Thursday, 4 October 2007

England’s finest

Now that Tim has selected his World XI, which included Wally Hammond, it seemed the right time to publish this article I wrote a while back on the great man.

There are many great things that can be said about Wally Hammond, but perhaps the finest compliment he can be paid is that he was a truly modern player, whose Test career bears comparison with those of much more recent vintage. He played 85 Test matches, a staggering number for a Test cricketer of his era, and nearly half of them were away. This meant that Hammond experienced conditions in all the Test playing countries of the time, except India, having to adapt his technique to the numerous challenges this presented. That he succeeded so spectacularly is testament to his ability and strength of character. In fact, he registered the then world record Test score of 336 not out on a tour of New Zealand.

It is worth noting that the great Don Bradman only played Test cricket in his native Australia and in England, with 37 of his 52 Test matches being against the old enemy. It is a shame that he, and so many of his contemporaries, were unable to tour India, New Zealand, South Africa and West Indies, the other Test playing nations at the time. Of course, those nations were still establishing themselves as International cricket sides, but they included some wonderful players, including George Headley, the great West Indian batsman, who sadly only played 22 Test matches.

The term great is bandied about far too freely when discussing Test cricketers, but in Hammond’s case it is not only justified, but demands to be used. As Hammond excelled in all aspects of cricket I have broken his Test career into different areas. This means I can give each part of his game closer scrutiny and make a better attempt at doing justice to his cricketing legacy.

The batsman

From an early age Hammond had the rare combination of ability and temperament. He honed his technique in order to deal with all types of bowling, but also worked out how he would play in different conditions and against different attacks. On his first tour of Australia, in 1928-9, Hammond decided that he would profit best by aiming to score most of his runs in the V between extra cover and midwicket, largely abandoning the pull and cut shots he played so well. The policy paid huge dividends, with Hammond scoring an astonishing 905 runs in the five match series at an average of 113.12. Such astute thinking and forward planning was the sign of a master batsman, who understood his own game as well as the game as a whole. And he was only 25 at the time, with many more years to perfect his batting.

It is no surprise then that Hammond’s career average in Tests was an outstanding 58.42, that he compiled 7249 runs in his 85 matches and struck 22 centuries along the way. Six of his three figure scores were double hundreds and one was that magical 336 not out. In a career spanning 19 years Hammond rarely had any lean seasons, the exception being 1934, when he inexplicably failed against the Australians in England. In addition to numerous good years Hammond had two outstanding seasons – 1933, when he averaged 103.77 in 8 Tests, and 1936, when he averaged 161.25 in 4 matches.

Proof, if more were needed, of Hammond’s supreme ability is shown in his averages away from the familiar pitches in England. At home he averaged 50.06 in 44 matches, but away he managed 66.32 in 41 Tests, scoring 4245 of his 7249 Test runs. This says something for the variation in the quality of the pitches in England over Hammond’s time as a Test player, but says more about his talent for adapting to new conditions and bowlers. Only the West Indies, playing on their lively home pitches, evaded Hammond’s mastery. His low average of 25.00 in four matches in the Caribbean, without a 50 to his name, shows how well the West Indian bowlers must have bowled. Though he would not excuse himself, part of the reason for his lack of success on that tour must have been that it followed his loss of form at home in the preceding Ashes series. Even the greats have occasional lows. It is that they bounce back to even higher heights that makes them great.

The position which a batsman takes in the batting line-up is often crucial in determining their success or failure. Some batsmen are natural openers, others prefer to bat at 3, others at 4, etc. Hammond, it seems, could bat anywhere, but achieved his greatest success at 3, perhaps the most important position in any batting line-up. The number three batsman comes in when the opening stand is broken. This can, of course, happen after the very first ball of an innings or after hours with a big score already on the board. A number three must be prepared to face the new ball, the old ball, the spinners, in fact almost any circumstances.

At number three Hammond averaged 74.78 in 37 matches, scoring 14 of his 22 hundreds. This is an exceptional performance and one cannot help but wonder that even his brilliant career might have been better had he not moved down to 4, 5 and even 6 at times. It is also worth mentioning that he opened the innings in three Test matches and averaged 78.75, notching up a century and two fifties.

It is for all these various aspects of his prowess as a batsman that Hammond is often grouped with the elite of Test batsmen, a small group who not only scored runs, but changed the way others approached the task, innovating in both technique and temperament.

