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Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe – Opening the symphony of sheer will

Batting partners Jack Hobbs (1882 - 1963, left) and Herbert Sutcliffe (1894 - 1978) go out to open the innings for England in the second Test at Melbourne, February 1925. The pair put on 283, their third century partnership in successive innings.
Krish Sripada

Test cricket has seen a myriad of opening partnerships. Some stood the test of time, travel and the torment of expectations. Some withered in the face of pressure. Some broke early, some endured. But, in its long history, Test cricket has given us some partnerships etched on the rocks, on pinnacles of achievement – stories of success that will stand the test of time. Desmond Haynes-Gordon Greenidge, Hayden-Langer and Mahela-Sangakkara are some of the contemporary names that will roll effortlessly from the tongues of cricket lovers of this generation. But the game has a rich heritage, an enviable legacy and the quest for epitomes would only lead us to discover greats who owned the game as much through the unmistakable stamp of their numbers as they did with their endurance and the manner in which those numbers were stacked. One such opening pair was that of Herbert Sutcliffe and Sir Jack Hobbs, considered the world’s greatest opening pair by many pundits and for very obvious reasons. A dreamy, poignant memory is instantly conjured in the mind when one sees a black and white photo of Sir Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe walking together. Taken during the 2nd test at Melbourne in 1925, the photo shows two great men, in supreme calm, Hobbs wearing a cap, and Sutcliffe wearing a smile underneath his trademark parted hair.

Batting partners Jack Hobbs (1882 – 1963, left) and Herbert Sutcliffe (1894 – 1978) go out to open the innings for England in the second Test at Melbourne, February 1925. The pair put on 283, their third century partnership in successive innings.

The magnanimity of the partnership numbers

In a partnership that spanned 6 years from 1924 to 1930, Hobbs and Sutcliffe plundered 3249 runs opening for England. This number is huge in itself with the pair standing 8th in the list of highest opening partnership aggregates. However, their genius isn’t really justified enough by this lowly position. The perception of an individual will further be accentuated with some fine tuning needed to put the stats into perspective.

  • The pair averages 87.81 for the opening wicket, which is the highest for any pair that has put on more than a 1000 runs together in Test cricket till date – more than any modern-day partnership where players have more safety equipment and the pitches are properly covered.
  • If one compares all the pairs that have put on more than 2000 runs for the opening wicket, a respectable number in Test cricket, the next best average also belongs to two Englishmen – Hobbs (once again) and Rhodes. It is 61.31, 26.5 points below the highest.
  • Hobbs and Sutcliffe have 15 century partnerships and 10 half century partnerships. In other words, the pair put up a 50+ stand 25 times in just 38 innings, once almost every 1.5 innings, which is incredibly and unbelievably ahead of any other pair.
  • In spite of opening together in just 38 innings, the pair ranks 4th in the all-time list of century partnerships for any wicket. Greenidge and Haynes are the only other opening pair above them, notching up 16 century partnerships in 148 innings, which is almost four times the number of innings Hobbs and Sutcliffe took.

It is obvious beyond a speck of a doubt that Hobbs and Sutcliffe formed the most fruitful and consistent partnership in the history of the game. Had they been of the same age, the numbers could have been Bradmanesque to say the least. As it is, their average in the high 80s is the stuff of legend. Their individual numbers are just as mind-boggling too.

Hobbs’ Numbers

Jack Hobbs Bats

Sir Jack Hobbs, the first professional cricketer to be knighted, still remains the record holder for the most centuries in first class cricket. Sachin Tendulkar’s feat of 100 international hundreds is grand from a contemporary perspective. Cricket lovers will be able to imagine the grandeur of Hobbs’ feat when compared with Sachin’s number. Sir Jack Hobbs has 199 first class hundreds. He, like Bradman, was afflicted of the game’s curse that ruins legends of a lovely number to walk them into the crimson sunset of their careers. 200 first class hundreds would have had a ring to it. Hobbs is also the oldest man to score an international Test century. He was 46 when he scored his last international century, an age where most contemporary cricketers turn coaches or commentators. In 834 matches, Hobbs accumulated a whopping 61760 runs at an average over 50.

