Hobbs reigns in the shadow of the Quantocks

RC Robertson-Glasgow recalls two memorable centuries at Taunton in August 1925

RC Robertson-Glasgow recalls two memorable centuries at Taunton in August 1925

Jack Hobbs: `a very perfect gentle Knight' © Getty Images
Jack Hobbs was my hero. He was the greatest batsman that I ever saw and, very occasionally, had the pleasure to bowl to. He was the kindest cricketer that I have known, whether to other cricketers, or to spectators whom he might never see again. I recall him taking the autograph book of a very junior watcher and returning it to him with the signatures of the whole Surrey team. That was like Victor Trumper, in his day the greatest of Australian batsmen. He had a boyish leg-pulling humour, which stayed with him almost to the end of his life. He was religious in an undemonstrative manner. He was `a very perfect gentle Knight.'
John Berry Hobbs came from Cambridge to Surrey and it was not long before he showed himself to be perfectly equipped by both art and temperament for any style of batting on any kind of pitch against any sort of bowling. He mastered spin and speed on grass or matting. When young, he conquered spin or `cut' on the South African mat; when comparatively elderly, he would hook bumpers off his face on the grass of Australia or England. He was always in position. He always seemed to have the extra split-second of time that makes the difference. And he did it all with a grace that cannot be transferred into words.
As to genius, there is nearly always argument about its peak or meridian. Were Dickens's earlier works his best? Did Beethoven never again approach his youthful splendour? So with Sir John Hobbs, there are some who say that those who never saw his pre-First War brilliance never really saw Hobbs at all.
And yet, for most of us, regardless of our age, he reached and settled on the top of his mountain, when he was around the age of forty, when his opening partner for England was Herbert Sutcliffe; for Surrey, Andrew Sandham. Indeed, it is arguable that no greater pair of opening batsmen ever walked out from the pavilion for England than Hobbs and Sutcliffe.
Twice during the mid-1920s, in a Test match against Australia, on a bowlers' pitch, they made the bowlers look small; at Melbourne, and at The Oval. The second of these two performances, at The Oval, ended a period of Australian dominance that was beginning to seem incapable of ending.
But I hope the reader will exercise an understanding forgiveness if I say that for me, for sundry other county cricketers - fewer, now, I fear - and for certain West Country spectators, there were two of Hobbs's 197 centuries which will always have more meaning than any that he scored in the fiercer and more famous fields of Test cricket.

Hobbs toasts the crowd after equaling WG Grace's record on the Monday at Taunton © Getty Images
These two centuries belong to a hot August weekend in 1925, at Taunton where the horizon facing the pavilion is made beautiful by the Quantock hills. At any time the crowd would come to see Hobbs, just as in later years they would come to see Stanley Matthews play soccer. But this August weekend at Taunton had its own particular excitement. For a month or so Hobbs had needed but one century, his 126th, to equal the first-class record of the Old Man, Dr. W. G. Grace; and for a month or so Luck had shown herself an ill-natured lady.
And now here we were; the ground bursting at the seams, and the roof of the little pavilion bending under the news-reel cinematograph men and their gear. Somerset batted first, and, with a few exceptions, not well. Surrey had two hours and twenty minutes of batting that Saturday. During that period Hobbs was not quite at his best. Not unnaturally, he seemed at times anxious, especially against the slow left-arm bowling of the great J. C. White. He found more opportunity against J. J. Bridges and R. C. Robertson-Glasgow. All in all, instinct took him to 91 not out at the drawing of stumps on that first evening.
It must have been, to Jack Hobbs, a very long Sunday. To some of us, of Somerset, Monday somehow seemed like break-up day at school: all was confusion and excitement. Jim Bridges and I were the bowlers. Early on I bowled a no-ball to Hobbs, which he diverted with a graceful inevitability to the leg boundary. (When all was done, someone told me how kind I was to bowl Hobbs a no-ball on purpose. Mr. Somebody giving Midas threepence.) Soon Hobbs scored a single to leg from Bridges. We all shook hands with the Maestro. And the Surrey captain, P. G. H. Fender brought out a drink whose exact nature is said now to be known only to P. G. H. Fender and to Herbert Strudwick, once the Surrey and England wicketkeeper, who to the end of Hobbs's life was probably his most intimate friend.
So now W. G. Grace and J. B. Hobbs had each made 126 centuries. It should be added that a brilliant hundred by Somerset's J. C. W. MacBryan, not unaided by Tom Young, caused the necessity of another hundred by Hobbs. He made it, beautifully, on the Tuesday, though there were comparatively few present at its making. This enabled Hobbs to go ahead of Dr. W. G. Grace, at 127 hundreds. But it is not for me to say which of the two was the greater batsman. One constellation is no more glorious than another.
It is interesting to note that Frank Woolley, of Kent and England, himself among the immortals, regarded Jack Hobbs as the greatest batsman on all wickets whom he ever saw. The record books tell us that Hobbs made 197 centuries in first-class cricket. They cannot tell us how many more he might have made but for his unselfishness. Unlike some whom one might name, Hobbs was never greedy for runs. Look at those 197 centuries, and see how many were between 100 and 130. `There are others', Hobbs would say to himself, `ready and able to take on the scoring. Let them have their turn.' In the realms of greatness he was the artist, not the merchant.
And let us not forget his fielding, nearly always at cover-point. Here, his footwork, anticipation, and throwing were of a class comparable with his batting. The perfect artist. As to his bowling, less often mentioned, he could, when asked, bowl with the new ball at about medium pace quite as well as some of those who tried to get him out.
Let me, before I end, leave the cricket field for a minute. The scene was the portico of a church, just before a Memorial Service. A member of the press was taking the names of those entering. She approached Sir John Berry Hobbs. 'Hobbs,' he said, as he passed towards the aisle. To those of us who played in his company, or watched him in play, `Jack Hobbs'; the greatest and most honourable cricketer who ever stepped on to a field.