There is always a large amount of interest and hype when Surrey play in Somerset, but when the city slickers turned up at Taunton to start a match on Saturday, August 15, 1925, there was outright pandemonium. The reason for the chaos was the inclusion in the away team of Jack Hobbs, a man who would be known as England’s greatest cricketer.
At the end of the 1924 season, the great W.G. Grace proudly held the record of scoring most first-class hundreds; 126 to be precise. The second name in that particular list was Jack Hobbs who was 13 centuries short of the big man. At 42 years old, and suffering from failing health and chronic injuries, there was little expectation that Jack Hobbs would surpass this record.
But one month before this game, on Monday, July 20, 1925, Hobbs had taken a century off Kent at Blackheath and this was remarkably his 12th ton of the 1925 season, thereby placing him one century behind Grace’s record. The whole world, it seemed, was waiting eagerly for Hobbs to match the Grand Old Man.
But the month or so between these games had been a lean time for Hobbs. For the first time in his career he appeared to be buckling under pressure. He scored just 1 at Hove, then 22 in the return game against Kent. After scoring 52 and 38 at Gloucester one national newspaper ran the rather cruel headline “Hobbs fails again”. In August he struck 54 at The Oval against a very impressive Notts attack and returned to the changing room in silence. A youngster called Harold Larwood trapped him for just 1 in the second innings.
And so to the game at Taunton. Two years earlier, on May 8, 1923, a 40-year-old Hobbs put injuries and ailment behind him to score his 100th first-class century against Somerset at Bath. So expectations were high that he would reach another milestone in the same county.
The turnstiles throbbed as thousands made their way into the ground in the hope of witnessing history being made. R.C. Robertson-Glasgow, aka Crusoe, played for Somerset in this game and later became a highly-esteemed cricket writer. In his book 46 Not Out he said: “Most of the West Country, and several segments of London S.E., seemed to be present; clergymen, schoolboys, cockneys, farmers, Jack White’s father on his favourite bench, and the still excited but visibly tiring cohort from Fleet Street.”
Somerset skipper White played party-pooper by winning the toss and electing to bat. But, Somerset being Somerset, his team were brushed aside for a paltry 167 despite opener Tom Young’s 58 and useful contributions from Peter Johnson (30), Reggie Ingle (22) and a late flurry from Jimmy Bridges (25).
So at about 3.50 p.m. the crowd erupted when Hobbs walked out to bat with his ever loyal opening partner Andy Sandham. But, if the general consensus was that Hobbs was suffering from nerves, then this appeared justified as Hobbs was caught off a no ball at mid-off in the first over. A few overs later he survived a very enthusiastic appeal for LBW off Crusoe, one that the bowler thought was plum. The Somerset bowlers were not going to afford Hobbs the luxury of an easy time – and nor would he have wanted them to – as he scratched around to get going. They beat the bat time after time and he offered a couple of chances that weren’t taken.
By the end of the game Hobbs would be grateful to three people in particular, the first being Surrey number 3 Donald Knight who had joined him at the crease after Bridges had removed Sandham for 13. Knight had looked in good touch, scoring 34, when Hobbs called for a suicidal single putting his own wicket at risk. Knight sacrificed his wicket by running to the danger end with Hobbs on 64. He survived the afternoon session and at 6.30 p.m., when stumps were pulled, he was 91 not out. He would be nine runs short of the record throughout the whole of the rest day on Sunday, and his nerves would have suffered even more when Somerset’s club captain, John Daniell, requested a delayed start on Monday morning to get more spectators into the ground. In all over 10,000 were crammed into the tiny County Ground. So it was about 25 minutes after the scheduled start that Hobbs emerged from the changing room with Douglas Jardine to a huge roar.
The Somerset bowlers continued to bowl accurately, all desperate to remove the great man. He nudged three singles then, on 94, he hit a no ball from Crusoe for four and followed it with a single. 99. The crowd were totally silent in anticipation. A few balls later he hit a Bridges delivery for a single to leg and he was there. The volume levels in the County Ground were deafening as the crowd cheered and clapped for nine whole minutes.
Surrey captain Percy Fender ran out with a glass of ginger ale (Hobbs was by now teetotal due to the aforementioned health reasons) and the batsman handed him a telegram to send to his wife, Ada, and four children, who were holidaying in Margate. It simple said: “Got it at last. Jack.”
Hobbs was out soon after for 101 and Surrey were dismissed for 359, a lead of 192 and there was little expectation that Somerset would mount a run challenge that would hand Jack the opportunity to pass Grace’s record in this game. And so to the second player that Hobbs would be grateful to; Jack MacBryan the Australian-born Somerset opener. He had scored just 6 in the first innings but struck a fine 109 in the second and, supported by Young’s 71 and 59 from number 8 George Hunt, the home team closed on 374, meaning Surrey needed 183 to win the match. But this still appeared a light target if Hobbs was to score a second century in the game.
Step forward the third player who Hobbs would be grateful to, his opening partner Sandham who unselfishly played straight and reserved allowing the runs to flow from the other end. Many witnesses to the game suggested that there were two Jack Hobbs’s playing; in the first innings one who scratched and scraped nervously replaced by a charismatic and dashing version in the second innings, with edged singles being replaced by crisply hit boundaries. Crusoe called Hobbs’ 127th century: “full of beauty, carefree and brilliant of stroke.”
Hobbs would make 101 for the second time in the match but was this time unbeaten. Sandham finished on an impressive 74.
Hobbs was now considered the finest sportsman in Great Britain and enjoyed acclaim normally handed to those famous in other fields of wider appeal and acclaim, like Chaplin and Lloyd-George.
Taunton has seen some great team and individual performances over the years, but this game is arguably the finest and most famous. Never before or since has the English cricketing public been so engrossed by one player’s quest to beat the record of another.
In their 1926 Almanack, Wisden named Hobbs as Player of the Year. Wisden has named its list of five cricketers for every year since 1892 and there have been only three exceptions to this, when a single person was nominated as the Player of the Year: John Wisden (1913), Plum Warner (1921), and Hobbs (1926).
Wisden also never repeats its player of the year, but they made exceptions for Warner (1904 and 1921) and Hobbs (1909 and 1926).
Jack Hobbs continued to play first-class cricket until he was 52 and finished his career with 61,760 runs at 50.70, scoring 199 centuries and 273 fifties. If ever an Englishmen deserves the title of England’s greatest cricketer then it is Jack Hobbs.