Herbert Sutcliffe: Cricket Maestro

Tyke in his pomp

Stephen Fay
A classic example of the old-fashioned cricket biography: polite, respectful and enthusiastic by turn, with none of the intrusiveness of contemporary biography

Herbert Sutcliffe: Cricket Maestro by Alan Hill, 224pp, £12.99

'Record partners: Herbert Sutcliffe, right, with Percy Holmes, regular Yorkshire openers whose 555 against Essex at Leyton in 1932 is the highest first-class stand in England © The Cricketer International

Few writers of cricket books rival Alan Hill's output. MCC's library contains a dozen of them, mostly biography. A recent one on England's tour of Australia in 1954-55 confirms that Hill is a good chooser of subjects - an indispensable quality in a successful author. A Yorkshireman transplanted to Sussex, he has written best about Herbert Sutcliffe and Hedley Verity, both Yorkshiremen and both dead when he wrote about them. You cannot libel the dead.

Stadia, the publishers, have paid Hill the rare compliment of reissuing the Sutcliffe biography. It is a classic example of the old-fashioned genre of cricket biography: polite, respectful and enthusiastic by turn, with none of the intrusiveness of contemporary biography, certainly no sex and little danger of libel. Sutcliffe was a complex figure, yet it is only through allusions and hints that we discover he could be pompous; that his accentless speech was perhaps a pose for a man who was the orphaned son of a poor family in Pudsey. He also seems to have behaved harshly towards his son Billy Sutcliffe, who captained Yorkshire in the early 1950s and whose resignation was forced on him by his father.

These characteristics do not detract from his achievements in the middle. Sutcliffe averaged 60.73 in 54 Tests; only Don Bradman, Graeme Pollock and George Headley averaged more in Tests. He opened the batting for England with Jack Hobbs and for Yorkshire with Percy Holmes; they put on 555 against Essex - still the record stand in county cricket - and all on uncovered wickets.

Evidently he was a wonderful judge of line and length, with a superb temperament. In 1927 Yorkshire took the revolutionary step of appointing Sutcliffe as their first professional captain, though they reneged on the offer when it became clear that the membership preferred a bumbling amateur, with the assistance of Wilfred Rhodes, to a skilled professional. The amateur captaincy was mostly a charade.

Hill tells the story of an amateur skipper, an Army major, batting at No.9, setting off for a run when his partner called out: "I shouldn't bother, Major, Wilfred's declared." Think of a subject, any player since, say, 1945, such as Les Ames, Bill Edrich, Peter May or the Bedsers, and a prospective publisher will probably say that Alan Hill has already done it.

But potential biographers should not be put off. A different, and more rewarding model is to be found in Australia in the work of Gideon Haigh and David Frith. Hill has performed manfully but a revisionist school of English cricket biography would be timely and welcome.

This article was first published in the November issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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