Inexplicable Fascinations #1
We all have things that make us feel better but make no sense. I am a huge fan of test cricket. Any game that can go for 5 days and be a draw has to reflect life more fully than a neat little package of entertainment that is over in two hours and always delivers a result. Test cricket is to most sports what a novel is to a short story.
As a result, I recently got myself a copy of Jack Hobbs: Profile of ‘The Master’ by John Arlott (Penguin, 1982, 144p).
I knew little of Hobbs besides his amazing career statistics when I picked up this book. His total of 199 (or 197, depending on the authority) first class hundreds is as remarkable a statistic as Bradman’s test average of 99.94. His career that stretched from 1905 to 1935 and linked W.G.Grace with Bradman. He scored a test century at the age of forty-six and first class hundreds at fifty-one. It all seems impossible.
The book is labelled a profile, yet it borders on the panegyric. Clearly Hobbs was one of the handful of greatest cricketers ever — one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Century — and Arlott uses clear and elegant prose to paint him as generous, humble, professional, essentially without human flaw. It is a case where a few minor detractions here and there would have leant the book just enough sense of balance that the appreciations would have held more weight. Perhaps, though, that is a shadow cast by a ‘modern’ cynicism.
Tellingly, the more important the game the higher Hobbs’s scores. It perhaps says something about the competitiveness of many of the teams in county cricket at the time that Hobbs was said to allow himself to be dismissed once he made his hundred (it also makes you wonder what his average would have been had he had the run gathering ruthlessness of Bradman or a modern great like Tendulkar or Kallis). It says more about Hobbs that his test average was rather higher than his first class average, and that the tougher the conditions the higher he stood above his contemporaries.
I read the book virtually at a sitting. Hobbs’s self-made journey from poverty to affluence, from obscurity to the pinnacle of sporting fame — the first English professional to be knighted — and the remarkably level-headed manner with which he dealt with his fame, is a genuine ‘feel-good’ story. It puts flesh on the statistical bones of a remarkable — no, astounding — career, and left me thinking that here was the epitome of batsmen.
He began his career perhaps too keen to try every stroke in his repertoire, something still common in young batsmen, an this phase of his career peaked as World War I approached — he probably lost his best five years to the war. After the war, as age and injuries took their toll, he remodelled his game and the runs came even more regularly. He himself felt his pre-war batsmanship superior (his post-war runs were ‘all made off the back foot’, he would modestly abjure), but he scored 98 (98!) hundreds after he turned forty, several of them in tests. He was the best of his time; was he the best of all time? That is not worth arguing over. The greatest? Well, that is a matter of definitions. Best relates to ability, greatness to achievements. The best batsman ever may be someone none of us have ever heard of. In my time, amongst Australian batsmen, I would say Ricky Ponting was better but Border greater. And for entertainment I’d rather watch Brian Lara than any other contemporary player, except maybe Ganguly at his peak.
This book opens up the world of the golden age of cricket, before the war of 1914. It is a glimpse of another era, and of one of its central figures. As I said, Hobbs comes across as almost too perfect; yet at the same time the book made me feel such a respect for the man and what he did that I don’t want to find out anything negative.
Perhaps the subtitle should have been ‘A celebration of ‘The Master”. Regardless, it comes recommended. Particularly if you are a cricket tragic. Some of the current generation of professional sports-people might benefit from it also. David Warner, I’m looking at you.