Jack Hobbs scored his 100th hundred at age 40. He went on to score another 99 First-Class hundreds © Getty Images
Jack Hobbs scored his 100th hundred at age 40. He went on to score another 99 First-Class hundreds © Getty Images

May 8, 1923.  A 40-year-old Jack Hobbs put injuries and ailment behind him to score his 100th First-Class century. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the innings against Somerset at Bath that made the master only the third batsman to reach the milestone.

The ailing master

The master had not been keeping well. He was past 40, and had been plagued with injuries and health problems in recent times.The trouble had first surfaced when Australia had toured England in 1921, for the first time since the Great War.

For a very brief while the familiar sight had reassured the war ravaged island nation. Jack Hobbs had been at the wicket and all had been well with the world. Against the tourists, Hobbs had opened the innings for LG Robinson’s XI, as classy as ever against the fearsome duo of Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald. Faultless strokeplay and superb defence had taken him to 85 effortless runs. Later he had called it the best innings of his life. Considering the many glittering masterpieces in his career, it must have been a rare gem.

Northamptonshire all-rounder Vallance Jupp had been at the other end, when Hobbs had characteristically pushed the ball into the off-side and called for a quick single. As they had crossed, the tissue in Hobbs’s thigh muscle had given out. Jupp later swore that he had heard it snap. Hobbs had been in agony. He had limped to the other end and had to be helped back to the pavilion.

The great Surrey professional underwent treatment under Dr George Murray Levick. This good doctor was more than a medical man — a writer, biologist, explorer and Royal Navy hero. Once in 1912-13, he had lived an entire winter in an ice cave in the Antarctica, supplementing his rations with seal blubber. It was mainly due to the unconventional therapy administered by this curious man that Hobbs escaped the operating table. A course in physiotherapy, laced with massage and electric stimulation, had him recovered by late June. Warwick Armstrong’s Australians had already steamrolled England in the first two Tests when Hobbs was back for the third match at Headingley. And there he collapsed while fielding, with a severe attack of appendicitis.

In the early 1920s, Jack Hobbs was already on the way to becoming a national icon. While he recuperated at Sir Berkeley’s private nursing home at Leeds, he received a truckload of letters, cards and telegrams, bearing the best wishes of thousands. ‘Eight hundred working men at Rowton lodging house, Hammersmith, wish you a speedy recovery,’ read one such cable. As he rested, however, there were rumours that he might be considering retirement. Somehow, the press also started speculating about his plans to make money in the more comfortable arena of Lancashire League, a path preferred by Sydney Barnes and Cec Parkin. The latter had recently decided to play for Lancashire in the 1922 season, and several voices conjectured that Hobbs would fill his position in the Church side that he played for.

Road to recovery

During the winter, Hobbs regained his fitness — with long walks around Clapham Park and longer games of badminton with wife Ada, a keen league competition player in London.

In 1922, Hobbs ended all speculation by turning out for Surrey yet again. He scored his usual hundreds, but the scoring tended to get laboured as he crossed 70. “It was not the Hobbs we are used to watching when well set for a century,” The Cricketer assessed rather harshly when the master scored 140 while leading The Players against The Gentlemen at Lord’s. Nevertheless he ended the season with 2,552 runs at 62.24, including 10 hundreds. It took his tally of First-Class centuries to 99.

There was enough games in the season for him to amass the hundredth hundred, but towards the end of the season his form faded away. He was tired. Never of particularly robust constitution, he was feeling the after-effects of the operation. “I advise any cricketer who contemplates having a severe operation to have it earlier in life than I did, say about the age of 25,” he later wrote.

That winter, Hobbs declined a place in the MCC party to South Africa. It was the first time he had turned down an England tour. He needed time to recover, to prolong his career — on the brink of his hundredth hundred. In December he turned 40.

History at Bath

Hobbs started the 1923 season with 1 and 32 not out against Glamorgan. The next match was against Somerset at Bath, which was a sort of strange coincidence. Glamorgan and Somerset were the only two counties against whom Hobbs had never scored a century.

The match was delayed by rain, and managed to start only at five o’clock on Saturday. It was adjourned after just three overs with the sky opening up yet again. Hobbs and Andy Sandham walked back without having opened their accounts.

A number of Surrey players, including Hobbs, wanted to spend the Sunday at home and made for the station. On the train to London, they came across a parson. On seeing a group of people returning from the ground, the clergyman asked The Master himself whether Hobbs had scored his hundredth century. Hobbs replied, “Not he; he’ll never get a century against Somerset.”

Later, when the players introduced themselves, the parson wished them luck, adding, “Especially you, Mr. Hobbs, I shall look forward for your century.”

