In an introduction to AA Thomson's book Hirst and Rhodes JM Kilburn called Wilfred Rhodes "the one-man university of the game". In a 33-year career Rhodes made 39,969 runs and claimed 4204 wickets. Among allrounders, WG Grace and Frank Woolley scored more runs but took fewer wickets - in fact no one has taken more wickets than Rhodes in first-class cricket. Rhodes' team-mate George Hirst scored 36,356 runs and claimed 2742 wickets. Thomson asked the question: Who is the greatest allrounder? He answered it thus: "Nobody knows, but he batted right-hand and bowled left, and he came from Kirkheaton." That description fit both spinner Rhodes and fast-medium bowler Hirst, and was droll till Garry Sobers came along and ended all speculation.
Rhodes lived to be 96, and despite having completely lost his sight by then, attended cricket matches, allowing his ear and his experience to tell him just what was happening out in the middle. Stories of his correcting friends around him who could see are legion.
Rhodes is the subject of some of the finest essays written by such men as Neville Cardus and Ian Peebles. "Flight was his secret," wrote Cardus. "Flight and the curving line, now higher, now lower, tempting, inimical; every ball like every other ball, yet somehow unlike; each over in collusion with the others, part of a plot…" At 12 I could recite that passage from memory rather more readily than I could anything by Shelley or Keats.
Apart from the Thomson book, which is a personal tribute to his boyhood heroes, the standard biography, if one might call it that, is Sidney Rogerson's Wifred Rhodes: Professional and Gentleman. Written some three decades after Rhodes played his last match, it was, as the author says in the preface, "a book demanding to be written".
Rogerson, a public-relations consultant, who had written a book on birds for his daughter and one on farming for his son, was toying with the idea of this biography when his secretary gave her opinion on a game that was being discussed in the office. To the general male surprise all around she said, "My grandfather once played for Yorkshire." Asked who he was, she replied, "Wilfred Rhodes." That set Rogerson on course. "Was there a more profound understatement?" he asked in his book.
He sat down to write the story of the greatest professional who ever played the game; "professional" in the sense of one who was master of his craft and knew how to get results. It was said of Rhodes that if he got you out once he got you out twice, because he knew how to do it again.
Rogerson also told us that the famous story about last man Rhodes coming out to join Hirst with England needing 15 to win and Hirst saying "We'll get them in singles" is apocryphal. I suspect the words were put into Rhodes' mouth by Cardus. As Rhodes told Rogerson, "That would be a ridiculous thing for him to say! It would mean that I should have to take as much of the bowling as he would, and he was well set!"
Rhodes was to go on to open for England, and once put on 323 with Jack Hobbs, but the partnership with Hirst was 10 years before that. Rhodes played his last Test when he was 52; he started his career by bowling to WG Grace, and ended it by bowling to Don Bradman, nearly having the Australian caught first ball in his farewell game.
Is Rhodes relevant today? Why are we talking about him here? Yes, he is (in answer to the first question), if only because there are no great left-arm spinners in the game today. To those who wince each time Monty Panesar fires one down at the batsman, the Rhodes books are a reminder of why it need not be so. There is another reason for talking about these books - their availability, thanks to the internet. A few years ago it would have been impossible to get these books in India. Now it is as easy as touching a keyboard.
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine