F R Foster - The Fields Were Sudden Bare
Author: Robert Brooke
Publisher: ACS Publications
Rating: 4 stars
By Martin Chandler
10 Apr 2011
This is the 18th book to appear from ACS Publications
in a series called Lives in Cricket
. The series' mission statement is quite straightforward - it looks at the lives of cricketers whose careers were not so striking that they have been the subject of a previous biography, but who at the same time are of sufficient interest to justify a permanent record of their lives being written. A list of the previous 17 volumes is appended to this review - some are still available direct from the ACS, and those that are not should be relatively easy to obtain through specialist dealers.
In fact Frank Foster does stretch the series criteria a little. Firstly while no biography of him has been written there is a volume of autobiography, Cricketing Memories
, that was published in 1930. A second installment, My Cricketing Life
, was never published, although a copy of the manuscript was an important source for author Robert Brooke.
The second factor that sets Foster apart from the other subjects in this series is his quality as a cricketer. In his introduction Brooke says "Despite 'expert' views I claim that Frank Foster was the greatest Warwicks cricketer ever", clearly expecting that opinion to be a controversial one. I suppose therefore that there must be those that have strongly disagreed with him in the past, although it is difficult to see a coherent basis upon which to challenge his view. As any reader of this book will learn Frank Foster was just 25 when he played his last First Class match. His achievements by that age suggest to this reviewer that had it not been for the injuries he suffered in a motorcycle accident in 1915, and of course the Great War, he might just have gone on to be the greatest cricketer produced not just by his county, but by his country as well.
Foster was just 22 when he toured Australia and, with Sydney Barnes, bowled England to a 4-1 Ashes victory with his fast left arm bowling. He took 32 wickets in the series at just 21. If that were not enough his aggressive batting brought him three half centuries and an average of 32. For his county this magnificent cricketer did the season's double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets twice. In 1911 his unconventional and inspirational captaincy took Warwickshire to the title - it had not previously been won by a county outside the so called "Big Six" of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Surrey, Middlesex, Nottinghamshire and Kent, and would not be again until Derbyshire's triumph in 1936.
I knew before picking up the book that the mercurial talent had fallen to earth, quite literally, following the end of his playing days. He was a failure in the highly successful family menswear business, his marriage faltered, and he separated from his wife and children. He took to hanging around Soho and in time was adjudged bankrupt and committed fraud. His mental health deteriorated in the process and Foster died in a psychiatric hospital in 1958. As if that were not enough material for a biographer to work with he was also one of the men who Douglas Jardine consulted about what was to become bodyline. Foster was horrified when he found out to what use his advice about leg theory bowling had been put, and he took every opportunity to express his views, at one stage even making a gramophone record.
Before I attempt to review Robert Brooke's writing it is worth digressing a little on the man himself, as he is a fascinating character in his own right. Now into his seventies he was a founding member of the ACS. I have never met him myself, but do know someone who counts him as a friend. He has lived a slightly unconventional life, centered around our great game, although unlike some he is not completely one-eyed in his passion for cricket. He clearly holds firm, and on occasion trenchant views, that he is not afraid to express. That said his writing, while essentially utilitarian, does when appropriate have a sensitivity and lightness of touch which suggested to me that while, in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, he describes his feelings for his subject as "while not exactly liking him, I did sympathise", that he is actually rather fond of him.
Turning at last to the book itself it is written in conventional style with a chronological trip through Foster's life. His childhood and background were by no means usual, and therefore there is an interesting, if rather brief beginning to the story. A longer look at his family would have been welcome but, I suspect, Brooke's answer to that would be that we have all he was able to discover.
Well over half the book is taken up with an account of Foster's cricket career. This is dangerous territory for authors as there is nothing worse than reading the narrative of a writer who has done little more than look at the scorecards and brief match reports in Wisden, and then proceeds to provide what is in reality a commentary on those written with the benefit of hindsight. It is much more rewarding to read these accounts when, as here, the author has thoroughly researched contemporary press reports, and has the sort of encyclopedic background knowledge of his subject that Brooke has. It helps too that the cricket he describes was exciting, and that it is not particularly well chronicled elsewhere.
The part of the book I was most interested to read was that about Foster's sad decline. There is a sort of ghoulish curiosity about the misfortunes of others that mainstream authors and publishers are all too well aware of and where research leaves gaps that can lead to speculation masquerading as fact, and subsequently being accepted as such. It would have been very easy for Brooke to do that here but he does not, and as a result what his reader gets is a series of glimpses into the later life of Frank Foster rather than a seamless story. It is sad that records have gone, that surviving family members have largely been unwilling or unable to discuss the skeleton in their cupboard, and that those outsiders who knew the whole truth have long since passed away, their memories untapped. That frustration expressed Brooke's painstaking efforts do mean that everything important that is ever likely to be known about Frank Foster is here and, even if many questions are left unanswered, cricket historians do at last have the story of the life of one of the most enigmatic figures the game has known. This is a fascinating addition to an excellent series of publications - it is highly recommended.
ACS Lives in Cricket Series
1. Alan Watkins
2. Johnny Briggs
3. George Duckworth
4. Ernie Jones
5. Rockley Wilson
6. Bill Copson
7. Richard Daft
8. Ernie Hayes
9. John King
10. John Shepherd
11. Charles Lewis
12. Ric Charlesworth
13. Bunny Lucas
14. Jack Bond
15. Michael Falcon
16. Joe Hardstaff
17. Fuller Pilch