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George Hirst - Yorkshire's greatest all-rounder
by John Ward


Player:GH Hirst

Teams: Yorkshire (1891-1929, 718 matches)
Tours: England to Australia 1897/98, 1903/04)
1000 runs in a season: 19 times
Most runs in a season: 2501 (av. 54.37), in 1904
Best batting average in a season: 54.37 (2501 runs), in 1904
100 wickets in a season: 15 times
Most wickets in a season: 208 (av. 16.50), in 1906
Best bowling average in a season: 14.05 (174 wkts), in 1908
Hat-tricks: 2
Double of 1000 runs and 100 wkts: 14 times
'Double' double: 2385 runs (av. 45.86) and 208 wkts (av. 16.50), in 1906
Highest score: 341, Yorkshire v Leicestershire (Leicester), in 1905
Best bowling: 9/23, Yorkshire v Lancashire (Leeds), in 1910
Best match analysis: 15/63, Yorkshire v Leicestershire (Hull), in 1907

 

In Test cricket:
Highest score: 85, England v Australia (Adelaide), in 1897/98
Best bowling: 5/48, England v Australia (Melbourne), in 1903/04

 

Acknowledgements mainly to Hirst and Rhodes, by A A Thomson.

George Herbert Hirst was described by his county captain, Lord Hawke, as perhaps the greatest county cricketer of all time, and it is difficult to argue with that even today. Surprisingly he did not make a great mark statistically on Test cricket, but his performances over more than twenty years for Yorkshire – more than 30,000 runs and 2,500 wickets, with a batting average almost twice his bowling average – ensure that he has few if any challengers for that title.

It was an old Yorkshire joke early in the twentieth century that nobody knew the name of the world's greatest all-round cricketer; all that was known that he batted right-handed, bowled left-handed and was born in Kirkheaton, a small village near Huddersfield. Both Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes qualified here, magnificent all-round players, and it was hard to argue convincingly who was the greater of the two. It was reported that Hirst, characteristically modest and generous, always maintained it was Rhodes, while Rhodes, also characteristically, refused to say.

Hirst grew up near the Kirkheaton Cricket Club, part of the Huddersfield and District League, and was playing for the village side at the age of 15, and Huddersfield itself at 18. Throughout his career he was the epitome of the modest, sturdy, good-humoured professional who gave whole-hearted performances with bat and ball, the ideal man to set up an advantage or fight his side out of trouble.

Hirst left school at the age of ten, taking employment during the week first as a wirer for a handloom weaver and then a job in Robson's dyeworks. He played his cricket on Saturday and rugby during the winter. His wholehearted efforts brought him a trial with Yorkshire in 1889, although he did not play for the first team until 1891. He liked to recall that he carried his kit, worth ten shillings, to the ground in a canvas bag and wore a shilling cap, a sixpenny belt and brown boots.

It was only in 1893, when Yorkshire won the official county championship for the first time, that he earned a regular place in the side, mainly as a bowler who bowled left-arm, 'straight and quick', earning 99 that season. Batting at number ten, he had little opportunity, but hit a valuable 35 not out in a low-scoring match against Gloucestershire that impressed W G Grace. The following year his batting developed, and he quickly became well known for his sturdy innings when his team was struggling. He also took 98 wickets, thus just missing 100 again.

In 1895, regarded by many as the beginning of the Golden Age of cricket, he took 150 wickets, promoted to open the bowling. He usually did so in tandem with left-arm spinner Bobby Peel, and the two often formed a deadly combination. He would begin his run-up, long by the standards of those days, with a peculiar hop, step and jump, and hurling himself through the bowling crease with seemingly tireless energy. He was very accurate and bowled a good slower ball. He was a little below average height, about 5 foot 6 inches, and sturdy in build, with very powerful shoulders and thighs. A contemporary, Albert Knight, described him as "a great 'natural' genius, frank and open, yet blending scientific orthodoxy with primitive skill."

As a batsman, not very tall but powerfully built, he was best known for the ferocity of his pulling and hooking, although he could drive and cut with the best of them. He favoured the on-drive, so unlike most of the more classical players of that era he was at his strongest on the leg side. His pulling was violent, the terror of square-leg fielders, as he often went down on his right knee and bludgeoned the ball in that direction; some bowlers complained that it was difficult to bowl him anything apart from a yorker that he did not treat as a long hop.

He was aggressive by nature, and even in adversity would seek to attack, although none defended harder when survival alone was vital. Hard though he played, he had a reputation for scrupulous fairness and would never appeal unless he was sure the batsman was out. According to his obituary in The Times, "he brought to everything he did a courage, an integrity, a vigour and a tenacity that meant that no game in which he took part was decided until the last ball had been bowled and the last stroke made."

In 1896, a second championship success for Yorkshire, he performed his first 'double', with 1122 runs and 104 wickets. This worried some of the county experts, who were afraid he was concentrating too much on batting and that his bowling would decline. Fortunately, Hirst had enough skill and energy to excel at both, and was to do so until past the age of 40.

