Continuing with our series on the greatest cricketers of all time, here’s No. 10 on our list.
No. 10 – Jack Hobbs
A young boy faced his father’s off-spin while batting and continuously moved away from the stumps. “Don’t draw away,” his father told him. “Standing up to the wicket is very important. If you draw away, you cannot play with a straight bat and the movement may cause you to be bowled off your pads.” Sir John Berry “Jack” Hobbs never forgot his father’s advice.
In the epic saga of cricket, first there was WG Grace, and later there was Bradman; linking them both together in a seamless plot of history, was Sir Jack Hobbs.
At first, Sir Jack Hobbs was known to me only as the batsman who made more than 61,000 first-class runs with 199 centuries to his name. For someone like me who idolized Tendulkar and marveled at the gigantic numbers against his name, Sir Jack Hobbs’ statistics were something that I pushed away from my mind, thinking of them as some anomaly in the queer old times. In the cricket-mad nation where I grew up hearing about ‘Little Master’ and ‘Master Blaster’, it’s appalling how I never really gave any thought to know more about ‘The Master’.
Sir Jack is known to the present world, unfortunately, just by the numbers he put up on the scoreboard. But in reality, he left an impression upon the game that’s unseen – the intangible qualities of sportsmanship and cricketing skill that have continued to blossom from player to player in the eras after his departure.
‘Amateurs’ and ‘professionals’ – the significance of these two terms is lost on the players and viewers of our era. But it was the way of life in Hobbs’ time. The divide between the gentlemen ‘amateurs’ and the working class ‘professionals’ was so great that the two groups stayed in different cabins, resided in different hotels on tours, even entered and exited the ground from different gates. When his Surrey captain, Percy Fender, marched his team on to the ground through a single gate for the first time, the reaction that he drew from other ‘gentlemen’ of his time was that of loathing. But it wasn’t in Hobbs’ nature to champion a cause by being the aggressor. Instead, his performances itself became the weapon which abolished the class divide. When he retired, Surrey erected the ‘Jack Hobbs Gates’ in his honour at the Oval. In 1953, he became the first ‘professional’ cricketer to be knighted purely for his contribution to the game.
“A professional who batted like an amateur”, said Sir Pelham Warner, describing Hobbs’ greatness.
It’s interesting to note that both Bradman and Hobbs started playing cricket with a single stump, hitting the ball the most difficult way. They both, therefore, understood the importance of a straight bat, always knowing that only a fraction of the willow is needed to score runs. When it came to technique, it was simple – a firm bottom hand grip, contrary to coaches’ instructions, a step out or a step back, depending on the delivery’s length, and firm pushes – those were his means by which he made the most runs and the most centuries ever by any cricketer. They underlined the success of simplicity.
He came from humble beginnings, from a life of poverty, and his story of rags to riches is truly a fairy tale, because he himself was such a modest and decent person. If you admire a character like Dravid today, you’ll definitely respect the persona of Jack Hobbs. He had a calm demeanor off the field and was rooted to ground despite being the most dominant cricketer of his era. Unlike other great batsmen, he wasn’t a child prodigy. He scored his first century at the age of 18 and it was only in 1901 that he really started to look like a promising batsman. He started his career in the county of his idol, Tom Hayward, who, impressed by his batting, was instrumental in bringing Hobbs to Surrey. In 1905, at the age of 22, he started his long and illustrious career.
Hobbs’ career is clearly divisible into two stages – the period before the First World War in 1914 and the period since the resumption of cricket at its end. Hobbs was attacking and ruthless in the first half, scoring at a much faster pace than he did during the latter stage of his career. ‘Googly’ was the newest trick acquired by the wrist spinners at that time and it was none other than Jack Hobbs who mastered it. Not only in England, but even on the mats of South Africa, which had the trickiest back-of-the-hand bowlers, Hobbs came out triumphant. In the 1909-1910 series, South Africa won 3-2, but Hobbs scored 539 runs, averaging 67.37, more than double the next best (a la Bradman in Bodyline).
The Hobbs-Sutcliffe partnership is the best in Test history till date in terms of average. Together in 38 innings, they scored 3249 runs at an average of 87.81 with 15 century and 10 half-century stands. In 1926, they were involved in a legendary partnership in the deciding match of the Ashes. Batting on a dangerous Oval wicket which made the ball jag and jump awkwardly, the two shared a partnership of 172 for the first wicket with Hobbs scoring 100. It was a wicket which proved to be fatal for batsmen as England comfortably knocked out Australia in the final innings for 125. This masterful innings, considering the pressure level and the wicket, is widely considered to be Hobbs’ greatest innings.
It is said that the only batsman better than the post-war Hobbs, was the pre-war Hobbs. But if the strokes became unhurried and less flashy, the scoring proficiency increased magnificently, with more emphasis on 1s and 2s, all in a bid to keep it simple. He scored 100 centuries after the age of 40 – a testament to his longevity – and he holds the record for being the oldest cricketer to score a century at the age of 46 years and 82 days. He retired from Test cricket in 1930 but played for 4 more years for Surrey, where he finally hung his boots in 1934, at the age of 52.
Apart from being a ‘Master’ batsman, Hobbs was also a sharp cover-point fielder, an attribute that he slowly lost with increasing age, unlike his run-scoring ability, which never really stopped.
Today, the essence of the story of Jack Hobbs is in the colossal statistics that he has created. But the thing that the man himself cherished the most was the sheer joy of achieving his childhood dream of being in a profession related to cricket. He loved the game and played for the joy of playing, more than any other thing. He overcame class divides, difficult pitches, a World war and old age to do what he enjoyed the most – play cricket, and score runs. Lots of them.
Written in 1952, this tribute by John Arlott is absolutely pitch-perfect:
There falls across this one December day
The light remembered from those suns of June
That you reflected in the summer play
Of perfect strokes across the afternoon.
No yeoman ever walked his household land
More sure of step, or more secure of lease,
Than you, accustomed and unhurried,
trod Your small yet mighty manor of the crease.
The game the Wealden rustics handed down
Through growing skill, became,
in you, a part Of sense; and ripened to a style that showed
Their country sport matured to balanced art.
There was a wisdom so informed your bat
To understanding of the bowler’s trade
That each resource of strength or skill he used
Seemed but the context of the stroke you played.
The Master: records prove the title good:
Yet figures fail you, for they cannot say
How many men whose names you never knew
Are proud to tell their sons they saw you play
They share the sunlight of your summer day
Of thirty years; and they, with you, recall
How, through those well-wrought centuries, your hand
Reshaped the history of bat and ball.
And now, a look at the batting style of Sir Jack Hobbs -
These are the other players who have made it so far:
No. 20 – Bill O’Reilly; No. 19 – Fred Trueman; No. 18 – Dennis Lillee; No. 17 – Sunil Gavaskar; No. 16 – Steve Waugh; No. 15 – Kapil Dev; No. 14 – Malcolm Marshall; No. 13 – Glenn McGrath; No. 12 – Imran Khan; No. 11 – Brian Lara
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: