The lonely colossus
The classic photograph taken by Herbert Fishwick in Sydney in 1928 goes beyond being a depiction of the power and poise of Wally Hammond in the cover drive. It is surely one of the finest frozen images of any sportsman, let alone a batsman. It ranks alongside George Beldam's thrilling, leaping Victor Trumper and Harry Martin's glorious Keith Miller stand-up drive.
A life-size copy of that iconic picture of Hammond once dominated the window display of the shop in Sydney run by Bert Oldfield, the wicketkeeper in that very picture. People would gaze at it, then wander off, perhaps with mixed feelings: what a beautiful tableau - but why Hammond and not Don Bradman? The truth was that no batsman, not even The Don, was ever the subject of quite such a captivating pictorial - besides which, it might be observed, Oldfield and Bradman were never really close friends.
The photo was taken not during a Test but in the State match against the touring English side during the Australian summer of 1928-29. In that Test series Hammond pounded a phenomenal 905 runs (113.12), with 251 in Sydney, 200 in Melbourne, and 119 not out and 177 in the Adelaide Test. England went as close as they ever have to a 5-0 whitewash over Australia. The final Test, in Melbourne, went to the eighth day, England starting off with 519 (led by 142 from the 46-year-old Jack Hobbs), and yet still losing. Young Bradman was already treating Test matches like club games. Had Hammond only realised it, he was to spend the rest of his international career in the shadow of the matchless Australian.
The rivalry was a source of irritation to Hammond. No sooner had he established himself as the world's finest than his position had been usurped by "the boy from Bowral". The somewhat reclusive cricketer could only continue to pile up the runs and wickets and slip catches for England home and away and for Gloucestershire in the County Championship.
In the domestic competition as well as in international cricket Hammond left an awesome record. Englishmen continued to regard him as the world's finest cricketer. Standing quite fine at first slip, he seemed to hold every snick; and when required to bowl, he displayed skill above the ordinary as a medium-fast cutter and swinger of the ball, with an immaculately side-on action. If one feature stood out from his athletic physique it was the powerful shoulders, whether whipping the ball down from a commanding height or cracking it through extra cover. He had the balance of a fine-tuned boxer.
As for the man himself, there was a sense of solitariness about him. Born in Dover, Kent, in June 1903, son of a soldier, Walter Reginald Hammond (just as often known as Wally) spent boyhood years in Hong Kong and Malta, before his father was killed in France during the First World War. Completing his education in Gloucestershire, after a delay over his county qualification, he finally got into his stride for the county club in 1925. It was soon clear that England had a world-class cricketer in the making, and as the summers unfolded it was not merely the breath-taking returns with bat and ball that captured the nation: it was the manner in which Hammond delivered the goods.
His career was nearly cut short when he was struck down by a particularly nasty illness contracted on the non-Test tour of the West Indies in 1926. After a hard-fought recovery, and the stupendous feat of a thousand runs in May 1927, he received his Test baptism in South Africa that winter, and a year later he drove his way to immortality in Australia. His 905 runs (113.13) remains the second-highest Test series aggregate to this day. The Australian bowling, almost all of it of the slower variety, was met with caution beneath the aggressive exterior, and he shrewdly restricted himself on the leg side while thrilling even his opponents with the power and timing of his strokes off front and back feet through mid-off to backward point. In 1929 he became the first cricketer to be given a sponsored motor car (just ahead of Bradman).
There were to be three further tours of Australia, the last of them after the Second World War, by which time he was 43 and clearly beyond his best. His second tour, 1932-33, the "Bodyline" series, had found Hammond silently dissenting at England's bowling tactics, and his runs tally fell to half what it had been in the Tests of 1928-29 - though it was still an estimable 440 runs at 55. It was for what came immediately afterwards that he was better remembered: in the two Tests in New Zealand he smashed 227 and 336 not out (passing Bradman's Test record by two runs, a mark from which the Englishman derived enormous satisfaction).
