Jack Hobbs was a late starter. He did not play first class cricket until 1904 when he was 22; to put that into context, WG Grace, often cited as the best English batsman of all time, had scored 30 first class hundreds by the time he was 24. WG Grace, amazingly, also scored 74 in a first class match when he was 58 years old, so he really was quite a player. Jack Hobbs, however, in his day, was considered to be the equal of Grace, and even his better. His record was absolutely extraordinary. He is still the highest run scorer in first class history, having amassed over his career 61,760 runs. This will never be beaten. By comparison, his modern day opening batsman counterpart, Alastair Cook, whom most would pick to partner Hobbs in an all-time England XI, has scored 22,604 runs – just over a third of Hobbs’ tally. Hobbs averaged 56.9 in his 61 Test matches for England; Cook averaged 45.4. Hobbs scored, in his career, 199 first class centuries, a record by an enormous margin and which will never be beaten. Cook has scored 63. That said, Hobbs scored a remarkable hundred centuries after his 40th birthday, so there is still some hope for our most famous Old Bedfordian! Hobbs remains the oldest man ever, at 46, to score a Test match hundred. Finally, Hobbs, with Herbert Sutcliffe, formed the most successful Test match opening partnership of all time – they averaged 80 for the first wicket and never went more than four innings without a century partnership.
One of the more lovely stories about this man comes from the celebrated writer RC Robertson-Glasgow, who after playing against him described it as “like bowling to God on concrete”. Another tells of a man who was entirely modest and self-deprecating. He shunned the limelight and apparently would quite often give his wicket away after scoring a hundred and stroll off the field chuckling to himself. After play, he would quietly retire to Lyon’s Cornerhouse on the Strand with Mrs Hobbs, his childhood sweetheart, for a pie and a ginger beer. He never drank alcohol.
So, I am sorry to all those who are not cricket enthusiasts, but I hope you get the general tenor – Jack Hobbs was quite possibly the best batsman England has ever produced, not to mention one of the nicest ones. So why do I tell you all this? Because in 1902, just a year or two before his first match for Surrey, Hobbs joined the staff at Bedford School for a summer as a 2nd XI net bowler. Yes, that is right: one of the best players ever to tread a cricket field was employed to bowl to the 2nd XI every afternoon between 4.00pm and 6.00pm in the summer term, whilst joining the grounds staff in the morning to help keep the fields in good condition. He apparently hated it: aged 19, it was the first time Jack had been away from home; he was not keen either on the grandeur of Bedford School, and it was no surprise therefore that Lord’s, with its own grandeur, became his least favourite ground to play on when he was older. But it was also backbreaking work. This was the day of horse-drawn mowing machines; no such thing as a sit-on heavy roller. He found the bowling hard, as (in his own words) “you had to be as fresh and as keen and as instructive with the last comer as with the early arrivals”. It is perhaps amusing to us nowadays that the 2nd XI employed a professional net bowler – especially one who was to become one of England’s best ever players – but of course these were days long before bowling machines. Apparently, there was only one moment he did enjoy and that was when he accompanied the 1st XI to an away match at St Paul’s, followed by a comedy at the Tivoli Theatre in the Strand. He never forgot that, as it was his first ever trip to London. Furthermore, he never forgot his start at Bedford School, because he came back here to play on several occasions late in his career, and indeed later became President of the XL Club, a club which was founded in the Bedford School Pavilion and which survives to this day.
When you next go into the Alastair Cook Room in the Langham Pavilion, have a careful look. At the far end of the room, you can see two bats in glass cases, side by side, with two small plaques below them. These plaques are becoming quite difficult to read now, but should you persevere you will ascertain the following: one of these bats was used by Alastair Cook in a Test match against Pakistan; the other was given to us by a Bedford parent in 1952 and belonged originally to the great Jack Hobbs. So if you are ever asked about Bedford’s link to England cricket over the years, you can take people to our cricket pavilion and show them that we had here not just one of the two best opening batsmen in English Test match history, but in fact both.