The Second World War stole the lives of many great men and less importantly, robbed numerous potential sporting legends of the best years of their career. As a man who volunteered for the army in 1939, Len Hutton could easily have fallen into either category.
The Yorkshire opener spent the time between his twenty-third and twenty-ninth birthdays as an Army Physical Training Corps sergeant-instructor, where he suffered a wrist injury that prevented him from playing the ‘hook shot’ for the remainder of his career. Following the defeat of the Axis powers, Hutton continued to play for Yorkshire and England for a remarkable ten years: retiring with over forty-thousand career runs, an average of 55.51 and one-hundred and twenty-nine centuries. Described by Wisden – an annual authority on the cricketing world- as ‘one of the… most accomplished professional batsmen to have played for his country’ and selected for the ESPNCricinfo All-time World XI in 2010, Hutton’s legacy in the cricketing world has been extraordinary. But amongst general sports fans his name is seldom mentioned amongst the greats. Whilst we laud Bobby Moore, Martin Johnson and Steve Redgrave as our national heroes, it is time Len Hutton was catapulted to the core of that conversation and considered one of the pillars of British sport – a true legend.
“ONE OF THE PILLARS OF BRITISH SPORT”
Making his Yorkshire debut aged 17 – the county’s youngest player in forty-five years – Hutton quickly established himself as the team’s key wicket and played his first Test Match just three years later. His sixth test was against Australia in 1938 and with England needing a win to draw the series, captain Wally Hammond charged Hutton with the responsibility of batting for as long as possible. Hutton burdened such a task with astonishing adeptness. More than thirteen hours, 847 balls and 364 runs later Hutton was finally dismissed for what remains the highest score by an Englishman in Test cricket. His skill, concentration and stamina came to the fore in a remarkable innings which ensured an English victory and Ashes draw. Hutton was now a superstar and quickly became a dominant figure within world cricket – adding attacking shots to his repertoire as he scored three centuries (including a double century) during England’s successful tour of South Africa and averaging ninety-six in the series win against the West Indies. Meanwhile, he won three consecutive Championships with Yorkshire, topping the counties’ batting averages for all three of their triumphs. The world was Hutton’s oyster. Then came the war.
His wrists, injured during the war, no longer fully rotated and he was forced to re-evaluate his entire approach to batting. Yet, owing to his admirable versatility and endeavour, Len Hutton just carried on scoring runs. After winning his fourth county championship, he toured Australia for the first time – averaging seventy despite ill health, poor performances from his teammates and having face a bombardment of short balls from Australia’s seamers; often as many as three bouncers an over. He was the indispensable rock of England’s batting line-up, as was proven in the 1947-48 tour to the West Indies where the initially rested Hutton was requested to fly out as England struggled, immediately scoring a century after four days of travel.
If he was a crucial player for his country, then he was an indispensable one for his county. In 1948 he missed half the championship season due to international commitments but still scored more runs than any of his teammates, averaging an astonishing ninety-two. After breaking the record for the most ruminative England opening wicket partnership in South Africa, Hutton reached new heights in 1949 scoring 3,429 runs in a single year, at an average of sixty-eight; becoming only the second man to pass the one thousand runs in a month mark twice in a season. In his second tour of Australia, Hutton averaged an outstanding eighty-eight in a poor England side, being described by Wisden as ‘head and shoulders above every other batsman… the finest in the world.’ His one-hundredth career century followed in 1951, leaving the England selectors little choice but to make Hutton England’s first professional captain.
The captaincy did not affect Hutton’s performances and with the visit of Australia, in 1953, he was quietly confident of success, despite the Aussies having retained the Ashes for nineteen years. He led England with acute tactical awareness, salvaging a draw in the fourth test with clever field positioning and leg-side bowling, taking the Ashes to a deciding game. Hutton scored a crucial first innings of eighty-two as England beat Australia for the first time in two decades. He followed this with a masterful performance against a world class West Indies side, scoring 205 in the final test to secure a series draw and take his tour average to an unprecedented ninety-six. In his final series as an England player, Hutton captained the tour to Australia – looking to become only the second man to win consecutive series against the Aussies. Putting his faith in the inexperienced Frank Tyson proved a masterstroke, with Hutton’s protégé taking decisive wickets in the second and third test matches. Hutton’s eighty in a low-scoring fourth test proved to be match-winning and after a drawn fifth test in which a dominant England enforced the follow-on, the Ashes was Hutton’s once more. Praised for his intelligent captaincy, Hutton ensured England exploited Australian weaknesses and retired as a Test Match legend with a total of 6,971 runs, nineteen centuries, an average of fifty-six and only four test defeats in twenty-three games as captain.
The briefest of glances at Len Hutton’s career reveals the story of an undisputed cricketing legend. He was the complete batsman – capable of grafting for hours at the crease but an equally proficient shot player, as proven when he scored one-hundred runs in an hour whilst reaching his final first-class century. His technique was flawless and he thrived in the toughest conditions against the toughest bowlers; playing against beguiling spinners like Ramadhin and Iverson and the post-war Australia pace attack with ease. Despite not playing in especially good England and Yorkshire sides, he retired with two Ashes’ victories, series wins against every major nation in world cricket and five County Championships.
“The story of an undisputed cricketing legend”
Hutton was consistently excellent, averaging above fifty in eighteen of his twenty-one years in first class cricket and boasting the second highest average for an opener in the history of test cricket. His average at the highest level exceeds every member of the great Australia side of 1990s-2000s, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Viv Richards, amongst many other cricketing greats. Throughout the thirties, forties and fifties Hutton was more than a rock for England, more than a wall for Yorkshire. He was the splendid architecture of an entire cathedral – solid at his foundations and spectacular when necessary. He was the greatest English batsman who ever lived and one of our country’s finest sporting legends.