Breaking the Big Six: Warwickshire’s first county championship titleDavid Mutton |
“It is safe to assume,” intoned The Times’ cricket correspondent before the 1911 season, “that Kent, Surrey, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Middlesex or Nottinghamshire will be fighting out the question of supremacy between them.” This was a reasonable assessment. The ‘big six’ counties were not only the traditional powerhouses of the game but also its financial titans, with all but Kent enjoying a near monopoly in hosting test matches and the gate money that came with them. History also bore out The Times’ judgment; no other team had won the county championship since Gloucestershire in the distant days of the 1870s.
Warwickshire County Cricket Club was neither a powerhouse nor a titan. The annual report for 1910 showed a loss of ?400 with membership decreasing from 2,000 in 1909 to fewer than 1,700 in 1910. The problems were not new; the club lived from one crisis to the next. In 1906, when membership slumped alarmingly, financial survival was only secured when the secretary, R.V. Ryder, stumped around the city and brought in an extra 600 subscribers. It was hard to disagree with the chairman when he said “Birmingham is a football city.”
Even by their own mediocre standards Warwickshire endured a poor season in 1910. They finished fourteenth and the captain, Harold Goodwin, only played in half the matches, leading to a season where the county had five different skippers. One of the few notes of optimism was the rise of Frank Foster, a hard hitting batsman and a bowler who could generate considerable speed from a six-pace run-up. Although his batting was still a work in progress, Foster took 91 wickets at an average of 22 and, even though he was only 21 years old, was trusted with the captaincy for one match in the absence of a senior amateur.
By the dawn of 1911 it was clear that the county could not soldier on with Goodwin and a motley band of replacements. Foster was offered the captaincy and when he accepted the county prepared for the season with perhaps a little more cheer than usual. Then, in the spring, Foster resigned the captaincy and announced his retirement from the game. Although Warwickshire’s plans, short term and long, were thrown into disarray this was the second successive year he had threatened to abandon the sport. His public explanation was a need to devote more time to the family business but both times he had fallen deeply in love and wanted to get married as soon as possible. In 1910 Foster’s father persuaded him back to the game. In 1911, although Foster senior continued to press the case for cricket, his son’s mind was harder to shift and Warwickshire started their season with yet another makeshift captain.
Lt. Charles Cowan led the team in the first match at the Oval against Surrey. If defeat against one of the pre-season favourites was expected then the scale of the loss must have been depressing. Warwickshire could only muster 62 in the first innings and 87 in the second and went down by an innings. The one Warwickshire player praised by The Times was Jack Parsons, who despite only making 24 runs in the match, “showed very sound defence and quite good style.” The young professional would make only a relatively small contribution during the championship winning season, with 600 runs, but played sporadically for the county during the next 25 years. However Parsons’ career involved much more than cricket. He would demonstrate extraordinary heroism during the First World War leading a charge against Turkish machine guns, serve in India for five years, and finally enter the church and work as a services chaplain during World War Two.
Before the second match, against Lancashire at Old Trafford, Foster’s father finally persuaded him that cricket should be his focus and that marriage and money could wait. However his captaincy did not get off to a promising start. He alienated the professionals in the side before they had set foot on the ground as he and Lt. Cowan, the two amateurs, travelled first class to Manchester while the other players went third class. Matters were not improved when he was out for a golden duck but even though, promoted to open, Foster made only four runs in the second innings Warwickshire ran out comfortable victors thanks to a century from Crowther Charlesworth.
The next two matches brought a further two wins. Against Leicestershire a nine-wicket victory was secured mainly through the second innings opening partnership worth 186 runs between Dick Lilley, who had played for the county before Foster was born, and Sep Kinneir. A few days later Sussex set them 206 runs on the final day. Foster and the young wicketkeeper Tiger Smith came together when the score was 144 for 7 and put on an invaluable 46 runs to ensure another win. Smith had only become a regular in the team that summer when Lilley, who had been the county’s stumper for two decades, struggled with Foster’s bowling, which often damaged his already ravaged hands. Smith’s ability to stand up to Foster’s pace was all the more remarkable as he had lost the tops of two fingers in an accident while working at Bourneville, something that he managed to keep secret from the Warwickshire committee until 1912.
Despite three wins from four matches the team’s frailties were exposed against Worcestershire, where they were not close to a victory target of 299, and in a four wicket defeat by Yorkshire. However despite these setbacks Foster had already stamped his authority on the side and demonstrated that he was no mere jazz hat with his debut first class century against Yorkshire and nine wickets in the first innings.
Foster’s team quickly became known for their attractive, aggressive cricket. His creed was that the bat should always beat the hands of the clock, in other words a scoring rate of at least 60 runs per hour. However alongside stroke makers such as Foster and Parsons were experienced professionals who were masters of constructing an innings and would grind out runs if necessary. Opening the batting was the left-handed Sep Kinneir. He had first played for the club in 1898 but the following year was dispatched to Germany after contracting syphilis from a girl he met in Cheltenham during a match with Gloucestershire. The treatment was successful but when he resumed cricket the following year his hair and fingernails had fallen out and he would retain an anaemic appearance and a distrust of women for the rest of his life. At first drop was Charlesworth, who according to Tiger Smith “loved wild animals, flowers and the smell of the country” so much that he would spend entire days resting on gates in the green fields of the Midlands. Buttressing the middle order was Willie Quaife, “a placer and a glider with a great late cut” in Smith’s words, and a tiny, remarkably fit man who would go on to play for the county until he was 55 years old.
A narrow victory against Derbyshire was offset by a three wicket loss to Gloucestershire. Although his side was still in the middle of the table, Foster’s early season performances had earned him a place in the trial match for the forthcoming tour of Australia, and in his absence the team was captained by J.F. Byrne for a match against Hampshire. Byrne had led the side between 1903 and 1907 but more famously had skippered the England Rugby Union team. Although this was his only appearance for Warwickshire in 1911, the team crushed Hampshire by an innings and 296 runs, with Kinneir making his personal best score of 268 not out.
Foster returned for the encounter with Surrey and made hay with a double century in three hours. Although they could not force a result, with Surrey eight down at the close, it was a measure of revenge for the hiding they had suffered amidst the chaos of the season’s opening. A century from Quaife put them in command in the following match at home with Northamptonshire, but it was the sixteen wickets of Foster and his fellow paceman Frank Field that brought victory. Kinneir then set a county record, scoring a century in both innings to guide Warwickshire to victory against Sussex at Hove.
Excitement was building around Birmingham by the mid-point of the summer. 12,000 spectators attended the next home game with Gloucestershire, taking advantage of a new experiment to begin county matches on a Saturday. The masses witnessed an exciting game played to Foster’s dictum of bright cricket, as the skipper led his side to victory with 56 in 45 minutes in the first innings and another quick-fire 87 in the second.
The next match, with Yorkshire at Harrogate, was pivotal to Warwickshire’s season. Their total of 341, aided by 91 from Charlesworth and Foster’s 60 scored in only 40 minutes, was almost matched by Yorkshire’s reply of 310. The away side were teetering in their second innings on 32 for 3 when Foster walked to the wicket. The Times described the century that followed as “another magnificent hitting display” and it was too much for Yorkshire, who capitulated for 56 runs to Field, who took 7 for 20.
It was only Warwickshire’s second victory over the white rose county in 36 encounters and took them to third in the table. However while it may have brought them into title contention it came at the cost of their eldest servant. Lilley, deprived of his primary role as wicketkeeper, had been prickly all summer, resentful perhaps of an upstart skipper bringing success after a career surrounded by mediocrity. During the game, with his vast experience, he realized that David Denton was likely to drive on the up and waved the fielders deeper. Foster, realizing the challenge to his leadership, immediately shouted to Lilley, “don’t make me look like a fool.” Lilley lobbied his fellow professionals during the lunch interval not to return to the field. During those tense minutes the camaraderie developed by Foster was under threat. However by this stage in his career the cantankerous Lilley had few friends left in that dressing room – he had tried spreading rumours to discredit Smith, his rival wicketkeeper – and a full quota of Warwickshire men trotted back onto the field. Although superficially harmony was restored, Lilley was only to play once more for the county.
Foster and his men travelled from Harrogate down to Southampton but found their momentum halted. Field missed the game because of an injured elbow, which allowed Lilley his final, sad, moments of professional cricket. Warwickshire did well to dismiss the home side for 289 and gained a substantial lead thanks to another Kinneir hundred. However Field’s absence told on a perfect batting wicket, and Hampshire cruised to 457 for 3 as the game petered out into a draw. Next up was the derby match with Worcestershire. Although the summer was hot and dry, providing perfect conditions for Foster and Field, the heat in Edgbaston during those early days of August was so extreme that sunstroke caused Field, back in the team, to leave the field. Foster did his best to inspire his charges, with scores of 85 and 62, but obdurate batting brought Worcestershire a draw with eight wickets down.
