Jack Hobbs could be as brutal as he was elegant © Getty Images
Jack Hobbs could be as brutal as he was elegant © Getty Images

Jack Hobbs was always a delight to watch. However, on the morning of May 25, 1914, he took things a bit too far: not only did he stop time, he even sent it back. Abhishek Mukherjee recalls the moment.

1914. The gloom of The Great War was already upon England. For over half a decade, it would remain the last season of the County Championship.

There was cricket till July, but the men started leaving for the front as the summer approached its end. Some of them never returned to their homes.

The Army acquired The Oval (Surrey’s home ground) shortly afterwards. This meant that Jack Hobbs had to rearrange his benefit match (on August 3) at Lord’s. It was a failure, yielding a mere £657. Surrey would later grant him with two more benefits, in 1919 and 1926.

There were enough indications that cricket would need to come to a halt, but MCC issued a statement, insisting “no good purpose can be saved at the moment by cancelling matches.”

Then, on August 26, The Sportsman printed a letter from WG Grace — one that effectively brought Fist-Class cricket in England to a halt: “I think the time has arrived when the county cricket season should be closed, for it is not fitting at a time like this that able-bodied men should be playing cricket by day and pleasure-seekers look on. I should like to see all first-class cricketers of suitable age set a good example and come to the help of their country without delay in its hour of need.”

Yorkshire and Sussex played the last Championship match that season. Play was called off at tea on the final day, September 2. The remaining matches were cancelled. Surrey was announced champion in the incomplete season. No other county objected to the decision.

And yet, whatever cricket was played that season was the brightest there was, for this was the last year of what they still refer to as The Golden Age of Cricket.

The Hobbs show

Surrey won the Championship for the first time since 1899. Hobbs towered over everyone with a run less than 2,500, scoring at 62.47. Andy Ducat, Ernie Hayes, and Tom Hayward all topped the 1,000-run mark. Bill Hitch and Tom Rushby both got over a hundred wickets, while Percy Fender’s tally read 740 runs and 82 wickets.

When the match began at Bradford, however, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was still a month away. Glum-faced, hard-nosed Yorkshiremen — nearly four thousand of them — watched Hobbs and Hayward stride out to take on an excellent attack. The Yorkshire attack boasted of Major Booth (his name was Major) and Alonzo Drake, who would perform miracles in the last days of cricket before the stoppage; and, of course, those two men from Kirkheaton — George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes.

Hobbs put up a scintillating display of aggressive batting. He is often perceived as elegant — no more — at the crease. Nothing could have been far from the truth. Contemporary authors must take the blame for this.

At his prime Hobbs was as ruthless a hitter as anyone in the world. And on this day at Bradford he scored exactly a hundred, 74 of which came in boundaries (11 fours, 5 sixes). He reached 50 in 50 minutes before exploding, getting his next 50 in a mere 25 — all this on a slow pitch.

He did lose Hayward on 65 after a mere 35 minutes of cricket, but that did not seem to deter him. If anything, he got only fiercer. The second-wicket partnership between Hobbs and Hayes amounted to 86 in half an hour.

Hobbs perished after a brief period of drama. His only blemish came on 88, when Cecil Burton dropped him off Hirst at long-leg. They ran two. The next two balls were promptly dispatched for six and four. He was bowled off the last ball of the over.

Tinkering with clockwork

It was during one of those towering sixes that it happened, as narrated by AA Thomson in his double-barrelled biography Hirst and Rhodes. Like all anecdotes, this may not be true (and Thomson’s book borders on hagiography), but there is no evidence of it being false, either. Nothing, after all, was impossible with Hobbs around.

Hobbs hit Drake very straight. In fact, it was so straight that it broke the glass of the pavilion clock and, almost impossibly, turned the hour hand of the clock back.

Onlookers, even the grim Yorkshiremen who had come to watch, must have nodded and smiled: who else could stop time but Hobbs?

An apt retort came from the hapless Drake: “tha’ should have knocked her to half-past six and we’d have been rid of thee!” The reference was, of course, to 6.30 PM, the scheduled time for stumps.

If only Hobbs could stop time long enough to prevent The War…

What happened to the match?

Hayes took over after Hobbs fell, getting last out for 125. Unfortunately, nobody else went past 25. Rhodes kept taking out the batsmen one by one; he finished with 6 for 109 as Surrey were bowled out for 317 in 200 minutes of batting.

Rhodes then led the response with 84 while Kilner and Hirst got 48 apiece. Yorkshire conceded a lead of 33. Then Rhodes (5 for 56) and Drake (4 for 62) bowled out Surrey for 189, of which Hobbs got 74.

Yorkshire struggled in pursuit of 223. Ben Wilson scored 51, but Rushby (5 for 63) and Fender (4 for 39) reduced them to 106 for 8. Then came the fightback, the kind of which they probably breed in factories of Sheffield or thereabouts: Thomas Birtles got 40, helping Hirst (55) put up 82. The last wicket fell on 194.

Brief scores:

Surrey 317 (Jack Hobbs 100, Ernie Hayes 125; Wilfred Rhodes 6 for 109) and 189 (Jack Hobbs 74; Alonzo Drake 4 for 62, Wilfred Rhodes 5 for 56) beat Yorkshire 284 (Wilfred Rhodes 89, Roy Kilner 48, George Hirst 48; Razor Smith 4 for 78, Tom Rushby 3 for 73) and 194 (Ben Wilson 51, George Hirst 55, Thomas Birtles 40; Tom Rushby 5 for 63, Percy Fender 4 for 39) by 4 wickets.