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In 1896, just over one hundred years ago, the third English cricket team under the captaincy of Lord Hawke toured this country. Included in the team was a young, Charles Burgess Fry, who was to become known to all as ‘C. B.’ He would become one of the world’s greatest all-rounders both, on and off, the field.
Starting first with his achievements on the sporting field Fry was unbeaten as an England cricket captain at international level and in later years was a member of the national selection panel. In 1901 he represented his country at soccer against Ireland, and in the following year he played in the losing side, Southampton, in the F. A. Cup final. Whilst still an undergraduate at university he set the world long jump record of Twenty Three feet, five inches, which stood for over twenty one years before being beaten. In addition he played tennis and golf to provincial standard and also played rugby to a high standard for Oxford, Blackheath and the Barbarians. It ha been claimed that but for an injury sustained shortly before the inter-varsity against Cambridge he would have added a rugby ‘blue’ to his sporting honours. Other sports he excelled in were boxing, swimming, track and field athletics, hunting, fishing and sculling[rowing].Whilst accepting that one hundred years ago, sport was considered very much an amateur pursuit, C. B. Fry was certainly one of the most talented sportsman who ever lived.
Away from the sporting spotlight Fry had many other interests. Between the First and Second World wars he was the Indian delegate to the League of Nations which was the equivalent to the body we know today as the United Nations. He wrote the technical textbook for the organisation entitled ‘A keybook of the League of Nations’. Shortly after the end of the first World war he was offered the throne of Albania, a country situated just south of present day Bosnia and Serbia, but he declined. Fry had met Cecil John Rhodes at Oxford University, prior to coming out on the cricket tour and whilst in Cape Town was invited to join the Cape Premier for lunch at his official residence, Groote Schuur. Unfortunately the luncheon was fated not to take place as it had been set for the day when the news broke of the Jameson Raid fiasco in which Rhodes was involved. Later on the tour, whilst the tourists were in Pretoria, Fry had two audiences with President Paul Kruger and was allowed, together with one or two other team members, to visit the ring leaders of the Jameson raid, who were being held in prison in Pretoria. Much later in life, during the early 1930’s Fry was sought out by Adolf Hitler and invited to Germany to advise on the building up of a national youth movement.
No doubt a man whose assorted accomplishments would have filled several ordinary lives with his sporting achievements alone able to fill a book of sporting memorabilia. Undoubtedly he was a man of diverse talent and interests but what of the person who was C. B. Fry.
Those scribes who have penned sketches of him describe him as tall, handsome, athletic, being intellectually gifted and having ambitions, rather then a specific ambition, not being focused on any singular issue. ‘C. B.’ described himself as being dammed lazy with a huge fund of energy. All concerned agree, however, that he was a brilliant conversationalist. It was said of him that with his nimble brain and command of languages he could talk with rare knowledge on any subject that intrigued him, be it the ‘square root or the square cut’. Neville Cardus, the cricket writer, in his tribute written for Wisden after ‘C. B’s death described him as the ‘inexhaustible virtuoso at the best of all indoor games, that of conversation.’ To illustrate this point, there is a lovely story told of him when he was a boxholder at Lords, between the two world wars. At test matches his guests would be from a wide range, authors the military, the stage, sportsman and politicians. Fry, dressed in his self designed Norfolk jacket and trousers buttoned above the ankle, would be busy preparing his articles for the press, but he would entertain himself and his guests with ‘bamboo shoot’s, a drink consisting of a tumbler full in equal measure of gin and whiskey. Lunch was Lobster, followed by strawberries for tea, both washed downed with fine wine. All the while ‘C. B.’ would be holding forth discussing the cricket in Greek!.
Although he set the world record for the Long Jump, it was an event in which he was never coached and in which he never trained, only competing when there was a competition to be won. He relied solely on his natural ability. On the day he set the record Fry was busy smoking a cigar in the dressing room when the event started. He calmly put his cigar down, removed his jersey and ran out on to the track and set the record. Immediately thereafter he returned to the privacy of the dressing room, sat down and completed smoking his cigar. All this took place in the year 1896, the date of the first modern Olympic Games, held whilst Fry and the English team were returning from their South African tour. Had he been aware of, and entered these Games there is every likelihood that he would have won the gold medal as the winning jump, by the American, Ellery Clark, was nearly a full metre short of Fry’s record leap later in the year.
Fry won a bursary to Oxford University and completed his studies obtaining a first class degree with honours, doing enough to show himself as a scholar comparable to the other leading lights of the day. On the way to finishing his degree he collected the major prize for poetry. Leaving university he taught for a short spell and then moved into journalism during which time he founded and edited his own magazine. Later in life he was to use this experience to write several books on cricket, including the widely acclaimed ‘Batsmanship’ regarded as the first definitive book on the subject. He also found time to write a novel and an entertaining autobiography entitled ‘A Life worth Living’.
With the world at his feet, his lifetime work was, Director of a training ship anchored on the River Humble near Southampton. There together with his wife, an interesting character in her own right, he devoted 42 years, entirely without remuneration to the role. The training ship prepared young boys for service at sea either in the Royal Navy or the Merchant Marine. The navy honoured him, for this role, making him a Captain in the Royal Navy Reserve. He was often challenged about why he did not make more use of his talents, particularly by two senior Cabinet ministers who had been contemporaries of his at university and who both late elevated to the House of Lords, both of them had finished behind Fry at university. His reply was always that he was a firm believer in the quality of life preferring to be happy then having material success.
On three occasions he was persuaded to stand as a candidate for the Liberal party in Parliamentary elections. While each time he successfully increased his party’s share of the vote, it was never enough for him to be elected to represent a constituency in Parliament.
In his autobiography ‘A Life worth Living’ he devoted a complete chapter to the 1896 tour of this country. It is obvious that all his life he retained a very soft spot for South Africa and its people as well as crediting his later success that he achieved as a cricketer to the experience he gained on the tour. In all matches he scored over 750 runs including two centuries, the highest being 153 made at Pietermaritzburg. In addition his bowling on tour, accounted for 37 wickets. In the test matches his batting was consistent without being spectacular and he had the misfortune is miss the last match of the series in Cape Town, as a result of a horse riding accident at Matjiesfontein, whilst the team were on the way down to the Cape.
Fry’s cricket career eventually spanned twenty nine years during which time he amassed nearly 31000 runs at an average a shade higher then 50.00, which by today’s standards is an excellent achievement. However we must remember that in his playing days wickets were not covered in England and the elements had free reign, making batting that much more difficult. In that context his performances were even more outstanding. Fry was the first batsman ever to score six consecutive first class centuries a feat that has not been beaten but only equalled, first by the legendary Sir Donald Bradman, of Australia and then by our own Mike Proctor. Their achievements, however, were set on firm Southern Hemisphere wickets during the course of the leisurely first class season which then prevailed in South Africa and Australia. C. B. set his record in a period of just over two weeks on natural uncovered wickets. That he enjoyed the need to be constantly challenged whilst batting can be seen in his career average of over 70.00 against Yorkshire who were the all conquering team of the day, their bowlers being attack the entire English test attack of the time.
In 1921 Fry was forty nine years of age, with his test career long over. He did however appear for his county against the visiting unbeaten Australian tourists scoring 59 and 37 runs in the two innings. As a result of this effort he was approached by the national selectors and invited to captain England again. He declined and then promptly retired from all first class cricket leaving behind a fine record as a batsman, fielder and a bowler. A true all rounder. Though as a bowler he had a chequered career in his later years having being called for and labelled by the authorities as a ‘chucker’, a charge the Fry always strenuously denied to anyone who would listen.
‘C. B.’ did have a reputation of not suffering fools gladly, and of always speaking his mind forcibly and at times somewhat arrogantly. One story told about him, is of the occasion in 1946, when he had been contracted by B. B. C. Radio, to act as a between over summariser in the Test series England against India. His younger fellow commentator who was on air passed the microphone over to him at the end of an over with the words ‘and now what is your opinion, Charles’, to which his somewhat bombastic response on air was, ‘To you young man, I am not Charles, that is reserved solely for my friends. To you I am either Mr Fry or Commander Fry’. Needless to say he was not invited to perform this role again.
Another story told of him, which happened towards the end of his life, and which gives an insight into his way of thinking was, on entering his club he saw his friend and biographer, Denzil Batchelor, at the bar. Approaching him ‘C. B.’ said that he had done most things in his life, but that he was looking for a new world to conquer and proposed that he interest himself in horse racing, attaching himself to a Stable to learn the ropes and then set up on his own. To which Batchelor, in a flash of wit responded ‘What as Charles, Trainer, Jockey or Horse?’.
A Manchester newspaper published another story, which hardly seems credible but which does highlight his athletic powress. In the article it claimed that Fry’s party piece in his prime, was to jump backwards from floor level up on to a mantelpiece from a standing position?.
In all, he was a hugely talented if somewhat eccentric personality. He had, however a flaw in his mental make up in that he suffered from nervous trouble, possible being manic depressive, spending time in what were then known as asylums. At the outbreak of World War Two, the British people wanted to intern him for on his visits to Germany, he was impressed by Hitler and other senior Nazi’s and he had written of his experiences However if one reflects on whether C. B. Fry had accepted the throne of Albania, one ponders how different that part of Europe and indeed the world today might have developed. Cricket could possibly have become the national sport of the Adriatic coastal countries and today international sides could be touring the area instead of sending in troops and military supplies to the region.
Fry was a perfect amateur-he played games because he loved them and never for gain- and who looked for quality of life before material success. He lived a full and interesting life passing away peacefully at his home in London at the age of 84 on the 7th September 1956.
1.More Cricket Prints - R. C. Robertson-Glasgow. 2.A Life worth Living. - C. B. .. Fry. 3.Wisden Book of Cricketers’ Lives.- Compiled by Benny Green. 4.The History of the Olympics. - Edited by Martin Tyler. 5.C.B.Fry. - Denzil Batchelor. 6.Flannelled Fool and Muddied Oaf. - Peter West. 7.The Cricket Addicts Archive. - Edited by Benny Green. 8.The Complete Who’s Who of Test Cricketers. - Edited by Christopher Martin- Jenkins. 9.The Cricketers’ Book of Cricket Eccentrics & Eccentric Behaviour. - Edited by Christopher Martin-Jenkins.