Nowadays, we hear a lot of complaining about a cricket pitch. If it’s a rank-turner, teams touring the subcontinent would criticise the track rather than their technical fragilities. Whereas, the subcontinental sides would never be
But what’s the benefit of fetching runs easily and without facing stifling challenges?
Things were different during the days of uncovered pitches and pre-helmet era. In those days, countering testing conditions and hostile bowling was regarded as the yardstick to measure the best batsman in the business then. Batsmen relished challenges and didn’t boast of scoring big hundreds
Unfavourable conditions hardly mattered for Sir Herbert Sutcliffe. No one personified the hard-school pro-attitude as much as Sutcliffe. At first glance, it seemed like he was a soft character who would be undone by the guile and hostility of the opposition’s pace bowler.
But as soon as the bowler released the ball and posed a threat after landing it on a nagging length, the Englishman’s eyes would light up, muscles flexed and the bat negotiated it so gently, backed by a strong defence. It left the opposition captain and purists of the game astonished, and in turn, they fell in love with Sutcliffe’s batting display.
Textbook perfect defence
Sutcliffe’s defence was immaculate and it was difficult to notice even the tiniest of space between the bat and pad while executing the forward defence. His strength lay in his ability to force well-pitched deliveries off the front foot on either side of the wicket.
His initial trigger movement was always on the back foot and it enabled him to pivot on the back foot quickly and get behind the line of the ball to execute the hook shot with great control. His back foot stroke-play on sticky wickets made him one of most respected batsman of his era. At times, on quick pitches, he was overly defensive, but as soon as he rediscovered his rhythm, eloquent strokes used to crop up all around the park.
If the ball rose, it encountered a dead bat, and if it spun sharply and jumped, Sutcliffe either pushed it down or took it on his body. The short of a length delivery outside the off stump would be gently deflected by the drop of wrists at the last moment. The lack of brute force in his drives was compensated by placements of absolute surgical precision.
A vigilant batsman; partnership with Sir Jack Hobbs
According to Sir Neville Cardus, “[Of his batting] Sutcliffe had style... But it was his eternal vigilance, his keen eye and a mind that could move and anticipate, which were his assets, plus his Yorkshire realism and his Yorkshire tenacity of character. Immaculate in flannels, his hair burnished by the sun, the cynosure of all the women's and girls' eyes, a cricketer of manners, symbol of the new urban social consciousness, none the less he could be fitted into the Yorkshire scheme and body and atmosphere, after all”.
Opening the innings for England in 1924-25, he watched the bowler deliver the first over to Sir Jack Hobbs. The bowl swung away late regularly and Hobbs drew away his bat just as the ball was to make contact, a perfect example of professionalism. At the end of this accurate over, Sutcliffe walked down to meet Hobbs. “I think I’d leave them alone, Jack, if I were you.” Sir Jack knew then that he had found the right opener for England.
Sir Hobbs and Sutcliffe scripted 157 runs for the opening stand in that Test and a Test later, chasing 600, Hobbs and Sutcliffe stayed in an entire day for 283. Their stroke-play and running between the wickets left the Australians frustrated and their understanding was so remarkable, they never called or seemed to be in a rush.
In the course of time, Sir Hobbs and Sutcliffe opening pair amassed 3249 runs in only 38 innings at a whopping average of 87.81 and was recognised as one of the finest opening pairs in the history of the game.
The sequence of Sutcliffe’s highly successful Ashes series was 59, 115, 176, 127, 33, 59, 143, 22 and 0, and his 734 runs at an average of 81.55 were the highest on either side. A partnership of 172 with Hobbs on a tricky track at the Oval in 1926 decided the fate of the Ashes in favour of England. Sutcliffe’s 161 was, in his esteem, the most satisfying innings of his career.
The partnership repeated the same on another deadly-sticky-wicket at Melbourne in 1928/29. That time, they added 106 as England successfully chased down 332 to win. Sutcliffe again scored a brave match winning hundred.
In the case of Sutcliffe, delight, fury, defeat and charm were all submerged in glacier like calm. “He was understood over 2000 years in advance by Greek philosophers. They called his character megalo-psychic. It is the sort of man who would rather miss a train than run for it and so be seen in disorder and heard breathing heavily,” said R. C. Robertson-Glasgow, cricketer and cricket writer, about Sutcliffe.
His later years
After retirement, Sutcliffe was successful as a manager in an investment firm. Later on, he also served as a selector in the England Cricket Board and was also a club committee member for Yorkshire for 21 years.
As time passed, age took its toll on him. He developed severe arthritis as he grew older and the severity of the disease was so much that he had to use a wheelchair. He suffered a personal tragedy in April 1974 when his wife Emmie, then aged 74, died as a result of severe burns following a fire at the family home in Ilkley.
On January 22, 1978, Sutcliffe’s health condition deteriorated and was finally admitted to a Cross Hills nursing home in North Yorkshire. He breathed his last in that hospital and world cricket lost an absolute master with the bat.
World cricket still remembers the great man and his contributions towards the game with utmost respect.