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England’s Greatest All-Rounder

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In cricket, as in all sports, whether any individual can properly be described as ‘great’ is a subject that sparks much furious debate. A few, like Donald Bradman, Garry Sobers and Sachin Tendulkar are all but universally accepted to justify the title ‘All Time Great’. Perhaps a dozen more brook little argument, but beneath them the debates hots up. Protagonists exchange statistical fusillades, the descriptions of great writers and, if they are fortunate, their own memories of the men whose entitlement they champion.

The most difficult and tantalising arguments are about the men who, for whatever reason, don’t have the numbers with which to make their case through no fault of their own. Sometimes the culprit is the grim reaper. Who knows what Australians Archie Jackson and Ross Gregory, and the West Indian Collie Smith might have achieved had they not departed this mortal coil far too early. For some the problem is an accident of birth, so the American Bart King could never test himself at the game’s highest level, and more recently politics meant that a whole generation of South Africans, but perhaps most importantly Barry Richards and Vintcent Van der Bijl, could only hint at what they might have achieved had they been allowed to play international cricket for any length of time.

Frank Foster fits into neither category, however a combination of the Great War and a motorcycling injury put a stop to his career when he was 25. In just a few years of county cricket and eleven Tests he had accomplished much. One of the most interesting cricketers to have played the game his performances over that handful of pre-war English summers (and one Australian) suggest greatness was tantalisingly close for Foster. Given time he might now be recognised as the greatest English all-rounder bar none, and certainly he deserves to be remembered for his achievements on the cricket field and not, as he usually is (if he is remembered at all), for a slightly comical bit part, after the event, in the great soap opera that was ‘Bodyline’.

Foster came from a successful family and as a result was able to play cricket as an amateur without any need to unduly concern himself with the business of earning a living, although early in his career that almost didn’t happen. The family business was Fosters menswear, a name that did not disappear from British high streets until just a few years ago. Foster’s first job was with another company in the related hosiery trade. As a 19 year old in 1908 he made a great impression as a bowler in five matches for Warwickshire. After such a bright start his bowling would have disappointed somewhat in 1909, but the talent was still clear and his batting, of no account in his debut season, came on in leaps and bounds.

From that promising beginning Foster shocked the county committee by purporting to retire ahead of the 1910 season on the basis he wished to concentrate on his business career. A woman was involved as well, Foster having fallen in love and intending to marry. Rightly guessing that despite his family’s wealth Foster’s real concern was money the committee persuaded him to sign a playing contract for a salary of £400 a year. The prospect of his son playing as a pro so horrified Foster’s cricket loving father that he was able to persuade his son’s employers to make a counter offer of £500 (the equivalent of £53,000 today) with the summer off to spend playing cricket. For the rest of his time in the game Foster played as an amateur.

It may be that had his career continued Foster might have become more of a batsman than a bowler, but as matters stand it is his bowling that looks to have been his stronger suit, particularly at Test level. He was a left arm fast medium bowler. He took a short eight pace run whilst holding the ball in his left hand with the seam up. He always bowled round the wicket, and from wide of the crease. Plum Warner described it as a high delivery, his action was the personification of ease. A few short steps , an apparently medium paced ball through the air, but doubling its speed as it touched the ground. Anyone with a knowledge of physics will tell you that it is impossible for a ball to increase its speed after pitching, but that is the thrust of every description of Foster’s bowling that appears anywhere. ‘Tiger’ Smith, who kept wicket to Foster at county and Test level, was adamant that Foster’s deliveries came off the wicket faster than those of his opening partner Frank Field, who was said to be genuinely quick through the air.

Swing was not a great weapon for Foster, although he did move the new ball both ways in the air. More memorable was the natural inswing after pitching that his powerful shoulders and angle of attack gave him. He bowled leg theory to a leg trap with great success, particularly in Australia, hence Douglas Jardine seeking his advice in 1932.

With the bat Foster was never consistent, but no one gets a First Class triple century without having great ability. He was an aggressive batsman, and set a number of fast scoring records for Warwickshire, but he generally lacked the application to make important contributions with the bat in difficult conditions.

