Wednesday, 14 September 2011
If, a hundred years ago, you had asked a Yorkshire cricket fan, “Who’s the best all-rounder in the world?” he might well have replied, “I don’t know, but I can tell you that he bats right-handed, bowls left, and comes from Kirkheaton”. The point of this answer was that it applied to two mighty stalwarts of the Yorkshire and England teams: George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes. (The photograph shows Hirst, on the left, with Rhodes)
Kirkheaton is a small village of stone-built houses on the slopes of the Pennines, not far from the great wool manufacturing town of Huddersfield in what used to be called the West Riding of Yorkshire. George Hirst was born there in 1871, leaving school aged ten, working in a dye-works and playing weekend cricket until invited to a county trial at 18, but not gaining a regular place in the team until three years later. He originally won recognition as a fast-medium bowler, being one of the first exponents of making the ball swing in the air, as well as a strong, aggressive batsman and a superb fielder. In 1896 he achieved his first “double” of a thousand runs and a hundred wickets for the season: he was to reach this milestone 14 times, including a “double double” of 2000 runs and 200 wickets in 1906; the only man ever to manage this extraordinary feat. He was called up into the England team for the tour of Australia in 1897-8, winning 24 Test caps altogether, but never having quite the same impact as he did at County level.
Wilfred Rhodes was born in the village in 1877, and like Hirst he began as a Saturday cricketer for the village, working as a railwayman at nearby Mirfield during the week. In 1896, however, he was already skilled enough to be employed as the club professional al Galashiels on the Scottish border. After two seasons there he was called into the Yorkshire team; the county’s chief spin bowler, Bobby Peel, having been sacked for drunkenness. His impact was immediate: despite his youth and inexperience the accuracy of his slow left-arm bowling was infallible, he could turn the ball sharply from leg to off and even the best batsmen had difficulty reading his deceptive line of flight. On a wicket taking spin, he was virtually unplayable. So in his first season, 1898, he took 154 wickets, then 179 in his second, and over 200 in each of the next three: over a thousand wickets by the age of 25! It could have come as a surprise to no-one that in 1899 he was selected for the England team; his first Test, with nice symbolism, being the last ever played by the legendary W. G. Grace. In his early days Rhodes was seen as number 11 batsman, but this was soon to change.
There was a sensational series against Australia in 1902. In the first Test the visitors, caught on a bad wicket, were dismissed by Hirst and Rhodes for just 36 runs: Rhodes’s contribution being 7 wickets for 17 runs in 11 overs. Then in the last Test, England were set a modest total of 263 for victory. They collapsed to 48 for 5, then the great hitter Gilbert Jessop smashed his way to a century in an hour and a half, but when Rhodes entered as last man in to join George Hirst, a further 15 runs were still needed. “We’ll get ’em in singles, Wilfred”, said Hirst, and the pair duly saw England home.
In 1903-4 Rhodes was selected for his first tour of Australia. Many experts doubted whether he would be able to turn the ball on the hard, unresponsive Australian wickets, but this fear proved to be unfounded. One of the central themes of the series was his contest with the great Australian batsman Victor Trumper. In the second innings of the first Test at Sydney, Trumper scored 185 not out, destroying all the English bowlers except one: Rhodes in this innings took 5 wickets for 94 runs; the rest of the England attack, 3 wickets for 357 runs between them! Then in first innings of the second Test, Australia were dismissed for 122, of which Trumper scored 74. Rhodes took 7 wickets for 56 runs, 15 for 124 in the match, despite having no fewer than eight catches dropped off his bowling! (The second England innings was a close parallel: all out for 103, 62 of these being contributed by Johnny Tyldesley). But in this series Rhodes also began to emerge as a batsman: at Sydney he and R. E. Foster put on a world record total of 130 for the last England wicket. Rhodes was left on 40 not out, and decided that he liked batting. In fact, his batting was improving all the time: he had scored his first century in 1901 and two years later reached his first “double”. He was to repeat this achievement almost every season until the First World War; though critics maintained that his bowling was losing its old lethal penetration.
When Rhodes returned to Australia for the 1911-12 tour, everything had changed. He did not take a single wicket, and yet he played in every Test. This time he had been chosen to open the batting with the young Jack Hobbs. The pair were quickly in business, with an opening stand of 147 in the Adelaide Test and then 323 at Melbourne. So Rhodes had now taken part in world record stands for both the first wicket and the last: a unique achievement. The pair managed eight century opening partnerships before Test cricket was brought to a halt by the First World War.
Rhodes dropped out of Test cricket after the war, but, in his mid-forties, rediscovered his bowling. More “doubles” followed; his sixteenth and, as it would turn out, his last, coming in 1926. But that summer witnessed yet more amazing events. Once again the Australians were touring England, having won overwhelmingly the three previous postwar series. Rain prevented any conclusions in the first four matches, and for the final match Rhodes was recalled to the team. He was not far short of his 49th birthday, but as he told the selectors, “I’m still landing them there, or thereabouts”. Three members of the England team, including the captain, Percy Chapman, had not even been born when Rhodes had made his first international appearance back in 1899. The turning-point of the match came when Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe opened the English second innings with a stand of 172 on a terrible pitch, but Rhodes too played his part in England’s victory. By this time he hardly spun the ball at all, but his line and length were as immaculate as ever as he lured great batsmen like Woodfull, Ponsford, Bardsley and Collins to destruction: 6 wickets for 79 runs in the match.
Even this was not quite the end, because in the winter of 1929-30 Rhodes was selected for the team to tour the West Indies. He was now the oldest Test cricketer of all time. This series marked the emergence of George Headley as the first-ever world-class black batsman, scoring four centuries in the Tests, including 223 at Kingston, Jamaica. But he never managed to dominate Rhodes, who bowled for marathon spells in the stifling heat: 256 overs in four Tests, the most he had ever bowled in a series, never conceding more than 2 runs an over on average. It was all reminiscent of his duels with Victor Trumper a quarter of a century earlier.
Rhodes finally retired from cricket at the end of the 1930 season. Fittingly, his last match was in his home county of Yorkshire against the touring Australian team, who had brought with them a young man who was emerging as the most devastating batsman of all time. So Wilfred Rhodes, who had begun his career bowling at W. G. Grace, ended it by bowling at Don Bradman. “And I’d have had him first ball if mid-off had been awake!” he liked to recall afterwards.
In retirement, George Hirst spent seventeen happy years as a much-loved coach at Eton College. Rhodes had a season coaching at Harrow, but did not enjoy it very much: his method being to walk down the wicket after an imperfect shot and say, “Jack Hobbs used to play them like this”. He died in 1973: for the last years of his life he was blind, but he continued to attend matches and always enjoyed reminiscing about the game. Modestly, he would describe himself as a “good utility player” rather than a star. In his career he had scored almost 40,000 runs, including 58 centuries, held 764 catches and taken 4,187 wickets; this last being a record which we can be confident will never be equalled.