1951 October 8, 2011

Why, Wally, why

The sad match in which one the game's greatest batsmen could barely get the ball off the square

One of the hardest things any sportsman, particularly one at the top of his game, faces is knowing when to stop. Some manage to leave on a high and resist the temptation to sneak back for one last tilt at the windmill, but many more find retirement unpalatable. The itch for the limelight grows, and for a few the temptation proves irresistible, but rarely does it end well. Perhaps cricket's saddest comeback was made by one of its greatest players - Wally Hammond.

His career record is astounding. Between 1920 and 1951 he scored 50,493 runs, with 167 centuries and an average of 56.10; in Tests 7249 runs (22 centuries) at 58.45; as a bowler, 732 wickets (average 30.58); and 819 catches. By the end of the 1920s he was unquestionably the best batsman in the world. But then came Don Bradman and even the brilliant Hammond was eclipsed.

He lost six summers to the war, and by the time cricket returned in 1946 he was 42 and past his best. He resumed where he had left off, as England captain, but the Ashes tour in 1946-47 was a bridge too far. As Bradman cast off doubts about his form, Hammond suddenly looked a shadow of the brilliant pre-war strokemaker he had been. In four Tests his highest score was 37 and he averaged 21. It was no surprise when he retired when the team returned home.

That should have been that, although he continued to play in club cricket. In 1950, however, he travelled to Dublin with an MCC side to play a three-day first-class match against Ireland and made 15 and 92 not out, even though he had hardly picked up a bat all year. But it was all very gentle and was first-class in name only.

Then in 1951, Gloucestershire were in the doldrums - the post-war boom in attendances was ebbing fast - and engaged in a membership drive. They had a home match against Somerset on the Bank Holiday Monday at the beginning of August, and someone on the committee came up with the idea that if Hammond could be persuaded to play then it would guarantee a full house. His last appearance at Bristol had come in the same fixture exactly five years earlier, when he had made 214.

It was not the first time such a scheme had been floated. In 1947, Hammond had been asked to play in Charlie Barnett's benefit match - a local newspaper commented his presence would have added thousands to the gate - but he declined.

However, to the committee's delight, this time Hammond agreed. As expected, a capacity crowd flocked to Bristol for the first day on the Saturday. Gloucestershire batted and expectant spectators sat and waited to see their hero. There was also a sense of awe among many of the players.

"It was like standing in the presence of God," Bomber Wells, the 21-year-old Gloucestershire offspinner who had made his county debut the previous month, said. "You can't describe it, he was such a legend. He was 48 and looking much older because of the way he'd looked after himself… or not looked after himself. He smiled and shook hands. And I realised what large hands he had, and his forearms were huge, like legs of pork."

It was more than halfway through the day before the first wicket fell, after Arthur Milton and George Emmett each scored a hundred in an opening stand of 193. Then two quick wickets fell and Hammond emerged from the pavilion to join Milton. The crowd rose as one to cheer him all the way to the middle. For Milton too it was a special moment. "The first cricket I'd watched was in 1946, on my way home from school, and Wally was playing," he told author Stephen Chalke.

But the Hammond they were anticipating was only a memory. In his excellent biography Wally Hammond - The Reasons Why , David Foot wrote: "There was no longer any majesty in his walk to the crease. The flannels were immaculate as ever but the limbs were weary, and it couldn't be hidden."

From the moment he faced his first ball - surviving a loud leg-before appeal - it was clear the comeback was a terrible mistake. His timing was non-existent and he could barely put bat on ball. It took him 18 minutes to get off the mark. In the Gloucestershire dressing room the players turned away in dismay. Tom Graveney, in his fourth season with the county, said "They kept asking 'Why, Wally, why…' as he dabbed away and missed.'" Graveney himself just sat inside the pavilion: "I couldn't watch any of it."

Hammond was also slow - hardly surprising given that he was not playing any regular sport. At one point the 23-year-old Milton, who was playing football for Arsenal in the winter, called him for a relatively easy single. Hammond lumbered through but was hopelessly short of safety as the fielder picked up the ball. "I thought, 'What have I done? I'm going to get lynched,'' Milton said. Fortunately the throw was wayward.

"I was trying to give him half volleys outside off stick but he couldn't connect. He'd lost it completely"
Horace Hazell

Perhaps it would have been better had Hammond been run out. As it was, he continued to struggle. "It was terribly sad," Milton said. "I longed to see him do well. But there he was, cursing quietly as he mistimed balls he once hammered."

Horace Hazell, who had been bowling his slow left-armers for Somerset since 1929 and as a youngster had idolised Hammond but as a player had been on the receiving end of his batting mastery, was interviewed by Foot years later and wept as he recalled the game. "I was trying to give him half volleys outside off stick," he said, "but he couldn't connect. He'd lost it completely."

Hazell's recollection of that day are at odds with those of his team-mates. Eric Hill said: "Horace hit him several times on the pad. They looked unlikely, but Horace screamed at them all. Whenever Hammond missed, Horace appealed, and he wasn't that sort of bloke usually."

