GH Hardy. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
GH Hardy. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Godfrey Harold Hardy, born February 7, 1877, was one of the great British mathematicians. He was, as is mostly common knowledge, an avid cricket fan. Abhishek Mukherjee tells the tale of a life dedicated to cricket.

I have never done anything useful . No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world, GH Hardy, A Mathematician s Apology.

If understatements had a rating, the above would have made its way to the top in the history of mankind. Hardy was, without a doubt, one of the eminent British mathematicians.The Hardy-Weinberg Principle is still used to test numerous methods of non-random mating though Hardy shares that honour with Wilhelm Weinberg. Hardy sworks with John Edensor Littlewood and more famously, his discovery S Ramanujan are welldocumented.

However tempted I am, I will not get into details regarding them, for this is a place to discuss cricket.I will also not tell the tale of this wonderful, if eccentric, personality. What I will mention is the fact that Hardy and Littlewood (yet another cricket fan) used the sport to explain Maximal Function.

Hardy s brilliant mind went far beyond the realm of theorems and lemmas. He was a great friend of Bertrand Russell. It was to the same Russell that Hardy once said: If I could prove by logic that you would die in five minutes, I should be sorry you were going to die, but my sorrow would be very much mitigated by pleasure in the proof.

No, this was a mind us mortals will not be able to relate to.

Like his great friend the novelist CP Snow (who wrote the foreword to A Mathematician s Apology), Hardy was a cricket fan in the most sophisticated way possible.In fact, Snow had to pass a rigorous (impromptu and informal) moderately stiff viva to be tolerable as a cricket companion .

In his essay The Mathematician on Cricket, Snow takes the reader through the intriguing experience: I half-guessed that he had a horror of persons who devotedly learned their Wisden s backwards but who, on the field, could not distinguish between an off-spinner and short-leg. I explained, in some technical detail, what I did with the ball. He appeared to find the reply partially reassuring, and went on to more technical questions. Whom would I have chosen as captain for the last test a year before (in 1930)? If the selectors had decided that Snow was the man to save us, what would have been my strategy, and tactics? You are allowed to act, if you are sufficiently modest, as non-playing captain.

Snow passed the mother of all tests. Their companionship lasted till the end. I owed my friendship with Hardy to having wasted a disproportionate amount of my youth on cricket, Snow would go on to write.

Snow explained Hardy s affinity towards the sport: Cricket is a game of grace and order, which is why he found formal beauty in it. His mathematics, so I am told, had these same aesthetic qualities, right up to his last creative work.

While that was true, Hardy also emphasised the fact that his love for cricket had a lot to do with the numbers associated with every scorecard. An obsessive spotter of patterns, he was forever busy figuring out the number of maximum simultaneous occurrences of an integer on a scorecard.

American mathematician Laurence Young had this to write of Hardy s love for cricket in Mathematicians and their Times: To do full justice to GH Hardy, I would have to know more about cricket his passion in life, besides mathematics.

Cricket was always a part of Hardy s life, peeping through his work at the slightest of opportunities on numerous occasions. They also formed a part of his philosophy. Indeed, Hardy saw cricket the way few did, as is evident from the following quotes (Snow referred to these as a counterbalancing series of maxims inspired by his sense of the ridiculous ):

1.Cricket is the only game where you are playing against eleven of the other side and ten of your own.

2.If you are nervous when you go in first, nothing restores your confidence so much as seeing the other man get out.

Similarly, Hardy s fondness for the sport never prevented him from being objective. Despite viewing most of his cricket in the era of romanticism, he did not hesitate to comment: After a pogrom, the Freshman s Match is the best place to see human nature in the raw.

Indeed, he knew. He knew exactly what cricket was. While his love for cricket lasted a lifetime, they were never shadowed by the dread of bias.

What about the cricketer?

Hardy was, to quote Young, a fine cricketer, capable of holding the fort with RH Fowler, and of knocking up a century when Trinity High Table played against the undergraduates. It is up to you whether you would trust an American s assessment of a cricketer.

It is not clear exactly when his love affair with cricket began. In his Winchester days he was good at football, tennis, and gymnastics.He was also a competent rock climber, as Robert Kanigel wrote in The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan.