Warwickshire’s title chances were in the balance with only four matches remaining. They seemed to have disappeared when lowly Derbyshire were within 21 runs of Warwickshire’s first innings score with only one wicket down. However Field and Foster prompted a collapse and Warwickshire dominated in the second innings and duly won easily. In the next match against Lancashire another Foster whirlwind innings, 98 at even time, secured a large first innings lead. Field then took over, taking seven wickets, with a spell that The Times described as “almost irresistible.” By this stage of the season Field’s elbow was causing him agony, his only treatment a tot of whisky and a massage in the morning. Leicestershire were then brushed aside in the penultimate fixture as the season’s pattern played out once more: a century anchored the innings, this time from Charlesworth, a quick bash from Foster and then he and Field knocked over the opposition.
A win in their final game at Northampton would bring the trophy to Birmingham for the first time but the championship table looked strange. Kent, the only other possible winners, had played six more games but the two counties had not met all season. The championship was mired with such petty feuds and snobby attitudes. Essex refused to play Warwickshire because of a perceived slight years before while Sussex had only resumed the fixture in 1911 after a decade sulking because Quaife had not played for them, his native county. Of the ‘big six’, Middlesex would not play a championship match with Warwickshire until 1912 and Nottinghamshire would not do so until after the First World War.
Others might grumble but Warwickshire travelled up to Northampton knowing that destiny was in their own hands. In the words of Foster, “probably in the whole history of county cricket there has never been played a match of such great importance.” He lost the toss on a good batting wicket but by lunch the home team had been dismissed for 73 with five wickets for Foster and four to Field (the other was a run-out.) By the end of the day, with Charlesworth scoring another remorseless century, Foster felt confident enough to telegraph his father “we are on our way there.” However the following day, a Sunday, saw persistent rain and the players consoled themselves with endless rounds of bridge and poker. Warwickshire were soon out for 281 when play restarted at 3pm on Monday, allowing Foster and Field to cut through the opposition so that only three more wickets were needed for victory going into the final day.
The only threat was more rain but after a night of revelry the Birmingham men found a beautiful late summer’s day had dawned. Appropriately it was Foster who took the final wicket; the ball swung and uprooted the off stump of the helpless last man. “I will always remember Northampton as giving me the greatest day of my life” wrote Foster and he certainly did enjoy himself, with a champagne supper and a nap in the dressing room before the team headed back to Birmingham for more champagne-fuelled celebrations.
How did such apparent no-hopers win the title? They were aided by the disparity in fixtures and the hot, dry summer helped Foster and Field, who both bowled over 4,000 overs and averaged under 20. Their batting was reliable, with Kinneir, Charlesworth and Quaife providing consistency and a platform for Foster’s aggression down the order. Despite his prowess with bat and ball Foster’s greatest gift that season was his leadership. Not only did he strive for aggressive cricket that forced results but, as The Times wrote, he “welded the side together, and he has borne them to victory with the greatest weight on his shoulders.”
Six days later Foster, along with Smith and Kinneir, was on the boat to Australia, where they helped regain the Ashes. However it became apparent the following season that Warwickshire had not torn down the old order. The county finished ninth as a wet summer negated Foster and Field, and by 1913, in their first match against Kent for a decade, they were all out for sixteen runs. The ‘big six’ resumed their domination; Derbyshire were the only other county outside this elite group to win the championship before the Second World War. Neither did it help Warwickshire to improve their standing within the domestic game. Although Kent and Middlesex finally accepted fixtures with them, the Imperial Cricket Conference haughtily rejected their request for one of the test matches in the triangular tournament of 1912, and the ground would not see another international game until 1924. It would be another forty years until they won the championship again.
Foster would never again capture the glories of that summer. His approach, once so refreshing, became increasingly lackadaisical and his life began a slow, steady descent after a car crash ended his cricket career in 1915. By 1946 he was barred from Edgbaston because of “disgraceful conduct on several occasions during the past season, notably towards amateur players and members of the catering staff.” When the county won its second championship in 1951 he was in St. Andrews Psychiatric Hospital in Northampton, where he had voluntarily placed himself after appearing in court on account of his financial troubles and assaulting a bailiff. It was there that he died in 1958. Typically his Widen obituary makes no mention of his troubles but perhaps on this occasion the omissions are for the best. Rather than his troubled later life we should remember instead the 22 year old who led his band of mostly hardened professionals into the promised land with vim, vigour and a style of cricket that for once deserves the moniker of ‘the Golden Age’.