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CB Fry: Batsmanship

Dave Wilson | 12:35am gmt 10 Apr 2012
CB Fry: Batsmanship
Fry, judging by the lack of fielders or, for that matter, spectators, is here modelling one of his favourite leg-side strokes.
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:-

All first-class658433088650.22258*94124
All Tests413122332.1814427

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 Africa812039833.1612912

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:-

Old Trafford404912.25190014275462.8318133
Trent Bridge205929.95500115185961.3523323

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.

Fry's technique

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.

Fry's temperament

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.

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Hi Peter,

First, thanks for taking the time to read both articles and also on producing such a detailed comment. I am delighted that someone else appears to share an avid interest in Fry's life and career.

I'm sorry that you didn't seem to enjoy the features. I have a huge amount of respect for Fry and you are the first (that I'm aware of) to not take that away from the piece. Fry was a most remarkable man and I certainly felt I had included enough positive comments on Fry's many remarkable achievments to make that clear - I don't consider him to be a false idol and was not intending to smash any myths. You do mention the complexity of the subject and that I am over-simplifying, however in a web-based feature such as this I'm afraid that is inevitable.

I must say that I still maintain that Fry was not a success at Test level, relative to his performances in domestic cricket; furthermore, it is clear from the writings in the newspapers of the day and Wisden that this was the prevailing opinion of the time.

You mentioned that broader statistical research into scoring on the Test grounds of the time might be useful - I have begun such research as it happens, covering all of the UK county grounds and have completed the period from 1890 to 1914. I investigated based on runs per wicket rather than total runs scored in an attempt to offset the impact of matches which were curtailed - here are the average ratios for the years referenced above:-

Headingley 0.935
Old Trafford 0.946
Lord's 1.011
Oval 1.045
Trent Bridge 1.063

A ratio of 1.000 would suggest a ground on which scoring was exactly the same as the average of all grounds, so as we can see Headingley and Old Trafford were significantly more difficult to score on, with a difference between Headingley and The Oval of around 11%. I did refer to this in the feature as a contributing factor, but I\'m not convinced this is the only reason. As an aside, I think it would be interesting to re-visit batting and bowling achievements armed with the above information - over a full career such an investigation may have some relevance.

In conclusion, I agree wholeheartedly that Fry's contributions to cricket were immense, but I stand by my opinion that he was signficantly less successful on the international stage.


I have read your two Fry articles with interest (btw the link of this one to the first one is wrong - it links back to this (second) article!).

You have certainly sourced and collected a lot of material.

But I can't help thinking you are asking the wrong question - or barking up the wrong tree, perhaps - with your main thesis that Fry was essentially a flop in Test cricket, and the speculations you add to that.

I wouldn't deny that Fry was a highly-strung individual - that seems undeniable, with some obvious determining factors.

And if he became excessively tense on the highest stage of the game, though prolific at lower levels, that might not be surprising, and he would by no means be unique in that respect (Hick, Ramprakash and it seems Shah and Bopara are just four recent examples of that malady - and Fry was not the first). Further, if as the stats you quote clearly indicate, the Northern Tests grounds were a particular problem, it might well be that he was less well received there, and more uneasy/unsettled, hence less successful.

However, I think you put your question one-sidedly.

Comparing Test with FC averages for batsmen of Fry's era, you have one extraordinary result: FS Jackson (48.79 vs 33.83) outdid similar modern examples such as Trott (so far at least) and Vaughan in excelling at Test level, as opposed to county games. Ranji's averages are uniformly outstanding (44.95/56.37), though there is quite a difference there in favour of the county level. For the other Late Victorians and Edwardians - all the rest except those who played only one or two Tests, I think - Fry's Test average was certainly not extraordinarily low. True, the Australian immortals Trumper and Hill had a Test average of around 39 ... but look at other legendary batsmen, e.g.: Arthur Shrewsbury (35.47), Tom Hayward (34.46), MacLaren (33.87), Spooner (32.06), J Tyldesley (30.66), Monty Noble (30.25), Joe Darling (28.56), Syd Gregory (24.53) .... not forgetting WG Grace (32.29).

There were no "roads" in those days, and play was more often conducted in iffy conditions, bad light, "sticky" wickets and all. Batting scores were generally far less consistent, and Test averages lower in even the late 19th century than in later years.

Fry himself - not quite as negligeable a witness as is now fashionably thought, in exaggerated and sometimes humourless reaction to his own exaggerations and humours (when dictating his memoirs in 1938/9, in his mid-60s!) - added to the factor of generally improved batting conditions the perceived factor of differences to bowling, especially the greater speed and variety of many fast bowlers, and among slow left-arm, nagging accuracy in the earlier years ("Life Worth Living", 1986 ed, 262-3):

"The prevalence of swerve, leg-break and googly bowling has substituted the numerical success of Herbert Sutcliffe and Ponsford for the poetry of Palairet and the magnificence of MacLaren. Herbert Sutcliffe is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished batsmen of all time, but [...] had he not accommodated his methods to the modern form of attack so artfully, he would not have defeated it so signally.

"There is much discussion as to whether the protagonists of modern cricket are or are not as good as their forefathers. Such disputes are fruitless because one cannot equate the conditions. [...] There is a quantity of remarkably good young batsmen in first-class cricket. I dare say, too, that young bowlers will appear if and when the wickets will give them a chance."

You do qualify that Fry's Test scores tended to improve in his later Tests. However, I feel this is not merely a question of nerves, but the greater tolerance shown towards a maverick at least from 1905, as well as other factors.

As to the vast difference in fortunes in Fry's averages on different grounds - exceptional at the Oval, good at Lord's, poor in Lancashire and Yorkshire, I feel you err in ascribing this exclusively, subjectively to the batsman's prickliness or sensitivity to unpopularity. Fry again:

"The Oval match, as so often, ran into runs" (p 245, on 1909) suggests that batting scores generally were higher there, even on wet wickets, not merely for Mr Fry. This point would be worth a broader, less tendentious statistical search.

Whereas, for example: "Headingley is a fine ground, but I have played there in a snowstorm in May and several floods in other months. (also p245). "During both our innings it happened that the light was atrocious. When I was stumped in the first innings, I literally saw no ball at all to play at. The Sheffield smokestacks were in fine form, and the light was otherwise grim." (p232, on 1902)

One other thing: the caption to the picture on this page. Maybe I am mistaken, but to me it implies Fry was a poseur, indulging in vanity (no spectators, posed shot) - and also was rather a leg-side slogger.

At the time of the portrait, all studies of batsmen in play were posed in this way: either illustrating a stance (at the crease or for a shot) or demonstrating a flamboyant hoick. Albert Trott, Hobbs and Trumper all have famous portraits demonstrating the latter. While Trumper's shows two rows of spectators in front of a stand, such instructional or publicity shots pre-WW1 were generally very heavily posed, with no spectators, never in actual play. I am sure this has partly to do with camera technology - fast shutter speeds and distance lenses were not developed to the point where ACTUAL "action shots" were possible. I feel it is a cheap shot if, in ignorance, such a caption belittles Fry.

There is hardly space here to go into the other question of "legside specialist". Suffice it to say that, as Derek Birley has pointed out, there was a (snobbish) prejudice for many years in the game that only offside shots were "proper", a gentleman's stroke, because they eschewed the natural swing of the arms in favour of a refined, cultured elegance. It appears that two of Fry's favourite shots were to hook the short ball ("not done" in his day), and to fast bowling, the "full drive" back over the bowler's head (the Pathe' clip illustrates this). "The one way of getting on top of [Sidney] Barnes - it was not often done - was to drive him over his head. [...] I found myself that unless one drove Barnes over his head he would be knocking on the door all the time." (p247). Fry was a naturally attacking, adventurous batsman of flair (which might also explain his initial problems with the responsibilities at Test level!) - I can't quite imagine him taking to T20, but I can imagine him rivalling (outdoing) Kevin Pietersen in other limited-over matches. He was in this respect before his time, and out of his time. While wrapping himself too hopefully in the fustian of a staunchly conservative establishment.

CB Fry was a complex character - too complex to deal with simply.

My feeling is that you have oversimplified the picture, and accentuated the negative in cricketing terms.

The better question might well have been: despite the complexities, despite the constant insecurity about his social and economic position (and its sometimes baleful consequences), how much did he achieve in cricket?

My answer would be: a lot. And far more than most players.

I am all for smashing icons and false idols - as Brecht's Galileo finally corrects his former pupil, it's not a case of "Unhappy the land that has no heroes" as "Unlucky the land that has a need of heroes" - but I believe one should generally respect the creature, with a balanced and fair-minded view. (A touch of Fry's often generous, ironic urbanity might help!)

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