Jack Hobbs : Forever the Master

Jack Hobbs’s technique was as supremely effective as aesthetically pleasing. Every movement at the crease spoke of poise and fluency © Getty Images

Jack Hobbs, born December 16, 1884, was the greatest batsman in the world during his day, the man who took the mantle of the master from WG Grace, managed to add a further sheen of glory to it before passing it on to Don Bradman. Arunabha Sengupta pays homage to his 30 year career.

In 1905, cricket was basking in the high noon of Edwardian Golden Age. It was a time of charismatic batsmen whose willows flashed bold and daring, in grace, grandeur and glory. The age of flowing front foot drives, through the off-side and straight. An era when batsman-ship romped across cricket grounds in all its majesty.

And the insignia in the form of the gallant willow was thought to be borne by the great amateurs who were not weighed down by plebeian caution, whose self-expression was not bound by the strings of livelihood attached to the great game. The strokes came with a sense of adventure, daring — and nobility in every sense of the word.

Well, like most perceptions that surround cricket, this too was far-fetched fancy of popular belief.

First of all, the amateurs often made more of money from the game than the professionals, through unofficial appearance fees and supposed expenses.

Besides, Johnny Douglas and CB Fry were notorious for the safety-first approach they brought to their batting, eschewing any aggressive intent unless stamped and sealed in surety and survival.

Finally, the professionals who played for filthy lucre were often the more flamboyant stroke-makers, debonair and dashing, and significantly better at it than the best of amateurs. Frank Woolley with his aggressive artistry moved cricketing chroniclers to brand him as perhaps greater a batsman than he actually was.

Johnny Tyldesley was as attractive as the greatest of batting romantics. And in 1905, busting the belief in its foundations, there arrived Jack Hobbs.

Almost a century later, when Wisden chose him as the third of their five cricketers of the century after Don Bradman and Garfield Sobers, panel member Gideon Haigh remarked, “Hobbs challenged the assumption that no professional could bat as well as the thoroughbred amateur.”

However, Sir Lankan correspondent Gerry Vaidyasekera was more romantic in his analysis. He voted for Hobbs because he was a “batsman with a charming smile and a kind heart.”

Indeed, Hobbs was as popular and revered for his phenomenal batting as he was for his generous spirit.

Beacon amidst change

Hobbs mastered the Edwardian art of front-foot drives, but also added to it sublime and sure back-foot artillery. His back-lift was high, ever ready to start on its straight downward swing. Perfect timing gave his strokes power and speed, while the wrists added placement without apparent effort. And there was not a more magical sight in pre-war cricket than Jack Hobbs dancing down the wicket to loft slow bowlers straight back over the head.

Hobbs’s technique was as supremely effective as aesthetically pleasing. Every movement at the crease spoke of poise and fluency. “I never saw him reduced to undignified pokes, prods or pushes. I never saw him make a crude stroke,” gushed Neville Cardus. One of whose many, many tributes Cardus paid to the Surrey professional read, “A snick by Hobbs was a sort of disturbance in the cosmic orderliness.”

After viewing more vintage footage of the batting of Hobbs than any other expert, historian David Frith says, “He was elegant. You can see he could fit into any age. He was a very easy mover with strokes all around the wicket. (Yet) There was no violence in his batting.”

When Hobbs took his first few steps in international cricket, England captain Archie MacLaren was not really a great admirer of his skills. By 1909, however, MacLaren published a book titled The Perfect Batsman based on a set of photographs that displayed Hobbs practising a wide range of strokes at The Oval.

Hobbs stood at the crease with his feet close together, bat face turned slightly inwards, his weight evenly distributed and left foot pointing to the cover. His smooth, high back-lift was similar to the ones employed decades later by Garry Sobers and Brian Lara, but unlike theirs, his bat came down straight in line with the stumps.

He could accomplish everything that the best Edwardian master could off the front foot, but preferred to stay back because it gave him more time and control. Classically orthodox when defending or driving, he was at his audacious best while indulging in the glorious cuts and pulls. He often pulled balls wide of the off-stump through mid-wicket with casual nonchalance, even this slight modification of the coaching manual not compromising the style and grace of his batting.

He was so adept against fast bowling that the fearsome Jack Gregory once asked umpire Frank Chester whether he was losing speed. Chester replied that he was quick enough for the others, but not for Hobbs. He could hook calmly and often beautifully, but only if certain of the safety of the stroke. Often he decided to leave it at the last moment by swaying inside the line of the ball.

There are two major reasons which make the Jack Hobbs story of perfection in batting even more incredible.

One, he never received professional coaching. Born in poverty in Rivar Place, Cambridge, he grew up close to the Fenner’s ground. As a kid of ten he went down to the University cricket ground to watch KS Ranjitsinhji essay his wristy brilliance. His father became a grounds-man in Jesus College, and in his young days Hobbs watched the University cricketers in training and matches. But, most of his training methods were as crude as the golf ball and stump used by Don Bradman a generation later. He played with the college servants, using a cricket stump for bat and a tennis ball, with the lamp post acting as wicket; with one eye on the ball and another on the lookout for the perennial foe — the local policeman. It was Tom Hayward of Surrey who can be credited to discovering him and launching him in First-class cricket, but for all intents and purposes, Hobbs was self-taught.

Secondly, when he started making his mark in cricket, the game itself was witnessing a series of innovations which tilted the scales heavily in favour of the ball. Googly bowling was a discovery that tested the best of the batsmen of the era. And for the first time since the inception of the game, fast bowlers — starting with George Hirst — learnt to control the swing. Many a classical batsman thrusting a graceful front leg down the pitch and had the confident swing of the bat beaten against the mysterious and ‘illogical’ developments. But, Jack Hobbs stood firm in front of the two new weapons, using his back-play and delayed strokes with judicious use of pads to counter the wrong ’un and late swing. He faced both these forms of bowling with glittering success that showed that there were skills in his repertoire beyond the reach of the many pretenders.

South Africa won the hard-fought rubber of 1909-10 against England by three wins to two, propelled by their battery of googly bowlers Aubrey Faulkner, Bertie Volger, Reggie Schwarz and Gordon White. But Hobbs scored 539 at an average of 67.37 in the series, twice as much as the best of the rest of English batsmen, stamping his mastery over the witchcraft in vogue.

Later he faced the great Australian ‘Ranji’ Hordern and after the War, Arthur Mailley, with equal élan.

He’s goin’ to be a good’un

From the day he was awarded his county cap by Lord Dalmeny following a score of 155 in his first Championship match against Essex, till the time the First World War interrupted the game and his flourishing career, he was a cavalier with daring drives, cuts and pulls. “He was a mighty proposition with at least two strokes and plenty of time for every ball bowled,” wrote Woolley.

In the post-war era, he remained the greatest batsman of the world, but reined in his attacking instincts. This was partly due to his advancing years and more because of the increasing burden of public expectations: “After the War, when they started talking about WG and me, and I started really making a name for myself, it was the figures that counted all the time. Unless I had got so many runs, I’d failed. I was cautious.”

He remained the master, but became an accumulator. The grace, artistry, technique and the absolute mastery of the unplayable sticky wickets remained undiminished, but perhaps the lightness of heart that had touched his game became weighed down by the burden of expectations.

Figures may not reflect the fascinating visual pleasure that the batting of Hobbs offered, but they do underline the undisputed greatness. In his career, Hobbs scored 61,237 runs at 50.65 with a whopping 199 centuries in three decades of First-class cricket. In 61 Tests, he amassed 5,140 runs at 56.94. Given that a major part of his career was spent during the first two decades of the century, with unpredictable wickets which had not yet undergone standardisation, the numbers are remarkable.

When Hobbs played his first top grade match for Surrey, on a bitterly cold Easter Monday, the opponents were Gentlemen of England captained by WG Grace. Hobbs, a late bloomer at 22, scored 18 and 88. Grace watched him carefully from his favoured position at point, fingered his beard and observed: “He’s goin’ to be a good’un.”

Twenty years down the line, Hobbs went past Grace’s record of 126 — amidst country wide interest and enormous media exposure which had scooped out joy from his batting. And in the course of the next few years, he would take the tally to 197. Later matches played during an unofficial tour of Ceylon were awarded First-Class status, and two more centuries in these encounters took the total to 199.

He scored runs in enormous quantities in all the post-war years, but in his heart he wanted to be remembered for the way he batted before 1914. When reminded about the thousands he scored after 1919, Hobbs responded, “Maybe, but they were nearly all made off the back foot.”

Jack Hobbs : Forever the Master

No pair comes remotely close to matching the success of Jack Hobbs (left) and Herbert Sutcliffe at the top of the order even today © Getty Images

A brilliant cover-point in his prime, Hobbs was also a supreme runner between the wickets. With Herbert Sutcliffe he formed perhaps the greatest ever opening partnership witnessed in the game. Many of the runs that he took with Sutcliffe, and earlier Wilfred Rhodes, were seldom accompanied by a call. There was just a signal of the glove and the batsmen crossed — without ever seeming to be in tearing hurry — while the fielders remained transfixed in face of the embezzlement of runs. With Sutcliffe he added an incredible 3,339 runs in 39 Tests at 87.86 with 15 century collaborations. No pair comes remotely close to matching the success at the top of the order even today.