Sutcliffe’s Numbers

16th June 1932, Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe broke world record cricket partnership with a score of 555 for their Yorkshire team in a match versus Essex at Leyton, London, Herbert Sutcliffe returns to the pavilion after the record innings

Herbert Sutcliffe, who was 12 years younger to Hobbs, played 754 first class matches in which he scored 50,670 runs with an astonishing 151 hundreds. Sutcliffe still has one of the highest batting averages in the game, an impressive 60.73 in 54 matches, with 4555 runs. In fact, of batsmen who have played at least 10 completed innings, Sutcliffe holds a place of pride at No.6. It is also the highest Test batting average for an English batsman, one stat where he has had the better of his illustrious partner. He also boasts of maintaining a 60+ average throughout his career, where he outshines even the great Don himself.

The partnership

Sutcliffe’s first stint at the top with Hobbs, who was already a seasoned international, was at the Scarborough Festival against C I Thornton’s XI, where the pair had put on 120 with Sutcliffe going on to make a century. Hobbs, even from the selectors’ point of view, was meant to be an influential guide to mentor the young Sutcliffe and ease him into the international arena. This was one of the reasons Sutcliffe’s debut was delayed when Hobbs dropped out of the South African tour in the early 1920s. It was, like the pundits say, a match made in heaven and orchestrated efficiently by the selectors. The pair started out with a bang in 1924, putting on 136 and 268 in their first two matches together. A new opening pair had announced itself on the world stage, and there was no looking back for the next six years.

Biographies and newspapers sang paeans of the batting pair that notched runs with alarming consistency. What separates the pair from most other opening pairs in world cricket is the understanding they had. It was aptly observed that this pair was amongst the best when it came to judging a single, although neither of them was anywhere close to swift, between the wickets. The pair stole singles largely on account of Hobbs’ perfect placement and Sutcliffe’s unfettered trust in his partner’s call, so much so that he only had to stroll through for the single sometimes. The pair, which boasts of 11 100+ partnerships against their old nemesis Australia, was acknowledged as the best ever not just because of the runs they piled, but also the situations in which they delivered and the relationship they shared.

Sutcliffe paid the ultimate tribute by naming his son after Hobbs, his batting partner of 6 years. Both were solid batsmen in their own right. Some consider Hobbs the greatest batsman after WG Grace, thanks to his technical adeptness and fluency off the front and the back foot. Sutcliffe, who combined grace with faultless temperament, looked unorthodox and especially vulnerable against spinners. But they were part of the deception, and his determination more than made up for what he missed out on orthodoxy.

Sutcliffe, who played for Yorkshire in the counties, regarded Bradman as the best batsman on good wickets and Sir Jack as the best on bad wickets. This respect was intertwined with his impression that Sir Jack was a church-goer of impeccable character, bringing noble qualities like sportsmanship and integrity to the game.

Heroic Tales

In a partnership so illustrious, it is hard to pick a few gems, especially when a pair averaged in the high 80s. Nevertheless, Sir Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe occupy a high place in the pantheon of great batsmen, for they turned up during a crisis,with an unflinching consistency that has rarely been seen since. In a way, Hobbs and Sutcliffe revelled in tough situations and monster wickets where no one gave them a chance. They were, in their own right, the Gibraltar Rocks, making sure the batsmen below them weren’t exposed to dangerous wickets.

One such instance was of the 1926 Ashes Series, where both teams arrived at the Oval, with the series at stake and the score line 0-0. Australia garnered a 22 run lead after the first innings and overnight rains damaged the pitch so thoroughly that England were all set for a batting collapse. Hobbs and Sutcliffe had other plans though, as the pair put on 172 runs. Hobbs was finally dismissed for 100, giving England a 400+ score to defend and a chance to win the Ashes after 3 consecutive drubbings. Their second innings partnership is a prime example of tenacity and grit on a dangerous wicket, a sublime exhibition of skill and its immaculate implementation at a crucial juncture.

