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.