August 18, 1925
Surrey 359 (Hobbs 101, Fender 59; Young 3-9) and 183 for 0 (Hobbs 101*, Sandham 74*) beat Somerset 167 (Young 58; Lockton 4-36, Sadler 3-28) and 374 (MacBryan 109, Young 71, Hunt 59; Fender 5-120) by 10 wickets
For more than two decades the best, and best-loved, cricketer in England was also the humblest. Records fell to him and he made more centuries than any other player, yet he maintained an unaffected serenity which wise men envied even more than his batting ability. This is revealing because he had all the shots and played them with time to spare. He managed this even on rain-affected pitches and in matches where, as a quietly proud professional, he knew he had to earn his pay.
On flat wickets at The Oval or against weaker opposition he might give his innings away to a deserving bowler in order to allow his Surrey colleagues a chance to bat. He had received hardly any coaching; the skills at the heart of his batting were entirely natural. His first-class debut in 1905 pitted him against W G Grace and in his final Test in 1930 he watched Don Bradman make 232. He would end his career with 197 first-class hundreds but not even the great innings he played in Ashes Tests were more feted than his 126th century. That was made at Taunton in August 1925 when the County Ground was packed with spectators and the press box was as crammed as an ageing film-star's make-up box. "Fame and tranquillity can never be bedfellows," wrote Michel de Montaigne. But then Montaigne never met Jack Hobbs.
There was no touring team in 1925. That in itself was not particularly unusual: only three countries played Test Matches and, as Dominic Sandbrook points out, county cricket was still the national sport, shading even football until after the Second World War. Five bowlers were to take over 200 wickets that season and the country was not short of high-class batsmen, yet Hobbs's exploits dominated the sporting pages. Beginning the summer with 113 first-class hundreds against his name, he made a dozen more in his first 27 innings. That mattered because it left him one short of the record set by Grace and once thought unchallengeable. (As things turned out, ten of the 25 batsmen to score a hundred hundreds overtook Grace.)
"England is waiting for news in an expectant hush," said a leader writer on the Times. "We shall hold our breath as hopefully as any man in Surrey and crow as lustily when the great figures break at last on the telegraph board." At which point Hobbs's form dipped a little and the weather sulked. He was dismissed by Maurice Tate for 1 at Hove, by Charlie Parker for 38 at Gloucester and by a promising 21-year-old called Harold Larwood for 1 at The Oval.
For nearly a month the press pack remained in close attendance and spectators queued up, wondering if this was going to be the day. When Hobbs failed to make a century he was probably more disappointed for his supporters than himself. He may have felt responsible for their sadness. "The mental strain was beginning to tell," he admitted later, "It seemed the whole circus was following me round. The newspapers were working everybody into a fever state."
In the ten innings after his century against Kent at Blackheath, Hobbs made 252 runs. "Centuries never bothered me, nor records really, nor averages," he said after he retired. "Of course I was earning my living but it was batting I enjoyed." And there was nothing sham about this gentle simplicity. The only false thing about Hobbs was the two dozen or so strokes he played each season that led to dismissals. For the rest of each summer he was the most technically accomplished cricketer in the land. Archie McLaren described him as the most perfect model of what a batsman should be and wrote a book based on pre-war photographs to prove his point.
Somerset's cricketers, by contrast, were rarely cited as models of excellence in 1925. They won only three matches and finished 15th in the table. Their bowling was frequently dependent on J C "Farmer" White, one of the nine amateurs in the team that played Surrey, who themselves fielded five unpaid players. Although White was mainly content to tend his cows in the English winters, he was a cricketer of international class and took 25 wickets as England retained the Ashes in 1928-29. None of which detracted from the general opinion that a visit to Taunton gave Hobbs an ideal opportunity to make a lot of history.
The game began on a Saturday and Somerset batted first. They managed 167 in 66.3 overs and in an age when all counties bowled around twenty overs an hour Hobbs had over two hours to make progress towards removing the burden from his shoulders. "We had brushed ourselves aside for the occasion," wrote RC Robertson-Glasgow (Crusoe), who opened the home side's bowling. But it seems that Hobbs could have been out three times that evening. He was caught at cover-point off a no-ball, might have been pouched at mid-on had Jack MacBryan moved a little more quickly and then saw a confident lbw appeal from Robertson-Glasgow turned down. He also managed to run out Donald Knight for 34. Yet when all these tiny dramas had been completed he was unbeaten on 91. Nine runs to get and all Fleet Street in a ferment.
