This is Len Hutton's benefit year, and an apt time, therefore, to sing his praises. It is given to few on this earth outside the realms of politics and criminology to become legends in their own life-times. Len Hutton is one of the exceptions.
There are those who deplore the modern habit of using the Christian name in alluding to heroes of sport, but it serves at least one purpose. It sorts out the alpha-plus-pluses from the mere alphas. Talk of Wally or Don or Denis in any cricket pavilion in the world, and they will know you are not referring to any transient Smith, Jones or Robinson.
In the days of initials only there was a counterpart in that awesome couplet W. G. Famed players of not quite the same stature bear no such hall-mark. Even your Bill needs its qualifying Edrich and Godfrey an explanatory Evans.
No such limitations affect Len Hutton, our Len to Yorkshiremen the world over. Note the proud possessive, all the affection and pride of the broad acres narrowing to a single word. Our 'Erbert was another such, and our Wilfred, for all the doughty deeds of the present captain of Glamorgan, means only one man to cricket enthusiasts.
Rhodes was in his 49th year when he came back to help tumble out Australia with his tantalising left-handers in the final Test at The Oval in 1926--a giant indeed, and Yorkshire to the last monosyllable. Yorkshire and England, it bears a magic sound. Cricket itself has no equal. No other sport can quite match it. Sheffield Wednesday and England, for all its merit, rings no bells. Queensland and Australia may set the inhabitants of Gympie alight, but where cricket began, Yorkshire and England is the pinnacle of ambition.
This, then, was the tradition that the young Hutton took over on a winter's morning in 1930, a lad of thirteen trudging through the snow to his first trial at the Headingley nets. If he paused to think he must surely have had a qualm or two. Ulyett, Peel, Hunter, Wainwright, Brown, Tunnicliffe, Hirst, Haigh, Leyland, Verity, Bowes, Sutcliffe--what a line to have to follow, and these only a few of them. Indeed a task to daunt the boldest. Yet Hutton grasped the nettle with such assurance that his own challenge to posterity is already equally grim. Such are the demands that Yorkshire makes on its cricketing sons.
To the robot world of statistics Hutton's career touched its peak in 13 hours 20 minutes' batting at Kennington Oval, London, on August 20, 22 and 23 in the year 1938. In that time he made 364 runs at an average pace of 27.3 runs per hour, and, as any schoolboy will tell you, set up the individual record not only for England-Australia matches, but for all Tests. May it reign unbroken, in my time at least, for I should hate to sit through its successor. What an argument against the timeless Test!
As a feat of sustained skill, not to mention physical endurance, against one of the most pugnacious and completely armed attackers of all time, galumphing Bill O'Reilly, Hutton's effort truly ranks as monumental. More soothing still to England's cricket pride, it represents the Old Country's solitary act of defiance to the record-breaking immunity of Bradman--one Union Jack topping a forest of green and gold. Many a Tommy, locked in argument with Diggers in off-spells of jungle-fighting, must have offered silent thanks for it.
Tommy Trinder, that cheerful busker and ardent cricket follower, made it one of his main props in lively badinage with Australian audiences during the M.C.C. tour of 1946-47. As one England disaster followed another there was always the last riposte: Bradman? Records? What about The Oval, 1938?--a thin last line, but bravely held.
For all that I count it among my minor blessings not to have witnessed that supreme act of cricket Fabianism. As serialised in the newspapers it brought joy throughout the land. To those watching at The Oval itself the scene must have become too set for casual pleasure. Attrition is not a spectacular process. I prefer to remember Hutton for what he really is, an England opener fit to wear the mantle handed down by men like Hobbs and Hayward, MacLaren and Grace, and, from the long ago, Arthur Shrewsbury.
Hutton has upheld their worth. Here is the dignity, the elegance, the art emerging from perfect craft that befits, nay, is demanded of, the heir to such a sacred trust. There is pride, too, and on occasion the thoroughbred toss of the head. Adelaide, 1947, brought an example. After England's sorry showing in the first three Tests it was being whispered, in rather more than undertones, that Australia had discovered Hutton's Achilles heel. "Give him bumpers!" was the cry.
Hutton's performance in the first innings of that fourth Test--94 in four hours--seemed in one way to bear out that statement. Whenever the ball flew high he employed the duck and keep out of trouble technique, handed down from Herbert Sutcliffe. Trouble, let it be emphasised, meaning the catch at long-leg, not any physical affront. To Hutton, a matter of plain technical common sense. To the less well-informed, open to misinterpretation. But Yorkshire pride called for an answer. Bill Bowes, on this occasion one of the accompanying pressmen, took it on himself to broach the subject. Only a Yorkshireman would have dared. On the sunny walk down to Adelaide's matchless Oval on the morning prior to England's second innings he quietly projected his barb. "Tha knows what they're saying, Len? That tha's afeard on'em." Just a halt in mid-stride from Hutton, a full-eyed, square-on look, and the walk continued. Later in the day he gave his answer, final and complete.
Opening again with Cyril Washbrook, he met the airy thunderbolts of Lindwall and Miller with an answering flame of hooks and pulls that lit the ground with forked lightning. In the first half-hour 50 runs were on the board. Hutton's own 50 came in fifty-seven minutes out of 87; at close of play he was 58 not out. Thus was honour satisfied, the gesture made, Bowes and England reassured.
Next morning Washbrook went early, too early, even with 100 runs scored. Hutton once again took up his burden, for the team, say the unknowing what they will, is his main concern. His next 18 runs took up a full hour, and the stage was left open for Compton to score his second century of the match. England avoided defeat, and one proud head was raised again. And Bowes smiled quietly behind his hand.
There is no knowing how posterity will rate Hutton. To contemporaries it depends first on whether Middlesex or Yorkshire demands allegiance. Denis Compton must challenge for the crown. To neutrals there is no common ground for argument. How set the wild rose against the exhibition piece? For Hutton's art is of a garden, tended through the years by fond Yorkshire hands, a pure white rose, all satin and sheen, the beholder's joy, the possessor's pride.