Five cricketers of the century: Sir Jack Hobbs

Every December 16, a special club meets at The Oval for a lunch party to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of one man. The menu, by tradition, is that man's favourite meal--tomato soup, roast lamb, apple pie--though it is now nearly 40 years since he himself was able to attend. At this lunch, there is just one toast. It is, quite simply, to "The Master". This is the Master's Club. Note the position of the apostrophe. There is only one Master: Jack Hobbs.

The vast majority of the guests now never even saw him play. But the tradition thrives. It is a telling tribute, not simply to Hobbs the cricketer, but to Hobbs the human being.

Jack Hobbs scored more runs than anyone else in the history of first-class cricket: 61,237. He scored more centuries than anyone else, 197. Most astonishingly from a modern perspective, the last 98 came after his 40th birthday. However, his career batting average is 50.65, which does not even put him in Wisden's top fifty.

Only sixteen of those hundreds were double-hundreds. One says only with trepidation, because just four men have surpassed that. But the figure does not remotely compare with Bradman's 37 or Walter Hammond's 36. Hobbs was not primarily interested in scoring runs for their own sake. For much of his career he would go in at the top of a strong Surrey batting order on good Oval pitches. His job was to get the innings started. He would frequently be out for a-hundred-and-few, and was content enough himself with 60 or 70, though he liked to please his friends who took such things more seriously. But there were other times, when wickets had fallen and the ball was flying: "That was the time you had to earn your living," he said.

More than that, it was when he earned his undying reputation, his knighthood and his place as a Cricketer of the Century. He was never as dominant as Bradman; he never wanted to be. But his contemporaries were in awe of his ability to play supremely and at whim, whatever the conditions.

Hobbs set the standard for 20th-century batsmanship. As he attained his peak in the years before the First World War, he switched the emphasis away from gentlemanly Victorian off-side play to a more pragmatic approach, with an emphasis on the businesslike pull, plus an acute judgment of length, footwork and, where necessary, pad play to counter the googly bowlers of his youth. He was not an artist, like some of his predecessors, nor yet a scientist, like some of the moderns; he was perhaps the supreme craftsman.

Sir John Berry Hobbs was born in 1882 in Cambridge, then a place of strict hierarchies. His father was a net bowler at Fenner's and later a college groundsman. Jack was the oldest of 12 children and the family teetered on the brink of outright poverty. Nothing came easy except the art of batting. When his father began to bowl to him, he said later, "I could sense the spin".

But there was another aspect to his mastery. There seems no record of any unkindness in his make-up. Perhaps the least creditable episode in his life was his failure to condemn Bodyline when, with the help of a ghost writer, he was covering the 1932-33 Australian tour as a journalist. But the England captain, Douglas Jardine, was his county captain, and there were loyalties that could not be breached. In old age, he was never even heard to utter a word deprecating modern cricketers. He would always say, if the subject were broached, that he made his runs when the "lbw law was framed more kindly to the batsman".

This graceful modesty characterised everything in his life. He was deferential but quietly determined, on the field and off it; unlike his contemporary Sydney Barnes, he shied away from confronting authority, not because it was wrong but because his way worked better. He was neat and correct and moral, yet never humourless (indeed, he was a renowned dressing-room joker). He shied away from the limelight without ever resenting it. Into old age, he could be sought out by all-comers at his sports shop in Fleet Street.

More than anyone else, he lifted the status and dignity of the English professional cricketer. If some of that has vanished in an age of chancers and graspers and slackers and hustlers, the enduring glow of Hobbs's life gives us hope that the golden flame could yet be rekindled.

© John Wisden & Co