Friday, April 19, 2013

Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh's book 'Don's Century' ..... 14 - Chapter 7 : PEERLESS RUNGETTER AND OTHER MASTERS OF THE WILLOW (Great English duo 15. Len Hutton and 16. Dennis Compton)

The last two great batsmen to make their Test debut before the Second World War were the Englishmen Len Hutton and Dennis Compton. Hutton, the boy from Pudsey, Yorkshire, was in his own words, “an unashamed hero-worshipper of Jack Hobbs.” He wrote in his Fifty Years in Cricket: “My first meeting with Sir Jack literally left me tongue-tied. I gaped and no words came. I shudder to imagine what he must have thought of me.” As a lad of fourteen, Hutton had the privilege of watching Don Bradman score 300 in a day in the Headingley Test of 1930. Never could he have dreamt at the time that eight years later he would go on to surpass that Ashes high of 334 by Bradman and Hammond’s record Test score of 336 not out. Hutton notched up 364 at the Oval, a mark that was to remain for two decades until Gary Sobers went one better.

That monumental score so early in his career was to remain the centerpiece of Hutton’s career at the highest level, though he made three other double centuries besides 15 more hundreds. His unbeaten 202 at the Oval against the West Indies in 1950 was a lone hand, as he carried his bat in the face of a humiliating defeat. He was a dasher - by Yorkshire standards - before the war, but later became the archetypal new age opener, intent first on seeing off the shine of the ball as much as getting his eye in.

During the war he suffered a debilitating injury, not by enemy fire, but ironically in the friendly environs of a gymnasium. A series of operations caused his left arm to be shortened by an inch. In 1952 he became the first professional to captain England. At the helm he showed the same caution that had crept into his batting. In many ways he was predecessor to Sunil Gavaskar, curbing his early aggressive instincts to become a staid opener as well as leader, intent on first securing his position before seeking any valour that might come his way. As Learie Constantine stated, “Hutton made a fetish of the textbook.” In his 79 Tests Hutton scored 6971 runs, averaging 56.67.

The change in Hutton’s approach to batting was also a result of extenuating circumstances. Batting had become rather easy in the inter-war period because of the flat wickets that had been rolled out. An early reaction to this, and the rampaging Bradman, was Bodyline, but that was soon stamped out. In 1935 the lbw law was amended whereby a delivery pitching outside the off-stump but coming in to hit the batsman’s pad in line with the stumps could be given out if, in the opinion of the umpire, it would have gone on to hit the stumps. Batsmen adjusted to this soon enough.

In 1948, a new provision permitted requisitioning of a new ball after 55 overs. It worked to the advantage of Bradman’s team which had a top-class fast bowling pair in Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, aided by the swing of the tall left-armer Bill Johnston. Not all captains, though, were lucky enough to have high quality pace attacks, and in fact the season after was one of the highest scoring ever. While the perpetually hard ball flew quicker off the bat all the way to the fence, the 55-over new ball regulation was proving to be the bane of spin bowling.

To bring back the balance between bat and ball, there was now only one option left before the game’s administrators, that of preparing sporting wickets. The process began around 1950 in England. Pitches started bearing a greenish tinge, and rolling was less intensive. The ball was now seaming considerably, its shine retained for longer periods on the lush outfields. Australia followed suit, and the 1935 lbw law began to yield rich dividends for the bowlers, with the ball cutting in sharply off the grassy surfaces. If the batsmen were a blessed lot between the two great wars, the decade of the 1950s was the most testing for them than at any time since the First World War.

If prodigious scorers like Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Hammond, Ponsford, Bradman and Headley thrived from the 1920s to the 1940s, latter day stars like Hutton had to battle hard for their runs. Wickets in the West Indies, though, continued to favour batsmen. It is significant that of the non-West Indies batsmen who played much of their cricket in the 1950s, only Hutton and Compton averaged above 50 in Tests, and they had the benefit of playing some of their cricket in the 1930s and 1940s.

The flamboyant Compton rattled up 5807 runs at an average of 50.06 with 17 centuries in 78 Tests. He was debonair as he was gutsy, which was never more evident than in that Old Trafford Test of 1948. He was hit on the head by a Lindwall bouncer and had to leave the field to get stitched up. He came back and stood up manfully to the pace assault, remaining unconquered on 145, while none of his teammates could reach 50. 

Incredibly talented, Compton was left-winger for Arsenal and also represented England at soccer eleven times during the war, though those matches were not recorded as official internationals. Indian fans were fortunate to see Compton in action during the war years. He scored an unbeaten 249 for Holkar in the 1944-45 Ranji Trophy final against Bombay. His highest in first-class matches was 300 for MCC against N.E. Transvaal at Benoni in 1948-49.  

In the popularity stakes, Compton was a winner all the way. His running between wickets was either ridiculous or hilarious, depending on which side you were on. In the field no one could be sure what to expect, brilliant one moment, hopelessly lost the next. He was the captain’s delight, and despair, depending on what seized him, one of cricket’s unforgettable characters.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email  

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