A Christmas to remember
Geoff Allen talks to Hal Hooker, one half (60% to be precise) of the astonishing last-wicket partnership of 307
It was Christmas Eve 1928. The scene was the Melbourne Cricket Ground and in the needle match of the Sheffield Shield series NSW were in a parlous plight at 113 for 9 facing a Victorian first innings of 376.Alas Jack Ellis, a poor disciple of Stephen Potter! Hooker did not `have a go', but after a breezy start in which he scored 18 in a short time before lunch he batted so resolutely that he helped his captain Alan Kippax add 307 for the last wicket - a stand that won the match for his side and was a world record for the last wicket that has not been and may never be broken.
The 6ft 2in Hooker had gone to the wicket with no thought of victory for his side. He just wanted to `hang around a while', as he now puts it, concentrating on getting behind the ball and allowing his graceful skipper Kippax to get some runs. Kippax had been chosen in the Australian team for the forthcoming third Test against England at Melbourne but following four low scores his selection had been hotly challenged especially by the vocal Victorians, who wanted one of their own batsmen in. Rivalry between the two top cricket States of the era was often bitter.
From lunch to tea that day Hooker added a mere four runs against the bowling of a'Beckett, Ebeling, Ironmonger and Hendry - that despite the fact that he faced more of the bowling than his celebrated batting partner. Throughout the partnership Hooker faced 4.8 balls an over and Kippax 3.2. Victorian captain Jack Ryder packed his fieldsmen around Hooker's bat so closely that they could have picked the batsman's pockets. At one stage during the grim fight Kippax walked down the pitch to the bluff but superbly confident Hal and asked, `Aren't you worried about the close fieldsmen? Do you want to appeal to the umpires?' Kippax roared with laughter when Hooker replied, `The thing that amazes me is that the bowlers can get the ball through the fieldsmen without touching them.'
The Victorians were getting worried. When he found that his tough partner was set, Kippax would cheekily start an over with a two, four and single and let Hooker face the last five balls of the eight-ball over. By stumps the partnership had put on 254 and NSW were nine runs short of Victoria's total.
As they walked out to the wicket on Christmas Day, Kippax said, `She's right, son. We've got all day.' The runs were soon made and NSW were in front. The strain gone, Hooker was later caught by Ryder. Hooker's part in the world-record lastwicket stand was 62 in five hours four minutes, with three boundaries. Kippax hit 30 fours and scored at an average rate of 40 an hour in his 260 not out.
A week after his 260 not out, Kippax electrified the Melbourne crowd by hooking three fours in one of Harold Larwood's fastest overs during his first Test century. A fast-medium bowler who relied on swerve and change of pace, Hooker was claimed by his contemporaries to be the best bowler never to gain full Australian XI status, although he represented an Australian XI. Former Australian Test star Bill O'Reilly says that Hooker would have been a tremendous success on English wickets if he had been chosen to tour England. Hooker represented NSW in Sheffield Shield and international matches from 1924-32. He took 58 wickets, average 26.32 in the Shield games and scored 364 runs at an average of 24.26, and headed the NSW bowling averages in the 1924-25 season. In the return match against Victoria after his great stand with Kippax, Hooker captured four wickets in successive balls.
Hooker has a fund of anecdotes to fill a book and one of his most memorable concerns his first match for NSW against Arthur Gilligan's 1924-25 MCC team, his second match for his State. The MCC were to bat and as he was about to lead his side onto the Sydney Cricket Ground, Herbie Collins told them, `Don't forget the Ringmaster is out there in the centre and we dance to his tune:' Hooker asked Collins who he meant and the reply was 'Hobbs'. Hooker became a great admirer of Sir Jack. He told me, 'Hobbs's batting technique was the most perfect I have seen, either in attack or defence, and I am certain that nobody could surpass him. On bad wickets Hobbs used to guide his team. He was a great student of the game and could make bowlers bowl to him the way he wanted them to. His strategy was superb and his approach to the game magnificent.'
Hooker told me that he was tremendously thrilled to hear of Colin Cowdrey's recent brilliant century against the Australians for Kent. `He was a player who has added so much lustre to the game just as Hobbs' Archie Jackson, Alan Kippax, Victor Trumper and Stan McCabe have done in the past,' he said.
Hooker indeed played cricket among the greats. When he first gained selection for NSW in 1924 there was only one vacancy in the star-studded team and he gained it. Ten internationals were in the NSW team, men whose names will always be remembered in Australian cricket-Collins, Bardsley, Macartney, Kippax, Taylor, Andrews, Kelleway, Gregory, Oldfield and Mailey.
He is fond of recalling his broadcasting work for the Australian Broadcasting Commission when he covered cricket, Rugby League and Soccer Test matches: He recalls with delight the primitive days when cricket Tests in England were covered by cables and the radio broadcasters in Australia gave a vivid description of play from brief cables. The realism of the broadcast was dramatic. The announcer made the sound of bat hitting ball and of the ball striking the batsman's pad by tapping a wooden cup or the heavy rubber around it with a pencil. For these broadcasts before the Second World War thousands of Australians stayed up all night.
While Hooker will not criticise modern cricketers I believe that he is not happy with the attitude towards the game of some of the present-day stars, including some Australians. He told me that he would like cricket to go back to the old village green style and atmosphere of his day `when it was considered a gentleman's game' and sportsmanship was one's greatest asset. To sum up Hooker's ideals of cricket he quotes a definition of cricket written many years ago by the late Sir Frederick Toone, manager of MCC tours to Australia in the 'twenties: `It is a science, the study of a lifetime, in which you may exhaust yourself but never your subject. It is a contest, a duel or melee, calling for courage, skill, strategy and self-control. It is a contest of temper, a trial of honour, a revealer of character. It affords a chance to play the man and act the gentleman.'
And if any man exemplifies such a code of ethics, it is John Edward Halford Hooker, of Sydney.