However, when play resumed on Monday, Hobbs was out first ball. Fifty-three year old medium-pacer Ernie Robson sent down a good-length delivery just outside the off-stump, and Hobbs reached out to push it for a single. The ball stopped on the damp pitch and was scooped to extra-cover. “I went back sadly to the pavilion sick with the world in general,” Hobbs recalled in an account for Sunday Express.

Robson picked up six and left-arm spinner Jack White four. Surrey were all out for 91. Somerset also struggled on the wet wicket, and managed 140 in reply. Hobbs and Sandham walked out again to face the final few overs of the second evening. Sandham fell to White, but Hobbs struck four boundaries to remain unbeaten with 19 at close.

This relaxed him somewhat, and that evening he sauntered off to the theatre at Bath to watch The Sign on the Door — a play based on the popular 1920s thriller by Channing Pollock.

The final day, however, began with some uncharacteristic errors by the maestro. Normally an excellent runner between the wickets, he was partly responsible for two run outs. Andy Ducat, the man who went on scoreboard two decades later as ‘Absent Dead’,was out to a direct hit from third man after Hobbs had sent him back. The rather slow Tom Shepherd failed to respond to a call for a quick single, a run Sandham or Herbert Sutcliffe would have perhaps ambled through. Hobbs confessed that he felt very sick after the two dismissals and was almost inclined to ‘chuck up the sponge’.

The good news was that the man who joined him was the idiosyncratic Surrey skipper Percy Fender. Hobbs went down the wicket to apologise for the run outs, but the captain shrugged it off with a brief, “Can’t be helped.”His mind thus set at peace, Hobbs continued with trademark application. Fender did not last long, but all-rounder Bill Hitch started to take the game away from Somerset with some breezy hitting. By lunch, both Hobbs and Hitch had posted half-centuries.

After lunch Hitch continued to attempt outrageous strokes, while Hobbs proceeded with impeccable defence and the occasional elegant hit. The old scoreboard of Bath did not show the individual scores of the batsmen. It was when Hobbs hit White for a six and a four that he saw Surrey wicketkeeper Bert Strudwick standing beside the scoring tent, holding up six fingers. It dawned upon the batsman that he was batting on 94.

Having batted with care laced with fluency thus far, Hobbs now stuttered. “I became anxious, desperately anxious. It was not just six runs between 94 and 100. It is a terribly long journey, believe me. I could feel the spectators knew the position. They were keenly watching every ball. I had been very slow, but they realised before I did that I was on the verge of making my hundredth hundred.”

Hobbs scampered three singles to get to 97. The fielding was tight and he could not pierce through the ring of men saving the one. The jittery period was prolonged for quite a while before he hit Robson to cover and shuttled across for a quick run. The throw missed the stumps and found its way into the country. The batsmen turned and hurried through for two more. Hobbs had got his hundredth. It had taken him 18 years since his first century against Essex. He was just the third man to reach the feat, after old WG Grace and his own boyhood hero Tom Hayward.

“A terrific crash of cheering and high above it I could hear the yell from my fellow county-men. I felt ready to laugh and cry,” Hobbs wrote later in Sunday Express. As he came off the field, unbeaten on 116 when Fender closed the innings at 216 for 5, Hobbs recalled that his joy was tinged with sadness. “I thought of my old dad, to whom I owe so much, who encouraged me in every way when I started, but who never lived to see me fulfil all his cherished hopes.”

But, the excitement persisted. When he walked in after the innings, Fender said, “It was a treat to watch you get them.” The first telegram to arrive was from his first county captain Lord Dalmeny.

According to his autobiography, sleep eluded Hobbs at night — he kept thinking of his wife’s delight, and the pride of his eldest boy.

What followed?

Fender had left enough time for Somerset to go for the 168-run target. In a thrilling, edge-of-the-seat finish, the home team were bowled out for 157.

As for Hobbs, letters and telegrams flowed like a deluge. Daily News noted, “There is no batsman in the world whose score of a hundred hundreds could give more unalloyed pleasure than Hobbs …. This well-graced actor expresses in his style and in his general attitude to the game the true spirit of cricket. He remains the perfect model for professionals and amateurs alike.”

The Surrey committee honoured him with a gift of a hundred guineas. Afterwards, rather sheepishly, they presented the same amount to their old professional Tom Hayward who had achieved the same milestone in 1913 without such fanfare.

In The Cricketer Archie MacLaren called Hobbs: “One of the greatest masters of batting the world has ever seen.”

This was the first hundred Hobbs had scored after turning 40. By the time he called it a day in 1934, he had scored 199 of them in all, with exactly 100 centuries after reaching that dreaded age.

Brief scores:

Surrey 91 (Andy Ducat 52; Ernie Robson 6 for 52, Jack White 4 for 27) and 216 for 5 declared (Jack Hobbs 116*, Bill Hitch 67) beat Somerset 140 (Ronald Lowe 4 for 51) and 157 (Percy Fender 4 for 61) by 10 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://twitter.com/senantix)