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Even as those around him struggled, Hutton batted on as if on the flattest pitch in the world
June 22, 2010
Len Hutton's immortality was assured when as a 22-year-old he batted for over 13 hours at The Oval in 1938 to make 364 for England against Australia. It was still the individual Ashes record over 70 years later, and remained the world Test record as well until Garry Sobers inched past it against Pakistan in Jamaica in 1958.
Had the Second World War not frozen big-time cricket late in 1939, Hutton seemed certain to edge ahead of Don Bradman, Wally Hammond and George Headley as the world's undisputed premier batsman. As it was, and despite a serious fracture of his left forearm during commando training, he was soon to be regarded as the finest contemporary batsman when Test cricket restarted seven years later.
Hutton seldom dominated in quite the same fashion as some of the other master batsmen, having chosen to build his game on an exquisite defensive technique. His strokeplay had a rare delicacy about it. He could accelerate given the need and the opportunity, but it so happened that during his years of maturity he found himself bearing the heaviest weight of England's batting needs, a responsibility reflected in his often solemn countenance. Still, there was an apparent touch of genius about his batsmanship: as Yorkshire batsman Doug Padgett put it, "While one man would be struggling, Len would be batting away at the other end as though it was the flattest pitch in the world."
As a boy in Yorkshire, Hutton had displayed remarkable patience and determination in informal cricket and then as a county colt. While still a teenager, he found himself opening for his county with the legendary Herbert Sutcliffe. His 21st birthday was handsomely marked by an opening partnership of 315 with Sutcliffe against Leicestershire at Hull, and soon afterwards he made his England debut (0 and 1 against New Zealand at Lord's, preceding 100 in the following Test). A year later he made another round 100 on Ashes debut, and 11 weeks afterwards came that colossal 364 in 797 minutes on a featherbed pitch against the usually penetrative spinners Bill O'Reilly and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith. Two fine centuries against West Indies in 1939 seemed to have cemented his place as the world's premier batsman. Then the curtain fell.
The slightly built and handicapped Hutton who re-emerged in 1946 was for a time overshadowed by the glamour and high scoring of Denis Compton. But his opening partnerships for England with Lancastrian Cyril Washbrook - not least their record 359 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg - underpinned Hutton's status through years of rich output from his educated bat. He was to have many a success against the ferocity of Australia's fast men Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, and the demanding spin of West Indies' Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine.
For Yorkshire he was prolific summer after summer, never more so than in the month of June in 1949, when he made a record 1294 runs - notwithstanding three consecutive ducks. Then in August he passed 1000 runs again, timely performances in his benefit year, which returned him £9713 (not far short of half a million in today's terms). In 1951, Hutton became the 13th batsman to score 100 first-class centuries, registering the feat at The Oval, where so many of his landmark performances were staged, and in the following summer he was appointed as the first professional to captain England in modern times. "When I'd put the phone down," he later said, "I wondered what I'd let myself in for."
His appointment did not meet with universal approval. There was entrenched belief in some quarters that professionals were too dour and unadventurous by nature. Hutton, though, had deep resources of cricket intelligence, and his uncompromising attitude was an early pointer to the new age of unrelenting Test cricket. The most obvious indication of this was his commitment to fast bowling during the 1954-55 tour, when he orchestrated a leisurely over rate to save his fast men from early exhaustion, meanwhile frustrating the Australian batsmen. For so long he had been forced to weather the ferocity of rib-cracking fast men while having no heavy artillery with which to respond.
Leonard Hutton was born in Fulneck, a Moravian community near Pudsey, Yorkshire, on June 23, 1916, and the wise old allrounder George Hirst nurtured him as a county colt. His advance was swift, though he weathered lean times after a promising 196 at Worcester. Having watched Don Bradman's 334 in the "local" Headingley ground in 1930 when he was a schoolboy, it delighted him to have the great Australian shake his hand as soon as he had taken that record from him in that famous Oval Test eight years later.
With war looming, Hutton stroked 196 off the West Indies attack at Lord's in 1939, his partnership with Compton - 248 in 140 minutes - leaving onlookers something to treasure through the dark years. And afterwards, despite the physical handicap, Hutton made a lot of runs in Australia in 1946-47, with centuries in all the major cities, and a shining cameo of 37 in the first of the two Sydney Tests, which had older spectators comparing his thrilling strokeplay with Victor Trumper's long ago. The abrupt finale - he fell onto his stumps - was administered by the rumbustious Miller, against whom he was always more wary than against the smooth and lethal Lindwall. But in the later Sydney Test, Hutton reached 122 before retiring with tonsillitis.
As England struggled through those post-war seasons, Hutton's careworn face became a symbol. He was even dropped for one Test during the 1948 Ashes series, returning with good runs in the next, and a poignant 30 at The Oval when Lindwall rolled England over for 52. On the second of his three Australian tours Hutton continued to lead the batting, averaging 88 and carrying his bat in Adelaide for 156 (having achieved this feat also a few months earlier at The Oval with 202 not out against West Indies). He often seemed to be the head and spine of England's batting.
Perhaps his most heroic achievement was to steer England to a shared rubber in the Caribbean in 1953-54. West Indies won the first two Tests, but Hutton's 169 in Georgetown set up an England victory, and after a draw in Trinidad he followed up Trevor Bailey's 7 for 34 in Kingston with a stupendous 205 to give England command of the match, securing an eventual 2-2 result. He was now in his 38th year, and this was the first double-century by an England captain in a Test match overseas. Yet it had not been a happy tour. Political and social upsets ensured that there were few regrets all round at its ending.
This successful fightback had came in the wake of a home series against Australia that retains even greater resonance, for the Ashes were regained in 1953, all of 19 years since England had last held them. They had an effective pool of spinners at long last in Wardle, Laker, Lock and Tattersall, and a penetrative group of developing fast bowlers, headed by Fred Trueman. Four tense draws, with the captain in reassuring form, especially in his 145 at Lord's, were followed by a historic victory at The Oval, with Hutton wearing the old England cap in which he had ground his way to that 364.
England grew even stronger, and could afford to leave Trueman and Laker behind when they sailed to Australia for the 1954-55 series. Hutton by now was past his peak as a batsman, but he orchestrated a thrilling triumph based largely on the efforts of new young men, Peter May and Colin Cowdrey, Frank Tyson and Brian Statham. The captain began woefully by giving Australia first use of a good Brisbane pitch (601 for 8 declared), but England's strength asserted itself in the remaining matches, although the captain himself contributed only one decent score, 80 in Adelaide, where the Ashes were retained. He rarely bowled his legbreaks now, but gave himself a bowl in Sydney in the final (drawn) Test and hit Benaud's stumps with what turned out to be his final ball in Test cricket. His two Tests on the way home were his last: in New Zealand, against whom his Test career had started almost 18 years earlier. He made 53 in Auckland, batting at five, in his final Test innings.
Although wirily built, Hutton was handicapped later in his career by back pain and fatigue. He withdrew from the 1955 Tests against South Africa, Peter May taking over the leadership, and yet at the age of 40 he was still able to stroke 194 against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, whose bowlers included the brilliant Bruce Dooland and the mean Arthur Jepson. Then, early in 1956, Hutton announced his retirement. Soon he became only the second professional cricketer - after Jack Hobbs - to be knighted.
For some years his shrewd views appeared in a newspaper column, and there were books by him and about him. He had the pleasure of seeing his son Richard capped five times by England, and he himself served briefly later as a Test selector. It was a slightly heavier and more relaxed man who sat in the press box, his gaze sometimes surely overprinted with memories of those many rewarding summer days.
Sir Len died in hospital near his Kingston, Surrey home on September 6, 1990, at the age of 74.
David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket MonthlyFeeds: David Frith
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