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The Best Captain England Never Had?

Percy_Fender

Percy George Herbert Fender died in 1985, at the grand old age of 92. He had been the oldest surviving England Test cricketer, and the last man alive to have played regular county cricket before the Great War. In his day he was a fine all-round cricketer, much better than the fruits of his modest 13 Test international career suggest. In the eyes of nearly all his contemporaries he was the finest captain England never had and the depth of his understanding of the game is clearly evidenced by the four books he wrote on the Ashes series of 1920/21, 1928/29, 1930 and 1934. What Fender most certainly wasn’t was the foppish, monocle wearing and ukulele playing buffoon he was portrayed as in that rather ordinary Australian television drama about the Bodyline series.

Although Fender’s name will forever be linked with Surrey he began his First Class career as a Sussex player in 1910. He was just 16 when he first turned out for the county, although he was not immediately successful. His own summary of his debut at Trent Bridge was; I scored one run, took one wicket and held one catch in the first innings, and did not do so well in the second. He played just twice that summer, and twice in the next. He established himself in 1912 however, making his first century and he exceeded his thousand runs in 1913. His bowling was not used enough at Sussex for him to be called an all-rounder at that stage, but he recorded his first five wicket hauls whilst a martlet as well.

Fender’s father was a director of a stationery company in London and, having been born in Balham, Fender was able to switch to Surrey in 1914 without the need to acquire a residential qualification. Offered a job by his father’s company Fender decided to make the switch. For Surrey Fender’s batting went backwards, in that he scored only 820 runs that summer, but he took 83 wickets. Wisden reported that his value as a matchwinner was vastly greater than his record. Surrey’s top order contained men like Jack Hobbs, Tom Hayward, Andrew Ducat, Donald Knight and Ernest Hayes, England players all, so when Fender got to the wicket quick runs rather than occupation of the crease tended to be the order of the day. In contrast Surrey’s bowling resources were rather thinner than those of Sussex, hence his increased workload.

The record that defines Fender is one he still holds after almost one hundred years, that being the fastest authentic century in terms of time spent at the crease, just 35 minutes in 1920 against Northamptonshire (although Fender himself always maintained it was 34 minutes). In absolute terms the record has been equalled and bettered, but always in contrived circumstances. In the 21st century those innings have, quite properly, been relegated to mere footnotes in the record books leaving Fender alone at the top of the list.

Fender was a caricaturist’s dream, something he was happy to play up to. At 6 feet 2 inches and very slim a slight forward stoop when walking made him distinctive. His short wavy hair and clipped moustache added to the picture as, in time, did his round lensed spectacles and ultra long sweaters. The former were unnecessary to correct any sight defect, and contained what amounted to plain glass but Fender got them in the hope they would cure a headache problem and there was indeed a placebo effect. The long sweater was, initially, pure invention by a cartoonist, but Fender played up to it, and always bought the longest he could find.

With an exceptionally long reach and extremely strong wrists Fender was a right handed batsman. He essentially had two shots both of which, thanks to those wrists, he could place in a wide arc and were invariably played off the front foot. One was a pull, and the other was what his biographer Richard Streeton described as a cross between a sliced drive and a square cut. It was not uncommon for Fender’s power to send the shot for six, on one famous occasion clean out of the Oval over extra cover, a huge carry. It was also by no means unusual for the shot to send the ball in the direction of third man.

With the ball Fender was also always on the attack. He initially bowled medium fast, and would on occasion return to that style throughout his career, but it is as a wrist spinner that he took most of his wickets. All arms and legs as he approached the wicket off a short run he bowled a mixture of leg breaks, googlies and top spinners. An unusual technique meant that Fender used just his thumb and two of his unusually long fingers to spin the ball, and he is one of those bowlers of whom it is said the batsman could hear the ball hum as it left his hand. Like many wrist spinners there were a selection of long hops and full tosses that went with the good deliveries, although unlike most in Fender’s case a goodly number of them were deliberate, and brought about the batsman’s downfall just as he had planned. He also made a point of using the full width of the crease and released the ball with his arm at differing heights. He aimed to never produce the same delivery consecutively.

A true all-rounder Fender was also a fine slip fielder. He preferred second or third slip and had a safe pair of hands, particularly good at moving forward to catch edges that headed for his boot straps. This may have been due to his distinctive approach, stood in a starting blocks position as he waited for the catch, rather than with his legs apart. The reason for this, initially, was a result of a serious leg injury Fender suffered. The young Fender was also a fine footballer, who played in goal for some of the senior amateur sides. In 1918 he fractured his right leg in five places. He missed the whole 1919 cricket season and was left with one leg slightly shorter than the other. As a result he had to have specially designed footwear to prevent him limping, and on occasions on hard grounds would experience considerable pain.

The old footballing injury was not the only one that Fender suffered. In the close season of 1910 he spent some time in Horwich in Cheshire at his father’s behest in a paper mill. He suffered an accident on a machine that resulted in the loss of the tips of three fingers on his left hand. He lost only a quarter of an inch, but he would not have been able to bowl had he been a left hander. He was left with a permanent numbness in the ends of his fingers (a party trick was to stick pins in them without blinking) and the resultant loss of feeling later lost a Test match, but Fender was still fortunate in many ways. Mills were not particularly safe places in those days, and many similar accidents resulted in much more serious injuries.

There was a further occasion prior to the outbreak of war when Fender had an opportunity to sustain a severe injury, one which fortunately he did not take. He never spoke very much about how he became perhaps the only international cricketer to be involved in a duel. All we know of the background is that whilst working in Belgium one winter, again learning the stationery business, Fender showed rather too much interest in a woman who was, unofficially, engaged to a Belgian Army Officer. Fender, an adept fencer, accepted a challenge, the agreed weapon being a foil. Fender’s opponent did not share the Englishman’s skill, and after Fender scored an early minor wound to his opponent’s arm both men’s seconds very sensibly intervened to bring the confrontation to an early conclusion.

When the 1914 season came to a halt amidst the outbreak of war Fender, like so many others, joined up. After basic training he was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers. Army life did not however suit Fender and a year later, with the assistance of a certain Captain ‘Plum’ Warner, then a staff officer at the War Office, he had transferred to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps. Posted to India in 1916 Fender contracted dysentery, amongst other health problems, and he was invalided home after six months.

When the county game resumed in 1919 Fender was on the sidelines, his leg injury still healing. He was back in 1920 though and, unexpectedly, spent much of the season as captain of Surrey. He had virtually no experience of the job at any level, and was nothing like as unconventional as he was to become, but he was a great success, so much so that when the appointed captain, Cyril Wilkinson, did become available late in the season he stood aside for Fender. Wisden said; under Mr Fender’s inspiring leadership the side worked together like one man. Perhaps the more illuminating observation came from a Daily Mail reporter; he is always up to something.     

His successes in 1920 earned Fender a place in the side that travelled to Australia in 1920/21 and became the first team to lose a series 5-0. Fender’s Test debut came in the third Test when at least England managed to keep Australia’s margin of victory within reasonable bounds. With a wicket in each innings and 2 and 42 with the bat Fender kept his place. This was the match where it is said that the old injury to Fender’s left hand cost England the Test. England had done well to secure a lead of 97 on first innings and broke Australia’s second innings opening partnership at 34. That brought Charles Kelleway to the wicket. The first delivery he received took the edge of his bat. It was never going to carry to first slip so Fender dived across and just got his left hand under the ball, but the lack of feeling caused him to spill the chance. Kelleway went on to make 147 and Australia won by 119 runs.

That defeat turned out to be the closest England got to Australia as they lost the fourth and fifth Tests by eight and nine wickets respectively. For Fender however there was a degree of satisfaction. He took five wickets in the first Australian innings in each game and with 59 in the fourth Test and 40 in the last provided some much needed runs as well. He ended up, with 12 wickets at 34.16, as England’s leading bowler in the series.

