July 1, 1965. Wally Hammond, one of the greatest batsmen to have played the game, died of a heart attack in Kloof, Natal, South Africa. Arunabha Sengupta traces the melancholy last days of the maestro which were occasionally sprinkled by unexpected delights.
When he had played those legendary cover drives, the echoes had reverberated across stadiums around the world, and had rung forever in the ears of those fortunate enough to glimpse his greatness, grace and grandeur. However, when the last lethal delivery of life sneaked past his defence to sound the death rattle on his troubled days, the impact was largely muffled.
The world has now almost completely obliterated him from the cricketing memory — and it seems the process was well on course in 1965 when he breathed his last. Today, only three of Wally Hammond’s biographies reside on the shelves of the Lord’s library, as opposed to six full length volumes on Jack Hobbs, 20 odd on WG Grace and as many as forty on the Australian genius Sir Don Bradman. And of the three biographies, one is David Foot’s Wally Hammond: The Reasons Why, dealing less with Hammond’s cricket and more with the psychological problems that had dogged him all his life.
Yes, for most of his life he was an unhappy man, his soul tormented by multiple problems, often hated by teammates in spite of his heroic deeds. However, that cannot justify the neglect with which the memory of one of the greatest all-round cricketers has been dealt with over the years.
Wally Hammond had retired from Tests more than 18 years before his death. But, truth be told, international cricket had witnessed only a pale shadow of the great batsman after the Second World War. The years since the final Test match had been riddled with financial struggles and constant battles with depression, much the story of his life. Only now there was no day in the sun to put his troubles in shade.
The last bit of cricket
After a disastrous final tour of Australia in 1946-47, followed by a 79 in a rain ruined Test match at Christchurch, Hammond quietly called it a day. When he had reached the wicket for his last innings, the New Zealand players had gathered round and given him three cheers. Some of the spectators had spontaneously broken into ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.’ But that was where the similarity ended with the resounding swansong enjoyed by his eternal rival Don Bradman during the summer of 1948. With a sad and dignified silence, Hammond returned to England and within 24 hours he had married Sybil Ness-Harvey, the South African beauty queen, his second wife.
The wedding was a distinctly subdued affair compared to his first marriage — when he had returned an all-conquering hero after the 1928-29 Ashes series with 905 runs in his kitty. Hammond now seemed quietly determined to leave his troubled soul behind, settle down into a life of sedate matrimony. The habitual dalliances with many women were cut out of his life. The constant despondence was designed to be derailed by motoring around Cotswold, his young wife by his side, with dances at the Town Hall in Cheltenham and with dinner parties at the table of a handful of close friends.
Hammond had played his last bit of serious cricket. The West County supporters could hardly imagine a Gloucestershire team without his magnificent presence, but there was no WR Hammond on the scorecards from the start of the 1947 season.
He was coaxed into turning out for Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) against Ireland in 1950, and struck the ball nicely for 92 not out. He returned once more for Gloucestershire in 1951, to boost the gate returns during the August Bank Holiday encounter against Somerset. It was ill-advised and he scratched around for fifty minutes scoring seven, all in singles.
Horace Hazell, the slow left-arm bowler for Somerset, had once walked over four miles across Bristol in his youth to watch Hammond at the wicket. Later, he wept as he recalled the last, miserable First-Class appearance of the once sublime batsman. “I was trying to give him half-volleys outside the off stick but he just couldn’t connect. He’d lost it completely.” A catch was also put down deliberately. Professional cricketers still had a soft corner for Hammond, even though the lure of the England captaincy had led him to turn an amateur in the late 1930s.
In the home dressing room, Tom Graveney, the man heralded as his torch bearer for Gloucestershire greatness, could not bear to watch. “Why, Wally, why..?” the team kept asking as he pushed, prodded and missed endlessly before perishing. Hammond perhaps echoed the same questions in his own mind. He never batted again. The measly seven runs inched his total to 50,551 at an average of 56.10.
The South African days
In 1951 Hammond resigned from his long-time employers Marsham Tyres. His post had been in marketing, the company utilising his famous name and face to enhance their publicity. Hammond, never too good in business matters, had been adequate as a publicity man. But, now he had designs to go into business on his own.
Wife Sybil was homesick, and Hammond emigrated to her South Africa with the growing family. There was a half-baked idea of setting up business with another former Marsham employee. However, on reaching the country they found themselves way short of the required funds. Hammond had to take up a job as General Manager of Denham Motors and work much harder than he had done in England.
In 1959, Denham Motors went bust. Hammond was fortunate enough to find another job. He became the Sports Administrator at the Natal University, responsible for building the institute’s sporting facilities — specialising, obviously, in cricket.
The next year, he had a close brush with death — his second, after the mystery illness suffered in West Indies in 1926. A collision with a lorry sent his car off the road, turning it into a mangled wreck. A police car spotted the mutilated vehicle and stopped to examine the damage. But, they gave him up as dead, and sped off to the errand that they had originally set out for. Luckily, a passing car stopped and the man who surveyed the scene was a doctor. Hammond was saved, and after hovering on the fringes of consciousness for several days, he survived. Operations were carried out and it was three months before he could resume work.
Solace for the soul
At long last, people started appreciating the better qualities in Hammond the man. He remained as aloof as he had been throughout his career. Yet, he was described by Professor Horwood, his employer, as “a man of some force of character, consistently charming and modest. I never heard him talk in derogatory terms of anyone. He invariably saw the best in people.”
There was one final delight. During the 1964-65 tour of South Africa by MJK Smith’s England team, manager Donald Carr gave Hammond a call. Carr had briefly met him during the Victory Tests of 1945. Now he asked Hammond whether he would like to join the MCC players for a day’s cricket and a drink or two. The initial response was wary. Hammond did not think anyone from the team would want to meet him. He wondered if some of the present players had even heard of him. After long deliberation, he agreed to meet Carr and Smith for a drink.
“Mike was lovely with him,” Carr recalled later. The captain and manager found him quiet, aged and worn out, but had the inkling that Hammond had enjoyed meeting them. They invited him to be there in the dressing room for the first Test at Durban. Hammond was as private a person as ever, but was perhaps touched by all the fuss made over him.
Hammond sat through the Test, self-conscious, not quite at ease, but one could tell that he was enjoying himself. David Allen took seven wickets in the match, Fred Titmus six, and England won by an innings. For the final Test at Port Elizabeth, the English players arranged a whip-around to pay for Hammond’s journey and hotel so that he could be there with the team.
Hammond was delighted. The love in their hearts for a former master cricketer was indeed something to be cherished. David Allen, for example, had watched him score a double hundred against Somerset in 1946. He had then been a schoolboy in Bristol, rendered wide-eyed by a giant of the game.
Now, the players of the England team found the taciturn old England captain arrive routinely at 10:30 AM every morning of the Test match, hang his coat on the same peg, and shake hands with all of them as he left for the evening. He remained distant, perplexed to an extent, but was evidently relishing the experience. He was even overheard saying that he liked the look of MJK Smith.
It was during this tour that one and all were pleasantly surprised by Hammond putting on his flannels for one final time, turning out for Durban Press in a match at Richmond. Donald Carr played in it, as did Denis Compton. Hammond was in his usual pristine-white outfit, ironed to perfection. He got a few runs and stood at first slip. The hard new ball once flew straight into his hands and popped out again. But, no one cared. The eyes were old, watery, and perhaps he did not see the ball, but all those who had heard of his supreme deeds, and had been separated by generation or distance to watch him in action, at last saw him on the cricket field.
A life of intense internal strife, psychological struggle and open unhappiness thus had some solace provided by the game he loved. He continued to torture himself all day, perhaps thinking of his first failed marriage, perhaps plagued by the promises to his second wife that remained unfulfilled due to his lack of business acumen. His conscience slashed across his equanimity, hardly ever allowing him the luxury of reconciliation with his past. But, he savoured the interaction with the cricketers of 1964-65.
He took some pleasure in his University job as well. Beyond his call of duty, at the nets, he quietly showed the way to some keen, eager lads. The young students looked at him in wonderment, full of the tales their fathers had told them about this man. Yet, Hammond remained unassuming, never quite the intuitively brilliant coach, but always at hand to help.
Wife Sybil, who remained beautiful even in these reduced circumstances, encouraged him to coach privately. At a net erected in the garden at the side of his house, he guided some neighbours and others who came in from far, drawn by the huge attraction that was his name. One nine-year-old he briefly worked with was called Barry Richards.
But, the better moments in a troubled life did not last for long. Hammond had grown old much before his time.
On July 1, 1965, a few months after his rendezvous with the English cricketers, Hammond suffered a heart attack and passed away in Kloof, Natal. Four days later, the funeral took place in Durban. It was attended by former South African Test captains Dudley Nourse and Allan Melville, and other present and past cricketers such as Eric Dalton, Trevor Goddard, Roy McLean and Bob Williams. Memorial services were conducted at the Bristol Cathedral on July 16. It was a low-key event. Hammond’s former captain Bev Lyon sat beside the legend’s old mother. Among the attendees were old friend Les Ames, Alec Bedser, Maurice Hallam and Tom Dollery, along with Billy Griffith, president and secretary of MCC.
The death was not a moment for glorious obituaries as befitted a great cricketer. There were far more pressing issues at hand. He had left little savings for his wife and three teenaged children. Three months later, the Walter Hammond Memorial Fund was launched, for the sustenance of the family and the benefit of all ‘cricketers throughout the Commonwealth or their dependants whose need for support is approved by the Trustees.’
A cable of endorsement arrived from his greatest rival Don Bradman: “During his era Wally Hammond was undoubtedly England’s greatest cricketer. I am very distressed to hear of the need for the Hammond Memorial Appeal Fund and feel sure cricket lovers will generously respond.” Denis Compton wrote: “I still rate Wally Hammond the greatest batsman I ever saw. His technique was so complete, so superb.” The fund raised £3,500.
(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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