On Sunday Hobbs kept to his usual habit and twice went to church, but between these simple devotions he was filmed at Surrey's hotel close by the station. On the platform favoured by trains from London another carriage disgorged yet more journalists, all hip-flasks and headlines. The following morning the County Ground was quite as packed as it had been 48 hours earlier. "Somerset committee-men beamed affably alike on friends, enemies and total strangers," observed Crusoe. Hobbs began with three singles, then a four off a Robertson-Glasgow no-ball and a single in the same over. Then he pushed a single off Jim Bridges, thereby disposing of the great matter that had bedevilled him for a month.
"Tremendous cheering, of course, greeted the accomplishment of the feat," reported Wisden, who gave a whole page to its match report. "Indeed, so pronounced was the enthusiasm that the progress of the game was halted some minutes while at the end of the over all the players in the field shook hands with Hobbs, and the Surrey captain brought out a drink for the hero of the occasion, who raised the glass high and bowed to the crowd before partaking of the refreshment."
The liquid in the glass Percy Fender brought out was ginger-ale and toasting the crowd may have been the most ostentatious act of Hobbs's life. Leo McKinstry, his latest and best biographer, records that he also took from his pocket a telegram he had written earlier and asked the Taunton groundsman to send it to his wife, Ada, who was on holiday in Margate with their four children. It read: "Got it at last, Jack."
The rest of that game at Taunton was much more than an appendix to a great moment. The papers had their story and some sated journalists returned to the smoke. Surrey, meanwhile, having established a lead of 192, bowled out Somerset for 374, this despite a century by MacBryan. Needing 183 to win, the visitors got home by ten wickets and Hobbs, having equalled Grace's record on Monday, surpassed it a day later. "His cares dropped from him, as the poet has it, like the needles shaken from out the gusty pine," said Crusoe rather sportingly, given that his six overs had cost 42 runs. "The same balls which, in the first innings, he had pushed severely to cover-point he now cracked to the boundary with serene abandon."
Hobbs made 16 centuries in 1925 and finished the season with 3024 runs. He played on until 1934, by which time he was 51. He made nearly as many hundreds after his 40th birthday as before reaching that vestibule of middle age. He was knighted in 1953, the first professional to receive the honour, yet he continued to call his former amateur colleagues Mr. Jardine, Mr. Fender etc. even when he was Sir Jack. He has been fortunate in his biographers and fortunate too, that one of his friends was John Arlott, who loved him very much. "He just was the person whom I suppose I admired more than anybody else and I really believe that if he had never played cricket I would have admired him as much," Arlott told Mike Brearley in their memorable Channel 4 conversations. "He was determined to be content."
After retirement Hobbs ran his sports shop in Fleet Street and sometimes worked for the newspapers, his copy ghosted by a professional journalist. The story goes that he might be critical of one or two batsmen's dismissals in the morning session but by the time came to file copy natural kindness had reasserted itself. "Say he's looking for his best form," he might suggest.
Arlott's last poem took him six months to write. It was entitled: "To John Berry Hobbs on his Seventieth Birthday". The fourth stanza reads as follows:
The Master: records prove the title good:
Yet figures fail you, for they cannot say
How many men whose names you never knew
Are proud to tell their sons they saw you play.
Arlott also produced a short biography of Hobbs. It details his major achievements but always places them in a context that really has little to do with cricket: "This was the man who, without believing it to be a matter of major importance, made more runs than anyone else."
In 2000 a panel of experts voted Hobbs one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Century. In his tribute Matthew Engel noted his subject had done more than anyone else to lift "the status and dignity of the English professional cricketer. He shied away from the limelight without ever resenting it. Even in old age he could be sought by all-comers at his sports shop in Fleet St."
No doubt some customers asked Hobbs about that famous day in Taunton. He probably apologised for all the fuss he had caused.
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Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications