Hammond under the microscope

Wally Hammond (The Reasons Why)

by David Foot (Robson Books, pounds 17.95)

Just before the Second World War, the best batsman in the world was Don Bradman of Australia. After him came the contenders George Headley of the West Indies and Len Hutton of England; but if all the Test players had voted, the probable winner would have been Wally Hammond. He played for Gloucestershire and England, started as a professional and became an amateur (and so captained England), and he could be, according to contemporaries, a funny bugger - meaning quirky, odd, moody, rude, miserable. Yet Hutton said of him: "The most perfect batsman I ever saw, more enjoyable to watch than Sir Don."

Hammond wrote three books on his own career. There followed two biographies and any number of articles in journals. David Foot's sub-title explains the motive for this edition, and Foot, who has built an enviable reputation through his work on Harold Gimblett, Charlie Parker, Viv Richards and other stars in the West, makes an excellent start with the dust jacket. We have all seen photographs of Hammond, usually with a cap, sun hat or trilby pulled down over his forehead, a drooping cigarette in the corner of the mouth. Foot's publishers have found a photograph that shows Hammond as pre-war society knew him: well-dressed, handsome, with an obvious charm.

Hammond liked women, and women liked him. The boy from Cirencester Grammar School found his enormous skills with bat and ball - one captain thought he would have rivalled Sobers as an all-rounder had he bowled more often - gave him an entry to that bright and febrile world we know from Evelyn Waugh and Brideshead Revisited.

From the early Thirties, the dashing and brilliant young man changed. Malaria, contracted on a tour of the West Indies in 1927, was cited for his illnesses and mercurial temperament. The value of Foot's book in terms of the game's history is that he challenges this assumption and, by assiduous research and talking to many who knew Wally, offers a much more cogent explanation. Foot concludes that Hammond contracted syphilis or another sexually transmitted disease in the West Indies and that the treatment at the time - penicillin was undiscovered pre-war - caused a slow, insidious, long-term poisoning of his whole system. There are other mysteries, including a cryptic reference in the Gloucestershire minutes: "advance any monies necessary to pay the accounts of Hammond".

Foot pays proper attention to the sunny side, the joy and delight brought to so many cricket lovers around the world by the quality of Hammond's play. He scored 50,000 runs, 167 centuries and averaged 58 in his 85 Test matches; he scored 3,000 runs in two seasons and passed 2,000 12 times. He was, old men will tell you, a far superior player to Ian Botham.

I once asked a professor of politics from Washington about John F Kennedy, another charismatic who shared Hammond's weakness. He replied: "I believe JFK was a great man but a very complex one who should never be judged on one facet of his personality." That would also serve as an epitaph for Hammond as, indeed, does this fascinating biography.

Derek Hodgson