo. They added 451, Bradman 244, Ponsford 266, and the Ashes was lost through a crushing 562-run defeat.

Wyatt found himself saddled with a side in transition. Hobbs, Sutcliffe and Larwood had moved away from the game, Len Hutton and Denis Comptonwere yet to make an appearance. He lost the series in West Indies 2-1, and came back with a demolished jaw. The first two First-Class matches he played after the injury resulted in centuries — as narrated in the beginning. The first Test match after the injury, against South Africa at Nottingham, saw him score 145. However, he lost the series 1-0 to the Springboks.

Gubby Allen was appointed captain after this loss. Wyatt’s 16 Tests at the helm resulted in three wins, five losses and eight stalemates. A disappointing record, but he led at a difficult time.

After a duck at Lord’s against the Indians Wyatt went down to Australia in 1936-37 and broke his arm while playing a hook shot. His Test career was over.

The last days

It is ironic that after Wyatt enjoyed some of the best times with his bat after his last Test, when he came back to lead Warwickshire in 1937. He had taken over from Freddie Calthorpe in 1930, and his reign had not been the smoothest. There had been at least a couple of attempts to knock him off the saddle. Now, in his last season as captain, he creamed 232 against Derbyshire and an unbeaten 201 against Lancashire, the only two double hundreds of his career. With Tom Dollery, he added 253 in the first match and 319 in the second. At the end of the 1937 season, he was removed as captain and Peter Crammer was appointed skipper. As a man of rather firm views, his stint had been full of conflicts with many who did not quite see eye to eye, both players and administrators numbering among his antagonists.

Wyatt toured South America with Sir Theodore Brinckman’s team in 1937-38. He played two more years for Warwickshire and would have gone on the tour of India in 1939-40 had it not been cancelled due to the Second World War.

Without the means to earn a regular wage, Wyatt served as assistant secretary at Warwickshire, but fell out with the secretary Rowland Ryder. Apparently Ryder did not like Wyatt’s friendship with the professional cricketers.

After serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, the veteran cricketer moved to Worcestershire.He went on to turn out for the new county 85 times, managing to score hundreds up to 1949. He became the joint captain in 1949 and assumed leadership of the side in 1950 and 1951, all these years witnessing spectacular improvement in the side’s position in the championship.

It was in 1950 as well that he became chairman of selectors for England. However, as was his lot as captain, he was placed in charge of a side in transition. The England team was routed by Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine. Wyatt served four more years as a member of the selection committee before moving away from the game altogether. He retired to the Cornish coast near Helston.

In retrospect

Wyatt scored 1839 runs in 40 Test at an average of 31.70. In all First-Class cricket, his tally was 39,405 at 40.04.

A dour workmanlike batsman, he was a strong puller and cutter, and could hook the fast bowlers as well. While the results were not really extraordinary, no one ever questioned the soundness of his technique or approach.

According to Bradman, Wyatt was “a very good batsman, pedestrian rather than exciting; he lived by the rulebook.”

It is said that when Wyatt was not burdened with the responsibility of serious cricket, he could play attractive cricket.He was often a joy to watch at Scarborough in the festival matches.When a six was needed off the final ball of a Championship match at Taunton, Wyatt drove Bertie Buse high into the pavilion. He was over 50 at that time.

As a bowler, he was seldom more than part-time, starting with medium pace and later moving to off-spin. He had the ability to swing the ball and could be counted upon to break a partnership. His 18 wickets in Tests were not too impressive, but in all First Class matches he did account for 901 victims at a fairly healthy average of 32.84. In his younger days he was untiring and efficient in the outfield.

A student of the game like no other, Wyatt was the author of The Ins and Outs of Cricket — one of the best textbooks written on the game. It was published in 1936. Later, in 1951, Three straight Sticks was released — his very engaging autobiography.

As a captain he was not one to court popularity as a Chapman, and could get into conflicts for abiding by the rules. While he was respected by colleagues and opponents, his handling of the players often left something to be desired. In 1934, Derbyshire leg-spinner Tommy Mitchell was so frustrated with his captaincy, he had burst out, “You couldn’t captain a box of lead soldiers!”

And as selector, he was rumoured to have been responsible for the omission of Bill Edrich for the 1950-51 tour of Australia. The Middlesex batsman had celebrated noisily during the night in anticipation of victory over West Indies at Old Trafford. Wyatt’s room was adjacent to Edrich’s and he was not amused.

Down the years, in the course of his long life, Wyatt was prone to air his views on cricket with a tinge of biting humour. “England had been bowling too short for 30 years,” he once remarked. Neither was he too enamoured of One Day cricket.

In later years he turned into a delightful raconteur who remembered old matches in great detail. In March 1991, days before Wyatt turned 90, Graham Gooch’s unsuccessful Ashes campaign coincided with the Gulf War. Wyatt wrote to the Daily Telegraph: “After hearing that Saddam Hussein is claiming victory, can I suggest that they run up the flag at Lord’s and say we won the Ashes.”

Two years earlier his MCC tour blazer had been discovered in a rubbish heap and had been returned to him. The same winter, he emulated his youth of performance in the face of pain and injury. He ignored the agony and constraints of hip-disability and toured South Africa to join the celebrations for a hundred years of Tests in the country.

Bob Wyatt passed away in 1995, at the ripe old age of 93, as the oldest Test player of England at that time. Curiously, the mantle passed to the same Tommy Mitchell of Derbyshire, born on September 4, 1902, who had been so vocal about Wyatt’s captaincy in 1934.

(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://twitter.com/senantix)

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