Monday, 9 July 2007

The Battle of the Openers

The opening candidates are Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Sunil Gavaskar and Len Hutton.

In 38 innings opening together, Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe averaged 88 runs per partnership. Even with the abundance of facile runs on offer in modern Test cricket, this record is likely to remain forever unsurpassed.

Of the two, it is Hobbs, despite his slightly inferior average, whose name is the more resonant today. His elegant style has come to symbolise ideals of English batsmanship; this, compounded with his world record 197 first-class centuries and innate decency – he is associated with quintessentially English values of fair play and sportsmanship, meant he was the first ever professional cricketer to receive a knighthood.

Hobbs’ Test career spanned an extraordinary 22 years, during which time he scored 15 centuries in his 61 Tests, earning success in all conditions – even the notoriously difficult sticky wickets - through the quality of his technique and regal stroke play. If there is a criticism, it is that he too seldom converted his hundreds into gargantuan scores.

His partner Sutcliffe has been far less romanticised; he shared Hobbs’ technical prowess, but, although certainly not inelegant, his runs were accumulated in a less aesthetically pleasing manner.

The Yorkshireman may not have looked so patently great as, say, Hobbs; but he was fiercely resolute, courageous and skilful – and a fine team man to boot. A man never flustered by pitch or opposition, Sutcliffe was described by Wisden as “an artist of the dead bat”. His ability to deliver in the trickiest conditions, and under the most pressure, is legendary; a knock of 135 to help England to their victory target of 332 in Melbourne in 1928/29 must rank amongst the finest in Test cricket. Above all though, he was a man of sustained brilliant performances: during his first 40 Tests, before he declined upon hitting 38, Sutcliffe averaged an astounding 70.

Sunil Gavaskar shared Sutcliffe’s near-perfect technique and powers of concentration, and scored 34 Test hundreds, until very recently the record. A key criterion of selection is “how players fared during the toughest challenges of their Test careers”; and, against the West Indies, Gavaskar was, easily, the outstanding player of his generation. His record of 13 centures in 27 Tests at an average of 65 – including seven hundreds in the Carribean – is testament to his ability against the very finest fast bowling. Though regarded as a stoic player, Gavaskar was also capable of tremendous strokeplay.

Another Yorkshireman, Len Hutton, broke Don Bradman’s Test record score in scoring 364 at The Oval in 1938, at the age of just 22. Before he declined markedly in his last nine Tests, he averaged close to 62; this is even more impressive considering he did not play Test cricket between the ages of 23 and 30, when he would surely have been in his prime. Like Hobbs, Hutton was a fusion of technical excellence and gloriously elegant strokeplay. He was a very fine captain in his later years; with the bat, he succeeded in all circumstances, most notably averaging 88 in England’s 4-1 Ashes defeat of 50/51, against an attack of Lindwall, Johnston, Miller and Iverson.

Who do you think should be the opening partnership in the Greatest Test XI of the last hundred years? Leave a comment below.


Richard Lake said...

Taking the two Yorkshiremen first, I would say that of teh four openers, Hutton would come out on top of my list, with Sutcliffe at the bottom of the four. Hutton would have broken all sorts of records had the war not intervened.

Having picked Hutton, who was (by all accounts) an elegant strokemaker, then to compliment him, I would pick Gavasker. Hobbs and Hutton are too similar in style, whereas Gavasker would just bat and bat and bat.

Hutton and Gavasker for me then!

Robert said...

Nice summaries but cut out the jingoism. Fair play and sportsmanship are not quintessentially English values.

My choices Gavaskar and Hobbs.

Nick Gammons said...

For me Gavaskar must be the number one pick. As you rightly point out his record against the dominant West Indies was incredible. He also held the records for both runs and centuries scored in Tests for a long time.

Having read a great deal about the other three I would have to say that Hobbs would be my choice to open with Gavaskar. He played on some poor wickets and was ahead of his time in both his style and professionalism.

Cricket Guru said...

It would be Gavaskar and Hobbs for me.

I understand this thread is going strong on a cricket forum for quite some time now. I must admit, I was surprised not to find Victor Trumper in the short list.

Tim said...

Cricket guru - if you have a look at the criteria I set out ( then you will see those who made their debuts pre-1908 are ineligible. This is primiarily because players who played earlier played far fewer Tests, and under conditions greatly different to those today; it is also hard(er) to separate reality from myth. Otherwise, as you say, Trumper may well have been included; he was a giant of his age.

Thanks for all the other imput guys - all very interesting!

Regarding the sportsmanship - I think it is fair to say that, a century ago, they were values primarily associated with Englishmen. Crtainly not anymore, howevr!

Sportsnob said...

Sorry about the other comment- but yes Gavaskar should definitely be in purely on the strength of his performances against the champion West Indian side of the 70s.

Barry Richards would have definitely ended up with a brilliant record if not for the ban.

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