This article was originally published on All Out Cricket on October 10th 2014.
Richard H Thomas tells the tale of England’s Wally Hammond: one of the greatest to ever grace a cricket field but not without his problems away from the sport.
In “the olden, golden days,” wrote Denzil Batchelor, cricketers were required “to look the part”. Some looked like “vikings” or “crusaders”, but Walter Hammond had a torso “majestic enough to make a ship’s figure-head” and a face with “a look of a lordship about it”. The silk handkerchief in his hip pocket was confirmation of someone superior.
And it was justified superiority. His cricketing record was “awesome” suggests David Frith, using the word before overuse diluted it. In first-class cricket between 1920 and 1951, Hammond made over 50,000 runs at over 56, taking 732 wickets and 820 catches. In Tests for England, he made 7,249 runs at 58.45. He is one of only nine to have made 1,000 runs by May; his 167 career centuries are only bettered by Hobbs and Hendren; 36 times he passed 200, four times he passed 300. “Figures aren’t everything,” muses Frith, but in Hammond’s case they reflect “a mammoth career achievement on the cricket field”. However, he continues, it was not only about raw statistics, but also “the manner in which Hammond delivered the goods”.
Of the elegant words written about cricket and cricketers, the most sumptuous are reserved for Hammond. “One cover-drive from him and I would be content,” wrote Margaret Hughes. It was a shot, suggests Arunanha Sengupta, that was “sculpted in the mould of platonic perfection”; he had “complete purity of style allied to an exceptionally strong and beautifully proportioned physique,” furthers EW Swanton. Never have the cricketing gods bestowed so much on one mortal subject, yet as Sengupta concludes, Hammond’s life was “tormented by multiple problems”. These are eruditely examined in David Foot’s outstanding Wally Hammond: The Reasons Why, though there are other, more recent titles outlining how other sublime talents spent large portions of their careers seemingly at odds with those around them. You know who I mean.
As a cub reporter, Foot once referred to Hammond in his copy as “Wally”, only to be told the newspaper would prefer “Walter”. “Walter” reflects a greater sense of regency perhaps; Foot’s descriptions suggest Hammond was something of a social climber, “increasingly drawn to the outward trappings of middle-class country living” as his fame developed. Attracted by the kudos of the England captaincy, he reverted back to amateurism; he wore good clothes, liked women who did the same and was impressed by class and money. Off the field, he had enough of the former to get by but rarely sufficient amounts of the latter.
Perhaps partly as a consequence, “in the language of pulp fiction,” suggests Foot, “Hammond had a dark side” taking the form of “brooding eyes”, “self-induced solitude” and an “uncommunicative nature”. A reputation for sullenness is legitimate if there is any truth in the story that when on tour in Australia, the sum total of Hammond’s conversation with Len Hutton during a 700-mile car journey was “Look out for a garage – we need some petrol”. His Gloucestershire teammates Charlie Barnett and Charles Dacre, reports Sengupta, “almost came to hate him”, and he had testy relationships with, amongst others, Denis Compton and Learie Constantine. However, the most problematic professional relationship of his career – if “relationship” is the word – was with Don Bradman; the greater part of his Test career, suggests Frith, being spent “in the shadow of the matchless Australian”. For different reasons both men were loners and even if the rivalry was mainly driven by Hammond, claims Sengupta, “it simmered and seethed till in the end one could smell the acrid fumes off the wicket”.
Raymond Robertson-Glasgow posits that between 1925 and 1935, Hammond was peerless. As almost a one-man army, “he could make a hundred or two against Australia, then bowl down their first three wickets, then make with ease at slip a catch which others would not merely miss but would not have even rated as a miss”. However, reports Frith, no sooner had Hammond become the world’s finest, Bradman usurped him. What didn’t help was that Hammond was generally better to watch: “I preferred to see just an hour of Walter Hammond to eight or 10 hours of Don Bradman,” said Len Hutton, who knew a bit about batting.
Mark Baldwin notes that Hutton, alongside CB Fry who saw Hobbs and Trumper in their pomp, both rated Hammond the best they’d seen. Aesthetics though, don’t count in scorebooks and Baldwin reports that when Wisden chose its greatest five cricketers of the 20th Century, Hammond pulled in just 18 votes out of a possible 100; in contrast, Bradman “was chosen by every person on the voting panel”. Little wonder then, that when Hammond beat Bradman’s Test record of 334 on England’s tour of New Zealand in 1933, Sengupta reports, he let out “an uncharacteristic scream” of “Yes”. Less clear is Hammond’s reaction to getting out at Adelaide a few weeks earlier for 85, apparently to a straight full toss. The bowler was Bradman; it was one of only two wickets he took in Tests.
Foot proposes a seemingly legitimate if startling explanation for Hammond’s curmudgeonly personality and general unhappiness. Returning from the West Indies in 1925/26 with a serious illness allegedly caused by a mosquito bite or blood poisoning, Foot suggests that the details of Hammond’s condition were unusually sparse given his status as one of the nation’s most promising sportsmen. The reason for the mystery and official reticence to discuss it, claims Foot, is that Hammond had contracted a sexually-transmitted disease and the subsequent treatment by mercury altered his mood and personality. Eventually, Hammond resumed his life as a ladies man, entering, suggests Derek Hodgson, the “bright and febrile world we know from Evelyn Waugh and Brideshead Revisited”.
His love life though was tumultuous; the awkward highlight came when captaining England’s 1939 tour of South Africa, he fell in love with a beauty queen (who eventually became his second wife) shortly before his first wife arrived to join the party. By the time of the “Timeless Test” in Durban, suggests Frank Keating, “the skipper’s complications were manifold”.
Even at the end of his career, satisfaction was elusive. Aged 48 and out of shape, he was persuaded out of retirement for a match against Somerset. His innings, “following the warmest of romantic welcomes,” reports Foot, “was brief and cruelly misplaced”. Bowlers tossed him half-volleys that he barely laid a bat on, and he scraped only seven singles in 50 minutes. At the end of the torture, Foot notes that the silent crowd wished he had left them with older “wondrous memories” rather than the sad, fresh ones. As a cricketer he was “touched by genius,” concludes Foot, but his life was otherwise “strewn with failure; in business, in human relationships and the last relative obscurity in his later years in South Africa”.
When he died in 1965, he was so financially stricken that his wife had to sell his cricketing memorabilia. The sad denouement to this episode is an appeal from Hammond’s daughter in 1988. Her son, it seemed, was showing promise as a young cricketer but had no tangible artefacts to remind him that his grandad was one of the greatest to have ever played the game.
Natural gifts and elegance that have been hardly eclipsed since seemingly brought Hammond precious little joy, and it is hard to contest Alan Gibson’s summary that “Hammond gave to cricket, and cricket gave to Hammond everything – except the things he wanted most”. For some of us, occasionally middling a cricket ball was sufficient reward for afternoons of toil and hours at third-man without a sniff of action. Seemingly without notable cricketing talent, achievement or aesthetic charm, we found friends, fun and fellowship that Walter Hammond never did.