Richard H Thomas on cricket’s remarkable digits.
Moeen Ali’s hat-trick against South Africa at The Oval was notable beyond the fact that it clinched England’s series victory. First – if any such naysayers still exist – it must emphasise, once and for all, that for as long as he can stay fit Moeen is as essential to this England team as oxygen itself. It was also his first hat-trick in any cricket – “I’ve scored a few in football warm-ups but this is a different sort of feeling” he told the Guardian. I bet.
It was also the first time since Australian left-arm wrist-spinner Lindsay Kline did it in 1958 that a Test was wrapped up by a three-in-three. Finally, it was the first time an England spinner had taken a hat-trick since Tom Goddard took one – also against South Africa – at Johannesburg on Boxing Day, 1938. Moeen’s feat also enhanced Test Match Special’s 60th anniversary celebrations. There was some sense of appropriate symmetry too, since Goddard’s triple elevated what was the first overseas Test to be broadcast to a UK audience.
Hat-tricks indeed, were something of a speciality for Goddard. He took six of them in his 30-year career, matched only by his Gloucester colleague Charlie Parker and eclipsed only by Kent’s Doug Wright, who took seven. So many career hat-tricks are perhaps unsurprising given that only four bowlers took more than Goddard’s 2,979 first-class wickets. Uncovered wickets sure, but that’s about five modern careers of note.
Another notable point of interest about Tom Goddard was that almost everyone who has ever written about him has remarked about the size of his hands. The Spectator said they were “like hams” while Wisden described them as “massive”. Frank Keating, who was as deft with his words as Goddard was with his metronomic off-spin, described his “first idol” as having “huge hands” a “huge heart” and the ability to “wheel and deal for wickets all day long”. Having previously explored feet and toes and the part they play in our wonderful game, we hereby celebrate their more illustrious cricketing cousins, the hands and fingers. Both are essential to our game. Try to remember that, with some benevolence if you can, when you are sawn off on a Saturday afternoon by a diffident umpire who lifts his index finger on the basis that if it was not out, 10 fielders and one bowler wouldn’t appeal so loudly.
In terms of big mitts, old Tom Goddard was almost peerless, but some others came close. Brian Johnston said that Somerset’s six hitting allrounder Arthur Wellard also had enormous hands, and that his fingers were like “Palethorpe Sausages”. Curtly Ambrose was another one; Simon Briggs recalls that when he and hunting partner Courtney Walsh bowed out of Tests at The Oval in 2000, the Antiguan “held up his huge hands in a final salute”. More recently, Yedu Kkrishnan reports that as part of reggae/calypso combo Spirited, the giant Ambrose paws that “made the ball a whizzing projectile” are now put to use “delicately” playing the bass guitar.
Sometimes the big buckets are inherited. Andrew Flintoff had them, but so did his father; indeed, Phil Tufnell reports that he is known as “Colin Big Hands”. They had a chance for fame in their own right too, when Flintoff Jnr smashed the ball into the stand during his 167 against the West Indies at Edgbaston in 2003. But Colin’s big hands couldn’t hold on to the catch, leaving Tufnell to reflect that “size isn’t everything”.
Alec Bedser was another one with the big mitts. David Frith suggested that he made a cricket ball look more something you should be playing snooker with. When the old bowler died at the age of 91 in 2010, Mike Selvey described him as a man with “old-fashioned cricket values and virtues, common sense and dry humour”. He also possessed perhaps the most potent bowling weapons in the game’s rich history. Selvey reports that while once experimenting with seam position, Bedser “tried accentuating his natural in-swing wrist action so that his massive sausage fingers ripped down the side of the ball, imparting spin”. The leg cutter thereby created was so good that Bradman described the one that bowled him at Adelaide in 1946/47 as the best ball that ever got him out.
Big hands, big heart, big effort, but not a big one for modern larking about it seems. Frith recalls one of the last times Bedser was seen by the cricketing public – at a Wisden event presenting Ryan Sidebottom with his award for being one of its Cricketers of the Year. “That thick Almanack looked quite small in the giant’s hand” recalled Frith “but the voice was now quavering with age”. Indeed, Bedser needed assistance to rise to his feet, but “the old sergeant-major” was still fresh within him; he leaned over to Sidebottom and told him “I’ll let you have this book if you get yer ‘air cut”.
Perhaps hands and fingers are more box office than toes and feet, but they are also far more in the line of fire. Equipment of course, has developed to counter the threat of ball jamming bone against bat handle; Nishi Narayanan describes the open palm and naked thumb batting gloves sported by Hobbs and Sutcliffe at The Oval in 1930 as “more suitable to motorbike-riding than batting in a Test.”
But beefed up batting gloves the size of boxing gloves are still sometimes not enough. For example, England’s current search for an opening partner for Alastair Cook might have been truncated if Haseem Hameed had not broken a finger in India. Nick Hoult reports that the Bolton man’s teammates were “in awe” of his efforts in the third Test. His monumental 59 off 156 balls was despite his finger being so badly broken that Trevor Bayliss described it as being “in two pieces”. Hoult reports that Virat Kohli was also full of praise, dubbing Hameed “a future star” as he shook the youngster’s other, undamaged hand.
Of course, others have been equally as brave; Graeme Smith and Malcolm Marshall are among those forced to bat one-handed to protect smashed hands and fingers. One of my abiding cricketing memories from the 1990s was some grainy footage of Graham Gooch getting whacked on the hand by a quick one from Ezra Moseley that rose sharply off a length at Port of Spain. The drop of the bat, the hop onto one foot and the look on his face all said the same thing: “I’ve faced my last ball in competitive cricket for a while”. Had stump microphones existed then, they would have no doubt picked up the sound of leather upon bone, like virgin snow being trodden underfoot. More recently, Alec Stewart broke a finger three times on England’s Ashes tour in 1994/95, and a year or two later Nasser Hussain went through such a bad trot with cracks and bashes, he suggested that his fingers had the same resilience as a poppadum. Joking aside, finger injuries can hurt like hell. I remember getting rapped on the thumb in a midweek match and having the consequent pressure behind my thumbnail relieved by a red-hot needle by a nurse in the middle of the night. Blood shot into the air, as high as a Texas oil strike.
Not all hand and finger damage is as dramatically sudden. Ask any off-spinner with a stellar career to hold their hands out, and they’ll show you a gnarled collections of digits, misshapen from years of trying to extract some turn from the most unyielding of tracks. West Indian off-spinner Lance Gibbs for example, spun the ball so hard that his knuckle regularly bled on the field. John Arlott reported that Jim Laker “paid a painful price for his bowling” and that “like most men who spin the ball really hard, he often wore away the skin from the inside of his index finger. If he bowled on, it would harden, a corn would form and then, as it grew too hard, it would tear away, leaving the flesh exposed once more”. Leg-spinners perhaps had a generally easier time, but Derek Pringle notes that Shane Warne’s sometimes reluctance to bowl his flipper was because of two operations, four years apart, on the ring finger of his right hand.
But injuries and deformities can be overcome. In his autobiography, Garry Sobers reveals that he was born with an extra finger on each hand. Some called him “a freak”, he recalls. How right they were, but for all the wrong reasons. He reports that the extra appendages didn’t bother him and that the first extra digit fell off when he was “nine or ten”, meaning that he actually played his first colonial cricket match with 11 fingers. The other came off a bit later “with the help of a sharp knife.” He doesn’t say who was wielding it, but let’s face it, this is Garry Sobers we are talking about, so anything is possible. The man had more wickets, runs and talent than any of his peers could dream about. For a while too, he also had more fingers.