George Hirst, born September 7, 1871, was the greatest all-rounder of England of his day and one of the greatest ever. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the man who achieved the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets 14 times in his career and also pioneered the art of ‘swerve’ bowling.
September 9, 1921 — It was the fiftieth birthday of George Hirst, the captain of the Players who had just defeated the Gentlemen by 198 runs in the Scarborough Festival Match. Hirst himself had finished things off by picking up the last two wickets with his still nippy left-arm pacers. Before that, in the second innings, he had scored a typical hard hitting 37.
The match was long over but the crowd would not go home. Under the front of the pavilion they gathered, chanting, “We want George Hirst. We want George Hirst.” Every member of the throng was excited, moved by the spontaneous warmth of the occasion. Emotional moments that for Yorkshiremen are infrequent and intense. The greatest all-rounder of England and the world, who was said to share the title with his Yorkshire mate Wilfred Rhodes, was saying farewell to First-Class cricket. He had played for 30 years and in 14 of them had completed the double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets. And in an unforgettable glorious summer of 1906, he had accomplished the unthinkable and unparalleled feat of 2,000 runs and 200 wickets.
As the people waited for the great hero of the era, the sturdy, dignified figure came out on the balcony. The applause reached a crescendo before dying down. Hirst bent forward, holding the rails in front of him. Natural, and as free from self-consciousness as ever, he spoke in a clear and firm voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to call you the cricketing public. I thank you for your kindness to me. A person always knows his limitations and I’m not such a good man as you make me out to be.” And after a few well-chosen words, he concluded, “What can you have better than a nice green field, with the wickets set up, and to go out and do the best for your side? I leave First-Class cricket to those who have got to come. I hope they’ll have the pleasure in it that I have had.”
Hirst, as ever, remained modest and self-effacing to the very end. At the height of his most brilliant year in 1906 he played Somerset in Bath and scored 111 and 117 not out while taking six for 70 and five for 45. After that he merely mentioned he could do with a good night’s sleep. And then there was that game against Essex in 1901, when Yorkshire scored 104 and still won by an innings and 33 runs. Hirst’s figures were seven for 12 and five for 17. When biographer AA Thomson asked him about that landmark match years later, Hirst pulled a face and exclaimed, “Ah, you should have seen my figures in that (1901) Somerset match — one for 189.”
After the 1906 feat of twice a double he was asked if anyone else would ever capture 200 wickets while scoring 2,000 runs in the same year. Each feat in isolation was a specialist’s dream. Few batsmen ever crossed the 2,000 barrier and it was rare for a bowler to get 200, and then too it normally remained the realm of the slow, easy-paced, energy-preserving ones. And here was Hirst, a powerful forcing batsman and a fast bowler with a bounding run and full swinging arm who put every ounce of strength in each delivery. Bob Appleyard took 200 wickets for Yorkshire in 1951 with his fast off-breaks, but he scored only 104 runs. “I was absolutely jiggered after what I’d done. How he had the energy to bat as well I can’t imagine,” he recalled.
To the question of a possible repeat of the feat by any cricketer, Hirst responded with full honesty, “I don’t know, but whoever does will be very tired.” Almost sixty years down the line, another Yorkshireman repeated this line when asked whether anyone else would reach 300 wickets in Test cricket. Most of the cricket literature credits Fred Trueman with the words. It actually came out of the simple, earnest, whole-hearted, and fun-loving mind of George Herbert Hirst.
The two men from Kirkheaton
It was an ancient joke, greatly venerated: “Nobody knows the name of the world’s greatest all-round cricketer. All we know for certain is that he bats right handed, bowls left-handed and was born in Kirkheaton.” It was in Kirkheaton, a small stone-built village dug in the slopes of the Pennines, that Hirst was born in 1871 and Wilfred Rhodes in 1877.
Hirst grew up in the Brown Cow inn which his grandparents ran. He left school at 10 to work for a local hand-loom weaver as a wirer and he spent his evenings playing outside, in the very fields where the cricketers practised. In the winters he played Rugby football and there was hardly any sturdier full-back.
There are opinions that the church-going, God-fearing loom-owners actually bet heavily on the inter-village matches and were happy to give their best players time off for training. Others say that the speed of the shuttle and pick increased the hand-eye co-ordination of the operators. Regardless of what the reason may be, a high standard of cricket developed around the area.In 1888, when Hirst was 16, Kirkheaton Cricket Club hired a coach to train its youngsters. It was Allen Hill, the man who had taken the first wicket in Test cricket.
That was the only coaching Hirst ever received. His batting was forever untaught. It is remarkable that this man became one of the greatest cricket coaches the world has known.
He first had a trial for Yorkshire at the age of 18. His gear was worth ten shillings and he carried it in a canvas bag. He wore a shilling cap, a six penny belt with a snake-clasp, and brown boots. At the trial he bowled in his sweater, because the shirt underneath was blue.
He was given a real game only in 1891, and it took two more years for him to become a regular in the side. He was, according to Yorkshire cricket supremo Lord Hawke, “A young bowler with nice action, straight and quick.” With time, his pace would reduce and he would develop a skill that would be way different from straight.
In 1893, he took 99 wickets, and in 1894 just one less. He was kept down in the lowly position of No 10, but made some useful scores as well. In 1893, he hit hard and well to score 35 not out in a low scoring match against Gloucestershire. WG Grace observed with an appreciative tug at his beard, nodding at the lusty youthful vigour of the hooks and pulls. “Ha, I’d no idea the beggar could bat too,” he remarked wryly.
By 1894, he had reminded WG about his batting prowess by hitting a century against Gloucestershire, his maiden hundred in First-Class cricket. Repeatedly, he came to rescue his side when the going was bad, and continued to take wickets with his left-arm pace.
In 1895, he took 100 wickets in a season for the first time, and to make sure that there was no near miss once again he made it 150. The bat notched up 710 runs. With Ted Wainright and Bobby Peel, he created a formidable combination for Yorkshire bowling as he would later do with Rhodes and Schofield Haigh. But, yet, the ancients shook their head in scepticism and repeated often, “He has to make up his mind whether he means to bowl of bat.”
But, with time, the voices were subdued. In 1896 he scored 1,122 runs and took 104 wickets, his first double. He repeated the feat in the Golden Jubilee year of 1897. By the winter of 1897, he was travelling with Andrew Stoddart to Australia.
The beautiful billiard table wickets of Australia were hard on his bowling, and a strained leg did not make matters easier. But he scored 62 in his debut Test at Sydney, 85 in the third at Adelaide and 44 in the final match at Sydney.
He returned fatigued by the long tour, and suffered a poor season in 1898, the only such year of his career. But, in that season, a young left-arm spinner had emerged who would gradually bat splendidly as well and become one half of a legendary combination. Rhodes, the other Kirkheaton lad, took 154 wickets in his first season. For the next two decades, Hirst and Rhodes would be the greatest pair on the cricket field.
The greatest years
By 1899 Hirst was back to his best, with 1630 runs including three successive centuries, and 82 wickets. He also played in his first home Test, the last that featured WG Grace. He did not really do much with the bat and ball in that Nottingham game, but was like a wall at mid-off in those days of powerful off-drives. He was already considered the second greatest fielder of the land after Gilbert Jessop. DLA Jephson, while castigating the slackness of the fielding of the day, cited Hirst as one of half a dozen honourable exceptions to an unworthy rule: “You may as well drive through a brick wall as try to pass those iron hands.”
By 1901, Yorkshire was almost unbeatable. They won 20 of their 27 matches, and lost just one — a sensational rout against Somerset at Headingley. This was the first year of Hirst’s great phase, with 1,950 runs and 183 wickets. He would achieve the double 11 times in the next 12 years.
By now, his pace had reduced, but his success with the ball scaled new highs. It was mainly due to his development for the first time of a remarkable ability to make the ball swerve in the air. This was almost as revolutionary as the googly that BJT Bosanquet was to use three years later.
Hirst himself remained characteristically modest about his discovery, saying: “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” He was being honest as well. He knew he could not use the skill throughout the innings, but while it lasted even the most gifted batsmen were reduced to impotence. With a head-wind blowing, the unnatural behaviour of the ball was bewildering. Sammy Woods was aghast when he wondered: “How the devil can you play a ball that comes at you like a hard throw from cover-point?”
It was in 1902 that Hirst and Rhodes became part of the folklore beyond Yorkshire. In the riveting Ashes series, the first match was at Birmingham. Hirst made an useful 48 and Rhodes remained unbeaten on 38 as heavy rains during the night made the conditions murky for Australia. The great line up of Victor Trumper, Reggie Duff, Clem Hill, Syd Gregory, Joe Darling, Monty Noble and Warwick Armstrong were destroyed for 36 in 23 overs. Hirst took three for 15 and Rhodes seven for 17. According to CB Fry, “Well as Rhodes bowled, it was Hirst who was responsible for the debacle. This is the best instance I know of the bowler at the other end getting wickets for his colleague.” Australia managed to escape with a draw as the skies opened up.
A curious decision to omit Hirst in favour of Fred Tate cost England the match and the Ashes at Manchester. However, the great Test match at The Oval was won as much by Gilbert Jessop’s amazing 104 in 77 minutes as by the superb all round showing of Hirst.
The Yorkshireman took five for 77 with his lethal swerve in Australia’s first innings of 324, top scored with 43 in England’s reply of 183, being instrumental in saving the follow on. After Australia had been dismissed in difficult conditions, leaving England 263 to win, Jessop walked in at 48 for five and blasted his century to scatter the Australian attack like smithereens. Hirst came with 106 to win and lost Jessop at 187. He held the innings together, scoring an unbeaten 58. When Rhodes joined him for the final wicket, 15 runs were still required. The two great all-rounders — although Rhodes had not yet developed his batting to be called so–took England home in breathless tension and amidst unbelievable scenes.
Hirst carried on in his glorious phase, an image of gaiety with the bat and happy hostility with the ball. In 1903 he scored 1844 a high 47.No one but the great pair of KS Ranjitsinhji and CB Fry were above him in the batting table. And he also took 128 wickets at 14.94. Lord Hawke called him, “The greatest county cricketer of all time.” He was not exaggerating.
He went to Australia again in 1903-04, this time with a team led by Plum Warner which was deemed to be weak. They said it about Len Hutton’s team in 1954-55 as well. The England side returned after reclaiming the Ashes. Hutton’s team also came back clutching on to the urn. And when they called Peter May’s 1959-60 side the strongest ever, they were whipped and routed and went home with tails between their legs. So much for predictions.
Hirst scored a gritty 60 as he shepherded England’s second innings from 82 for four to the target of 191 in the first Test. And when they lost at Adelaide, he fought hard with 58 and 44. The Australians agreed that while Hirst was still in no England side was beaten.
He did not really set the Australian grounds on fire with the ball, but when he lost his line in the sticky Melbourne heat, he seized the ball every time a wicket fell and bowled away till the next man came in. His spirit was unquenchable.
In 1904, 1905 and 1906, Hirst scaled new peaks of batting with 21 hundreds in all. His 341 against Leicestershire in 1905 stood as the highest score by an Yorkshireman till Hutton scored 364 against Australia at The Oval. Significantly, the effort was achieved while just two other men scored over 20. He followed it up with 232 not out against Surrey at The Oval. All this while, his bowling went from strength to strength as well. Hence he ended 1906 with 2385 runs at 45.86 and 208 wickets at 16.50. On top of this, as he stood at mid-off, not many of the best batsmen of cricket’s Golden Age could get their off drives past him. He summarised modestly again. “When you are both a batter and bowler, you enjoy yourself twice as much.”
There is a story of the festival match at Scarborough in 1906, which witnessed Hirst’s 200th wicket for the season. Among the spectators were two elderly ladies with a vested interest. They were the mothers of Hirst and Rhodes, having travelled all the way to watch the landmark dismissal. The desired result was slow in coming and in spite of Hirst’s best efforts; wickets kept perversely falling at the other end. At last, the ladies could not take the tension any longer and quietly slipped from their seats and made their way out of the stadium. They were walking slowly down North Marine Road when suddenly a roar swelling to the skies announced that Hirst had indeed captured the elusive wicket.
Even as Hirst aged, he remained at the top of both batting and bowling charts. By the end of 1909, he was 38. The Wisden of 1910 devoted a number of pages to a detailed tabular record of his accomplishments, with the valedictory touch suggesting imminent retirement.