After 50 sad minutes Hammond came down the track and was bowled by Hazell. He had managed seven singles. Hazell finished with 8 for 102 but Hammond's was the wicket he wanted. "I owed that bugger that one," he told Hill.

On the Monday, Hammond stood for a while at slip and then retired with lumbago. He did not bat again. "What did they expect?" Hammond asked later. "Not a hundred from me as well?"

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

The Way It Was - Stephen Chalke (Fairfield Books 1998)
Wally Hammond - The Reasons Why - David Foot (Robson Books 1996)

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on October 10, 2011, 4:08 GMT

    Balls, (cricket balls that is) I liked David Foot's excellent biography -it illustrated the character of Hammond (and his flaws - he had serious trouser problems :-) of possibly England's greatest cricketer and probably the second greatest in the world, of his generation (you don't have to ask who no.1 was do you? And no it isn't Sachin :) I'd far more prefer a piece about a sparkling Hammond hundred please and thankyou.

  • Dummy4 on October 9, 2011, 17:53 GMT

    Ive talked to people who met him and I've read all about him. He wasn't an easy character to like (but then Bradman also had his enemies). Comparing somone to Bradman is about as good as you could ask for. High Praise!

    I would also point out that Hammond was a talented fast bowler (very fast when he got angry) perhaps a sort of Jacques Kaliis type of player.

    So, a mixture of Jacques Kallis and Sir Donald Bradman, I'd always want Wally Hammond on my team.

  • Dummy4 on October 9, 2011, 13:39 GMT

    Very well-written article.Wally Hammond is a true legend looking at all his stats and records.Unfortunate someone like him had this kind of farewell.

  • Dummy4 on October 9, 2011, 5:51 GMT

    Cricket has its set of tragedies. Imagine the greatness which Barry Richards and Greame Pollock could have reached. It is said that Barry would give away his wicket after reaching 100's, he was never interested. And unlike movies, life aint always has happy endings. But for his achievements, Wally is surely up there with the best. While Don is in the stratosphere, Wally should be considered as the greatest english bat and one of the all time greats. Great article!!!

  • Dummy4 on October 9, 2011, 4:16 GMT

    very few people like Sunil Gavaskar,Greg Chappell,Steve waugh, Shane warne, Glenn Mcggrath,Mohd Azharuddin(contrived of course in his case) ave fabled farewells..The lure of carrying on and on lingers and festers... as they say one is long time retired hence the temptation i guess!Great article Mr.WILLIAMSON.lOVELY READ

  • Subterraneo on October 9, 2011, 1:29 GMT

    Jack Hobbs played like 'the Master' well into his late forties. This is perhaps a reason why he is considered the best English batsman ever, ahead of Hammond. Players like Hammond, and maybe Ponting now, depended on hand-eye coordination largely for their strokeplay. This, along with his sturdy physique, possibly made Hammond a run-machine, a powerful hitter and a very good negotiator on sticky wickets. At the same time, it made him vulnerable to old age slow downs, as was cruelly exposed in this match. On the contrary, players like Hobbs and maybe Tendulkar now, have air-tight techniques that do not fail them in their late years. Nevertheless, Hammond is my all-time greatest English batsman - average of 58 maintained over nineteen years (would have been 60 if he did not play after the war), four double centuries against Australia and even considered a rival of Bradman is is simply stupendous. Incidentally, Hammond finished as the highest Test run scorer ahead of Bradman.

  • George on October 8, 2011, 16:58 GMT

    oops, it was actually against Notts rather than Somerset that he scored his 317 - I was right about the year & the rest of the story though...

  • George on October 8, 2011, 13:58 GMT

    Such a sad end to the career of one of the game's all-time greats. Perhaps we could balance it with a happier Hammond story: Gloucestershire's home game against Somerset in 1936 was also Tom Goddard's benefit match, but on a terrible pitch Somerset were dismissed cheaply on the first day & Gloucestershire finished 4-down for less than 100. Tom Goddard was worried the game would be over on the 2nd day, losing him a lot of money. Hammond (who was 52 not out) promised Goddard he'd bat all day for him. On a terrible pitch he was nearly as good as his word, batting for 6 hours & scoring 317 - his highest score in England. When he walked in after getting out near the close of play, Tom Goddard came down the pavilion steps to meet him & said "worth more than a pint that, Wally".

  • George on October 8, 2011, 13:48 GMT

    David Foot's excellent biography of Hammond is one of the saddest books I've ever read. It's strange how such a magnificent player who brought so much joy to spectators all round the country had so few true friends and lived such an unhappy life off the field. The thing which always amazes me about Hammond's career is how much cricket he missed between 1920 & 1951 yet still achieved amazing figures: Almost all of the 1920-22 seasons qualifying for Gloucestershire, the entire 1926 season through illness, 1939-1945 to the war, and those four years 1947-1951 when he should have stayed retired. In reality he only played 17 years: 1923-25, 27-39 & 46.

  • Dummy4 on October 8, 2011, 13:43 GMT

    just fantastic piece that conveys the sentiment of how dimnishing greatness on day still cannot overall take away for the giant of a man that Sir Hammond was.Our modern Cricketers should take note and ease away from the game while they still have thier dignity.

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