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The lonely colossus

Solitary and often moody, Hammond was England's giant in the age of Bradman, and his figures bear testament to a career of mammoth achievements

David Frith

November 22, 2010

Comments: 16 | Text size: A | A

Walter Hammond, August 3, 1946
Wally Hammond: elegant on and off the field © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Wally Hammond
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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.

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

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

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Posted by waspsting on (November 23, 2010, 4:22 GMT)

The video series is romanticized. Hammond was great, but they way his weaknesses are glazed over and his sternghts celebrated... not the real picture.

He didn't play fast bowling well. his record against the West Indies, who had pace bowlers who were neither express pace, immaculately accurate or masters of movement, was ORDINARY.

He was in tremendous form going into the ashes 46/47 - he'd topped the averages in the English first class season. Why did he fail? Because there were fast bowlers there, Lindwall and Miller.

They talk about his style, grand and majestic. But look at the stats. He took aeons over his runs against Australia. Dravid and Kallis like, not Lara or Tendulkar.

He butchered weak attacks, and very aggresively. Could put together runs against Australia slowly. Had done enough to warrant his place as a legend. HOWEVER, the video series skims over weaknesses, and glorifies strenghts. Not objective. Also, in the stats analysis, you've missed Bradman at Leeds.

Posted by LawrieCAdelaide on (November 23, 2010, 0:53 GMT)

Thank goodness for David Frith. Those of you that knew nothing about a giant of the game are much the wiser.

Posted by Kaze on (November 22, 2010, 21:20 GMT)

This is quite interesting too :

A cluster of boys was waiting for signatures but Hammond cuffed one of them out of the way. As he passed, within a couple of feet of me, I could see that he was drunk. Just like the picnic basket, I was shattered; to see my hero in this state. When I returned to my seat, I blurted out what I had seen. "Forget that" said Ceff, "Just remember that you have been privileged to see a masterly innings that you will never forget". A few days later when I was resting on the grass at a sports afternoon, Ceff strolled by and handed me a book marked at a chapter "Cardus on the young Hammond". What an impression on a young boy.

Posted by Kaze on (November 22, 2010, 21:06 GMT)

I'm not saying that he was not a great player, it;s his attitude that I question, here is a wiki quote: Charlie Barnett and Charles Dacre, two of his Gloucestershire team-mates, came almost to hate him. Dacre often played in a reckless way of which Hammond disapproved; Hammond, in turn, may have been jealous of him. Hammond once tried hard to injure Dacre by bowling fast at him while he was wicketkeeper.[218] Barnett began as a close friend but fell out over Hammond's treatment of his first wife and later his refusal to play in Barnett's benefit match.[219] Other players who were involved in disputes with Hammond included Denis Compton, whose cavalier approach Hammond disliked,[220] and Learie Constantine, who believed Hammond insulted him in the West Indies in 1925, although the two later made peace.[221] Hammond's ultimate rivalry was with Bradman, who overshadowed him throughout his career, and with whom he developed an increasing obsession.

Posted by cricPassion2009 on (November 22, 2010, 20:52 GMT)

Awesome article on an awesome cricketer. It is thrilling to note his fielding and bowling exploits.

- Latest Hammond fan.

Posted by   on (November 22, 2010, 20:19 GMT)

@Kaze - who actually cares? Wally Hammond is a true legend of the game who, as several of these posts point out, is often sorely overlooked when it comes to identifying the giants of cricket. If we were to disregard the cricketing feats of these people as a result of personal foibles (real or imagined), then there would be very few players indeed that would be held up as role models. They are after all human beings.

Posted by george204 on (November 22, 2010, 17:13 GMT)

David Foot comprehensively demolishes the myth that Hammond was a drunk in "Hammond: The reasons why". Hammond was simply a man with an appetite for social climbing that didn't match his bank balance. He made some very poor life decisions which were probably driven by social ambition - he had "ideas above his station". It's probably because he became an amateur (to get the England captaincy), was divorced & then left for South Africa in the 50s that he wasn't knighted as Hutton & Hobbs were.

Posted by Kaze on (November 22, 2010, 15:08 GMT)

What this article fails to mention is what a drunk Hammond was off the field. You need to read Wally Hammond The Reasons Why by David Foot to understand how messed he was on and off the field.

Posted by Biggus on (November 22, 2010, 13:51 GMT)

What a champ! No. 4 in my all-time ashes XI.

Posted by Bollo on (November 22, 2010, 12:12 GMT)

@george204. Right with you, and love the passion! As his record shows he`s been as good as anyone, apart from the run-scoring freak he had the misfortune to be a contemporary of. Didn`t realise that England had played tests right up until Aug `39, and restarted in June `46 (you inspired me to check - close enough to 7 years btw). For the Aussies it was Aug `38 until Dec `46 - 8 years and counting between tests, Ashes series both.

Anyway, along with Hobbs and Hutton, part of the great H trilogy, and as old blokes who saw him bat out in Australia used to tell us when I was a kid `Hammond, yeah he was as good as Bradman, just didn`t score as many bloody runs.`

Posted by Beertjie on (November 22, 2010, 11:43 GMT)

@george204, thanks for the stats. I'm no pom-lover, but I couldn't agree more with you - how 'they' can place Hobbs among the 5 players of the century and practically ignore Hammond beats me. They need to recognize him alongside Hobbs as England's two greatest batsmen - he was better than Hutton.

Posted by george204 on (November 22, 2010, 10:28 GMT)

One more statistical nugget which IMHO shows Hammond's greatness: of the 38 batsmen to have passed 7000 test runs, Hammond (the 1st to do so) remains the fastest in number of innings - 131. Of the 10 fastest of those, Hammond is the only one in the list to achieve the feat before 1970. Sorry to be a bore on this subject, but I worship Hammond, even though he retired before my father was even born! One of the very greatest batsmen, probably the greatest English batsman (though many would say Hobbs), yet hardly ever given the acknowledgement he deserves.

Posted by george204 on (November 22, 2010, 7:30 GMT)

Something not mentioned in this article is what a great player Hammond was on BAD wickets (& pre-WWII county pitches could be truly shocking). My favourite Hammond story is about his team-mate Tom Goddard's benefit match. The pitch was wet & started to come apart on the first morning. The opposition were bowled out & a few Gloucestershire wickets went down. The match was facing a 2 day finish & a big loss for Goddard's benefit. "Don't worry Tom" said Hammond "I'll bat all day for you tomorrow". He went out the next day & scored 318, his highest score in England, on a minefield of a pitch. When he was out just before the end of play, Goddard came down the pavilion steps to meet him: "Worth more than a pint that, Wally".

Posted by george204 on (November 22, 2010, 7:23 GMT)

The scary thing about Hammond's figures is just how much cricket he MISSED: 3 seasons (1920-22) qualifying for Gloucestershire after Kent had tried to poach him, the whole 1926 season through illness, 6 seasons for WWII (in 1939 he was still playing some of his best cricket). 10 whole seasons. He could easily have passed 200 first class centuries, perhaps even reached 250.

Posted by memoriesofthepast on (November 22, 2010, 6:55 GMT)

England never lost the test match in which Wally Hammond scored a century and he made 22 such centuries in his career. Even Bradman's century was no guarantee that Aus will win the test. Then England had Geof Boycott who also scored 22 centuries in his test career and England lost none of the tests in which Boycott made those centuries. Another Eng player Alec Stewart made 17 centuries in tests that Eng never lost. Hammond, Boycott, Stewart, Saurav Ganguly, Gundappa Vishwanath, Salim Malik and Gordon Greenhidge-whenever each of these 7 scored a century in a test, it meant that their side is not going to lose that test, each of them scored more than 5000 test runs and more than 10 centuries in their entire test careers. Ganguly is the juniormost. Most motivating of these 7 is Vishwanath the century maker in Port of spain test of 1976 and Melbourne test of 1981 where India chased 404 runs and defended only 143 runs respectively with success but Hammond is the senior most of these 7.

Posted by harshthakor on (November 22, 2010, 3:48 GMT)

His test figures speak for itself.He played in the era of Bradman and thus he was overshadowed .Had he played in any other era he may well have been the greatest of that period.His audacity resembled a bomber destroying an airbase in the World War and his batting was very similar to Sir Viv Richards.He would rank in the top 7 batsman of all time and atleast amongst the 3-4 most destructive.Fascinatingly he was an all-round cricketer and had the talent to match the skills of Sobers,Botham or Imran.Bradman rated him a genuine all-rounder and so did Hutton.

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