However, Hirst was not eager to leave the stage. He kept on batting happily, bowling with venom, and stopping fast travelling balls on the field. In 1913, he notched up his fourteenth and last double. It was also the last summer to run its full course in the sunshine before the shadow of the War fell across the world.
Hirst the coach
Strangely, when cricket resumed after the atrocities, both Hirst and Rhodes were still there. And in 1919, Hirst batted with the same fire and fury, scoring 180 not out against MCC. He amassed 1441 runs that season, aged 48 by the end of it, although he bowled rarely, taking 18 wickets in all. It was during that season that he accepted the role of coach at Eton.
After his farewell at Scarborough, Hirst appeared in the Bombay Quadrangular for the Europeans in the winter of 1921. In the two matches he played, he took six for 31 to rout the Hindus, and followed it up with 62 and three wickets against the Parsees in the win in the Final.
For seventeen years after his retirement, George Hirst coached Eton College and Yorkshire Club. Not one eager young cricketer left his hands without gaining something. Hedley Verity, Bill Bowes and Len Hutton were just three of those who worked with him and went ahead to conquer the world.
Bowes described him as “the finest coach in the world”. Len Hutton wrote: “I shall always think of George Hirst as the ideal coach. He was a ‘natural’ one, the guide, the philosopher, and friend of every young fellow who has had a trial under him.”
Hirst never left a youngster without a word of encouragement. Bill Bowes bowled him in a match played when Hirst was 58. As he walked away, the great all-rounder turned to the young bowler with the words, “A grand ball that, lad. I couldn’t have played that one when I was good.” Even when he saw the grubbiest of small boys playing on grassy edges of the road, he would walk up to one of them and say, “Now hold it this way, lad.”
Hirst the man
Hirst the man was full of warmth and cheer, with a smile ‘that met at the back of his head’.There is the story of Warren Bardsley, bowled first ball by his swerve. When the young batsman walked in the second time, Hirst produced a slow full toss which was gratefully turned to fine-leg for three. When he expressed his gratitude for the easy one to break his pair, Hirst said, “Don’t thank me. It were t’ball that slipped.”
When a young boy wrote to him asking for an autograph, Hirst wrote back, “Dear Willie, You asked me for my autograph. Here are two – one for yourself and one for a swop. Yours sincerely, GH Hirst.”
There is another heart-warming story of the Grenadier Guards before the 1914-18 War. A bandman from Kirkheaton named Harry Stead was watching Yorkshire play Surrey at The Oval when a message arrived at his home, ordering him to the barracks for the regimental parade. His wife did not know how to communicate with him, and in desperation sent off a telegram to George Hirst at The Oval. Hirst received it as he stood at mid-off and turned to the telegraph boy, “Sitha, go around the boundary and whenever you see a soldier in a red coat ask him if his name’s Harry and if it is tell him to get off home like billyho. And if two other chaps called Harry went running home to their misuses it wouldn’t do ’em any harm.”
Francis Stanley Jackson, the other great all-rounder of the age, was standing as a candidate in a Leeds municipal election when he asked Hirst to speak for him. The all-rounder addressed the gathering, “Ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Jackson’s a fine man and a grand cricketer, but if you get him on this council he’ll play less cricket and that’ll be a bad thing for Yorkshire, England and everybody. So don’t vote for him any of you.” Jackson could not help bursting out in laughter.
But, for all his joviality, Hirst knew how the game ought to be played. Once a bowler, later a captain of England, sent down a barrage of bumpers in a festival match at Scarborough. Hirst was the umpire. At the end of the over, he handed the sweater to the bowler and said, “Put this on and go away until you can behave yourself.” As AA Thomson wrote, ‘It was a rebuke from Sinai and the sinner, to his eternal credit, accepted it as such.’
George Hirst scored 36,356 runs at 34.13 with 60 hundreds and captured 2,742 wickets at 18.73 with 184 five fors and 40 ten-wicket hauls. He held 605 catches, of which maybe only half a dozen were dollies.
As an anonymous author once said, “There were great cricketers before, there are great cricketers now, and, happily, there will be great cricketers again. But in the history of the game George Herbert Hirst will always hold his own place, a romantic but essentially robust figure. A noble game is the nobler because he played it, and to every lad he taught, to every man who knew him, from Kirkheaton to Melbourne, from Sydney to Lord’s, he will ever remain the revered master and the living inspiration.
(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)