The bowler

Those who saw him play suggest that Hammond could have made much more of his bowling than he did. It has been said that on occasions Hammond was the fastest and most hostile of bowlers, who could tear through the opposition. That he did not do this more often is probably partly because of the responsibility of being the top batsman in the side (and captain for 20 Test matches) and partly because of the physical strain it would have taken to bowl more than he did. What we are left with is the intriguing prospect of Hammond the bowler. A few glimpses of what might have been and a very good return for a part-time bowler.

For the record Hammond took 83 wickets in his 85 Tests at the handy average of 37.80. To back up the suggestion that he could rip through a Test side he took five wickets in an innings twice, including the exceptional best bowling figures of 5 for 36. Add to this his economy rate of just 2.36 runs per over and a picture is formed of a great Test batsman, who probably bowled within himself, but who occasionally rose to the heights of a specialist bowler.

The fielder

Hammond was exceptionally athletic and said to be naturally gifted at any sport he chose to play. This was never clearer than in his incredible skill as a slip fielder, where his poise and superb reflexes saw him pouch 110 catches in his 85 Tests. I have read that he had no equal in the slips, taking most of the chances that came his way, whether they were sharp catches or thick edges that looped in the air. It seems Hammond was adept with both hands and capable of timing his movements to give himself the best opportunity to get to the ball. It must have been a great pleasure to see him diving around in the slips, especially for the bowlers, who knew those safe hands would make the most of their efforts.

The captain

Taking on the captaincy just before and just after the war, Hammond led England in 20 Test matches, spread over six series, though the last of these was a one-off Test in New Zealand. Although he only tasted defeat on three occasions, all against Australia, two of those losses were in losing the Ashes series in 1946/7 in Australia. The three series Hammond won as captain were all 1-0 against lesser opponents. It was a sign of the times that 13 of his 20 Tests in charge were drawn.

It is fair to say that Hammond was a good, if not spectacular, leader, who could not quite inspire England to beat their old rivals, the Australians. He was, however, captain in that most memorable of Test matches at the Oval in 1938, when England levelled the series with an incredible win by an innings and 579 runs. Two records were set by England in that match, which stood for many years – the highest individual Test score of 364 by Len Hutton and the highest team total of 903 by England in their first and only innings. It was Hammond’s first series as captain and one which I’m sure he was proud of.

The legacy

There is little doubt that Walter Reginald Hammond was one of the best Test cricketers ever to grace the sport. I would go as far as to say that he is England’s greatest ever Test player. A cricketer who excelled in all the disciplines of the game in a career that spanned nearly twenty years. That he achieved what he did in spite of losing six of his best years to the Second World War is amazing. There is little doubt that he would have been the first player to play a hundred Test matches and, perhaps, scored 10,000 Test runs in the process. As it is Hammond’s record remains one of the best in the highest form of the game and his legacy was to inspire those England players who had played with him and those who followed after him.


Tim said...

Great piece Nick. A true giant of the game and, as you suggest, probably our greatest cricketer of the last century,

Anonymous said...

Ya really nice pick and they deserve to be in the XI.Also like to know more latest Cricketing News

Unknown said...

Wally's teammate Eddie Paynter, towards the end of his life, was asked what came most to mind when he thought of Hammond. His response - "well...Wally like a shag." Seems he was the true all-rounder!

Nick Gammons said...

Cheers, Tim. Hammond was certainly a man who lived life to the full. It is always intriguing to ponder how one of the greats of the past would fare now. I'm fairly sure Hammond would enjoy both the on and off field life of the modern cricketer.

Stuart said...

Very good piece on a true legend of the game. The only section that was missing was an analysis of Hammond "The man". A lot of his fellow players were not overly complementary about his personality, and that is an interesting component of his overall success on the field.

Anonymous said...

There is good reason to argue that Wally Hammond is England's greatest cricketer. In his time he was as famous as W.G, and was known to everyone in the UK. He was a superstar. Now 99 out of 100"Brits" wouldn't even recognise his name. That is a measure of how far cricket has sunk in England .. exactly matching the collapse in standards across our society. Will the Aussies forget Bradman? The West Indians forget Sobers? The Indians forget Gavaskar? When a nation forgets its heroes, it has forgotten how to be a nation.