The Australians followed England home for a return series. Unsurprisingly the England selectors made wholesale changes, but still suffered crushing defeats in each of the first three Tests. Fender didn’t get back into the side until the fourth match, when at least the rot was stopped. Rain washed out the entire first day to rule out any chance of a result, but in what was left of the match the home side managed a first innings lead. Fender contributed an unbeaten 44 to England’s 362-4 declared and then took a couple of wickets as Australia were dismissed for 175. The fifth Test was an honourable draw as well, but Fender did not make a contribution. He never played against Australia again.

The early 1920s were Fender’s golden period. Despite the limited bowling available to him between 1921 and 1925 he guided Surrey to second twice, third twice and fourth in the County Championship. He himself did the double in each of those seasons save 1924, when he ended up 19 wickets short. His form was such that England could not ignore him when the side was chosen to tour South Africa in 1922/23 under Frank Mann. England won an interesting series 2-1 and Fender played in all five Tests, although was perhaps fortunate to do so. He was as low as tenth in the batting list with just a score of 60 in the third Test to show for his efforts as he averaged a modest 14.22. He was a little more effective with the ball with 10 wickets at 41.80, but that was an average comfortably inferior to the other four Englishmen who took wickets in the series. He was given the first two Tests against the 1924 South Africans as well, but an innings of 36 in his only knock and a couple of relatively expensive wickets were not enough to keep him in the side beyond that.

As the 1920s wore on Surrey’s attack became ever more pedestrian as the veteran fast bowler Bill Hitch faded from the scene and his replacement, Alf Gover, took time to establish himself. More responsibility still fell on the shoulders of the captain, but even he and his eccentricities could not lift the side back to the highest reaches of the Championship.

An entire book could be filled with stories of interesting matches from Fender’s career, but I will confine myself to just one, the Lord’s meeting with Middlesex right at the end of the summer of 1927. The old rivals had finished in mid table but the match was no less competitive for that. A remarkable first day saw Middlesex dismissed for 54. Fender took 7-10 in just five overs, the last six coming for one run in eleven deliveries. He did not need any help either, hitting the stumps six times and securing one lbw decision.

The Surrey reply might have been no better as Jack Hearne, like Fender a wrist spinning all-rounder whose Test career statistics are vastly inferior to his First Class record, ran through Surrey. In the end however his 8-39 were not quite enough, Fender rescuing the innings with 42. Wisden described him as hitting with fine judgment. Middlesex did much better second time round, almost entirely thanks to Hearne who came in at first drop and was unbeaten at the end on 167 when his captain declared with nine down at 322. Fender this time round took 4-71, the bowling resources available to him further depleted by an injury to opening bowler Maurice Allom who did not bowl at all. With their first innings lead of 95 Surrey needed 224 to win. They got there without too many alarms in the end. There was no major contribution from Fender but he was at the crease for the denouement, seeing his team over the line.

In 1929 Fender began the summer, particularly with the bat, in great style and earned selection for the Rest to play England in the Test Trial a week before the first Test match against the touring South Africans. Fender must have assumed his Test career was over, but a century against the likes of Harold Larwood, Maurice Tate, ‘Tich’ Freeman and ‘Farmer’ White got him into the side. Sadly however there was no Boy’s Own performance. In a match the visitors drew with ease Fender scored 6 and 12 and took 3-119 in the two South African innings. For the second Test the 36 year old was replaced by a man 13 years his junior, Walter Robins of Middlesex. This time Fender’s Test career was at an end.

Australians believed, as the Bodyline television programme already referred to demonstrates, that Fender was a major player in the evolution of Jardinian leg theory. It is true that he was a great admirer of and friend to Douglas Jardine, his county colleague and, from 1931 captain. In addition Fender was a friend of Arthur Carr, county captain of Larwood and Bill Voce, so it is easy to see where the belief stemmed from.

