In the first half of the twentieth century, cricket laid claim to being the national sport. For a start, it was longer established than any other team spectator sport (though horse racing was far longer established). It was also played across all of England and Wales, as well as being surprisingly popular in Scotland and, even, parts of Ireland. It was also played by all classes. Before the Great War, WG Grace had been the most famous sportsman in Britain. Between the wars, the most famous cricketer would be Jack Hobbs, seen above with his long time opening partner, Herbert Sutcliffe.
Hobbs was a professional. One of the things that made cricket unusual between the wars was that it was both a professional and amateur sport at the highest level. That did not mean equality. Gentlemen, as the amateurs were known were inevitably those whose socio-economic status enabled them to not require pay. Players, the professionals, were working class men who had to be paid if they were going play a game that at the top level (with three-day county matches and five-day tests making summer work impossible). Gentlemen and players had separate hotel rooms, even hotels, separate entrances; gentlemen were addressed by their inferiors as Mr or Sir. Most of all, only gentlemen could captain a side. To become captain the professional Wally Hammond became amateur, given a job with Marshall Tyres to, in reality, play cricket; Hobbs was a professional, but he believed in gentlemen captains. As late as 1947 Gubby Allen was brought out of retirement to captain England because no suitable gentlemen was up to it; it wasn’t until the 1950s that Len Hutton became the first professional captain, and it needed a string of disastrous defeats to make that happen. Times were changing though: Sir Jack Hobbs became the first professional sportsman to win a knighthood. Sport was respectable and a growing national obsession, fed and feeding press, cinema newsreel and a radio.
The greatest star of them all wasn’t English: the greatest batsman of them all, Australia’s Don Bradman, made his test debut in 1928. Bradman was a one off, a sporting genius. In Australia’s 1930 tour of England he scored 2,960 runs (at an average of 98.66). In the five tests he scored 974 runs, including 309 in one day in the third test at Leeds. At other times he set a first class record of 452 not out, or made 100 off three eight-ball overs:
It was in the last test of that 1930 series that some thought they detected an Achilles heel: Bradman struggled against short-pitched bowling in that Oval test (mind you, he did score 232). This led England, under the captaincy of Douglas Jardine, to adopt a technique common in county cricket, leg theory, with fast short pitched bowling from the Nottinghamshire duo of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce. These were very much players from the Notts’ coalfields, the epitome of the hard nosed (and hard drinking) professionals. Larwood, in particular, was very fast. With the series square, the third test on a pacy Adelaide pitch saw England employ body line, as the Australians coined the new tactic, with a vengeance.
Ironically, when Australia’s captain Bill Woodfull was hit, England were not deploying the leg-side filed that body line required. However, with the very next ball, they were. When the England tour manager enquires after Woodfull’s health later, the Australian captain (who maintained a dignified public silence over the matter) famously told him that ‘There are two teams out there, one is playing cricket. The other is making no attempt to do so.’ When his remarks leaked out, a bitter controversy was ignited, evening being held by some to have damaged political and relations between Britain and Australia.
Can there be any better evidence of the way in which sport had by the assumed the position it has occupied ever since in popular culture and national life? Sport mattered.