Jack Hobbs June 20, 2009

For love (and money)

A "professional who batted just like an amateur", he was perceived as businesslike, but was actually a brilliant, spontaneous, original player

After his unipedal hundred in The Oval Test in 2001, Steve Waugh was asked by Channel 4 to explain his overpowering desire to participate in the game. "I'm a professional cricketer," he replied, "and I love playing for Australia." It was a typical Waughism, succinct and direct. Yet at one time the remark would have sounded paradoxical, even dangerous. There was cricket for pleasure and cricket for profit: amateur and professional, oil and water. Then along came Jack Hobbs - "a professional who bats exactly like an amateur", said Sir Pelham Warner, as though describing one of the marvels of the age.

Hobbs was the only Englishman garlanded as one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Century. His status as the greatest first-class run scorer (61,237) and century-maker (197) clearly counted for something; his serene and sportsmanlike demeanour for something more. Yet 70 respondents to the survey did not figure him in their calculations, and the editor Matthew Engel's Almanack tribute seemed somewhat tepid: Hobbs was called "pragmatic", "businesslike" and "the supreme craftsman", though "not an artist".

But was Hobbs really like that? Study the images in that much-neglected 1926 primer The Perfect Batsman and one obtains a different impression. The book's "98 Cinema-Photographs of JB Hobbs at the wicket" were taken for author Archie MacLaren in 1914, when Hobbs felt himself at his peak. And they are anything but staid, or even conventional, and not a bit "pragmatic": the bat speed and brio are breathtaking. In Jack Hobbs, John Arlott remarks on his subject's tight bottom-hand grip - "contrary to the advice of most coaches" - and it is evident in the sequences that illustrate "Driving to the Right of Cover Point" and "A True Cover Drive Along the Ground". It is batting at its most spontaneous and original; "The Master" and "The Master Blaster" were not quite so distant as might be imagined. Hampshire's Alex Kennedy once recalled bowling the first ball of a match to Hobbs at The Oval. It was a late outswinger on off stump; Hobbs dispatched it through square leg for four. The anecdote's only un-Vivish aspect is that Hobbs smilingly apologised: "I shouldn't have done that, should I? I was a bit lucky."

To appreciate Hobbs' full significance, however, we must contemplate the class rigidities of his time. The discrimination that placed amateur and professional in separate dressing rooms and hotels, and had them enter the field by different gates and travel in different railway carriages, now seems as remote from our experience of cricket as sectarianism or McCarthyism. Yet it was very real and even seemed the natural order, not least to Hobbs, who enumerated his Surrey colleagues thus: "There was Tom Shepherd, Andy Ducat, Mr Jardine, Mr Jeacocke, Mr Fender, Bob Gregory, as well as Andy [Sandham]."

Hobbs was called "pragmatic" and "businesslike" and "the supreme craftsman" but at his peak he was anything but: his bat speed and brio were breathtaking

Quietly but categorically, Hobbs upset that precedence. Before him professionals had been largely chained to the bowling crease. Only a handful of "players" had represented England as batsmen: Arthur Shrewsbury, Bobby Abel, Johnny Tyldesley, Tom Hayward. And these were business cricketers. When Hayward received merely a fiver in talent money for scoring 315 not out at The Oval, he remarked: "Well, it's no use me getting 300 again." Heavily influenced by Hayward, Hobbs was clear-eyed about his vocation. "Unless you get to the top where the plums are, it is a bare living, and when your cricket days are over, you have to find a new career." Yet he bucked the stereotype of the workman pro. Commercial realities never restrained his adventure or compromised the pleasure he took in his craft. "Of course I was earning my living," he said. "But it was batting I enjoyed."

Hobbs was not an agitator for the rights of the professional; rather, the excellence of his example provided a personification of the cause. His Surrey captain Percy Fender was one of the first to lead his team through a single gate, earning him a reproach from Lord Harris: "We do not want that sort of thing at Lord's, Fender." It was because of Hobbs that Fender felt free to advocate the unthinkable notion of professional captaincy: "My experience of professional cricketers does not teach me that cricket would necessarily go to the dogs if a professional happened to be in charge." And it was Hobbs that Cecil Parkin invoked as the best leader he had played under in his famous January 1925 article in the Weekly Dispatch disputing Arthur Gilligan's captaincy credentials, provoking Lord Hawke's even more famous retort: "Pray God that no professional will ever captain England."

The ire Hawke incurred after that address was the greatest testimony to Hobbs' renown. Even the former Australian Governor-General, Lord Forster, weighed in, stating that he would "never hesitate to play under the captaincy of a man like Jack Hobbs". So it came to pass that on July 26, 1926, Hobbs was asked to lead England when Arthur Carr fell ill during an Ashes Test at Old Trafford: the first professional appointment since Shrewsbury.

Hobbs was reticent. He disliked the responsibility of leadership and said publicly that "most professionals" preferred an amateur skipper. But he took the job, drew the Test and foresaw others following in his footsteps. "We are such sticklers for tradition in insisting on an amateur captain, regardless of the question of whether he can pull his weight as a player," he wrote in My Life Story. "The time is coming when we will have to change our views... when there will be no amateurs of sufficient ability to put into an England side."

Cricket, as so often, found ways to defer change. And as a standard bearer for the exploited, Hobbs would not appeal to a Marxist: he overthrew nothing, stormed no citadel. Yet, in a way, he so dignified his profession that the archaisms of class distinction in cricket had ceased to matter long before the annulment of the gentleman-player divide. Alec Bedser commented that using the players' gate at The Oval was no hardship, because if it had been good enough for Hobbs it was good enough for him. That Hobbs became the first professional games player to be knighted in 1953 is one of cricket history's better coincidences: England was in the course of winning the Ashes under its first professional captain, Len Hutton.

If all this seems like history - and there's no remark in the contemporary sporting vernacular more dismissive than "that's history" - Hobbs' career had two other trappings of modernity that loosely link him with Waugh. Hobbs was the first professional to take his wife on an Ashes tour. He did it characteristically, initially declining to make the 1924-25 trip, then agreeing to join the team as an "extra member" when Lord Harris granted Ada Hobbs permission to accompany her husband. Waugh took up a similar cudgel, championing a new Australian regime that welcomed players' partners on tour. Likewise did Waugh follow in Hobbs' literary path, capitalising on his fame through the publication of books. Nine books bear Hobbs' name. Nine* bear Waugh's.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer. Some articles in the Movers and Shapers series, including this one, on cricket's most influential players, were first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2002