In 1897/98 he made his Test debut on his first tour to Australia. It was not a successful tour for England or for Hirst himself, who made a few good scores but found his liking for the hook often caused his downfall in Australian conditions. He also had a disastrous tour with the ball, handicapped by an ongoing leg strain. He did not recover fully for the 1898 season, which was the poorest of his career. This was the season, though, when Wilfred Rhodes made his sensational debut for Yorkshire, and for years afterwards he and Rhodes (and also the medium-paced Schofield Haigh) were to form a supreme bowling combination for the county.

All the time he was also gaining a reputation as a brilliant fielder at mid-off, a vital position in those days of powerful off-side driving and in an era when, according to many records, fielding was often a neglected art. Wisden on the 1899 season claimed he was almost worth his place in the Test team on his fielding alone. He took 604 catches in his 826 matches, some off his own bowling, but most from powerful drives in the region of mid-off.

By 1900 it appeared that the experts had been right, for Hirst’s batting was now more successful than his bowling and he had not taken 100 wickets in a season since 1897. In 1900 he took only 62 wickets, but in 1901 he increased that to 183, at an average of 16, recording another double, a feat he was also to perform in ten of the next eleven seasons.

The great improvement in his bowling came as he developed the ability to swerve, as it was then called, the new ball in the air. He preferred a headwind to a crosswind, and the Australian Sammy Woods, captain of Somerset, asked, "How the devil can you play a ball that comes in at you like a hard throw-in from over point?" His predominant swing was in to the right-hander, but it was an almost totally new phenomenon in those days, as its descendant reverse swing was in the 1990s, and the top batsmen in the country struggled against it. He was probably the first bowler to employ a leg-trap of three close fielders for the mishit, though he still bowled aiming to hit the stumps.

Perhaps his most outstanding match of 1901 was that against Essex at Leyton, where on a poor pitch Yorkshire were bowled out for 104 but still won by an innings. Hirst and Rhodes bowled unchanged in both innings, Hirst returning figures of seven for 12 and five for 17, an outstanding performance especially as he relied more on the atmosphere than the pitch for his successes.

1902 was the year of one of Australia's most famous tours of England. Many have asserted that the England team (including Hirst) of that year was its greatest ever, yet Australia won the series and Victor Trumper made his undying name with his glorious batsmanship in a wet summer that favoured bowlers. Hirst was twice involved in bowling this Australian side out for less than 40.

In the First Test at Edgbaston, Birmingham, he played a vital innings of 48 and then, taking three wickets while Rhodes took seven, bowled Australia out for 36 in less than an hour – only for rain to wash out the match as Australia followed on. The pitch was wet but not a true 'sticky'; Rhodes took seven wickets and Hirst three. Charles Fry later commented, "Well as Rhodes bowled, it was Hirst who was responsible for the debacle. This is the best instance I know of the bowler at the other end getting wickets for his colleague."

Although England did not win, Yorkshire did, in the very next match. The Headingley pitch was treacherous, and in the second innings the Australians were bundled out for just 23 (Hirst five for 9, Stanley Jackson five for 12). At 20 for three Hirst bowled Trumper with what he later said was the best ball he bowled in his life, and the team collapsed. Yorkshire won by five wickets, but had to fight all the way to score the 48 needed for victory.

Hirst did not play in the Fourth Test at Old Trafford, Manchester, and many thought this was why England lost by just three runs. On the whim of captain Archie McLaren, he was omitted on the morning of the match and Fred Tate of Sussex played instead, only to have an unhappy match.

Then came the famous Oval Test of 1902, famous for Gilbert Jessop’s great century and the last-wicket stand of 15 between Hirst and Rhodes that won the match for England. Known as Jessop's Match, it could justifiably be called Hirst’s Match, as he scored 101 runs for once out – he was destined never to hit a Test century – and took six wickets. His 43 in the first innings was mainly instrumental in England saving the follow-on. Finally he was still at the crease in the second innings when last man Rhodes, still regarded mainly as a bowler, joined him.

Legend, now often discredited, claims that Hirst said to Rhodes, "We’ll get them in singles," and that they did so. It was not all in singles, though, and Rhodes later maintained it was not true, while Hirst was recorded as saying that in such a situation he couldn't remember what was said. Overall, though, it was not one of Hirst's best county seasons, as he temporarily lost his swerve.

1903 was one of Hirst's great years. Despite missing several matches with a damaged calf muscle, he recorded another double, with a batting average of 47 and a bowling average of below 15, swerve back in all its splendour. Both averages were the best of his career to date.

In 1903/04 Hirst toured Australia again, with greater success this time. His cheerful, friendly nature made him a good tourist, and he was always at his best in a crisis. In the First Test the match was in the balance as England had lost four for 82, with 194 needed to win. Hirst came in to share a vital partnership with Tom Hayward and was still there when England won by five wickets. In the Third Test England lost, but virtually over Hirst's dead body, as he again scored over 100 runs in the match without recording a century. With his swerve he was much more effective with the ball, frequently dismissing Australia's top batsmen.

Hirst took his county benefit in 1904, which was to give him a record taking, although he was still only beginning his greatest years. For three successive years his 'double' was to consist of more than 2000 runs and 100 wickets, and in 1906 he was to pass 200 wickets, a 'double double' that will forever remain unique. In 1904 he played many matches with a leg strain, which took the edge off his pace, but his swing and accuracy remained. In his benefit match against Lancashire, playing under this handicap, he hit 65 when his side were in trouble, and took six for 42 with the ball.

In 1905 he still suffered pain from his leg, but his courage and strength saw him through another superb season. His greatest feat was his 341 against Leicestershire, which remains the record individual score for Yorkshire. On a good pitch Hirst went in when Yorkshire had lost three wickets for 22 in reply to Leicestershire's 419, and batted for seven hours, hitting a six and 53 fours. He also scored a double-century against Surrey, when again none of his team-mates succeeded with the bat.

1906, his year of 2385 runs and 208 wickets, was arguably the greatest season any cricketer has ever enjoyed, perhaps shading even the 3816 runs and 73 wickets by Denis Compton in 1947. Only a man with the physical and mental strength of Hirst could have achieved it. When asked if he thought it would ever be equalled, he replied, "I don’t know, but whoever does will be very tired." Aged 35 now, he was never quite to achieve either individual landmark again.

Even at the end of this season, he had the energy to perform another unique double, this time a match double. Against Somerset he hit a century in each innings, 111 and 117 not out, and took ten wickets in the match, figures of six for 70 and five for 45.

Even these staggering figures, A A Thomson claimed, did not give the full measure of the man. Once again many of his runs were made crucially on bad pitches or with his team in trouble, and many of the wickets taken in a lethal spell of bowling at a crucial stage of the match when the opposition appeared to be getting on top. Many of his best innings were not even centuries, but smaller innings at critical junctures.

It could only be downhill from then on, as Edmund Hillary might have said after conquering Everest. But Hirst was to remain a major force in the county game as a bowler until 1913, and as a batsman until 1919, when he was 47. More than any other Yorkshire player, he was still the man to turn to in a crisis.

In 1907 he took 15 wickets for 63 in a match against Leicestershire and 11 for 44 against Derbyshire, and in 1908 an incredible 12 for 19 against Northamptonshire, bowling them out for 27 and 15 in harness with Haigh. In 1909 he made his final Test appearances against Australia, taking nine wickets in England's only victory, but did little in the remaining Tests and faded out of Test cricket. His Test match statistics completely fail to show his worth as a player.

But his domestic cricket continued to flourish. In 1910 he took nine wickets for 23 against Lancashire, his career-best figures at the age of 38. The following year he hit his final double-century, 218 against Sussex at Hastings. At Worcester he took nine for 41 and a century. But these were only the highlights of seasons full of outstanding deeds with the bat and with the ball, once again so many of the best in adversity as Yorkshire were going through a minor transition period. He kept recording the double every year until 1913, when he was 41.

In 1914 at last there was some evidence of decline. He averaged over 40 with the bat, but missed a number of matches through injury and was able to take only 43 wickets, at an average of almost 30. The gathering storm of the First World War curtailed the season, and it might in a way have been appropriate for Hirst to end his career here.

During the War Hirst played local league cricket while younger men were in the trenches. Yorkshire lost Major Booth, killed in action, and Alonzo Drake to an illness contracted while on active service, two brilliant young players who might also have become legendary names in Yorkshire cricket. And Hirst returned, at the age of 47.

His bowling was largely a spent force, but with the bat he began the season with a bang, scoring 180 not out in Yorkshire's first match against MCC. So well did he continue that at one stage there was speculation as to whether he would reach 1000 runs in May. He finished the season with an average of 39, and none of those above him was within ten years of his age. He played mainly as a batsman, though, taking only 18 wickets at 30 each.

During the season he had accepted the post of coach at Eton College, which meant his full-time playing career was over. He did play during the school holidays for the next two seasons, giving occasional reminders of his great days. He was made captain of the Players team against the Gentlemen in their Scarborough match at the end of 1921, and the match finished on his 50th birthday. The crowd called for him at the end of the match and gave him an intense, emotional farewell, to which he responded with humility and dignity. He testified to the enjoyment he always had from playing the game and which had always been so evident.

In 1929, at the age of 58, he was prevailed upon to play again in a Scarborough Festival match. A A Thomson tells how he scored a single before being bowled by a superb delivery from the up-and-coming Bill Bowes. Hirst turned to the bowler as he walked out and said, "A grand ball that, lad. I couldn’t have played that one when I was good." Such a comment illustrates exactly the kind of man George Hirst was.

Hirst continued to coach at Eton and for the Yorkshire club, and in both places, as different areas of England perhaps as it is possible to find, his wisdom and kindliness were remembered with affection and respect by successive generations of young players. According to Thomson, his genius lay "in giving his pupil such fundamental groundwork as was absolutely necessary and at the same time encouraging him to develop his individual talent to the full within a framework of soundness and sense".

Many would testify to his ability to make them play better than they thought they could. His skill worked with such differing Yorkshiremen as the thoughtful Hedley Verity and the fiery George Macaulay. He demanded high standards from his charges, but the only ones to be reproved were those who failed to try their hardest. He continued to play club cricket himself until the age of 72.

(Article: Copyright © 2003 John Ward)

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