June 19, 2003

Wally Hammond: the greatest ... bar one

If it weren't for one thing, we could today be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the greatest batsman of all time



Wally Hammond: almost Olympian aloofness

If it weren't for one thing, we could today be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the greatest batsman of all time. Walter Hammond, who was born on June 19, 1903, played 85 times for England over almost 20 years, and averaged 58.45 in Tests. In first-class cricket that average was 56, from over 50,000 runs.

The snag, though, was one that bugged Hammond for most of his career - Donald Bradman. The Don, in his debut series, was an interested observer when Hammond broke the Test record with 905 runs in the 1928-29 Ashes series, and Bradman smashed the record himself with 974 in the next rubber, in 1930. It still stands. Hammond hit 36 double-centuries in his career, more than anyone else ... except Bradman, who pipped him by one.

Hammond was a famously moody character, and his humour can hardly have been improved by those constant comparisons with the incomparable.

In many ways Hammond was a more correct player than Bradman. He was tall and imposing at the crease, and his cover-drive was a thing of beauty. Uniquely, he was the leading Englishman in the batting averages for eight successive seasons (1933-46), and topped 3000 runs three times. He was a handy bowler, with 732 first-class wickets. And he caught like a flytrap, usually at slip - he took 10 catches (a record) in a county match in 1928, and 78 (another record) all told that season.

His career stalled early on, thanks to the sharp-eyed administrator Lord Harris. In those days (1920) the qualification regulations were very strict, and Harris, a Man of Kent, objected to Hammond playing for Gloucestershire when he had been born in Dover. But Hammond made up for lost time when he was allowed to play, before a mysterious illness contracted in the West Indies in 1925-26 kept him out of the whole of the following season.

Hammond's biographer David Foot suggested that this was what is euphemistically known as a "social disease" (surely antisocial would be more appropriate?), and that it accounted for Hammond's mood-swings later in life. Whatever the reason, his Wisden obituary refers to an "almost Olympian aloofness", and his Gloucestershire team-mates were never quite sure how he would react to anything.

He started as a professional, albeit a somewhat superior one, and back then it was unthinkable that a pro should captain England. But in 1938 there weren't many suitable unpaid candidates, and Hammond "turned amateur". He wasn't a great success as England captain (Bradman again), winning only four of his 20 matches in charge. That included a rather sad farewell tour of Australia in 1946-47, when he was troubled by fibrositis and gave only glimpses of his former glories with the bat. Again, it didn't help that The Don, who hadn't been expected to play, turned up and reeled off scores of 187, 234, 79, 49, 0, 56*, 12 and 63.

That was the end of Hammond's serious cricket, apart from couple of mildly embarrassing appearances in 1950 and 1951. These days Hammond would be a hero, feted everywhere and a regular in the commentary box - but, prematurely aged, he disappeared to South Africa, where he struggled to find work. He was never the same after a car crash in the early 1960s, and died in Durban in 1965, aged only 62.

You could argue for Hobbs or Sutcliffe or Woolley or Grace or Boycott as England's greatest batsman. But I have a hunch that it was Walter Reginald Hammond.

Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.