On the other hand, he did not get even an hour s coaching during his Winchester days (though he frequently wrote cricket match reports for the school magazine). In ESPNCricinfo, Haider Riaz Khan mentioned that Hardy played little or no proper cricket till he went to Trinity.

Hardy used to be a regular at Fenner s. Riaz wrote that he would saunter to the ground after lunch and settle into his preferred place opposite the pavilion with an umbrella, some sweaters, and a PhD thesis, or a mathematics paper he was refereeing for the Royal Society. Hardy used to refer to these as his anti-God battery .

He left Cambridge for Oxford in 1919 (he would return in 1931). During his Oxford days Hardy led the Mathematicians (against The Rest of the World) at least once. Playing under him were luminaries like Lancelot Stephen Bosanquet, Ted Titchmarsh, Edward Linfoot, and Bill Ferrar.

Even after leaving Oxford he used to return every summer: who else would lead the Fellows cricket team at New College otherwise?

At one point his loyalties were divided: In cricket I am for Cambridge; in rowing I am for Oxford. Over time, however, it mellowed down though not to the most conventional extent. Littlewood recalled that Hardy still wanted a Cambridge victory by innings and 200, but no longer wanted the Oxford captain to be hit in the stomach by the fast bowler.

Thatcricket career ended following a motorcycle accident. He refused to sue the motorcyclist despite solicitors insisting him to: that would not have been cricket.

Number two on the list

How important was cricket to Hardy? He once listed down his New Year s resolutions in a letter to a friend; the list was later reproduced in Paul Hoffman in his biography of Paul Erd s. It ran thus:

1. To prove the Riemann hypothesis,

2. To make a brilliant play in a crucial cricket match,

3. To prove the nonexistence of God,

4. To be the first man atop Mount Everest,

5. To be proclaimed the first President of the USSR, Great Britain, and Germany, and

6. To murder Mussolini.

Indeed, that man had his priorities right.


It must be clear by now that Hardy was not too respectful of God. As a result he took delight in the on-field failure of clergymen especially if one of them was run out (even Almighty could not alter their fortunes!).

Snow narrates an incident from a Gentlemen vs Players match at Lord s on a particularly sunny day. A batsman facing the Nursery End was blinded by some source of light. After some research, they found the source: a large pectoral cross resting on the middle of an enormous clergyman.

The umpire insisted the cross be removed. Seldom had Hardy exhibited such glee. He skipped lunch that day and wrote to all his friends involved with the church.Was atheism the only reason for Hardy s antipathy for the church? Not quite. There was another reason, a less obvious one. It s rather unfortunate that some of the happiest hours of my life should have been spent within sound of a Roman Catholic Church.

The reason was not as trivial as you think: the day s play at Fenner s had ended once the church clock chimed six o clock.

The classes

Among Hardy s cricket-playing mates was geneticist Reginald Punnett. On one of those days Punnett introduced him to a problem that Hardy worked on, eventually formulating the Hardy-Weinberg Principle (Weinberg did it independently at roughly the same time).

It was perhaps inevitable that Hardy would be a fan of Jack Hobbs. For a long time Hobbs class was the highest form of praise anyone he could usher upon. Then came the boy from Bowral to change that definition.

Hardy later wrote a postcard to Snow, circa 1938: Bradman is a whole class above any batsman who has ever lived: if Archimedes, Newton and Gauss remain in the Hobbs class, I have to admit the possibility of a class above them, which I find difficult to imagine. They had better be moved from now on into the Bradman class.

His respect for Bradman knew little bounds. Bradman found mention even when Hardy discussed life. Sample this: Poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry (and I suppose that it is unlikely that he could do better). If the cricket were a little less supreme, and the poetry better, then the choice might be more difficult: I do not know whether I would rather have been Victor Trumper or Rupert Brooke. It is fortunate that such dilemmas occur so seldom.

The many XIs

Hardy loved making XIs, often in combination with Snow. There was nothing special about that: every self-respecting cricket fan has made XIs of his own at some point. Hardy and Snow made alphabetical XIs but then, Arunabha Sengupta has done them for CricketCountry as well.

