Every year during the middle of December, a traditional dining club gathers at the Oval to commemorate the birthday of Sir Jack Hobbs. The club was originally founded by John Arlott in 1953, following a pleasant lunch with Sir Jack, Alf Gover, and a few other companions. Even after the passing of the accomplished Surrey and England cricketer, the club continued as a way to honor his esteemed career.
Every year, the Master’s Club asks a different speaker to give a toast to Hobbs. In 2023, I was chosen for this honor. While I am not the first woman to be selected, I was the first to realize that the club’s only requirement – wearing the club tie to lunch – was not fully inclusive. As a solution, lapel pins were distributed this year.
I started my speech by acknowledging that Lord’s was my home ground, where I received playful jeers and disapproval. I then mentioned how the new addition of Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor in Doctor Who led me to realize something for the first time. Lord’s has the Grace Gate, while The Oval has the Hobbs Gate. One club’s entrance is named after a cricketer known as the Doctor, while the other is dedicated to a player known as the Master.
Either Doctor Who’s screenwriters have a keen sense of cricketing history or something else is going on. Given my love of sci-fi I like to imagine it’s this: there’s an alternate dimension where WG Grace and Jack Hobbs are both Time Lords, locked in an eternal celestial combat where the playing field is the whole of space and time and the planets are mere cricket balls.
In the world of Doctor Who, the Master is the only individual with abilities equal to or greater than the Doctor’s. Grace was the top performer in cricket for many years until Hobbs surpassed him. Wisden recognized that out of all the batters after Grace, Hobbs was the only one to have a similar creative impact.
Regardless, the Master’s Club members are well aware of Hobbs’s accomplishments, as they come together every year to honor them. Hobbs’s impressive tally of 61,237 runs in first-class matches will forever remain in our memories: a constant reference point, much like the destruction of Pompeii or the immortality of Captain Jack Harkness. His 197 centuries in first-class matches continue to resonate through time, much like the iconic sound of the Tardis in flight.
However, what information do we have about the Master’s beginnings? Hobbs was born in 1882 in Cambridge, which, while not as stunningly magnificent as the Citadel on Gallifrey, was still a grand and significant center of knowledge and history. However, it was also a dirty and overcrowded city where the working class struggled with poverty and cramped living conditions. The Doctor often reminds his companions that two opposing ideas can both be valid. Although humans tend to think in black and white, our world is full of paradoxical complexities.
Hobbs grew up as the only child of a man who repaired roofs and a shoemaker’s grandson. However, by the time he turns 19, he will have 11 siblings. Despite his parents’ modest means, Hobbs remembers his childhood fondly and is always aware of his family’s simple lifestyle. He admits to feeling envious of those who had large homes and could confidently socialize with others, unlike his own family who lived on a humble back road.
During the Victorian era, Hobbs’ father secures a position in the rapidly growing cricket industry, providing net bowling and umpiring services for students at Jesus College. Hobbs is raised in the presence of the prestigious and unchanging university, where intelligence alone is not enough to belong, as one also needs money and social status. The Master’s own education ends at the young age of 12, which may seem early, but Hobbs is part of the first wave to complete mandatory elementary schooling. While Britain’s social classes were strict, its empire-building efforts called for change.
He inherited his father’s love for cricket, but it was not believed that he had the skill to make a career out of it. According to Leo McKinstry in his biography, “He was not considered a prodigy.” He was not scouted by any professional teams, and his performance did not attract the attention of top coaches. As a result, Hobbs ended up working as a domestic servant and later trained as a gas fitter. However, thanks to the help of Tom Hayward from Surrey, Hobbs was able to pursue a professional career in sports. In an alternate reality, he would have lived his life in the shadow of a gasometer, far from the cricket grounds of the Oval.
Cricket has always been a place of alternate realities, of utterly opposing experiences. The gentlemen and the players. Lord’s and the ladies it wouldn’t let through its doors. When we’re told by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket’s report that our game is rife with racism, sexism and elitism, we resist the thought of anything so uncomfortable today. Partly because we hope we’re better than that, but mostly because our own experience of cricket has been welcoming, meritocratic, transformative.
It is possible for two statements to be accurate. This is a philosophy that has existed since the beginning of time. Sir Jack Hobbs understood the lasting divisions of human life: he resided on the boundary. He originated from modest, marginalized origins and operated in a sports community that frequently discriminated against him for not being wealthy or of high social class. He experienced the reality of living in a society where inequality was disregarded and normalized, a cost of human existence imposed by those in positions of power. Eventually, he became the fourth English cricketer to receive knighthood.
The Master resided in this universe for over 80 years and witnessed both positive and negative changes in the world. During the liberal and carefree 1960s, he may have faced difficulty adjusting to the evolving society that seemed unfamiliar and moving on without him. However, he was renowned for his graciousness, compassion, modesty, and reluctance to criticize or confront others.
McKinstry states that Hobbs’ kind nature always prevailed over any feelings of resentment. I envision that Hobbs would be pleased with the efforts of Surrey and the ACE program to connect with the Caribbean communities that have drifted away from cricket in the last twenty years. He would likely commend the enthusiasm for the sport that British Asians are fostering in clubs and parks across the nation. It has a sense of rejuvenation to it.
I made a commitment to the group that I wouldn’t make any more references to Doctor Who, and suggested that we all raise our glasses in honor of the Master.