CB Fry: BatsmanshipDave Wilson |
This article is the second in a two-parter covering the cricket career of CB Fry – part one, a summary of Fry’s life focussing on his cricketing exploits, can be found here. In this follow-up we’ll look into Fry’s batting and try to discern why he failed so often in Tests.
Just why was Fry less successful at Test level? Was it a technical flaw? Or was it a problem with his mental approach? Was he successful against particular opponents and suspect against others? Did he favour certain grounds? Was it an issue of a lack of concentration in certain situations which led to a degree of inconsistency? Was he too sensitive to criticism and did this undermine his self-confidence? How much did his mental illness, not to come to light until later, impact his life in general and his cricket in particular?
Fry by the numbers
Let’s first get a feel for the breadth of the disparity between Fry’s performances at each level; here are his career numbers for first-class and Test cricket:-
Interestingly Fry was just short of achieving the distinction of a hundred hundreds, and as he missed a lot of cricket it is something he should surely have accomplished. If we extrapolate his innings at the rate he scored centuries, he could have been expected to reach the milestone after about 689 innings, which would have made him the tenth fastest ever, quicker than Hobbs and Sutcliffe, for example. How exceptional is Fry’s first-class career average? Only Ranji among his peers has a higher career average, he and Fry being the only players who began their career in the 19th-century to average over 50 in first-class cricket. Fry’s century conversion rate for all first-class was nearly twice as good as his conversion rate for Tests, 43% to 22% – clearly Fry’s Test career must be regarded as something of a failure relative to his first-class career in general.
So what about opponents? In Fry’s day the only Test opposition was provided by Australia and South Africa; here are Fry’s numbers against both countries:-
South Africa were by no means the minnows they had been earlier, but nonetheless Australia were clearly stronger and we would expect Fry’s numbers to reflect that. However, despite Australia’s obvious superiority when measured against South Africa Fry’s numbers against both opponents are fairly similar.
Fry never toured Australia, so almost all of his Test cricket was played in England – this gave him something of an advantage in that he played virtually all of his Test cricket on grounds he knew fairly well, though his home grounds at Sussex and Hampshire didn’t host Tests; nonetheless this familiarity should have enabled him to perform better than players who regularly toured. Old Trafford and Headingley were significantly more difficult to score on than Trent Bridge and The Oval, and we can readily break that down too; here are Fry’s numbers on the various Test grounds, as well as his first-class record on each for comparison:-
With the exception of The Oval, Fry was significantly less successful when playing Tests on each of the Test grounds (Lord’s to a lesser extent), suggesting that his problems were with Test play in general and not tied to a preference for particular grounds. There may be a reason for the improved play at The Oval – Fry was on Surrey’s books early on in his career however he was let go prior to playing any first-class matches for them, being picked up by Sussex shortly after; we’ll look into that in more detail later.
It’s clear from his exploits in all-round sports that Fry was one of the most physically gifted athletes of his or any other generation – to achieve success at the highest levels of so many disparate sporting disciplines, i.e. cricket, football, rugby and track & field athletics suggests physical coordination at the uppermost echelon – a fact which is confirmed by his physique if you were as to peruse the photos of him which exist from his time as a nude model.
As to technique, the only cinematic evidence I know of where we can witness Fry’s batting is from his return to first-class cricket at the ripe old age of 48 (you can access the video here), however we can certainly glean a lot of information from the contemporary reports of the time. In 1896, Cricket magazine wrote on the subject of his form on the tour of South Africa as regards Fry “not apparently being possessed of a great variety of strokes”. Nonetheless, he proved while in South Africa that he had the technique to cope with the unpredictable matting wickets, as he topped the tour averages – Lord Hawke was to claim that “the experience he gained on matting wickets made CB Fry the great bat he subsequently proved to be”. Fry had a penchant for starting his seasons off slowly, but that’s not uncommon. What is more uncommon, at least amongst the very best batsmen is the degree of inconsistency which plagued Fry, certainly for the first part of his his career – he would regularly punctuate a string of amazing performances with a run of poor form, then come right back to top-class again as if nothing had happened.
All through his career Fry continued to demonstrate an ability to tame wickets which left his team mates all at sea, for example in 1901 he carried his bat for 170 out of 254 against Notts on a difficult surface (marvel at the scorecard here), no one else in the side managing even 25. On another occasion in 1904 when playing Leics, the home side managed 72 all out, then when Sussex batted Vine scored 32, Ranji 27 with no other Sussex player in double figures except for Fry, who amassed 191* in better than even time and scoring more than the other 19 players who batted put together (scorecard here).
That Fry preferred to play to the leg-side and avoid the off was brought to full focus also in 1904 when, after a double-century against Yorkshire the local press derided him for avoiding altogether anything on the off, as a result accusing him of padding his average – in that innings, Fry scored 229 out of 377, only one other player managing more than 21 so the criticism seems somewhat churlish; the whole might of the Yorkshire team only managed 63 runs more than Fry! Presumably the touring Australians got wind of that denigration the following year as Australian skippr Joe Darling employed leg-theory in the first Test to limit Fry’s scoring ability – Darling had Armstrong bowl to a packed leg side so that Fry’s usual scoring strokes were unsuccessful. The difficult conditions caused by earlier rain meant that Fry was forced to play defensively, taking more than 200 minutes for his 73, the top score of the innings. However, considering Wisden‘s view that in the conditions England’s total of 282 was worth 400 on a good wicket, Fry’s 73 may well have been worthy of a century, one of his few successes at the Test level. Similar attempts to curb Fry’s scoring ability with leg-theory were less and less successful until it became apparent that Fry was able to fully adapt his game to the situation.
Fry was noted as having problems with the googly, though he was certainly not alone in that regard. However, the fact that Fry wrote what is considered to be a classic book on batting (“Batsmanship”) and also was asked to provid the written analysis to accompany George Beldam’s famous action photographs in “Great Batsmen” should be tribute enough that Fry’s understanding of the technique of batting was at that time considered to be pre-eminent. Indeed the section in “Batsmanship” entitled “Driving” is the longest chapter in the book, so it seems his preference for leg-side play was just that, a preference rather than the masking of a technical flaw.
Earlier we discussed that Fry seemed to be able to always play at the highest level at the Oval and it may be that Fry long held a grudge over his axing by Surrey – why would that be the case? Fry was extremely sensitive and it’s possible he always had a desire to cock a snook at the Surrey members for having given up on him, a state of afairs which had a profound impact on his financial situation, Surrey being more likely to engage in “shamateurism” than were Sussex. Further evidence of Fry’s sensitivity can be noted in the fact that Fry only played in two Tests at Nottingham – Fry had not played at Trent Bridge since 1905, after exchanging words with bowler Ted Wass. Also some had commented on how personally Fry seemed to take each dismissal, an example of that being the incident when, while playing against Essex he was so dismayed to be given out LBW he petulantly flipped off the bails, though his response was to go out and score 101 out of 138 in the second innings.
Undoubtedly the most high-profile of his immaturity came in the championship decider for the 1912 Triangular Tournament when, as captain, he had helped England to win with a great innings, and the response of the crowd was very positive towards him after after the game. However Fry’s feelings had been hurt by the booing he had received when walking to the crease in each innings – his response to Ranji’s cajoling to take the balcony and acknowledge the crowd was “The time for them to cheer was when I went in to bat to save England and not now we’ve won the match”. “Tiger” Smith writes of Fry missing an easy chance in the same tournament and sloping off to the outfield, where he promptly missed another – Smith declared he had never seen such moody behaviour from a captain, particularly in a Test match.
The depths of Fry’s mental illness did not come to light until the publication of Ian Wilton’s wonderful biography of Fry, C.B.Fry – An English Hero, as the author was granted access to private documents and also was able to interview family members. Fry’s first bout with the illness was noted as being in his last year at Oxford in 1894, and given that he was to suffer greatly in middle age it’s entirely possible that he also suffered during his cricket career. Indeed, it was noted in the Sussex annual report for 1902 that Fry had been ill that year, though no details were given, if indeed they were known.
Fry in his own words
In Patrick Ferriday’s excellent book on the 1912 Triangular Tournament Before The Lights Went Out, Ferriday quotes Fry writing in his own Fry’s Magazine prior to the tournament, wherein Fry espoused an early version of the central contract for Test players while pinning his colours to the flag as possible captain of England:-
“But I certainly think that a team which plays regularly together fashions that easy and confident state of mind which is all so much to the good in batsmen – where as a team which is collected for the occasion from the four quarters of England and does not know itself as a team is liable to find its batting disadvantageously affected – a team feels its corporate existence and a team that plays regularly together is more likely to bat up to the true individual form of its members than a viryally scratch team. England teams in England are at a disadvantage in this respect. But the worst disability under which they labour is that the batsmen feel that they are “playing for their places” or are under an obligatoion to “justify their selection”. This induces an introspective frame of mind which is unsettling.”
This I feel gets to the heart of Fry’s batting problems in Tests – for the reasons he himself highlighted Fry was particularly nervous when batting for England. It is clear from the comments he made above that he felt that it was unfair to expect players to have to be continually unsure of their place in the England side, and indeed it may have offended his sensibilities as an amateur to have to do so – for Sussex and later Hampshire there was no doubt that if Fry was available, he was playing, a luxury which he would never enjoy for England except for the 1912 tournament when he was virtually picking the side himself – small wonder then that he would enjoy his finest hour on the international stage in those circumstances.
It’s impossible to say how good Fry could have been in Test cricket had he not suffered so much with his mental issues, whether it be nerves, sensitivity or something far more serious, and it’s just as impossible to read detailed studies of his life, such as Wilton’s book, without feeling simultaneously a degree of sadness at the issues Fry was faced with and frustrated at the enormous talent which, in the Test arena at least, remained unfulfilled. Perhaps if he had met and married someone that showed him more support he could have conquered his demons and gone on to even greater things – there are people in life who, no matter how capable they are, require a degree of certification and encouragement in order to give of their best. Ultimately this might also explain Fry’s need to embellish stories of his derring-do when by any standards he had already found, as he put it in the title of his autobiography, a life worth living.