As a member of the press travelling around Australia in 1928/29 Fender had described the young Donald Bradman as brilliant but unsound, and had doubted whether he could succeed in England. Fender had also watched Bradman’s triumphal march through the Ashes in England in 1930 from the press box, and perhaps more significantly seen him at last looking a little uncomfortable against Larwood’s pace on the rain freshened strip at the Oval in the final Test of that summer. In common with Jardine Fender detested the use of the word ‘Bodyline’ and always referred to the tactic as leg theory. For all that though Fender seems not to have played much part in the evolution of Jardine’s idea other than to act as an occasional sounding board. Crucially whilst he might have introduced Jardine to Carr, he was certainly not present at the famous dinner in the grill room at the Piccadilly Hotel when, so Australia concluded, the evil plot was hatched. Fender’s greater role might have been as an observer, but sadly for future generations The Star, who had sent him to Australia in 28/29, sent Jack Hobbs and a ghost instead.

Fender continued to play for Surrey throughout the early 1930s. In 1935 he had played in around half of Surrey’s games. At 42 he had expected to do the same in 1936 but the county indicated to him they only expected him to play two or three times and asked for a note of his preferred fixtures. Bitterly upset Fender decided that was the time to give up. He concentrated then on his newspaper work and the wine business. He had left his father’s firm after the Great War, although he did for a time retain an interest in a paper business. Fender’s main commercial activity was as a wine merchant, initially on his own and later in partnership with fellow England Test cricketer Lionel Tennyson. With two such big personalities at its head the business flourished in the inter-war years.

As befitted a man in the wine trade Fender’s social life was a busy one and he spent much time entertaining and being entertained by friends and associates. He was a family man too however and had married in 1924. His wife, Ruth, was the daughter of a jeweller and silversmith. She, and perhaps this was where the Australian TV producers became confused, did on occasion wear a monocle and was not infrequently photographed with it. Perhaps appropriately the couple had first met in glamorous Monte Carlo. The marriage produced a son and a daughter but, tragically, Fender was widowed at just 44 when Ruth fell victim to Bright’s disease, the same kidney problem that claimed Victor Trumper.

In the Second World War Fender joined up again and was involved in logistics. I have not been able to find anything to substantiate a not infrequently cited suggestion that at one point there were plans to drop him into occupied France where, fluent in the language, he would help co-ordinate and organise the French Resistance.

After the war Fender re-established his wine business.There was no Tennyson this time, but Fender’s son worked alongside his father instead. Again a successful firm was built up from almost a standing start. Fender also spent two terms as a Conservative member of the London County Council in the 1950s, but despite efforts to persuade him to do so never fought a parliamentary election.

In 1962 Fender married again. The marriage lasted seven years before he was widowed again. After his second wife’s death his eyesight started to deteriorate and although he was able to continue his business he went to live with his daughter. In 1977 he was by a distance the oldest of the party of former England cricketers who flew out to Melbourne for the centenary Test. Ever the businessman there was considerable discussion about the possibility of reviving ‘PGH’, a brand of scotch whisky Fender had produced in the 1920s, for the Australian market. The old vintner’s vision was of a high quality top end product, whereas his new found associates were interested in a mass market blend, so the project never reached fruition.

Fender was back in the news again in 1983 when the 90 year old was visited in his Horsham home by the cricket correspondent of the Manchester Evening News, Brian Bearshaw, in the company of young Lancashire all-rounder Steve O’Shaughnessy. The reason for the visit was O’Shaughnessy having scored his own 35 minute century to tie Fender’s record. The innings is now one of those footnotes, but at the time the story made quite an impact and Fender had sent O’Shaughnessy a telegram to congratulate him. His sense of humour still clearly intact at the end of the visit Fender thanked the 22 year old for travelling so far in order to give him the bat, a comment which must have caused the young Lancastrian some alarm for the few seconds that elapsed before Fender smiled and said to Bearshaw, I think I had him worried then.  

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