The 1910 season was a disappointing one for Warwickshire supporters. The county had never tasted real success, half way in the table being considered a good summer. In 1910 however they were down to fourteenth, with just Derbyshire and Somerset below them and, most significantly, near neighbours and biggest rivals Worcestershire enjoying a fourth season above them. One man not to blame was the 21 year old Foster. In all matches he took more than 100 wickets, and paid just a fraction over twenty runs each for them. His batting still tended to hint at what might be rather than amount to anything of real substance, but there were more than 600 runs, and four half centuries.

Despite Foster not yet having turned 22 the county committee decided to offer him the captaincy for 1911, an appointment he was happy to accept in the January. He then changed his mind however, and decided to retire once again. Business reasons were cited once more, and again there was a woman involved (but not the same lady as in 1910 – she had jilted him). Warwickshire therefore began their 1911 campaign with a distinctly ordinary performer, naval officer Charles Cowan, as captain. Their first match was against Surrey at the Oval. The West Midlanders were dismissed for 62 and 87 and lost by an innings. The side appeared completely rudderless.

Learning from events of twelve months previously the call went out from the committee to Foster senior and, before the second match of the season, he managed to bring about another volte face. There was a golden duck for Foster to start his tenure at Old Trafford, but the County won, and from then on he led by example as Warwickshire ended up as winners of the title for the first time, and indeed they were the first and for another quarter century only county from outside the so called ‘big six’ to succeed. A modern equivalent would be Aston Villa lifting the Premiership title in 2016.

David Mutton has already told the story of that campaign for Cricketweb, so I will not dwell on it save to make it clear that both the captaincy and the form of Foster were key factors. The captain scored 1,614 runs at 42.47. There were two centuries and a double century. The first came in a remarkable one man show against the mighty Yorkshire which just failed to bring his side victory. As well as a first innings century that rescued his side Foster went on to take twelve wickets in the match, 9-118 in the first innings. He didn’t need much help either, seven of those nine victims being bowled and another lbw. More frequently however Foster’s efforts did pave the way for victory. In a long hot summer the hard and fast wickets were entirely suited to both facets of his game, and to go with his runs he also took 141 wickets at 20.31, on two occasions other than that match against Yorkshire there were ten in a match.

In terms of captaincy Foster’s attitude, like that of a number of well known amateurs both before and subsequently, was to attack and seek victory. He was always prepared to take risks, and often some strange hunches came off, none more so than in that very first match as captain at Old Trafford. After his first baller some circumspection might have been expected in the field, but there was none to be seen. Lancashire’s greatest threat with the bat was JT Tyldesley, and Foster astonished his own team by throwing the ball to a young professional batsman Jack Parsons. In time Parsons, who took holy orders and became an amateur, became one of the county’s most reliable batsmen and, whilst never a front line bowler, occasionally took good wickets with his medium pace. In 1911 however he had never taken a First Class wicket, and there was only one all season, but that one was JT, with a rank long hop. Foster swiftly took him out of the attack again.

There was only one cloud to the summer long silver lining that being the fate of veteran batsman and former wicket keeper AA ‘Dick’ Lilley. The 44 year old did not like Foster and made no secret of the fact, and at one stage tried to persuade his teammates not to take the field with him. It was an odd thing to try, given the success that Foster was bringing the team, and unsurprisingly he gained no support. Equally unsurprising was that, once he learned of the attempted mutiny, Foster had no further wish to have Lilley playing under him, and also that the committee sided with their captain. Lilley never played for the County again after the end of July.

It came as no surprise to anyone when Foster was selected for the MCC side that visited Australia over the winter of 1911/12 in a quest to regain the Ashes that the old enemy had taken back on home soil in 1907/08, and retained in 1909. The selection was a further illustration of Foster’s meteoric rise. He cannot have been anywhere at all in the selectors’ plans when the season began in May, yet by 30 June he was one of the first tranche of players to whom invitations were sent.

It was clear from the off that Australian conditions were going to suit Foster when he made 158 against South Australia in his very first innings. With wickets as well his place in the Test side was assured. The first Test saw Australia take the lead, probably as a result of skipper Johnny Douglas choosing to open the bowling with himself and Foster rather than pairing Foster with the mercurial Sydney Barnes. It was a good debut for Foster though. He scored a quick 56 in the England first innings to inject some much needed aggression into a disappointing display by the batsmen, and he had match figures of 7-197.

