Batting For Britain - A Rare Breed Of Hero: JACK HOBBS: ENGLAND apos;S GREATEST CRICKETER BY LEO MCINSTRY
Batting for Britain - a rare breed of heroJACK HOBBS: ENGLAND'S GREATEST CRICKETER BY LEO MCINSTRY (Yellow Jersey Press £20)
By [/home/search.html?s=&authornamef=Marcus+Berkmann+for+MailOnline Marcus Berkmann for MailOnline]
Updated: 17:47 BST, 26 May 2011
Unsung hero: England cricketer Sir Jack Hobbs
Cricket, unlike most sports, has a fearsomely long memory.
Everything that happens is measured against other things that happened long, long ago.
All fans, most writers and even a few of the players are steeped in cricket history. The distant past, to us, isn't that far away.
But even within cricket, it is possible for mighty reputations to drift out of focus.
Between 1905 and 1934, Jack Hobbs, of Surrey and England, scored more first-class runs (61,237) and playersintroduction.bookmark.com centuries (197) than anyone ever has and probably ever will.
No one has exceeded the 3,636 runs he scored in Tests against Australia. Like W G Grace immediately before him and Donald Bradman immediately after him, he dominated his era.
We continue to venerate Grace and Bradman, but to many modern cricket fans, Hobbs is just a name. It's a disservice to our sporting past that Leo McKinstry has set out to correct.
McKinstry's will be a familiar name to Daily Mail readers, of course, but in between all his journalism he has been developing a parallel career as an historian of the heroic.
Starting with a biography of his own childhood hero Geoffrey Boycott, he has written elegant reappraisals of Sir Alf Ramsay and Jack and Bobby Charlton, and three fine books about World War II aircraft, Spitfire, Lancaster and Hurricane.
England's greatest batsman? Jack Hobbs (l) opening for Surrey in May 1927
He is interested in people who achieve because of temperament as much as talent, modest men who triumph against the odds.
Hobbs is a natural for him.
Hobbs's background was, as they used to say, humble. The late-Victorian Cambridge into which he was born was ‘an entirely different world, one of squalor and poverty, of narrow streets and cramped houses, of endless grim and ceaseless work.'
His father was a groundsman and umpire, while his mother, Flora, was ‘something of a matriarch', unyielding and stern with one endearing quality: she had a pet duck called Cyril.
‘Regularity of life in childhood helps to form a strong character,' said Flora in 1928. ‘It develops self-control, necessary for young people destined to fill a big place in the world.'
Jack was certainly destined to do that. But unlike most great batsmen, he wasn't a prodigy.
Bradman scored his first century in competitive cricket aged 12 and his first triple century at 17. More recently Sachin Tendulkar scored a century on his first-class debut aged 15. Hobbs, by contrast, was 18 before he scored his first century, 20 when given a contract by Surrey, and 22 when he first actually played for them.
But Hobbs arrived at a difficult time for batsmen. The googly, a ball that spins towards you when you're expecting it to spin away, had just been introduced, and the fiendish art of swing bowling was newly perfected.
The classical Victorian batsmen were found out by these new wiles, but Hobbs adapted his game and mastered his own art.
McKinstry talks of ‘his unique ability to bat on sticky wickets, using his judgment of length, swift footwork and skill at playing the ball as late as possible.'
Plum Warner, captain of Middlesex, described him as ‘a professional who batted like an amateur', which was clearly meant as the highest praise.
Happily, batty tales of class prejudice are grist to the McKinstry mill.
At the end of one tour to South Africa, the MCC announced there would be two extra matches in Rhodesia. Hobbs was incensed - it extended the tour by three weeks and there would be no extra pay.
‘They also had suspicions that the new fixtures had been organised primarily to allow the amateurs to see Victoria Falls and indulge in big-game shooting.'
The professionals put their feet down and insisted on returning home.
To some at the MCC, this was tantamount to Bolshevism.
McKinstry makes his sympathies clear. ‘What is truly pitiful about all this class fixation is that there was nothing remotely shameful about cricket as a profession . Hobbs, in his gentle rectitude, had far more decency than the overbearing amateur [Archie] MacLaren, who might have been upright in his batting stance but was not in his personal life, leaving a trail of debts and aggravation behind him.'
Gradually, then, a portrait builds up of a very British type of hero: stoical, good-humoured and brave, but also shy and surprisingly physically fragile.
On the long journeys to Australia, Hobbs suffered from seasickness and rarely left his cabin. ‘Lacking stamina, he regularly complained of fatigue at the end of a long innings .
Migraines were just another factor in his occasional bouts of exhaustion.' Yet his fielding at cover point was legendarily sharp, and he played until the age of 52.
Perversely, one of McKinstry's strengths as a biographer is that he doesn't talk too much about cricket.
And he always has an eye for the telling detail.
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead in Sarajevo. At that very moment Hobbs was fielding for Surrey, almost certainly at cover point, in a county championship match against Middlesex at the Oval.
I have a feeling this is a fact I shall remember for the rest of my life.
This learned and wide-ranging book skilfully recreates a vanished world and resuscitates the reputation of one who might well be England's Greatest Cricketer.