Len Hutton

Obituary

Len Hutton

HUTTON, SIR LEONARD, who died in hospital at Kingston-upon-Thames on September 6, 1990, aged 74, was one of the greatest batsmen the game has produced in all its long history. In the Hall of Fame he sits at the high table with the élite, and if English cricket alone is taken into consideration he was one of the two most accomplished professional batsmen to have played for his country, the other being Sir Jack Hobbs with Walter Hammond and Denis Compton coming next haud longo intervallo.

He was born at Fulneck near Pudsey into a family in which there was a healthy respect for the old virtues of discipline and self-denial. It was also a keen cricketing family, and the boy seems to have nursed ambitions deep in his heart to become a great player. He devoured anything he could lay his hands on about the art of batting, and by the time he had come to the notice of George Hirst he was already a complete player. Indeed, Hirst proclaimed that there was nothing to teach him; Sutcliffe, more extravagant in his praise, predicted that he would play for England.

By 1934, still only seventeen, he was ready for first-class cricket, and in fourteen matches in the Championship he at once made his mark with five fifties and a maiden first-class century--an innings of 196 against Worcestershire at Worcester. Batting with supreme confidence he was last out in a total of 416. He also showed a high degree of skill in batting for four hours on a difficult pitch at Scarborough before being bowled by Goddard for 67. Ill health a year later held him up, but in 1936 he made his 1,000 runs for the first time, often having to bat on rain-affected pitches in that vile summer. Impatient critics complained that he was too defensive. His answer was swift and to the point, and in 1937 he let loose a torrent of runs to show himself magnificently equipped with strokes.

Against Derbyshire at Sheffield he made 271 not out, and when Yorkshire entertained Leicestershire at Hull he celebrated his 21st birthday with a fine 153, sharing in an opening partnership of 315 with Sutcliffe. His season's total of 2,888 (average 56.62) was second only to Hammond's. A broken finger in July 1938 put him out of cricket for around six weeks, but in 1939 he was in superlative form with 2,167 runs in the Championship and 2,883 in all matches, including twelve hundreds.

In 1941 Hutton injured his left arm so badly in a gymnasium during commando training that three bone grafts were needed to repair the damage done by the compound fracture. He was in hospital for eight months before he was finally discharged, his left arm weakened and some two inches shorter than the other. However, he set about restoring the strength to the withered arm, and by 1943 he was making plenty of runs in the Bradford League. His top hand was once more in control, as he always insisted it must be, and when in the summer of 1945 he played in the Victory matches against the Australian Services, and one or two other first-class games, all were agreed that his technique was in good working order and promised well for the future.

In the post-war seasons he made runs in full measure, exceeding the 2,000 mark comfortably from 1947 to 1953 and never allowing the strain of Test cricket to interfere with his commitment to Yorkshire. In the summer of 1949 he excelled himself. Two years earlier Compton and Edrich had held the stage, and Hutton had merely had a good season. Now it was to be the turn of the Yorkshireman. His total of 3,429 runs, including twelve hundreds, was the fourth-highest aggregate in the all-time list. Furthermore he passed 1,000 runs in two separate months, breaking the record for a single month with 1,294 in June.

A batsman's worth must always by judged by his performances in Test matches. Hutton was chosen to represent his country for the first time in 1937 against New Zealand. He had a rough start to Lord's, making 0 and 1, but he was quickly into his stride with 100 at Old Trafford. A year later he was destined to make history and capture the public's imagination with his 364 at the Oval. Hammond wanted 1,000 on the board to be certain of victory and Hutton, suiting his game perfectly to the needs of the occasion, obliged by staying at the crease for thirteen hours seventeen minutes until 770 had been scored. The following winter in South Africa, without scoring heavily in the Tests, he delighted spectators wherever he played by the sheer quality of his batting. Back at home he was in irresistible form against the West Indians with 196 at Lord's, the last 96 coming in 95 minutes, and he rang down the curtain on Test cricket for six years with 165 not out at The Oval.

MCC's tour of Australia in 1946-47 was reluctantly undertaken, for the prospect of a humiliation as complete as that of 1920-21 was abhorrent to them. But Hutton, although often not in the best of health, had a splendid tour, scoring 1,267 runs and averaging 70. In the Second Test, at Sydney, he savaged the Australian fast bowlers in an innings too scintillating to last, making 37 out of 49 before he unluckily hit his wicket, and he finished on a high note with an unbeaten 122 in the final Test at Sydney before being laid low with tonsillitis between the close of first day's play and the resumption three days later.

Early in 1948 he flew out to the West Indies to reinforce Allen's beleaguered team, but to expect him to rescue the series was asking too much. That summer, however, he was the centre of controversy in the middle of the Australian visit, when the selectors lost their heads and dropped him after he had looked in some discomfort against Lindwall and Miller at Lord's. Promptly restored for Headingley, he had the last laugh by finishing the series with scores of 81, 57, 30 (out of 52) and 64. His partnership of 359 in 310 minutes with Washbrook at Ellies Park, Johannesburg, was the highlight of MCC's successful tour of South Africa under F. G. Mann in 1948-49 and at the time was the highest for the first wicket in Test cricket.