England levelled things up in the second Test when Barnes was restored to his rightful role as new ball bowler. The Staffordshire curmudgeon cut a swathe through the Australian first innings followed by Foster doing so in their second effort. The lead was taken in the third Test with Foster completing a five-fer in each of his first three Tests, and he also contributed another hard hit half century, this time 71, in England’s first innings. There was no five-fer for Foster in England’s innings victory at Melbourne, but four wickets in the first innings and three in the second, sandwiched between which he contributed exactly fifty to England’s 589, meant that he still played a substantial role in the victory that clinched the Ashes. He might have scored many more than fifty as he was dismissed in spectacularly unlucky fashion. He tucked into a half volley from Warwick Armstrong which flew out of the middle of the bat in the direction of ‘Ranji’ Hordern at silly mid-on. Hordern had no chance of evading the shot and was flattened, the pain doubtless being considerably eased on finding the ball had lodged itself in his sweater.

The final Test saw another England win to confirm a comfortable 4-1 victory margin. Foster achieved little with the bat in the match, and took just a single wicket in Australia’s first innings but he still made his mark. As Hanson Carter and Charles Macartney began to look like they might have a matchwinning partnership in them Foster came back and took three quick wickets to finish with 4-43 in the second innings as England got home by 70 runs.

Foster had a marvellous tour. His 32 wickets at 21.62 remain the best for a debut series by an Englishman in Australia, and whilst he may have failed by a couple of wickets to beat Barnes’ total, his average was marginally better and for the season as a whole he topped the Australian First Class averages and no one took more wickets. His Test batting average of 32.28 was exceeded for England only by Jack Hobbs and Frank Woolley, and his batting outside the Test arena was of such quality that overall he was seventh in the season averages in Australia.

It would be fair to say that Foster’s stock as a cricketer could not have been higher at the beginning of the 1912 summer, but as further evidence that he must be something of a tortured soul the 23 year old announced that the forthcoming season would be his last before retirement. Having cried wolf twice before it is doubtful whether anyone took that too seriously, but it remains a very odd thing to do.

The summer of 1912 saw the ill-starred Triangular Tournament involving each of Australia, England and South Africa playing each other three times. The summer was ill-fated because of the dispute that saw Australia shorn of six of their top players, the South Africans being much weaker than they had been just a few years before, and also the disappointingly wet summer.

England had a new skipper for the six Tests of 1912, CB Fry, and Foster played in all of them, but he accomplished little. Runs were hard to come by and whilst he took some South African wickets Fry seemed strangely reluctant to turn to him. In the three Tests against Australia Foster bowled a total of only 39 overs, taking two wickets for fifty. Given the fact that the wickets were not suited to his batting Foster didn’t do too badly for Warwickshire even though his total of runs was barely half of his tally the previous year. With the ball there was a perception that he overdid the leg theory and had lost some variety, but a season’s haul of 116 at 17.40 showed he was still a force to be reckoned with.

Despite his pre season announcement there followed a further statement in the autumn to the effect that Foster would after all be available again in 1913. There were no Tests that summer and there was no improvement in his county form. Warwickshire, who had dropped to ninth after the success of 1911, dropped further to eleventh. Over the season Foster managed just a single run more than he had in 1912, and his tally of wickets fell by 24, and the price he paid for each wicket rose by seven.

The final season before the Great War was to prove to be Foster’s last hurrah in First Class cricket, although not for the first time it only happened after he had been talked out of retirement. This occasion was rather different than previously in that he had originally said he would play in 1914 and, perhaps understandably this time, changed his position only after his father’s unexpected death from pneumonia just before the start of the season. That Foster was persuaded to look up from his grief was a good thing as he went a long way towards recapturing the personal glories of 1911. There were 1,460 runs at 34.76. The total and the average were both swelled by his great innings, an unbeaten 305 against neighbours Worcestershire, but seven other half centuries showed a degree of consistency. With the ball there were 122 wickets at 18.61, thus a little cheaper than in 1911, so at last Foster had proved his great year was not a one off.

The First Class game resumed after the war in 1919. Foster was only 30 but his active cricket career had ended in August 1915 in a motor cycle accident when he had suffered a severe leg injury. The exact circumstances have never been entirely clear but it seems that Foster himself was probably at fault. There may or may not have been a real risk at one point that amputation would be required, but it was not, and he did occasionally play club cricket in years to come. One thing that is certain is that after his earlier ‘false alarms’ Foster did marry, his bride having assisted in nursing him back to health. There were three children of the marriage, although ultimately it did not last, the couple separating a few years later.