Hardy s XIs went a step further. For example, he made HA XIs (to make things clear, Hadrian and Hayward were the openers). There was the LU XI, the MO XI … and so on.

It is perhaps time that we mention Hardy s iconic XIs. It is not clear who excavated these three XIs from his notes. The criteria for selection are not documented.

Each XI, however, features a cricketer. Hobbs (remember Hobbs class?) and Percy Fender open for a team each. In fact, Fender even gets to lead a side and makes it to a second side as well.

Was Hardy a Surrey fan, then? If not, why get Fender to lead a side that features God in three slots (The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost), Einstein, and Disraeli, among others?

Other sports personalities to feature are both legends: heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson and chess player Emanuel Lasker (also a contract bridge champion).

Note: Like numerous other mathematicians, Hardy was a keen follower of chess. When Alekhine and Bradman set out to be at records, I am quite bitterly disappointed if they fail, he wrote. For Hardy to place someone on the same pedestal as Bradman s was incredible: Alexander Alekhine was perhaps peerless in this respect.

Here are the three XIs. Some elaborations are probably are in order, so I have provided them.

Team 1 Full name Comments
Hobbs Jack Hobbs
M Angelo Michelangelo
Napoleon (Capt) Napoleon Bonaparte
H Ford Henry Ford
Beethoven Ludwig van Beethoven
Johnson (Jack) Jack Johnson First black heavyweight world champion boxer
Christ (J) Jesus Christ

It is interesting that Hardy has got a Frenchman to lead a cricket side (were these really cricket XIs?). Plato, Christ, Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo all feature (as does Hobbs). Do note the nationalities:did these teams really have to do with cricket?

Team 2 Full name Comments
D Spinoza Benedict de Spionza 17th-century rationalist
A Einstein Albert Einstein
David Slayer of Goliath
B Disraeli (Capt) Benjamin Disraeli Prime Minister of Britain
God (F) God (The Father)
H Stinnes Hugo Stinnes German industrialist
P G H Fender Percy Fender
E Lasker Emanuel Lasker Chess legend, also mathematician and champion at contract bridge
Paul Paul of Tarsus Saint Paul, an apostle
God (S) God (The Son)
God (HG) God (The Holy Ghost)

Disraeli gets to lead a team with God in all three forms and Einstein. Fender and Lasker make appearances as well.

Team 3 Full name Comments
P G H Fender (Capt) Percy Fender
D Spinoza Benedict de Spionza 17th-century rationalist
A Einstein Albert Einstein
A de Rothschild Alfred or Alain de Rothschild Alfred was CVO Commander, Alain was a philanthropist and banker
H Heine Heinrich Heine Poet
B Disraeli Benjamin Disraeli Prime Minister of Britain
God (F) God (The Father)
God (S) God (The Son)
God (HG) God (The Holy Ghost)

This one features the divine triumvirate as well as Einstein, Disraeli, and Fender. Spinoza and David also make appearances in the last two squads. One wonders why he wanted two separate teams with eight members common to both: Stinnes, Paul, and Lasker appear in one of them and Moses, Heine, and de Rothschild in the other.

What was Hardy trying to do? Was there a pattern to this? Were these cricket teams at all?

And what were the three Gods (not to mention Christ) doing in the XIs of an atheist anyway?

Fender vs Cardus

While it is not explicitly mentioned, the choice of Fender leaves one with little doubt that Hardy was a Surrey supporter. The greatness of Hobbs transcended time and space. Not so for Fender, the captain who turned Surrey, then a team with a competent bowling attack at best, into a formidable side.

Hardy had yet another reason to become a fan of Fender. Let us quote Snow once again: Fender, analytical, informed, alive with intellectual vitality and a nagging intellectual integrity, was by a long way Hardy s favourite cricket writer. Fender has an involved and parenthetical style, which bears a faint family resemblance to Proust and Henry James.

The three men, according to Hardy, were all trying to say genuinely difficult things . However, Fender, like Proust (and unlike Henry James), had within his chosen field an instinct for the essential.