When West Indies comprehensively defeated England in 1950, Hutton alone seemed able to fathom the wiles of Ramadhin and Valentine, and his undefeated 202 at The Oval, when he carried his bat, was a magnificent fighting innings. Now he was nearing the final phase of his career, and he seemed to be playing better than ever. With Compton immobilised, Washbrook past his best and Edrich no longer the player he was, Hutton had to carry England's batting.

He responded by averaging 88.83 in the 1950-51 Test series in Australia, 50 more per innings than the next Englishman; he again carried his bat, for 156 at Adelaide, and at Melbourne he had the satisfaction of making the winning hit in England's first post-war victory over Australia. But at The Oval in 1951, against South Africa, he had the misfortune to become the first player given out "obstructing the field" in Test cricket.

In 1952, against India, Hutton became England's first professional captain, although he had never captained his county. He at once showed his mastery of the job and kept his side splendidly on their toes. His handling of the young Trueman was exemplary, keeping him sharp and full of energy by restricting him to short bursts. Three of the four Tests were won, rain depriving England of victory at The Oval. In 1953, when the Ashes were regained in a low-scoring but nevertheless absorbing series, his leadership throughout was firm and confident, and with no-one else averaging 40 he with 55 was much the best batsman on either side.

His innings of 145 at Lord's was as near perfect an exhibition of the art of batting as one could ever expect to see. The following winter found him leading MCC abroad for the first time, and the West Indians on their own soil presented a formidable challenge. Nothing went right to start with, the first two Tests being lost through feeble batting, but in the end the series was squared 2-2, largely through the efforts of the captain, who followed his 169 at Georgetown in the Third Test with 205 in the Fifth at Kingston. He was at the crease for about sixteen hours for the two innings, and all the time in sweltering heat. It had been a phenomenal feat of concentration.

Now one more task remained for him: the retention of the Ashes in Australia. This was done in style in 1954-55, and after a grievous setback at Brisbane in the First Test. Hutton had two young batsmen at his command in May and Cowdrey and a most potent weapon in Tyson, for whose success he deserved much of the credit by encouraging him to shorten his run up to the wicket. England won three Tests in a row and most likely were deprived of a run of four by rain at Sydney. Hutton had little energy left for long innings, but his 80 at Adelaide was the cornerstone of the vital victory.

He had to decline the offer of the captaincy for all five Tests against South Africa in 1955, owing to continued ill health, and early in 1956 he announced his retirement. He had captained England 23 times, winning eleven Tests, drawing eight and losing only four. Recognition of his achievements was swift. The previous year MCC had made him an honorary member while he was still playing, and in June he received a knighthood for his great services to the game.

In 513 first-class matches, Sir Leonard Hutton compiled 40,140 runs for an average of 55.51. He reached 100 centuries in 619 innings, the lowest ratio by an Englishman, and of his eventual total of 129 hundreds, eleven exceeded 200. Twelve times in England and five times on tour overseas he passed 1,000 runs in a season. A useful leg-spinner in his early days, he claimed 173 wickets, average 29.51, and made 400 catches, generally in positions near the wicket.

In 79 Test matches he scored 6,971 runs for the impressive average of 56.67, hitting nineteen hundreds and twice carrying his bat; he alone had passed 400 runs in a series eight times. He was a selector in 1975 and 1976 and had accepted the presidency of Yorkshire not many months before he died. In his day he had no peer, and in the words of Geoffrey Chaucer, "He was a verray parfit gentil knight".

Many were the tributes paid to Sir Leonard Hutton at the time of his death.

Peter May: "I always admired him tremendously and learned a great deal through watching his technique. He managed to maintain his form extremely well when captaining England."

Raymond Illingworth: "He was simply a god to me as a kid, when I followed him all round the Bradford League playing for Pudsey St Lawrence. Those who played with and against him knew he was the best player and a class above everyone else."

Brian Close: "He was a marvellous player and everybody who played with him was privileged. He was the complete expert, and batting with him you just couldn't help but learn."

Denis Compton: "We were different characters but very good friends, and he was the greatest opening batsman I have ever seen. I say that because in our day we played on uncovered wickets. His powers of concentration were remarkable, but when he wanted to be he was one of the best strokemakers in the game."

Colin Cowdrey: "I was just so lucky to play my earlier matches in the England side under his captaincy. He took all the trouble in the world to help me on my way."

In 1950, Bill O'Reilly, in comparing the post-war Hutton with the Hutton of 1938, said: "His footwork is as light and sure and confident as Bradman's ever was. He is the finished player now ... one cannot fail to be impressed with the fluency and gracefulness of his strokemaking ... His control of the game is masterful."

© John Wisden & Co