Brian Viner: Wonderful tales of Hobbs' heroics and Grace surpassed leave no Stone unturned

The Last Word
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The marvellous game of cricket might not exert the grip on the national consciousness that it did in decades past, England's unfolding Test match against Sri Lanka might be fighting an inevitable losing battle with tonight's Champions League final for column inches, but in one respect cricket towers over football, and for that matter every other sport, with the possible exception of boxing, and that is in the wealth of literature it has inspired.

With the publication of Leo McKinstry's engrossing biography of Jack Hobbs, the wealth has just got that little bit richer. Hobbs was not as colourfully enigmatic as McKinstry's last biographical subject, Geoffrey Boycott, but nor was he quite the unblemished character suggested by John Arlott's assessment of him as "almost Christ-like".

As McKinstry explains, in accumulating 61,237 first-class runs the great man could sometimes bat more for himself than the team in, dare I say it, almost Boycottian style. Nor was he averse to cashing in on his name at a time when it was considered decidedly vulgar to make commercial capital out of cricket, albeit by those who had not grown up, as Hobbs had, in a two-up, two-down, the eldest of 12 children. Moreover, his status as a national hero briefly took a knock when he declined to volunteer to fight in the First World War, joining up only when conscripted in 1916.

So there is shade as well as light in the story of Sir Jack Hobbs, but it is a story never more riveting than in McKinstry's evocation of an August morning in Taunton in 1925, when, playing for Surrey against Somerset, Hobbs, at the age of 42, needed one more century to equal W G Grace's "unsurpassable" record of 126. The nation was spellbound, obsessed by a sporting achievement as never before or, arguably, since. And there was due euphoria, not only when Hobbs drew level, but when, in the second innings of the match, he pulled ahead, scoring his 127th first-class hundred.

As for W G Grace, doubtless hurrumphing in his grave that day at being struck from the record books, let me turn to another new cricketing tome, John Duncan's lovely compilation of interviews with an eclectic collection of luminaries, entitled Cricket Wonderful Cricket. I recommend Duncan's book partly because the author is generously donating his profits to charity in the admirable form of the Lord's Taverners, but also because there are some wonderful nuggets in it, not least Bill Wyman's revelation that it was his cricket-mad grandmother who kindled his own interest in the game, her interest having been ignited while she was a young woman in service at a house in Sydenham, next door to where Dr Grace lived. "I hope he didn't bonk her or anything," the former Rolling Stone told Duncan. "He was said to be a randy bugger. There's a possibility that there was something going on there. But too late to ask her now."

So there we are. Might Bill Wyman's grandmother have been given satisfaction by W G Grace? Even in the remarkable and ever-burgeoning wealth of cricketing literature, I can't think of any other images quite like that.

Jenner was an inspiration, from Merseyside to Melbourne

The death of Terry Jenner this week was not unexpected, but no less saddening for it. It is almost exactly 10 years since I stood in the sports centre at Cardinal Heenan High School in Liverpool, the Alma Mater of Steven Gerrard and Colin Harvey, but on that day preoccupied with cricket. Jenner, once a leg-spinner for Australia but far more famous for being mentor to Shane Warne, was assessing young English talent in the indoor nets, and at the same time making a mug of the former Lancashire captain John Abrahams, who was attempting to keep wicket.

It was easy enough to see what made Jenner such an inspiring coach. "Remember Crocodile Dundee," he growled at one youngster, who had just sent down his best leg-break. "When he says, 'that's not a knife ... THIS is a knife. Well, that's not spin ... THIS is spin!" And he promptly turned the ball from outside leg-stump to first-slip territory. But it wasn't one-upmanship; all the boys were bowling too quickly and he was demonstrating the importance of slowing down. "The right speed for a spinner is the speed at which he gets maximum spin," he boomed. It was one of those tips so obvious they get overlooked. He will be mourned, in Merseyside as well as Melbourne.

Woods' fall from top 10 reduced to a mere footnote

Even in the turbulently newsworthy world of sport, this has been an unusually newsy week, what with the dramatic conclusion of the Premier League football season, the impending Champions League final, Test cricket, French Open tennis and, of course, the unedifying yet strangely satisfying spectacle of internecine warfare between the possibly corrupt, and possibly not corrupt, but undoubtedly preposterous, megalomaniacs at Fifa.

All of which might explain why, relegated to little more than a paragraph in most newspapers, and I think overlooked entirely by radio and television, was Tuesday's titbit of information that Tiger Woods no longer ranks among the top 10 golfers in the world, having fallen to No 12, behind Matt Kuchar and Bubba Watson. It might have been long on the cards, Woods dropping out of the top 10 for the first time since April 1997, and of course it's more than likely that his ranking will improve, but it still represents a shifting of golf's tectonic plates.

Comments