Being a professional cricketer, he never led England. But his sound judgement added to the plot of many success stories of the team in the latter years. Reticent and not really eager to come to the forefront, a trait often held against him in retrospect, he did coax the English team management into including a young fast bowler named Harold Larwood. He also played a leading role in influencing the recall of Wilfred Rhodes for the deciding Test of the 1926 Ashes series. It was largely due to the bowling heroics of the veteran left arm spinner and the youthful fast bowler, along with the absolute mastery on the sticky wicket displayed by Sutcliffe and Hobbs that the Test and Ashes were won.

It was his ability to make runs at will on the wet, damaged and unpredictable wickets that made many experts rate him higher than even Don Bradman. Bob Wyatt considered him above the great Australian “in spite of Bradman’s great records by taking into account the art of batsman-ship in every department”. Bert Oldfield, the Australian wicketkeeper, agreed about Hobbs’s superior skills in all sorts of wickets in spite of Bradman being the greatest ‘run getter’ in the history of the game.

The Man within The Master

However, there was more to Hobbs than cricketing mastery. In his gentleness, modesty, ethical standards he was universally admired by his peers and opponents, the cricket fraternity and his countrymen. “He was incapable of anything paltry or mean,” recalled Larwood. “He was as straight as a gun barrel, utterly trustworthy and disliked by no one,” observed his last captain at Surrey, Errol Holmes. John Arlott, an ardent admirer, said, “He was the kindest, gentlest, most generous of men … I would say this even if he never made a run.”

However, he was not without his share of controversies. Indeed, he was censured for his questionable use of pad-play to exploit the leg before rule of the day – in many quarters his tactics in this regard was thought to be against the spirit of the game. Gubby Allen displayed immense surprise when Hobbs did not walk after a genuine snick. The opening batsman was also forced to withstand a torrent of abuse from Australian vice-captain Vic Richardson when he refused to walk after being caught in the short leg. Some batting partners also accused him of pinching singles to retain the strike at the end of the over.

He was also roundly criticised for not offering his services during the First World War. It was suggested by biographers that he always shied away from confrontation of any kind and was reluctant to be burdened with responsibility. This explained both his avoidance of war and the reason why he did not push for Surrey or England captaincy, a distinct possibility given his immense stature in the game in spite of his professional status. It was this aversion to confrontation that prevented him for writing against Bodyline bowling when he toured Australia as a journalist in 1932-33. If he had voiced his opinion from Down Under earlier from Australia, instead of roundly condemning it on his return to the shores of England, the issue might have been handled in time and without the resulting diplomatic crisis.

Jack Hobbs : Forever the Master

Hobbs was a much loved man who embodied the spirit of England as no one else in his days © Getty Images

Yet, in spite of all this, he was a much loved man who embodied the spirit of England as no one else in his days. He managed to be a supreme star and a man of the people. All through his days in the sun, he radiated kindness, endearing openness and sense of humour. Throughout his career, he remained an incorrigible and endearing practical joker. His penchant for making the square-leg umpire run across the ground by deliberately misinforming him that the new batsman was a left-hander won many laughs and, eventually, friends.

Harold Laski, the British Labour politician, extolled his qualities in an eloquent tribute paid in 1931: “In some ways I think Mr. Hobbs is the typical Englishman of legend. You would never suspect from meeting him that he was an extraordinary person. He never boasts about himself. His private convictions are not cast at the public. He gets on with the job quietly, simply, efficiently. You could sit next to him in the Tube and remark nothing save a shrewd kindliness in his face, a certain quiet distinction of bearing. Hobbs has shown as finely as any living man what is meant by playing the game.”

In 1953, Jack Hobbs became the first professional cricketer to be knighted for his services to the game — a feat rejoiced by amateurs, professionals and enthusiasts alike.

Sir John Berry Hobbs passed away in December, 1963. Percy Fender, who had been the captain of Surrey for many years while Hobbs was at the peak of his powers, remarked at the time of his death: “Jack was the greatest batsman the world has ever known, not merely in his generation but any generation and he was the most charming and modest man that anyone could meet. No one who saw him or met him will ever forget him and his legend will last as long as the game is played — perhaps longer.”

(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)