It was a Test match that witnessed the passing of the baton of greatness, a gold-sprinkled handshake between two generations of batting giants.
In 1905, Jack Hobbs had made his First-Class debut for Surrey against the Gentlemen of England. In another marvellous thread that binds the glorious pages of cricketing history, the Gentlemen were led by the bearded giant who had strode like a colossus over the landscape of cricket’s early days — WG Grace.
Now, as Hobbs played his last series in Australia at the age of 46, a young 20-year-old Don Bradman was taking his brisk first steps in international cricket.
It was a connection that clicked in several moments of splendour.
In the first Test at Brisbane, Hobbs had proceeded in his usual composed way to 49, when Phil Mead cut Clarrie Grimmett to the point boundary. The batsmen ran two — and with young Bradman still some distance away from the ball at the edge of the field, a third was attempted. According to Reuters, “This was a tremendous risk. And on seeing Bradman pick up brilliantly, the batsmen hesitated in the middle of the pitch. The wicket was as good as thrown away. Bradman, true to his reputation as a fine outfielder, made a beautiful return and Hobbs was well out when the wicket was broken.”
This was the first time Hobbs had been run out in his Test career. Bradman, along with being the best batsman of all time, was perhaps the greatest outfielder of his generation.
In the nail-biting finish of the fourth Test match at Adelaide, Australia had been set a target of 349. Bradman, with an authoritative and chanceless 58, was shepherding the tail towards victory. On the final morning, with the score on 320 for seven, wicket-keeper Bert Oldfield pushed the ball to Hobbs’s right hand at cover and called Bradman through for a single. Patsy Hendren recounted, “Jack pounced on the ball and though the return was not a typical one, George Duckworth performed a wonderful feat of acrobatics and managed to break the wicket before Bradman got home. That clever bit of fielding turned the game in our favour.” England won by 12 runs, going up 4-0 in the series.
In his younger days, Hobbs had been the best cover fielder in the world. Well into his middle age, he still had the ability to turn a match with his work in the field.
The Hobbs master class
Now, after these exchanges of brilliance in the outfield, the fifth Test at Melbourne saw the metaphorical passing of the sceptre of the batting emperor. Jack Hobbs scored his last Test hundred and Bradman his second, the first in a winning cause.
On March 8, 1929, Jack White, standing in as captain in place of Percy Chapman, won the toss and England batted. For the first time in eight years, Hobbs had to open without Herbert Sutcliffe at the other end. The Yorkshireman had dropped out due to injury. Douglas Jardine opened the innings alongside the master.
The wicket was lively and Tim Wall, Percy Hornibrook, Ron Oxenham and Alan Fairfax formed a formidable and tight seam attack. Yet, Hobbs was at his very best with typical assurance and application, guiding his younger partner to lunch without losses on the way.
Jardine fell on resumption, and Hobbs became more expansive in his approach, playing with ‘sparkle and old time form’ in the words of Monty Noble. Percy Fender, seated in the press box, was delighted with his Surrey colleague’s batting: “He was always sound and the master not only of the bowling but of himself in every way and he played with the utmost ease and freedom. He was never really pressing for runs, but he took advantage of anything approaching the loose while he showed his old ability to force runs here and there, as and when he wanted them without taking the faintest shadow of risk.”
He had a stroke of luck when on 77, with a chance not sticking to hand. And at 4:40 pm, he took the single that brought up his 15th and final Test century. The Australian spectators cheered him as one of their own, with thunderous reception.
He was out shortly before the end of the day’s play, leg before to Australian skipper Jack Ryder for 142. “His display, after 21 years in Test cricket, was masterly in the extreme. His timing was as perfect as ever and his placing to leg and leg glances beautifully executed,” wrote the Daily Mail.
When Hobbs and wife Ada went down to dinner that night in the restaurant of the Windsor, the orchestra struck up, “See the conquering hero comes,” and followed it up with, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” The four hundred other guests stood up and sang the chorus. Hobbs acknowledged the gesture with a typically modest smile and bow.
Hobbs himself was relieved. “Some time ago I doubted whether I was justified in accepting the invitation to play in these Tests. I thought the time had arrived to make way for a younger man. This innings, however, has largely dispelled my doubts on the question.”
Hendren struck 95 and Maurice Leyland 137, and England finished with a total of 511.
The Bradman brilliance
It was not enough to ensure safety for England.
Bill Woodfull grafted out a slow, patient century, with only three boundary hits in nearly five and a half hours of batting. However, when he and Ryder both fell at the same score, Australia were 203 for four and in a spot of bother.
Bradman now proceeded to play a delightful innings spanning three and a half hours. With remarkable strokeplay and magnificent and powerful driving, all blazing along the ground, hugging the carpet and placed in the gaps with surgical precision, he struck 123 in a stand of 183 with his St George club mate Fairfax. Australia finished on 491. It was the start of a lifelong love affair, the first of Bradman’s nine hundreds in ten Test matches at Melbourne.
On the sixth day of this timeless Test match, Hobbs played another serene innings of 65, but England succumbed to some excellent sustained pace bowling by Tim Wall.
Left 286 to win, Australia opened the innings in the dying stages of the day with Oldfield and Hornibrook protecting the frontline batsmen in the fading light. By the next morning, their stand had produced 51 after Oldfield had been missed at eight.
Runs were not easy to get as wickets fell regularly. Wally Hammond, at the end of a fabulous series with the bat, took three wickets and bowled a supreme spell, making the ball break and come off the pitch at alarming pace.
On the eighth morning Alan Kippax was run out while chancing Leyland’s arm, going for an all run four. Ryder and Bradman came together at 204.
Two things now took place in quick succession which finalised the course of the match. At 219, Duckworth fumbled a stumping chance with Bradman on five, out of his ground by quite some distance. And a run later, Ryder, at 27, attempted a single and had the wicket thrown down by Leyland rushing across from mid-off. The Englishmen believed that they had got their man, but umpire Alfred Jones ruled in favour of the batsman. Ryder, playing his last Test match, saw Australia home along with Bradman keeping him company with some thrilling finishing touches.
It brought an end to eight days of marvellous cricket, Australia finally winning a Test and Bradman revealing the first flashes of what was to result in two decades of lasting brilliance.
England 511 (Jack Hobbs 142, Patsy Hendren 95, Maurice Leyland 137) and 257 (Jack Hobbs 65, Maurice Leyland 53*, Maurice Tate 54; Tim Wall 5 for 66) lost to Australia 491 (Bill Woodfull 102, Don Bradman 123, Alan Fairfax 65; George Geary 5 for 105) and 287 for four (Bert Oldfield 48, Archie Jackson 46, Jack Ryder 57*) by six wickets.
(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)
First Published: March 8, 2013, 12:35 pm