Wally Hammond, born June 19, 1903, was a peerless stroke-maker through the off-side, a fascinating combination of grace and grandeur, one of the greatest batsmen of all time, perhaps the best slip fielder ever produced in the game, and a more than handy bowler. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of a charismatic cricketer and a complex character.
Runs and roving eyes
Playwright Ben Tavers was at the height of his fame with several of his popular farces already successful at the Aldwych Theatre. He could afford to relax in the winter, travel with the English cricket team and watch the game he loved with the very core of his soul. And he could also afford a pair of high quality binoculars when he went down to Australia to follow the Ashes series of 1928-29.
In the second Test at Sydney, Wally Hammond finally branded the game with the seal of his enormous talent, scoring his first hundred on his 10th appearance. He made it a huge one. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘the charm and variety of his strokes could not be conveyed by figures’, but nevertheless it amounted to 251. Seldom had the ball been glimpsed travelling at a faster clip than it did off his redoubtable willow, especially when he executed some of his spectacular drives. And according to Tavers, the innings left no marks on his bat apart from a perfectly circular indentation, plumb in the middle of the blade.
Tavers also recalled how Hammond made his way towards him every time the players left the field, even in the breaks during his own 461 minute marathon. The Gloucestershire great would borrow the field-glasses, and his enhanced eyesight would sweep across ladies’ enclosure of the stadium,in which sat some of the most beautiful women in the world.
An appetite for runs and an eye for beauty.Handsome of face, immaculate in his whites, debonair with the bat, languid in the covers, sublime in the slips, classical action with the ball. And the most dapper of men off the field, with infinite charm reserved for the coquettish lass, a superb dancer eagerly sought as partner by the most desirable of women… Hammond did look the very image of the Boy’s Own Hero. And the events that came to pass after the Sydney Test seemed to add gloss to the shining armour of thisgallant knight.
At Melbourne he scored 200 and earned a three-wicket win for England. He upstaged a wide-eyed youth playing his second Test for Australia — who answered to the name Don Bradman and fought hard with 79 and 112. In the fourth Test at Adelaide, he became the fourth batsman to score a hundred in each innings. He scored119 and 177 to guide England to a 12-run win. He ended the five Tests with 905 runs at 113.12, easily the highest tally in a series, overtaking Herbert Sutcliffe’s 734 set in 1924-25.
Back in England, he was received with the adulation befitting an all-conquering hero. When he married Dorothy Lister in Bingley Parish Church that spring, extra police had to be put into operation to hold back the swarming crowd. The Bishop of Bradford did the services, and one of the men who sent a telegram apologising about his absence was Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
Could there be a more ideal sporting hero?
The many layers
Unfortunately, things were not as delightful as they seemed.
Within a year and a half, Hammond’s record aggregate for a series would be smashed by that Australian youth who had made his debut in the 1928-29 series. Bradman would score 973 in England in 1930, and would remove Hammond from the throne of the best batsman of the world on which he had perched for a brief wondrous while.
For the rest of his career, at least till the Second World War, Hammond would bat with his customary grandeur, but he would forever be among the leaders of the rest of the rank and file as Bradman led the batting world, separated by a colossal chasm. The obsession with this little Australian man would grow in Hammond’s soul. It would make him bitter, prone to outbursts in his Gloucestershire dressing room.
There were many who would acknowledge his greatness in absolute terms. Len Hutton would rather watch one hour of Hammond than 10 of Bradman. RC Robertson Glasgow would combine his batting, bowling and fielding to call him “quite simply the greatest cricketer”. However, Hammond himself showed little evidence of coming to terms with the shadow of Bradman’s pile of runs.
Indeed, the normally taciturn Hammond, involved in the game through a haze of aloofness, seemed most animated and bristling with excitement during one significant match. It was not for England, but when Gloucestershire held Australia — including Bradman — to a tie in 1930. It was a personal battle he dearly wanted to win. In spite of numerous admirers who swore by the supreme elegance of his craft rather than the cross batted utilitarian run-gathering of Bradman, the gulf in the numbers would forever play on his mind.
Besides, there were other problems. Hammond did have a period of tepid courtship with Dorothy before their marriage, but she was far from his type of belle. Decent as a person, a good cook and able house-keeper, Dorothy lacked the attractiveness and flirtatious allure that drew Hammond to women. She was plain and dull. It is often said that Hammond married for money, and was eyeing the fortune of her father, an affluent Bradford merchant. A more temperate way of looking at the great batsman is that he liked her family, especially her father.
But, whatever be the reason for taking the plunge, Hammond did send proposals of marriage to at least a dozengirls — often simultaneously — before tying the knot with Dorothy. And he remained the philanderer, staying away from her, roving eyes settling on the many other women that cricket and fate flung in his way. With the economic downturn of the 1930s, the textile business of her father went through a slump, and the financial cushion was cruelly whisked off from under their relationship. Hammond battled with money problems, Dorothy took to drink. And the way he neglected his wife made him unpopular with his teammates. When he finally divorced Dorothy and married again, it was to a South African beauty queen much younger than him. Eddie Paynter did not cloak the weakness of his great colleague in gracious words when he said: “Wally, well yes, he liked a shag.”
Marriage and Bradman were not his only problems. In spite of the brilliance of his bat, the lofty feats achieved by his stroke-play, the innumerable voices of cheer that rose from the delighted throngs who revelled at his catching in the slips or the greyhound-swift chases and the tearing returns from the cover boundary, Hammond remained one of the unhappiest and troubled of cricketers throughout his career.
According to Wally Hammond — the reasons why, a fascinating study of this legendary batsman by David Foot, the seeds of sadness were planted on his first tour as a part of a representative England side. Hammond was a reasonably happy 22-year-old at that point, putting on fancy headgear and also playing untutored drums to captain Hon. Lionel Tennyson’s impromptu jazz band. Percy Holmes played the comb and paper, Fred Root fastened some wire onto a wooden framework and called it a harp, George Collins made a dummy saxophone out of a cardboard which he would go red in the face ‘playing’. Hammond was fully into the merriment with a flexatone. In his first representative match, he scored 238 not out. And amidst these highs he was struck by a mystery illness.
It has been described in euphemistic forms as a blood disorder, an infection caused by multiple mosquito bites in the groin area. However, Foot has no doubt that it was one of the sexually transmitted diseases. By the time he was on the ship back home, Hammond was battling with his life.
He was treated with mercury, and perhaps as a result succumbed to the effects of mercury poisoning —and later displayed all the effects of that particular disorder. This included personality change, moods of withdrawal, sudden outbursts of anger, impatience and exaggerated emotional response to circumstances. Forever after that, every teammate, close or distant, admiring or restrained, described him as moody.
It was mainly through the determination of his domineering mother that doctors were desisted from the horrifying act of amputating Hammond’s leg. Gloucestershire County Club diligently paid the medical bills and arranged a trip to South Africa to allow the young star to recuperate. And Hammond repaid their faith.
He came back against Yorkshire in the 1927 season, scoring 135 in the second innings, breaking the umpire’s leg with a booming straight drive. And in the next match against Surrey, he made a century in each innings, hitting one full toss into the front garden of one of the neighbouring houses. Finally, against Hampshire, he struck 192 in two hours and 28 minutes, with six sixes and 27 fours, to complete a thousand before May. The Manchester Guardian wrote, “In scoring his aggregate, it is certain that Hammond has caused not a single yawn to come over any spectator’s face; his thousand runs must have given more than thousand thrills of delight to lovers of brave, skilful, imaginative cricket.”
From there to Test selection was but a short step.
The complete sportsman
Hammond was born of an unplanned pregnancy in Dover. His father was a corporal in the Royal Garrison of Artillery, later a Major. Aged five, Hammond travelled to Hong Kong, where his father had been posted. And at eleven the family travelled again, this time to Malta. Here he played cricket with the sons of other soldiers, with a discarded bat that had a smashed end. Hammond and his friends sawed off the broken part and found the extra-long handle more effective than the shorter blade. It taught him what he considered to be an essential lesson of the game — that a batsman should strike the ball, not pat it.
When he returned to England during the outbreak of the First World War, Hammond was admitted in the Portsmouth Grammar School. His father passed away while he was at school, perhaps kick-starting the aloofness that would increase with years. However, Hammond continued to excel in every sport.
Unusually strong from his outdoor life full of swimming and diving in Malta, he dominated the track, field and pitch. He played in the football team with exceptional speed and wonderful ball-control, made almost all the runs and took most of the wickets for the cricket side, won the school mile in five seconds under six minutes, ran the 100 yards in 11.4 seconds, won the 440 yards, 220 yards handicap, cross-country and hurdles, and created school records in long jump and throwing the cricket ball. It was his headmaster who wrote a letter of introduction to Gloucestershire County Cricket Club, and Hammond made his First-Class debut a month after leaving school. Kent had made some enquiries about the prodigy, and Gloucestershire officials movedquickly, and two committeemen met Hammond’s mother explaining the life of a professional cricketer. After long deliberation — ‘longest hour of my life’ — she relented.
