Christopher Sandford: True grit of Len Hutton a century after master batsman's birth

ON a Saturday afternoon in July 1954, Len Hutton '“ born 100 years ago this week '“ drove south to meet the MCC cricket selectors at Lord's. Long since established as the world's master batsman, Hutton had already played in 71 Test matches and led his country in 15 of them.

This Thursday marks the centenary of Len Hutton's birth.

No other contemporary England player seriously rivalled his combination of experience, application and technical ability. For all that, some of the powers-that-be at Lord’s still had their doubts about the then 38-year-old’s suitability to serve as England’s cricket captain.

His initial appointment to the job had been something of a departure. All previous England captains in home Test matches had been amateurs, and no professional had captained England in any match in the 20th century.

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When the selectors summoned Hutton to Lord’s that day in July 1954, they had a choice to make about whether or not to name him to lead the MCC party on that winter’s tour of Australia.

The alternative was to choose a player like the 25-year-old Rev David Sheppard, a modestly gifted Sussex part-timer (and future Bishop of Liverpool) who appealed to the tradition of appointing amateur captains from the ancient universities.

It says something about the way both cricket and society as a whole were then organised that Hutton was eventually given the job only by a 3-2 vote of the committee. His sense of being there on sufferance seems never to have left him, because more than 30 years later he told me: “My face never fitted.”

If there’s a single key to Hutton’s character, it almost certainly lies in his upbringing in the Moravian community of Fulneck, Pudsey, with its traditions of Christian discipline, hard work, self-denial, perseverance and a certain amount of bloody-minded obstinacy. They were qualities he never lost.

Hutton was born at Fulneck on June 23, 1916, which means that his earliest memories were of both the human casualties and economic consequences of the Great War.

In time, cricket would become more than just a game to him. It provided him with both an escape and a sense of purpose in life. He was precisely what the British public needed, too, back in the 1930s when the country staggered from the Great Depression towards the Second World War, someone who transcended the normal boundaries of his sport.

You didn’t have to understand the complexities of the LBW law, or the vagaries of a sticky wicket, to appreciate Hutton’s classical strokeplay. Everyone, high and low, could find something to cheer in his then world record Test innings of 364 against Australia at the Oval in 1938, an event that rated a column in the American Time magazine.

Even the Australians took a perverse pleasure in seeing him rewrite the history books. “We didn’t hate him for what he did to us,” Jack Fingleton, who had the misfortune to be on the fielding side, told me. “We just wished he were one of our own.”

In later years, Hutton preferred to lead his Yorkshire and England team-mates by example. He wasn’t the sort of captain to shout “Bowled, mate” or to go into ecstasies of applause after each delivery to successfully land on the cut part of the turf.

Gloriously lacking in today’s “people” skills, in general he was as gritty as a half-finished road. One old England player told me of the occasion when he mistimed a shot while facing Richie Benaud in a Test at Lord’s, edging the ball to the waiting ring of close fielders.

“I went back to the dressing-room, took off my pads, had a cup of tea and then got up the nerve to ask Hutton, who was sitting there reading the morning paper, how I should have played that particular shot,” he said.

“Certain other captains might have responded with reams of technical stuff... Len’s only reply was, ‘If you don’t hit it in the air, they can’t catch it’.”

Somehow it’s impossible to imagine Hutton ever jogging around the outfield in a logoed tracksuit, or conferring with his agent on his new mobile phone. Instead, he was a wonderfully old-fashioned, self-disciplined Yorkshire professional sportsman who trained on sandwiches and cigarettes, never gave his opponents an inch, and earned a pittance for his efforts compared to the average modern player. What we would give to have a few more like him today.

Christopher Sandford’s book The Final Over: The Cricketers of 1914 (History Press) is out now in paperback.