Len Hutton – Finest, Most Technically Correct Batsman
There was a heroic dimension to Len Hutton career that was not always evident even with some of England’s other very great batsmen. He had talent in abundance, all right. How else could he have scored a century on his second Test when he was only a few days past his 21st birthday? When he set a world Test record score of 364 at the age of 22 against an Australia attack containing Bill O’Reilly and marshaled by Don Bradman?
But for much of Len Hutton’s career, England was not as strong a batting side as they had been when Jack Hobbs and Walter Hammond reigned supreme. He took his responsibilities as seriously and soberly as that other imperturbable Yorkshire and England opener Herbert Sutcliffe.
Not for him the extravagances of Denis Compton. When the captaincy came his way in 1952. Len Hutton was the first professional in the 20th century to be appointed to the post – the burden only grew. Yet he personally achieved great things, against some very great bowlers, and his team enjoyed a lot of success under him, including home and away ashes win.
Armed with an immaculate technique, Hutton was consistently England’s best batsman against what was often a fiercely strong Australian side. He topped the averages in four of the six series. He played against them, and although he slipped to third place in the 1948 series below Denis Compton and Cyril Washbrook.
Although the only one of the many opening partners he had in Test cricket with whom he enjoyed sustained success – he nevertheless scored 342 runs in the four Tests he played (he was dropped for one match because the selectors suspected he was struggling to cope with Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.
Something which subsequent events showed to be an exaggeration: he remained amazingly hard to shift). The one time he was not a major force with the bat was in Australia in 1954–55. When the strain of leading England to their first series win Down Under for 22 years took an immense toll. Even so, he scored some important runs at important times.
Before England regained the Ashes under him in the previous series in England in 1953 after an agonizingly long wait. Len Hutton had known little but defeat against Australia, but on the few occasions when they came away with a result, he usually had something to do with it, most famously with his record-breaking score at The Oval in 1938.
That was when his amazing powers of concentration first became apparent to the wider world: in a final match of the series played to a finish. He batted into the third day and by the time he was out after 797 minutes, England was 770 for six and well on their way to victory.
It remains the longest innings ever played for England. Although, of course, he never beat that effort he gave countless other displays of resilience when the pitch and the bowling – Bill O’Reilly notwithstanding – had much more life in them than they did then.
In the next 12 Tests, Len Hutton played against Lindwall and Miller after being dropped mid-series in 1948. His super forms continue, and he scored 1,208 runs and in the 1950–51 series in Australia stood head and shoulders above every other batsman on either side.
While he scored 533 runs at an average of 88.83, his nearest rival in terms of average was Keith Miller with 350 runs at 43.75. He played one of the most celebrated of all innings seen on a ‘sticky dog’ in Brisbane, scoring 62 not out, while only one other teammate managed to make it double figures.
Hutton was also immense at the top of the order on the 1948–49 tour of South Africa when he scored 577 runs and Washbrook contributed 542 in a series England won 2–0, and he was even better in dealing with the great West Indies side that emerged shortly after the war.
England collectively had little answer to the unanticipated wiles of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine in 1950, but Hutton was the first to articulate a response with an astonishing double century in the final match of the series at The Oval. Carrying his bat for 202 out of a team score of 344, he did not give a chance in almost
eight hours. No other England batsman scored 50 in either inning. Four years later in the Caribbean, he almost single-handedly hauled England back from 2 to 0 down to earn a 2–2 draw, with scores of 169 in Georgetown and 205 in Kingston. The two innings spanned 16 hours and again were changeless. If this paints a picture of a man of obstinate defiance, it was far from the complete picture. Hutton was one of the most handsome cover drivers the game has seen and before the outbreak of war in 1939 – an interruption that surely cost him many of his finest years – he was regarded by some in Yorkshire, where defense is held among the higher virtues, as something of a reckless dasher.
Len Hutton himself reckoned he was then at his peak. Although he occasionally gave glimpses of his full repertoire of strokes after the war, he changed – in part because he felt he had to, Yorkshire as well as England not being quite the force they had been. This, however, did not satisfy the critics, who felt he was failing to do justice to his talent.
There could be little arguing with the results, though, as he churned out runs for county and country. His season’s aggregate of 3,429 runs in 1949 has only been beaten by Denis Compton and Bill Edrich in their famous summer of 1947 and Tom Hayward in 1906. As Trevor Bailey once said of Hutton, ‘He only gambled on certainties.
It is worth remembering too that Hutton broke his left wrist in an army gymnasium during the war, an accident that left his arm two inches shorter than it was before; the technical adjustments this demanded of his batting must have been significant. He was never physically particularly strong, and this injury restricted him. His strokes were due to timing rather than power.
There is surely no more arduous task for a Test batsman than opening the innings, and Hutton’s record shows how equal he was to the challenge: of the 24 batsmen who have scored 5,000 Test runs as openers, none averaged more than Hutton’s 56.47.
Len Hutton gave an immense amount to English cricket and when in other circumstances he might have continued for several more years, his race was run within months of his returning home in triumph from Australia in 1955. His back was sore, and his mind was weary from the fight.
The following year, Len Hutton was knighted for services to cricket, only the second professional after Hobbs to be so honored. He once very kindly said of me, “David Gower” makes batting look as easy as drinking tea’, a lovely compliment, which tempted me to put him even higher in this list of greats!