After a few games however, Hammond was banned. Starting slowly with a string of low scores, he played with a lot of application against Middlesex at Lord’s to score 32. This knock impressed cricket journalist Sir Home Gordon enough to earn some rave reviews. And this in turn led Kent’s omnipresent patriarch Lord Harris to make enquiries about Hammond’s background. It was discovered that he was born in Kent. Harris, with a fanatical fetish for adhering to birth-places in county sides, ensured that MCC banned Hammond for the rest of the season. Although Gloucestershire argued that Hammond had served a two-year residential qualification, MCC was adamant. Harris, incidentally, was born in Trinidad.
Hammond was withdrawn just before the match against Somerset. One of the Somerset players, Peter Randall Johnson, was playing in the side by virtue of being born in Wellington. The administrators had little idea that it was not Wellington, Somerset but the city by the same name in New Zealand.
Hammond did not play for a year, but joined Bristol Rovers and played third division Football. He was a talented winger of great pace, but courted criticism by not going into hard tackles. He obviously feared injury that could waylay his cricket career. He played for three winters, but did not continue once his cricket career was established.
The all-round cricketer
The first few years of Hammond’s career drove cricket loving crowds to paroxysms of delight. When he scored 250 not out against Lancashire in 1925, Neville Cardus wrote, “Yesterday was the gladdest I have spent on a cricket field for years. Young Walter Hammond of Gloucestershire played one of the finest innings that can ever have been accomplished by a boy of his age. To be present at the rise of a star in the sky and to know it is going to be glorious — here is a moment thrilling indeed to men who live their lives imaginatively.” In this innings he drove and hooked five consecutive fours of the fearsome pace of Ted MacDonald. “No other living Englishman could have given us cricket so full of mingled style and power, an innings of strength, bravery, sweetness and light. Not an ounce of power seemed to go to waste,” Cardus gushed.
And as a cover fielder, he had no peer in the world. Often, when the going was slow, the captain was urged to send Hammond into the covers to delight them with fleet-footed chase, and dead on accurate throws.
With time, Hammond would tighten up his game. He would reject the hook shot as too risky. But, the grace and grandeur remained undiminished. And to Cardus he would remain the most majestic of stroke players. Even when he scored 32 on an Australian sticky during the 1936-37 tour Down Under, with more grit than strokeplay on display, Cardus wrote, “The way Hammond continued in the gyrating circumstances to maintain something of his own poise and reasonableness, he was like a cool, cultivated surveyor applying a spirit level in a volcanic region.”Hammond had scored a little matter of 231 in the previous Test.
Through the 1930s, Hammond continued to amass runs with gifted stroke-play. Fielding at mid-off and cover point was a positive ordeal when he unleashed his off-side strokes. There were bouts of run making that were almost scary, although the aesthetics of the methods remained undiminished. True, the 1930s were loaded in favour of the batsman, the pitches true and the bowlers moved to desperation. Yet, some of the achievements of Hammond hint at supreme talent and endless drive.
In New Zealand in 1933, perhaps in the sheer relief of having closed the chapter on the Bodyline tactics, he piled up 227 in the first Test at Christchurch and an unbeaten 336 in the next at Auckland. It was a world record, breaking Bradman’s 334 which he had watched from close quarters at Leeds a couple of years earlier. And in all these deeds, the figure of the little man remained conspicuously at the back of his mind. After going past the record, Hammond had looked skyward, letting out an uncharacteristic scream: “Yes.”
Be it the 167 and 217 versus India in 1936 or the 240 against Australia at Lord’s 1938 or the 138 against West Indies at The Oval before the Second World War brought cricket to a screeching halt, Hammond’s glorious drives thundered through the covers with the might of sporting talent. Robertson-Glasgow summed it up: “The effect on a match of his presence alone … the influence on a bowler’s feelings of the sight of Hammond taking guard at about 11:50 am, when lunch seemed far and the boundary near.”
With seniority, Hammond moved into the slips, and he has seldom been equalled in that position. Len Hutton wrote that he would have “difficulty in naming a greater slip catcher than Hammond.” EM Wellings, writing as late as in 1983, believed: “there has never been a slip fielder to equal him. There have been very good ones, including Neil Harvey and Bob Simpson, but none to equal Hammond’s judgement and mobility.” He would seldom dive, but with his uncanny anticipation would make a catch with ease which the best of slip fielders would not only miss but would also never rate as a miss.
