The Master battling for MCC against Australia at Trent Bridge, June 1930 (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hobbs recalled

Ninety-five years on, Hobbs still holds a record that is unlikely ever to be broken

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It took a lot to fluster the man they called The Master. But on March 9, 1929, more than 20 years into his Test career, Jack Hobbs was finally stumped by a Canadian actress in the dining room of a Melbourne hotel.

The England and Surrey batsman had returned to the Hotel Windsor with his wife after making 142 in what he had announced would be his final Test match. As they entered the restaurant, the band struck up “See, The Conquering Hero Comes!”, followed by “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”, after which Hobbs was coyly approached by Miss Margaret Bannerman,  an actress of the silent screen.

(Print Collector/Getty Images)

“May I have the privilege?” asked the star of Lady Audley’s Secret and The Gay Lord Quex, before planting a smacker on his reddening cheek. “The man whose calm on the cricket field has apparently never been disturbed,” a local paper reported, “was the picture of bewildered embarrassment.”

If any batsman deserved such favour that series it should have been Wally Hammond, whose 905 runs at an average of 113 helped England to win the Ashes 4-1, but the priapic Gloucestershire swordsman was seldom short of kisses. And in any case, few would have disputed (save, perhaps, Mrs Hobbs) that Jack had earned the lady’s affection having just become, at the age of 46 years and 82 days, the oldest cricketer to make a Test century.

Ninety-five years on, Hobbs still holds a record that is unlikely ever to be broken. The oldest century-maker in Tests since the Second World War, Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq, was just 42. Only W.G. Grace, in 1896, and George Gunn, in 1930, have registered even a half-century at an older age than Hobbs when he made that hundred in Melbourne. Nor was he done. Despite having said that this would be his last Test, Hobbs played on for another 18 months, making four more fifties for England before drawing stumps on his international career.

Though Hobbs was given the title of “The Master” by Douglas Jardine in 1932, when he made a century in each innings against Essex at the age of 49, the M word had first been associated with him 20 years earlier in The Times after his batting on wet wickets. No more discerning a judge than Herbert Sutcliffe, who shared 15 century stands with Hobbs in just 38 Test innings, said that while Australia’s Donald Bradman was unsurpassed on good wickets, his old opening partner stood above all for his brilliance when the conditions were poor.

In all, Hobbs made 199 first-class centuries — exactly one hundred of them after his fortieth birthday — and he still averaged in the 60s in the season after he turned 50. As his Wisden obituary put it: “The more his years increased, the riper his harvests.” Bradman, whose Test batting average of 99.94 is as unlikely ever to be beaten as Hobbs’s form in middle age, made a mere 117 centuries. How much greater could The Don have been if only he had been able to bat on bad wickets?

And how many more first-class runs than his extraordinary 61,760 could Hobbs have run up if he didn’t believe in letting others have their turn? “He could have scored thousands more runs,” Wilfred Rhodes, his first great opening partner, said. Only 16 of his 199 centuries were doubles (the sixth most but far behind Bradman’s 37 and Hammond’s 36) and with 274 fifties he must have left some hundreds out on the park. Hobbs saw his job as being to see off the new ball and keep the ship steady when the bowling was lively so that others could cash in. “That was the time you had to earn your living,” he said.

How many who walk through Hobbs Gate at the Oval know much of his accomplishments?

In 1953, the broadcaster John Arlott organised a dinner to celebrate Hobbs being knighted. The Master’s Club has continued to meet for the past 70 years on December 16, Hobbs’s birthday, where they dine on his favourite menu of tomato soup, roast lamb and apple pie.

April 1929: English cricketer Sir Jack Hobbs and his wife (Photo by Davis/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Hobbs had been raised in poverty, the oldest of 12 children born to a Cambridge slater. As a boy he practised cricket on the common ground at Parker’s Piece, a good hit but a social chasm from the perfect lawns of the gentlemen amateurs at Fenner’s. Like Gordon Richards, the miner who became the greatest English jockey, Hobbs was given a knighthood in Elizabeth II’s coronation honours, a small sign of meritocracy at the dawn of a new reign.

Six decades after his death at 81, his name may be fading. The Hobbs pavilion on Parker’s Piece that he opened in 1930 became a Thai restaurant and his sports shop at 59 Fleet Street is a dry cleaners (an offshoot in Cambridge is now a Sweaty Betty). There is still the Hobbs Gate at the Oval, but how many who walk through it know much of his accomplishments?

“He lifted the status and dignity of the English professional cricketer,” Wisden said. “A man of the highest integrity, who believed in sportsmanship in the highest sense, teamwork and fair play,” said Sutcliffe. “The greatest batsman the world has ever known,” added Percy Fender, his Surrey captain. “And the most modest man that anyone could meet.” For those who appreciate cricket’s history, the memory of his extraordinary career and character is always worth preserving.

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