What of Neville Cardus, then, the most celebrated cricket writer of the era? Cardus tendency to ignore facts (to the extent of deliberate lying) would not have impressed Hardy. Indeed, Mr Neville Cardus, despite gifts which Hardy was too fair-minded to deny, had been an overwhelmingly bad influence on cricket writing of the last twenty years.

A most interesting match

This was not the only curious discovery from Hardy s notes. There was a match between the two (this one looks like cricket) that Hardy won 379 to 43 by 336 runs, perhaps.

Of course, cricket match is the universal claim. Barring the numbers the handwriting is barely legible. The rows read 67-33, 73-0 (the text seems to be Good Method Theorem ), 71-0, 43-0, 31-0, 0-0, 33-0, and 61-10.

One cannot help but feel for God.

Crossing the bar, hand in hand with cricket

Hardy was an introvert to the extent that he covered all mirrors in the household with towels. Some of his acquaintances accepted his quirks for what they were. Some others could not come to terms.

He was not a man easily understood. And with age, he went into depression from which he never really recovered.

The blow came in the summer of 1947. Snow received a call from Gertrude Edith, sister of GH (the siblings remained single throughout their lives): Hardy had been taken very ill; could Snow rush to Trinity?

Gertrude probably deserves special mention here. A year younger to GH, Gertrude almost certainly played cricket. In fact, when they were children, Gertrude lost an eye when GH hit her with a cricket bat unintentionally and had to resort to a glass eye for the rest of her life.

Gertrude probably played cricket in her later days as well. In The GH Hardy Reader (edited by Donald Albers, Gerald Alexanderson, and William Dunham), there is a photograph of an adult Gertrude playing cricket at St Catherine s School. There are also references to her playing tennis.

For some reason Snow gives the impression that she was agnostic to cricket ( she had never learned anything about the game ). One wonders why. Perhaps her enthusiasm paled when compared to her brother, and that was probably what Snow was referring to.

But let us return to the tale. Once Snow was there, Gertrude asked him to visit Donald Robertson, a professor of Greek and a close friend of Hardy s. Little did he know what awaited him.

You ought to know that Harold has tried to kill himself, Robertson broke the news.

Hardyhad opted for an overdose of barbiturate. He had survived, and had been admitted to Evelyn Nursing Home.

Snow became a regular visitor to Evelyn. He dreaded these tours, for the topic of death invariably came up. But then, there were the highs as well, for they discussed cricket about fifty-five [minutes] in each hour .

It was difficult for Snow to keep up with Hardy s keenness: while Hardy still followed the sport with boyish enthusiasm, Snow had been reduced to a mere follower. But Snow still had to prepare before every meeting, for Hardy had a keen eye for mistakes… too keen…

The keenness can be attributed to his early days. Hardy used to skim through The Times over breakfast for scores, mostly from matches in Australia in winters and England in summers. This was not merely reading: he absorbed them. John Maynard Keynes (yes, the Keynes) once lamented that had Hardy devoted as much time and focus to stock exchange quotations he would have become a far richer man.

Snow tried to find a way back for him by enticing him to go to cricket matches. He offered his own companionship. He offered him a choice of grounds. But by then it was too late: Hardy had already accepted his fate.

Gertrude filled in too. She rummaged every newspaper or every material she could find for cricket updates. One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for her.

Snow also extracted a promise from Hardy that the mathematician would authora book on himself watchingcricket for a whole day, spreading himself in disquisitionson the game, human nature, hisreminiscences, life in general. It was to be titled A Day at the Oval. Alas, that eccentric minor classic never materialised.

India were touring Australia that winter. Snow used to come around to discuss the tour. There was a conversation that involved Vinoo Mankad during their last rendezvous: where did this new Indian all-rounder stand when compared to Wilfred Rhodes and Aubrey Faulkner?

In the same week Hardy told her sister: If I knew that I was going to die today, I think I should still want to hear the cricket scores.

Can you relate? If you cannot, you do not understand the man.

In that last week of Hardy s life, Gertrude used to read to him a chapter from the history of cricket in Cambridge. He breathed his lastduring one of these sessions, on December 1, 1947.

No farewell could have been as befitting.