Hutton was effusive about his bowling too. “His bowling was just as graceful as his cricket, and the perfect sideways-on action which any aspiring bowler could copy.”
However, Hammond the bowler never really fulfilled his promise in Test matches. He bowled fewer overs down the years. He could be more than effective, the ideal third seamer, sometimes genuinely quick and could even send down off-spin when necessary. He started with heavy workload in his debut series, a tour of South Africa. It was a necessity given the curious team loaded with slow bowlers unsuited to the wickets. But, down the years, he was often unwilling to bowl too much. This is often related to his saving himself for his batting. But, Roderick Easdale, one of his biographers, links it to yet another facet of his complex character.
The professional and the amateur
The lack of money as a professional cricketer plagued Hammond right through his career till the late 1930s. He developed expensive tastes and moved in circles not suited to his purse. There was a longing for the life of the privileged, and Hammond was acutely aware of the social divisions that created a chasm in cricket teams of the era. He was a professional, but yearned to be an amateur. He almost aped his county captain Bev Lyon, wearing a trilby, having a blue handkerchief protruding from his right pocket, and driving expensive cars. Lyon was frequently invited to dine with the Hammonds. He became friends with Plum Warner — who later turned a strong ally. Professionals often used to be invited by amateurs to stay with them to save on hotel costs. But, it was Hammond invited amateur cricketer Bob Wyatt to stay with him.
In 1937, Hammond joined Marsham Tyres as director, at a much larger salary that he got at Gloucestershire as a professional cricketer. It allowed him to turn amateur, and paved the way for his appointment as captain of England in 1938. Although Walter Robins had already voiced that ‘no cricketer would object to being led by such a great player as Wally Hammond’, the chances of a professional leading England were low. It took another decade and a half and a World War in between to achieve that.
According to Easdale, Hammond’s lack of inclination to bowl might have stemmed from his preference for the more gentlemanly pursuit of batting. Historically, professionals have been burdened with bowling and amateurs have lorded it at the crease. Hammond might have been subconsciously motivated to bat more and bowl less. However, according to Bradman, if he had not been that good a batsman, he would have been a bowler of a type and quality equalled only by Maurice Tate and Alec Bedser. He did have two five wicket hauls in Test cricket to vouch for his quality.
Captaincy started well enough for him. The Ashes series was drawn, with England famously and mercilessly putting up 903 for seven at The Oval, Hammond closing the innings only after making sure Bradman had indeed suffered a fracture and would not be able to bat. The following tour to South Africa witnessed three centuries and two fifties from his willow and a narrow 1-0 series win. The West Indies were beaten by the same margin just before the war broke out. Till then in 77 Tests, Hammond had scored 6883 runs at 61.45 with 22 hundreds.
During the war, Hammond joined RAF but did not see active service. He worked as an instructor, a very stern one, and was posted in Cairo. His duties included providing sporting facilities for the men serving there. He travelled around Africa and played a lot of cricket, always drawing huge crowds. All the war time matches were played seriously, but with the onus on entertainment. This was the ideal format for a cricketer of Hammond’s character. His aggressive and stylish strokes provided a spark of brightness to the many living under the constant threat of death. His positive and attacking captaincy during these games set up exciting finishes.
Hammond led England in four of the five victory ‘Tests’ —matchesplayed with much the same atmosphere and spirit of wartime games. He missed one due to fibrosis, but when cricket restarted he was there at Gloucestershire, leading his men with gusto. The county team trained hard, and Hammond the hardest. At 43, he knew he had to keep himself in the best possible shape to continue at the highest level.
The last Ashes tour
The tour to Australia that followed was a disaster. It is often considered one tour too many embarked on by the great batsman. However, a look at the record books suggests that Hammond was very much the top batsman of England when the team was selected. He had played 19 matches and scored nine hundreds and averaged 84.90 in the series.
Yet, the Englishmen were routed by Australia. And Hammond’s leadership attracted vitriolic criticism from the press and players. According to Denis Compton, the only time the team saw the captain was during the matches. He remained aloof and distant.
However, it is likely that Hammond had been disillusioned. He had approached the tour with an expectation of the type of cricket played during the war and in the victory ‘Tests’, and a relaxed time for the war ravaged players. It was a return for many to the long lost luxury of good and plentiful food. The team was promised “the happiest six months of your life” by their captain. Perhaps that is what they enjoyed in the greater view of things. Everyone put on weight and sent parcels of food back home to England still sticking to war time rationing.