England opening batsmen Jack Hobbs (left) and Herbert Sutcliffe receive generous applause as they leave the field at lunch on the third day of the 5th Test match between England and Australia at the Kennington Oval in London, 16th August 1926. In difficult batting conditions, after heavy rain, England's reliable opening partners put on 172 runs for the first wicket. Hobbs went on to score 100, and Sutcliffe 161, with England winning the match by 289 runs to win the series 1-0 and in so doing they regained the Ashes.

England opening batsmen Jack Hobbs (left) and Herbert Sutcliffe receive generous applause as they leave the field at lunch on the third day of the 5th Test match between England and Australia at the Kennington Oval in London, 16th August 1926. In difficult batting conditions, after heavy rain, England’s reliable opening partners put on 172 runs for the first wicket. Hobbs went on to score 100, and Sutcliffe 161, with England winning the match by 289 runs to win the series 1-0 and in so doing they regained the Ashes.

The 1928-29 Ashes series gave the pair another opportunity to show their class, which they did with a fine 105 run partnership. England was chasing 332 on a bad wicket that was devastated by rain and eventually won by 3 wickets. Douglas Jardine was one of the heroes of that series. Sutcliffe, who by then had a reputation for scoring tough runs, proved his worth once again. He held his end of the bargain until England were just 14 runs short of the target, impressing one and all with his dogged approach. In fact, he received the greatest cricketing compliment when the great Don himself wrote in his autobiography about the Sutcliffe innings, crowning it as the closest one can get to mastering batting on a sticky wicket.

These victories would have certainly tasted sweet to the two batting greats who had faced ignominy and humiliation on previous tours, losing the 1924-25 Ashes 1-4. That series, however, stood out for a colossal partnership between Hobbs and Sutcliffe in the second test. The pair put on a 283 run opening stand after Australia had posted 600 in their first innings. England would eventually lose the match by 81 runs in spite of Sutcliffe’s valiant centuries in both innings. Even in loss, the Hobbs-Sutcliffe partnership made waves. Australia won the series 4-1; but it was the ‘Sutcliffe-Hobbs’ pair that received adulation for their 4 century partnerships. The two players scored 7 centuries between them. The Wisden report gave them a fitting tribute, “Finer and more consistent batting than that of Hobbs and Sutcliffe in the first four Test matches could not well be conceived. Figures do not necessarily mean a great deal, but those of Hobbs and Sutcliffe are so remarkable, especially in view of the circumstances in which they were compiled, that they demand special attention.”

An institution on batting partnerships

Two remarks catch a reader’s attention when it comes to understanding the success of Hobbs and Sutcliffe, especially in the toughest situations. The first was from The Cricketer, “Hobbs is undoubtedly the sauciest run-stealer in the world today. In Sutcliffe, he has found the ideal partner in the felony, for the Yorkshire-man unhesitatingly responds to his calls, showing absolute confidence in Hobbs’ judgement.”

The second is by Ronald Mason, Hobbs’ biographer, who had these wonderful words to say about the pair, “Behind them were nine years of wonderful attainment, 26 opening partnerships of 100 or more; a legendary technique and repute unequalled by any other pair; the lean, active quizzical Hobbs and the neat, wiry imperturbable Sutcliffe, who set a standard that can serve as a guide, but defied all attempts at emulation.”

Over the years, quite a few pairs have defied the numbers that the two legends amassed together on some of the trickiest pitches that cricket has ever been played on. Yet, what remains defiant and undeniable is the legacy and the art of opening the innings for a country. To Herbert Sutcliffe and Sir John Berry Jack Hobbs, it meant putting your body in front, aided and abetted by your mind, soul and every resource persuaded and coerced out of one’s will to guard the batsmen to follow, enabling them to win a match for the country. That black and white photo of the two legends walking out will forever remind me of what two great men who share nothing but respect for each other can achieve in perfect harmony – a mellifluous symphony amidst the most violent of cacophonies that adversity on a cricket pitch can conjure.


Edited by Staff Editor

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