My career in first-class cricket having, after a very happy period, reached its end, I gladly comply with the request of the Editor of Wisden's Almanack to jot down some personal impressions which may be of interest to present and future readers of the book.
The honour has been done me of referring to the period of my active participation in important cricket as "The Hobbs Era", and I should like to say at once how mindful I am of this distinction. Roughly thirty years have gone by since I first played for Surrey under the residential qualification, and nothing has ever occurred to cause me the slightest regret that I took the advice of Tom Hayward and migrated from Cambridge to London. Without blowing my own trumpet I can say that when I went to the Oval I knew pretty well my own capabilities; it was just a question as to how great I should find the difference between first-class and Minor Counties cricket. The feeling was strong within me that I could make good, but I little thought then that I should achieve the success in an even higher sphere of cricket than that to which I was then aspiring, or that I should be the first man to beat the record of that wonderful batsman, W. G. Grace, in the matter of making centuries. However, this article is not meant to be a statement of what I myself have accomplished; the purport of it is to give in some slight degree my ideas on the changes that have come about in the game--whether of improvement or otherwise--and the points that have struck me as being worthy of mention.
The era to which my name has been given by you, Mr. Editor, covers first-class cricket from 1903 to 1933. The War came to rob all of us of four solid years of the game, and although I played a little last summer I think that I really finished in 1933 when at 50 years of age after, roughly, 30 seasons at the Oval, I was beginning to feel that the strain of the game day after day was getting just a little too much for me. There was also the fact that younger players were knocking at the door, and that it did not become me, having had a longer innings than most cricketers of modern days, to stand in the way of promising recruits who wanted to feel that their positions in a county eleven were secure. So even though I scored one century last season I still fall short by three of the two hundred I had fondly hoped to obtain. Records after all are ephemeral; they are only made to be beaten by somebody else, and while it is nice to think that one has accomplished something out of the common there are other and more important considerations to bear in mind. The new leg-before-wicket rule, which is being tried experimentally may, if adopted, have a far-reaching effect on batsmen, but at the back of my mind there is the impression that someone will come along one of these days and surpass the 197 hundreds which now stand to my credit.
Before my time there were other epochs in our great game. The days of top-hats, when Alfred Mynn, the Lion of Kent and other famous men were in their prime, are now far distant. Then came the Grace period when that marvellous batsman stood out head and shoulders above everybody else; the Hon. F. S. Jackson, Ranjitsinhji, G. L. Jessop, Tom Hayward, C. B. Fry, A. C. MacLaren, George Hirst, J. T. Tyldesley, Victor Trumper, M. A. Noble and others too numerous to mention were contemporaries in what has been described as the Golden Age of cricket. It will be seen therefore that my own follows in a natural sequence in this recurring cycle.
As to whether during the past thirty years cricket generally has been better or worse than those periods to which I have referred is not perhaps for me to say. Cricket was at its very best in that Golden Age when almost every county had one, if not two or three outstanding personalities either as batsmen or bowlers.
I do not agree, however, with the oft-repeated statement that cricket nowadays is not what it used to be, and I would ask why, when in the ordinary affairs of every-day life as well as in most other games we have gone ahead, cricket should be singled out as an example of deterioration in all-round form and skill? We know that, in a broad sense, wickets are more favourable to run-getting, and while I do not hold with the over-preparation of pitches and the use of various forms of "dope" to achieve perfection and make the batsman's task easier, it must always be remembered that, with a heavier programme now necessary owing to the increase of first-class counties since the days shortly before my advent, cricket grounds are subjected to far harder wear.
But it should not be overlooked that there were several county enclosures before say 1900 where the wickets were really good, and one has only to look up the records to find that big scores were made at the Oval before swerve bowlers came into existence, and when length, allied to spin, was the first consideration. All wickets were not bad, as many people seem to think. The one important difference between those of my early times and those of the present is that you very, very rarely see a real sticky wicket nowadays. Over-preparation is the cause of this, and probably the system in use at certain centres of covering the pitch completely before the match has also had something to do with it. That, however, brings you to another consideration, that of finance. Many county clubs are often hard put to it to make both ends meet. If rain not only prevents play for a long time but in the end hastens the completion of a match, measures have to be adopted to mitigate to undue loss of time.
Efforts have been made more than once, because of the heavy programmes and constant play day after day, to limit first-class matches to two days. I am not altogether opposed to this; in fact I would ask: why not two-day matches of one innings each? That would give a lot of our professionals a much needed rest and, as far as I can see, the main argument against this would come from professionals themselves because they would not be able to earn quite as much as they do now. Possibly, however, that is a question which time will solve.
I have always regarded it as curious that while most of the changes in cricket in my thirty years have been in favour of the bowler, such as the smaller ball and the wider wicket, bowling generally, in my opinion, has deteriorated. There are very few outstanding bowlers of real class to-day, and I remember that just after the War, when admittedly things had changed a good deal, bowlers opened for their sides who weren't considered prior to 1914. Everyone nowadays seems to want to bowl the in-swinger. This is absurd, for my experience is that this particular ball is not so dangerous as the one which goes away from you. It has led to what I should call "negative cricket". Bowlers adopting this method try rather to keep the batsman quiet than to get him out. The result of this is that back-play has developed to a large extent and on-side play has increased out of all proportion, to the detriment of off-side batting. But then it must be remembered that it is very difficult indeed to drive an in-swinging ball on the off-side, and with bowlers keeping just short of a length, as modern bowlers do, the natural tendency of a batsman, at any rate since the War, has been to step back and play the ball to the on.
In regard to this it would seem that the new leg-before-wicket rule is going to make things difficult for opening batsmen, and the in-swinging ball is more dangerous under this rule than the off-spinner. You can see and, to a degree, anticipate off-spinners better, and an in-swinger seems to come off dry ground much quicker. That, therefore, is one of the big changes I have noticed in the style of batting during my era. In my early days youngsters were taught to play forward, and it was the accepted theory that one only played back when the wicket was soft and the ball was turning. Now, batsmen play back on a hard wicket largely because, as I have said of the preponderance of in-swinging bowlers who keep just short of a length. Consequently, young bowlers, seeing that this type of attack cannot be driven to the off, very rarely try to make themselves spin bowlers pure and simple. I know, of course, that it is not given to everyone to keep such a perfect length as J. T. Hearne or Albert Relf used to. They would bowl all the afternoon and scarcely give you six balls that you could hit with safety.
While bowling, particularly as regards length, has gone back, batting in a certain way has advanced. The means have been found to contend with the swing, but at the expense of many of those glorious off-side strokes for which our predecessors were famous, and it is only when an over-pitched ball comes along that you can drive it to the off. Even then, when it does come, your feet may be wrong and you are too late to get into position.
There is one point about the improvement in batting to which I should like to draw attention, and that is that it is not confined to those in the first half of the order. Even in my early days we seldom expected or saw the last four men stay very long. Nowadays Numbers 8, 9, 10 and 11 all come in, not so much to have a wild swipe, but to play for runs; and they very often obtain them. This, of course, may be considered to be partly due to the difference in bowling. Back-play, too, has been the means of driving the off-spinner largely out of the game, and figures clearly show that batsmen, even when allowance is made for a great deal of extra cricket which they play, generally get far more runs now than they used to do.
It is a little difficult to say definitely if fielding has improved. Individually it may not have done, but collectively I think it has. Thirty years ago, the positions of mid-on and short-leg were both known as "Mugs' Corner". The captain looked round and almost invariably put his two incompetent fieldsmen in those places. I have never agreed that mid-on's was an easy job. You have to watch the batsman and anticipate his stroke, and you have to be quick off the mark when you field there. Only in recent years have we awakened to this fact, while men like "Bill" Hitch made short-leg an honourable position in which to field. Hammond is my ideal fieldsman. He would be great anywhere, and Mitchell of Yorkshire runs him very close. No matter where they are put these two men can be right at the top, and it has often struck me that Hammond's fielding would very likely have been far more extensively talked-of had he been an outfielder, while it is certain he would do wonderful work at cover-point. With regard to the placing of the field there can be no question at all that this has engaged the attention of captains to a far greater degree than it used to and consequently it is better. The Australians, for instance, have developed the study of this to such an extent that they are now much better than we in England at placing their fieldsmen to stop runs, and the increase in on-side strokes by batsmen has led to two or three men being placed on the leg-side when in my early days there was only one. This is not meant as a reference to "body-line" bowling. My views on that are well known. I deplore its introduction. I think it has done great harm to the game, because it fosters a spirit foreign to the traditions of cricket and which certainly never existed when I first came on the scene.
I think the development of the county championship in regard to the number of counties now competing is rather to be regretted. There are too many counties--some of them, I am afraid, not quite up to the best standard--and we in England have got a false opinion of the strength of our cricket. The trouble is that, against the weaker counties, players get plenty of runs and wickets and they are thought at once to be Test Match cricketers. It is much harder now to pick a team for a Test Match than it was thirty years ago. The field of choice is so much wider and the all-round standard consequently more on a level--especially in the County averages.
Since I started, the hook and the leg-glide have become common strokes, and I always had the idea too, that before my time it was considered rather infra dig to hook a ball round to the leg-side. Nowadays, batsmen will step right across and hook a ball from wide of the off-stump round to square-leg. Hammond is the great exception. He won't hook. He considers it a dangerous stroke and I remember once, the first time I saw him, he persisted in playing balls which the ordinary batsmen would have hooked, hard back either to mid-on or mid-off. But then Hammond, as a batsman, is a law unto himself. He can step right back and force the short ball to the off, but not many men possess such power of wrist and forearm, and quickness on the feet, to be able to do that. Pat Hendren is my ideal batsman, for I think he has every stroke for all sorts of wicket against all types of bowling. Had he played thirty or forty years ago he would, I think, have been equally effective.
We saw last season one noticeable feature about the batting of the Australians in the power they put into their strokes. When young, they are taught first to hit the ball; we in England are taught defence. The wickets in Australia are, of course, easier as a general rule than ours. They are the same pace and the ball comes along at a uniform height. Because of this Australian batsmen are for the most part more confident.
I have already said that one of the most notable changes in cricket with regard to bowling has been the introduction of "swing" or "swerve". No doubt long before my time bowlers were able to, and probably often did, make the ball swing, but it was not known then how this was brought about and quite likely when it occurred bowlers put it down to an extra strong current of air or some outside influence of a similar kind. The secret of being able to make a ball move about in the air was acquired during my era and at the present time almost anybody with any knowledge of bowling can send down swingers of one sort or the other. It is all a question of how the ball is held in the hand at the moment of delivery and bowlers of this description now come under the general heading of "seam-up" bowlers. Shortly after I began to play first-class cricket came the googly, known in Australia as the "bosie" because it was first discovered by B. J. T. Bosanquet. The South Africans were quick to realise the deadliness of this ball once a command of length had been gained. On the matting wickets in their country they soon perfected it and in G. A. Faulkner, A. E. Vogler, Gordon White and R. O. Schwarz they produced the finest array of googly bowlers ever seen together in one team. W. G. Grace did not, I think, play in an important match against googly bowling but obviously he must have been so very good that he, like many of us later on, would have mastered it. He would have played every ball on its merits.
While on the question of bowling I am definitely of the opinion that during my career the art of flighting the ball has steadily deteriorated. We have nobody now so good at this as Colin Blythe. He was one of the world's greatest bowlers of his type, and, unlike most of the present-day exponents, was never afraid of being hit. Of fast bowlers the only ones of recent years at all comparable with those giants of the past have been Larwood and McDonald. Being a member of the same county side I only played against N. A. Knox in Gentlemen and Players matches and games of a similar description, when he was probably past his best, but I think he was the best fast bowler I ever saw. He brought the ball down from such a great height that he could often make good length deliveries rear up straight.
The widening of the wicket, which previously had often been advocated, did not, when it came into general use, help bowlers to the extent that had been anticipated and, although a batsman, I personally am all for still wider wickets. When the alteration was made I thought at the time that the decision had not gone quite far enough--not far enough, at any rate, to achieve its main object of putting the bowler on more level terms with the batsman. Events have, I think, proved me to be right.
The past thirty years have brought with them a remarkable increase in tours to this country and visits abroad of English teams. As the Mother Country of cricket, England, as represented by the M.C.C., have naturally considered it politic to foster the game overseas but I am of opinion that, on the question of elevating countries like South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand and India to the same rank as Australia in the matter of Test Matches, we have been premature. The vast host of cricket followers throughout the world know in their own minds that there are only two really top-class cricketing countries--England and Australia. Far be from me any idea of throwing cold water on those countries who aspire to the highest status in cricket but when we think that of the numerous teams which have come from South Africa not one has ever won a Test Match in England it makes me wonder why they are put on the same plane as Australia in being allotted five "Tests". I am not forgetting that they, as well as the West Indies, have beaten England in their own Countries. I should not be averse to them having three and I would give the others I have mentioned one each. The honour of wearing the England cap with the three silver lions on it has, I am afraid, become rather cheap since its inception. These Caps should have been awarded only to cricketers who have appeared in England against Australia.
During my years of first-class cricket I do not think captaincy has improved. With one or two exceptions there has been too much chopping and changing about but, of course, other considerations have to be remembered, for amateurs do not find it so easy to spare the time for first-class cricket as their predecessors did. I have often thought that it was a mistake for counties to put an amateur into the team merely to act as captain when he has had little or no experience of county cricket. We had an example last season in Maurice Tate, of how well a professional could acquit himself as leader of a side, but I definitely always prefer to see an amateur rather than a professional captaining England if his cricket ability entitles him to a place in the eleven.
The umpiring has improved all-round, and I should say the two best umpires I have known are "Bob" Crockett of Australia, and Frank Chester. Umpires nowadays are younger than most of those who officiated when I started, and naturally their eyesight and hearing are better.
In the last quarter of a century--and perhaps during a longer time--there has come about a great change for the better in the relations existing between amateurs and professionals. County committees have realised that both on and off the field their players are all members of the same team and professionals are not, as was largely the case some years ago, relegated to incommodious dressing-rooms with no amenities, while, as a general rule, amateurs and professionals now take their luncheon and tea together in the same room. The natural consequence of this, of course, has been a pronounced improvement in the bearing of professional cricketers off the field. The average professional nowadays can, I think, hold his own as a man in any company.