July 2005

First man of Pudsey

Herbert Sutcliffe played Ashes-winning innings and changed the image of the professional cricketer.

Herbert Sutcliffe played Ashes-winning innings and changed the image of the professional cricketer. Stephen Chalke remembers

Herbert Sutcliffe © The Cricketer International
Woodlands. A grand mill-owner's house, built of stone and set in several acres of land. With a tennis court, an orchard and a stable block. High above Pudsey.

Here in the 1930s lived Herbert Sutcliffe, the orphan who had grown up with strict Congregationalist aunts above the bakery down in Robin Lane, who had started his working life at 13 as an apprentice boot-maker and who had risen through cricket and through his sports outfitting business to a social standing unknown to previous generations of paid cricketers. "He gave to professional cricketers," Jim Kilburn wrote, "the same sort of status that Henry Cotton gave to professional golfers."

"Everything had to be done to the highest standard," his daughter Barbara recalls. "He dressed immaculately and he didn't like anything out of place. He bred pedigree boxer dogs and he often sat with them in the evening in his office, doing his books for the shop, all in his beautiful handwriting."

He coached her younger brother Bill on a concrete pitch in the garden, together with some of the local boys. Roland Parker was one and he remembers the magic of those sessions. "Herbert was Pudsey's hero, the most popular man in Yorkshire, and he was very encouraging to us, showed us all how to play straight. Although he was a wonderful hooker, he was also a great straight player."

Bill, who was sent to Rydal School, captained Yorkshire as an amateur for two years in the 1950s but he never quite coped with his father's overbearing presence. Barbara, by contrast, was a free-spirited girl, who suffered no such pressure. "I was a tomboy. I used to climb trees and I was never tidy. But he accepted me for what I was, which was marvellous. We only ever argued once. There were two lovely trees on the lawn in front of the house, a weeping willow and an ash, and he had them cut down."

Herbert Sutcliffe was a self-made man, ambitious and thorough, and, according to his England partner Jack Hobbs, he turned himself from "an ordinary speaker" into "a wonderful orator". Hobbs, the son of a college servant at Cambridge, was a different character, always deferential to his social superiors, while Sutcliffe broke barriers, acquiring the vowels of the amateurs and calling them by their Christian names. He exuded confidence and made it his mission to raise the standing of his profession. At Yorkshire he demanded as much from his younger team-mates. "Make sure your manners and bearing are better than those of the amateurs," he told them. "Remember that you are representing Yorkshire, not just yourself."

As a batsman he had three great shots: an off-drive, a back-foot push behind point and a fearless hook. "There was method in everything he did," his Yorkshire team-mate Bill Bowes wrote, describing how, if there were two men back for the hook, he would take it on only when he had 40 on the board. "By that time," he reckoned, "I've so much confidence I think I can miss them both." On such days he could be an electrifying sight. At Scarborough in 1932 he took on the Essex fast men, Farnes and Nichols, and he raced from 100 to 182 in 20 minutes.

He was also the master of the quick single. He opened with Derbyshire's Denis Smith against the Indians in a Festival match. "If he was my regular partner," Smith said, "I'd average another 15 runs an innings."

When he was out, he would return to the dressing room with not a hair out of place. "The sort of man who would rather miss a train than run for it," Robertson-Glasgow called him. After a wash and rub down, Bowes wrote, "he would dress methodically, then produce a writing case and sit down to 10 or 15 letters". Always a good team man, he would look up from time to time: "How are we doing?"

If ever there was a player for a big occasion, it was Herbert Sutcliffe. In a career that spanned the 21 years between the wars, he scored 50,138 runs at an average of 51.95. But in Tests he averaged 60.73, higher than any other Englishman, and in Ashes Tests his 66.85 is second only to Bradman among the major batsmen. Len Hutton thought he had a higher level of concentration than any other player he knew, while to Bradman "he had the best temperament of any cricketer I ever played with or against".

His greatest innings was at Melbourne in January 1929. He and Hobbs set out in search of 332 for victory, on a `sticky dog'. In his book, For England and Yorkshire, painstakingly written in long-hand by himself, he wrote of the wicket as a nightmare: "It was so bad that before we went out for the tricky 25 minutes before lunch we were told by everyone (good judges, as well) that England would do well to score 90 runs on it." In the event Sutcliffe was not dismissed until the following afternoon, scoring 135 out of 318 for 4, and the Ashes were won a few minutes later. "For many a day afterwards," he wrote, "I carried the marks of the ball which did such fearsome tricks on that rain-affected wicket."

But, if that was his greatest innings, his most memorable remained the one at The Oval in 1926. Not since 1912 had England won the Ashes and they reached the final Test all square. On Monday evening Hobbs and Sutcliffe had put on 49 in the second innings to give England a lead of 27 going into the third day. There was every hope of victory till a storm broke over London in the small hours.

Tuesday August 17, 1926. "What Hobbs and Sutcliffe achieved that day," Sir Pelham Warner wrote, "will be talked of as long as cricket is played."

Len Hutton, then a boy of 10, was still writing about it 60 years later: "If I could be granted one wish, I would be tempted to ask for a rerun of their famous stand. Wilfred Rhodes, who played in the match at the age of 48, used to talk about it with a faraway look in his eyes."

Hobbs and Sutcliffe returned to the middle on Tuesday morning to find a pitch growing ever more treacherous as the sun broke through. "Jolly bad luck, that rain," Hobbs said to his partner as they patted down the surface after the first over. "It's cooked our chances." "Yes, it is hard luck," the umpire `Sailor' Young agreed.

"The Australians were on tiptoe," Hobbs wrote, "and should have got many of us out before lunch." But somehow the pair survived into the afternoon. At one stage, surrounded by several short legs, Sutcliffe played out eight maidens from the off-spinner Arthur Richardson, with The Times reckoning that "every ball cut out a little fid of turf as it pitched." "I was the happiest man on the ground to know I was still there," he said.

The score was 172 when Hobbs was bowled for 100 but Sutcliffe did not follow till the day's last over, when he had reached 161. The Times marvelled at "the graceful solidity of his defence, his subordination of self to side and his almost uncanny wisdom". But, according to Neville Cardus, "he smote his pads in open disgust, outraged that he, of all men, should be bowled a few minutes before the close".

England took their total to 436 the next morning. Then, in front of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the King of Iraq, they bowled out Australia for 125, with the veteran Rhodes - recalled after a five-year absence - taking 4 for 44.

Not since the War had England won an Ashes series and the country was still suffering the after-shocks of the General Strike. So the vast crowd in front of the pavilion cheered themselves hoarse. "We want Hobbs," they chanted. "We want Sutcliffe." Pelham Warner in The Cricketer was full of the significance of the moment: "Had we been beaten, despondency would have crept over the land. As it is, our cricket will be fortified and refreshed." "Sutcliffe was cool beyond disturbance," John Arlott wrote later of his match-winning innings. "He was the master of survival and the ultimate pragmatist." Or, as Sutcliffe himself put it to the editor of The Cricketer: "Yes, Mr Warner, I love a dog fight."

At Woodlands, high above Pudsey, he enjoyed the fruits of his labour. He still attended the Congregationalist church, where the family sat in the cold through long sermons, and he did much to develop the young Len Hutton, also of Pudsey. "I'm only setting up these records for Hutton to break them," he once said.

"He was not born to greatness," Cardus wrote. "He achieved greatness. His wasn't a triumph of skill only, it was a finer triumph, a triumph of character, application, will-power." "A personality as dependable as fallible human nature will allow," AA Thomson called him. But, beneath his well-cultivated exterior and his self-discipline, did there lurk a freer spirit? Barbara still talks of him as "a very jolly person, with a great sense of humour, a wonderful father". Her childhood at Woodlands was a happy one and he was proud of her success as a teacher.

He died in January 1978, at the age of 83. "We'd only ever quarrelled once, about anything, and I can still remember his last words to me before he died. His very last words to me. `I should never have felled those trees.'"