The school magazine of his alma mater reported that before his accident Foster had accepted a commission in the Royal Fusiliers, although recent biographer Robert Brooke was unable to trace any record of his having served. Certainly Foster remained involved in the family company, having a shareholding and a substantial salary. Whether he was expected to actually do anything in return for that salary is less clear, but whether he did or not he certainly managed to achieve his own dismissal in 1928, albeit on generous terms. His marriage by now gone Foster’s life was clearly going downhill fast.

In 1931 Foster was part of a murder enquiry. The victim was a London prostitute and the initial link to Foster a dishonoured cheque drawn on his account and found amongst the dead girls’ belongings. That Foster knew her and had dealings with her he did not deny, and the fact that he was associating with prostitutes and bouncing cheques on them (for lack of funds – it wasn’t a case of the cheques being countermanded) speaks volumes on its own. Later another man was charged with the murder and subsequently acquitted. Despite success before a jury he admitted the murder later when he faced the gallows for another similar crime. It is hardly a reliable confession, but enough to strongly suggest that Foster had told the police the truth on this occasion.

And then there was ‘Bodyline’. What is certainly correct is that Jardine did visit Foster, although it cannot solely have been to discuss his field placings in 1911/12, as those were widely publicised at the time. Whatever it was that was spoken about provoked a fierce reaction from Foster who, in March 1933, was the subject of a feature in an Australian magazine that was deeply critical of Jardine’s tactics. It may well be that Foster really did disapprove of Jardinian leg theory, but one suspects that the main motivation for the vehemence of his reaction was a combination of the fees he received and the publicity he hoped to get in order to promote a second volume of autobiography he was writing. A first book had appeared in 1931. As part of his research Brooke was able to gain access to the manuscript of the second book, something he considered was unpublishable.

Unfortunately for Foster his timing was dreadful. In March 1933 no one in England had seen anything other than the newsreels, and Jardine and his tactics were immensely popular. In time, when the true ramifications of the tactics were better understood there were many more who sympathised with Foster’s views, but when he expressed them he was quickly written off as a cranky old-timer who had got into bed with the old enemy.

It was around this time that Foster returned to the bosom of his family in the West Midlands, although his wife left within a couple of years. Finance was a problem again. He seems to have had a home that was owned by his family, but his lifestyle outstripped his income, and in 1936 he was made bankrupt.

The Foster trail then went rather cold but in 1946 he must still have been in the West Midlands as it was then that he was banned from entering the Edgbaston ground. It is not entirely clear what it was that he had done, but there were incidents, often whilst in drink, of his antagonising members of the playing staff. It must have been a decision of last resort, and a sad end to Foster’s association with the club he had served with such distinction.

Foster next crops up on history’s radar in 1950, sadly again for all the wrong reasons. By then he was living in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. He had been using his cricketing reputation for fraudulent purposes. There were a number of charges and having pleaded not guilty Foster was sent for trial at the local quarter sessions. He had to languish in custody for almost six weeks before he appeared there. He had failed to attend an earlier hearing in the Magistrates’ Court and his explanation clearly did not impress the bench. His excuse for his failure to surrender to the court was that he had been unable to get there due to a pressing need to travel to Lord’s to tip off the selectors about a young fast bowler, Ron Bumstead, who would help the 1950/51 England side win the Ashes 5-0. Brooke’s recent efforts to track down a contemporary bowler of that name anywhere in the Essex area failed.

After his time in gaol, and following a well advised change of plea to guilty, the sentencing Judge gave a former England cricketer and Ashes winner a sympathetic hearing. A probation order was made, a condition of which was that Foster should be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He went to St Andrews in Northampton and eight years later in 1958 at the age of 69 he died there. Following his admission he seems never to have left the hospital, but no record of any definitive diagnosis of his mental health problems exists. In the manner of the times a few sanitised obituaries appeared after his passing, but Frank Foster was largely forgotten and little mourned. Half a century and more on he seems still to be a skeleton in the cupboard of English cricket, but he shouldn’t be. He was a brilliant all-round cricketer, one of the very few that England has produced.

 

 

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