He was christened Elias Henry, but no one in the cricket world ever used either of the two names. He is the only male cricketer to be called ‘Patsy’ – a nickname tied to his Irish ancestry, which till this day evokes affectionand endearing admiration.
Patsy Hendren was the most popular of all cricketers –with players, spectators and most of all young schoolboys. The game has seen greater batsmen down the years, but seldom more lovable characters.
Legend has it that Hendren was wandering on the beach with some of his cricketing mates when he was asked by a group of kids to join them for a game. The young lads, in those old days before television, had no idea that this short, stocky man was one of the greatest batsmen to play for England. To lead them on, Hendren held the bat with an odd grip – and a couple of the boys even trotted up to him to help him correct it. But the balls bowled at him were dispatched into the sea. After a while, one of the kids, who had watched a few county games, remarked to his friends, “I think that’s Patsy Hendren.” The others looked at the diminutive man holding the bat in that peculiar way, and burst out laughing. One of them went far enough to remark, “If he is Hendren, I am Charlie McCartney.”
Cricketer and entertainer
It was always difficult to believe that this stumpy man with his penchant for practical jokes was one of the best batsmen against slow bowling, a fearless exponent of the hook and pull against the faster stuff and also a brilliant outfielder.
Blessed with electric quickness of feet, he danced down to the craftiest of spinners, never happier than when playing the lofted drive. And rarely was he beaten in flight. .
Neville Cardus, who was an unabashed admirer, thought he was less confident against pace. Not many agreed, least of all his fellow cricketers. True, he did put on that famed headgear which can be called the first ancestor of a helmet.It wasa three peaked hat with rubber padding over the temples designed by his wife Minnie which he put onwhen he walked out to face Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale at Lord’s in 1933. But, he was also renowned for his fierce hooks, had a flourishing cut, and alsoplayed a half-drive-half-cut cricketing curiosity that belonged to no book but his own, and these together flamboyantly saw off many barrages of short pitched bowling.
Always a nervous starter, he crouched low in his stance and was always on the lookout for a quick stolen single which would put him on the scoreboard. And as the strokes started to flow with time, his stance became more and more upright.
His quickness of movement also made him one of the greatest fielders in the deep. He sprinted around chasing the balls, cutting off boundaries and saving runs, sometimes taking breath-taking catches. As the decades wore on, and his movements lost the keen sharpness of his early youth, he was moved to the slips. He missed little, as he stood there for Middlesex, the county he represented for nearly three decades. And when the reflexes waned as he entered his fifth decade, a chance or two went abegging – and of his own volition he was reinstated in the deep where he charmed one and all by turning the clock back and chasing like a rosy cheeked teen.
When the going got slow and matches entered those periods of tedium, Hendren would regale the crowd in the outfield with his antics and unrivalled talent for mimicry. Another legend has it that once he produced such an impression of Wally Hammond that the great batsman actually threw the ball towards him.
An all-round athlete in spite of his rather deceptive build, he spent several of his winters – when he was not touring with the English side – playing as an outside right for Brentford, QPR, Manchester City and Coventry City. He was a good enough footballer to receive an England cap in a 1919 Victory International
In the end, even with his happy-go-lucky attitude, he scored tons and tons of runs. Only Jack Hobbs managed more hundreds, and Frank Woolley is the only man other than Hobbs to have scored more runs than Hendren in First-Class cricket.
A chequered Test career
Hendren joined the Lord's ground staff in 1905 as a 16-year old and made his county debut in 1909. Until the First World War, it was mainly his fielding and some solid backing by the influential Plum Warner that kept him in the side.
By the time the War ended, he had established himself as one of the leading batsmen of England and toured Australia in 1920-21. The first trip and the Ashes back home were disappointing, and despite a couple of hundreds against South Africa in 1921, he did not really graduate into an indispensable member of the side.
He did bring off some good performances in the 1924-25 Ashes, but there were growing questions about the favours received by those who played their cricket at Lord’s. However, the former Australian captain MA Noble underlined his credentials by proclaiming Hendren as "one of the best batsmen in the World", but even he was critical about his over-defensive approach.
In the next Ashes series, at home in 1926, he did score a strokeful 127 not out at Lord’s – a chanceless innings with 18 boundaries. Incredibly it was the first Ashes century by a Middlesex cricketer at Lord's, and the only one till Andrew Strauss scored a hundred in 2009.
It was in the 1928-29 Ashes series that he finally did justice to the promise he had demonstrated so long. Almost 40 by then, he completed his 100th First-Class hundred against Victoria and promptly ran himself out. And then, coming in at 161 for four in the first Test at Brisbane, he notched up a brilliant 169. AG Moyes recalled that he “hit the ball amazingly hard.” Hendren finished the series with 472 runs at 52.44.
This was followed by the fantastic tour of the West Indies. In the second test at Trinidad he played what should surely rank as his best innings, 205 not out with 29 fours in just under six hours. He amassed 693 runs at 115.50 in the series and developed a cult following in the Islands with his brilliance on the field and his immense sense of humour off it.
He played off and on for England during the next few years before another great moment of glory in 1934.
At Old Trafford, with the series tied one match each, he walked out with the score on 72 for three, with the great Bill O'Reilly having just taken three wickets in four balls. He negotiated the demon spinner for an hour and a half, and was unbeaten on 30 when he was joined at the wicket by left-handed Maurice Leyland, with the score on 149 for four. A rollicking stand of 191 followed in just over three hours, before Hendren fell to a return catch to O’Reilly for a masterly 132.
He was 45 years and 151 days old. No one other than Hobbs has scored a century in Ashes Tests at this advanced an age.
Farewell and thereafter
When Hendren played his last match for Middlesex in 1937, the Lord's crowd stood as one and sang "For he's a jolly good fellow." Egged on, Hendren completed his 170th First-Class century.
His final figures stand at a monumental 57,611 runs in First-Class cricket at 50.80, with 759 catches to his credit. In 51 Test matches, Hendren scored 3,525 runs at 47.63 with seven hundreds.
After his 30-year stint at top grade cricket was over, Hendren took over as the cricket coach at Harrow. It was under his guidance that Harrow defeated Eton for the first time in 31 years. Hendren moved on and became the coach of Sussex.
However, he was not the most focused of coaches. There were far too many distractions with admirers thronging to him to hear his humour laced anecdotes, and Hendren almost always gave in.Yet, even when he was done as a cricketer, few men in the game enjoyed such following and popularity.
Patsy Hendren died in Tooting Bes Hospital, following a stroke, on October 4, 1962. Sir Jack Hobbs remembered him as: “The life and soul of the party on all tours.”
(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: February 5, 2013, 9:59 am