Herbert Sutcliffe (born November 24, 1894, Summerbridge, Harrogate, Yorkshire, England; died January 22 1978, Cross Hills, Yorkshire, England) was arguably the greatest opening batsman in cricket history and undoubtedly one of the greatest players of any type the game has known. His Test batting average of 60.73 is the highest of any player with more than twenty five Tests apart from Bradman and his career batting average of 51.95 is bettered among batsmen with over 30,000 runs only by Hammond.
In his brief prime from 1928 to 1932, Sutcliffe could in fact compare statistically with Bradman, and given his skill on treacherous pitches, one could argue his batting in this period to be the finest in cricket history.
His range of strokes was very limited for the time and primarily focused on leg-side play such as hooks and pulls, but Sutcliffe was able, owing to his simple but always effective footwork, to nullify the best bowling on a treacherous wicket with seeming ease. When he wanted, he could hit almost violently, as when he met spin on an exceeding treacherous pitch at Kettering with an innings of 113, including ten sixes (then a record in county cricket). Sutcliffe also possessed the most remarkable self-belief: he could believe that no bowler was capable of dismissing him (not unrealistic at times) and this gave him a remarkable capacity to fight in the most difficult conditions.
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Though he had been earmarked for a career as an opening batsman by the outbreak of World War I, the war prevented Sutcliffe from beginning his career until 1919. In that season, Sutcliffe caused a sensation when he scored 1839 runs — still a record for a batsman in his debut season — for an average of 44.85. Even considering the weakness of English bowling after the war, this was an exceptional start and Sutcliffe was nominated as a Wisden Cricketer of the Year for 1920. Though this start earmarked him for a great career, the following two years were disappointing even though it was thought he played better than his figures suggested. In 1922, Sutcliffe rebounded to the promise of his first year, scoring 2020 runs including a superb 232 against Surrey in a critical county match at the Oval. It was this innings that had Sutcliffe seen as an England batsman for the first time.
Partnership with Jack Hobbs
The following year, though, in county cricket Sutcliffe did not do quite as well as in 1922, his superb batting with Jack Hobbs on an extremely treacherous wicket in the 1923 Test Trial saw Sutcliffe become a certainty for the following year's Tests against South Africa. He did not disappoint: scoring 64 in his first innings, 122 in his second, he averaged 75.75 for five innings. That winter, Sutcliffe established himself as England's leading batsman with an amazing aggregate of 734 runs in five Tests against Australia. In the second Test at the MCG he was on the field for all but an hour of a seven-day match.
During 1925 and 1926, Sutcliffe's skill was a primary factor in Yorkshire having the longest unbeaten run in county cricket: am amazing seventy matches without loss until early 1927 — and, after three defeats in 1927, a further fifty-eight games without loss until 1929. The first four Tests of the 1926 Ashes series were all ruined by appalling weather, but at the Oval Hobbs' and Sutcliffe's amazing defence against vigorously kicking off-spin placed England in an impregnable position. The following year, Sutcliffe was (remarkably for a professional) offered the captaincy of Yorkshire, but in characteristic fashion he refused it and said "he would play under any captain" — which he did.
1927 was a routine year by the standards Sutcliffe had already attained, but the following year saw him embark on what, given the conditions he often faced, could be seen as the finest batting in the history of the game. During the five years 1928 to 1932, his batting figures read:
- 181 matches for 254 innings in which he was not out 36 times;
- 15529 runs
- for a total average of 70.35.
In the Third Test of 1928/1929 Sutcliffe's batting, on a wicket from which the ball would rise straight up even from a medium-pace bowler, reached a skill not even seen at the Oval three years earlier: he made 135 when England were expected to be all out for less than 100, and England won with much the worst of the pitch. In 1929 Sutcliffe hit four hundreds against South Africa, and the following year headed the first-class batting averages for (amazingly) the first time. In a summer of hot, thundery weather that produced some exceptionally bad pitches, Sutcliffe averaged 64.22 in all matches and 87.61 for four Tests (he missed the second due to injury and this probably cost England the Ashes).
All this, though, paled into insignificance compared with Sutcliffe's form in the following two summers of dreadful weather and pitches favourable to slow bowling. Sutcliffe then seemed impossible to bowl to: despite his limited range of strokes, he was so full of determination that no bowler knew what to do against him. In 1931, he scored four centuries in consecutive innings and averaged an unbelievable 97 an innings in one of the worst summers on record, whilst the following year he became the second batsman after "Ranji" to score 1000 runs in two months. That year, he and Maurice Leyland hit Kenneth Farnes, one of the fastest bowlers of the 1930s, for 75 runs from four overs in one of the most remarkable displays of pulling and hooking. His batting, and the bowling of Bowes and Verity, allowed Yorkshire to win fifteen of their last sixteen games — all but four by an innings — and it seemed a question of "how far" when Sutcliffe toured Australia for the third time that winter.
Though Sutcliffe hit his highest Test score of 194 at the SCG that winter and averaged 73 for the tour, an amazing decline set in the following year in a summer where conditions were much more favourable to batsmen. From an average of 74.13 and 3336 runs Sutcliffe declined to an average of 47.04 and 2211 runs — his lowest in a dry summer since 1921. Moreover, he was a complete failure in the Tests against the West Indies, scoring only 41 runs in two innings.
Though a few times — at Kettering on a treacherous wicket, against Warwickshire with a superb double-hundred — we saw the incomparable Sutcliffe of previous years, in the main he was not the same batsman as before, and the cause of his decline remains unclear. Obvious explanations are the even more abrupt loss of form of his partner Percy Holmes, or the strain of so much cricket finally taking toll on Sutcliffe's physical strength. Whilst both seem plausible, neither seems sufficient explanation for previously so incomparable a player to become comparatively ineffective.
Back to earth
In 1934, Sutcliffe scarcely improved upon his record of 1933 in county matches, but in four Tests, whilst obviously suffering from having to stand comparison with himself, his 304 runs at an average of 50.66 showed him still of Test quality. His inability to play a very long innings, though, suggested his body was suffering the strain of years of continuous cricket. This may explain why, despite top-scoring with 38 on a very difficult pitch (due to the infamous "leatherjackets" attacking the grass) at Lord's against South Africa in 1935, he was never picked for a Test match again. Yet, despite the new lbw rule — which Sutcliffe was to remain a vigorous opponent of all his life — making life more difficult for batsmen even in another dry summer, Sutcliffe finished second in the first-class averages and looked as if he were recovering some of his once-incomparable form.
In 1936, it was clear that Sutcliffe's days were numbered, for, despite a brilliant innings at Scarborough against Middlesex, his aggregate of runs was the lowest for fifteen years and his average fell to 33.30. With the emergence of Leonard Hutton (who was now his partner for Yorkshire) England's opening batting problems since his decline in 1933 were largely solved and Sutcliffe's representative career was over. However, in county cricket he showed no further declines in form, and in 1939 — the last season before World War II halted county cricket for six years — he actually averaged 54.46 and his six centuries.
However, during that season Sutcliffe's health broke down so badly that he had to stand out of nine of Yorkshire's matches. This makes it doubtful that he could have continued playing for much longer had the war not intervened. Though he played one match without success in 1945, there was never a question of him continuing to play at the age of fifty-one when county cricket resumed in 1946. In fact, Sutcliffe was plagued by ill-health for the rest of his life up to his death in 1978, and apart from one or two articles (mostly about the ill-effects of changes in the lbw rule in 1935) in Wisden he was never heard from.
His son William Herbert Hobbs Sutcliffe played for Cambridge University and Yorkshire between 1948 and 1957, captaining Yorkshire for the last three seasons of his career.