So with the retirement of Jack Hobbs, England now had another supreme champion to worship. Wally Hammond, the epitome of crease-domination as well as artistry, was to finish with a staggering 36 double-centuries in first-class cricket, four of them beyond 300, among his 50,551 runs (average 56.10: reaching three figures 167 times). Figures aren't everything, but in this case they portray with accuracy a mammoth career achievement on the cricket field.
And always there was his medium-fast bowling as a dream back-up for any captain (732 wickets at 30.58), as well as 819 catches in his 634 matches, his 78 in the 1928 season likely to remain a record for ever more. If consecutive matches stood out as a virtuoso bat-and-ball six-day masterpiece it was when, against Surrey in Gloucestershire's County Championship match in the Cheltenham festival in 1928, Hammond held 10 catches and scored a century in each innings: and he dismissed Hobbs too. Then in the next fixture he returned his best bowling, 9 for 23 against Worcestershire, took six more wickets in the second innings, and hammered 80. Spectators could hardly believe what they'd witnessed: 362 runs, 16 wickets, and 11 catches all by one man in five days' cricket.
It has been suggested that only someone burning with a fierce desire to prove himself could sustain such an output, yet Hammond was not alone in having had a lonely childhood or having faced the threat of losing his chance through serious illness or injury. There were those who cherished his friendship and there were others who considered him blunt and moody. What was beyond question was Hammond's supremacy in most of the matches he played.
In the immediate aftermath of the Bodyline series he faced a barrage of short bowling from the West Indies fast men in 1933, and in the Old Trafford Test he had his chin split open. This led to an outburst: if this is what cricket was coming to, he was losing interest. Tacit international agreements saw to it that bouncers became rarities for the rest of the 1930s, and the prolific careers of Hammond and his contemporaries marched on.
Hampered by further ill health, for three years Hammond found his Test career in recession, until he roared back with 167 and 217 in the 1936 home Tests against India. That winter he was again kept under control by Australia's spinners, though he unleashed a wondrous 231 not out in Sydney, his favourite ground. And by the time Bradman's team arrived in England in 1938, "Hammond, WR" had become "Mr WR Hammond": that's to say he was now an amateur - as always elegantly dressed at that - and was therefore now qualified to captain his country.
In the second Test, at Lord's, he marked his accession with a stupendous innings of 240, rescuing England from the wreckage of 31 for 3 created by Australian fast man Ernie McCormick's fiery opening spell. Once again Hammond had the worshipping crowd on its feet in admiration and excitement. The Ashes were not regained, but he did oversee a crushing victory in the final Test, when he generously declared with England 903 for 7, Bradman and Fingleton by then injured and unable to bat.
Three centuries came in that winter's Tests in South Africa, and another, at The Oval against West Indies, in the final Test match before the World War closed proceedings for six years.
Hammond served in the Royal Air Force, and was 43 when England next played a Test match. Bradman made a somewhat creaky comeback at 38, but Hammond was even older (by five years). After heading the English first-class batting averages for a record eighth consecutive season, he took England to Australia for the 1946-47 Ashes series, but it was clear that most of his power had drained away. Young spectators were assured that what they were seeing bore little resemblance to the pre-war batting giant.
At a time when divorce was spoken of only in hushed tones, the break-up of Hammond's marriage cast an extra shadow over that final tour. His retirement did not draw the mighty fanfares that were his due, though he left Test cricket with 7249 runs (58.45), 85 appearances, and 110 catches, all records for some years to come.
He went to South Africa, home of his second wife, suffered a failed business partnership, became a car sales executive, and finally settled quietly into a job as sports administrator at Natal University. A road accident in 1960 left him severely weakened, and yet he was still able to stroke a century in a friendly match a year later. Much mellowed after the recent setbacks, Wally Hammond died in 1965, aged 62. In the obituaries, the word "great" was, for once, appropriately applied.
The quiet old man who had sat unobtrusively as the students went about their cricket was the same person who had once enchanted teeming crowds at Lord's and Sydney and elsewhere, and who had sent a reporter out of the dressing room with his ears ringing after he had requested confirmation that Hammond had indeed succumbed, in the Adelaide Test of the Bodyline series, to a full toss. The unlikely bowler was Don Bradman.
David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly