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