But, the Australians under Bradman played to win. When Bradman resumed his innings in the first Test after an edge off his bat seemed to fly to Jack Ikin at slip, Hammond made his disgust clear. “A fine f*#%ing way to start a Test series,” he remarked. After that Hammond looked distant, letting the game roll on from over to over. Relations remained strained between Bradman and Hammond. The two seldom talked to each other on the tour except at the toss.
The captain of England himself looked a pale shadow of the great player he had been and failed miserably. Suffering from injuries and after effects of fibrosis, he was also not too amused by the press intruding into his private life and splashing the news of his divorce with Dorothy.
After an innings of 79 against New Zealand in his final Test, he announced his retirement and returned to England. On arrival he married Sybil Ness-Harvey, a Durban beauty queen he had met on the 1938-39 tour. Again, she had not been his only mistress in the intervening years, but he did keep the promise of marrying her.
The last days
After his cricketing days were over, Hammond supplemented his income at Marsham Tyres by working as a journalist, covering cricket tours and having ghosted autobiographies written for him.
In 1951, he moved to Durban and earned a sketchy living through a number of jobs that required longer and more arduous hours than in England. His life was made more complicated by a major car accident that he suffered in 1960.
A glimpse of brightness visited him in the last days of 1964. When the English team visited South Africa that season, Hammond made an unexpected visit to the dressing room. The players of the team were both surprised and awed at the great man’s sudden appearance. And Hammond himself was struck by the reverence with which he was received and the popularity he enjoyed. It was perhaps a far cry from his playing days.
A few months after this happy occasion, Hammond died after a heart attack in July 1965.
Conjectures and Refutations
Hammond’s final figures read 7249 runs in 85 Tests at 58.45. The post-War Tests had dimmed his lustre but only just. His medium-paced bowling, and occasional spinners, collected 83 wickets. With 110 catches he is still widely considered to be the best ever all-round fielder produced by England.
In all First-Class cricket he amassed 50551 runs with 165 hundreds, captured 732 wickets and pouched 820 catches.
According to Bradman, his greatest rival, Hammond was “Of lovely athletic build, light as a ballet dancer on his feet, always beautifully balanced, the outstanding batsman between (the Wars). His game was based on driving and nobody was his peer when it came to the cover drive.” But, the rivalry hit Bradman as well, and surprisingly, in his greatest eleven, he included Hammond — as the 12th man.
There were some who felt he was not really comfortable against the fastest of bowling. But, on occasions, he did master some of the most formidable pace bowlers. Charlie Barnett, never a Hammond adherent, admitted: “He did not relish fast bowling, so if he had his way, which he normally did while batting, he took one run off the fast bowler and left his partner to get on with it and do the best he could. The last time I really saw him take on fast bowling was at Trent Bridge in 1932. Harold Larwood was one of several in that match striving for a place on the boat for the winter tour of Australia. Wally played one of the most brilliant innings I ever saw. He stood up and cut the fast, rising ball for runs time and again and it was a wonderful hundred he made.”
There had been occasions when Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilley tied him down by bowling at the leg stump. But, there had also been many leg break bowlers who barely escaped injuries when drives boomed back towards them.Some even ended up maimed.
Bradman did agree that he did not have an all-out attacking stroke between mid-on and square leg, but he did score through the region with relentless regularity. Sometimes, as a diversion from threading the offside with bullet-like drives off the front and back foot, Hammond did open his shoulders and lift balls over mid-on.
A complex character
As mentioned often, Hammond was taciturn, aloof and moody. During a 700-mile car journey across Australia, his only words to co-passenger Hutton had been, “Look out for a garage. We need some petrol.”
Yet, there was a generous side to him as well. In the benefit match of England and Gloucestershire off-spinner Tom Goddard, Nottinghamshire were all out for 200, and at close Gloucestershire stood at 107 for three, with Hammond on 52. Goddard feared that the game would last only two days, thus depriving him of gate money. Hammond promised his teammate that he would ensure that the match went the full distance. He brought up his century in 195 minutes, double hundred in 305 minutes, and then, having kept his promise, delighting one and all with the last 113 in 80 minutes. Having scored 317, he gave his bat to Goddard to auction.
He was a complex, curious character, but one of the greatest and most graceful batsmen of all time, certainly the finest player through the off-side in the history of the game and one of the most delightful to watch.
(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)