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Myth busting – Ranji, CB Fry, Sussex and the fertile mind of Neville Cardus

Neville Cardus © Getty Images
Neville Cardus © Getty Images

In his landmark essay ‘Ranji, Fry and Sussex’ Neville Cardus famously recounts Yorkshire player Ted Wainwright talk of KS Ranjitsinhji and CB Fry putting on huge stands. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the scorecards – Cardus’s asses – and unearths that those great partnerships took place in the fertile mind of the legendary writer.

How much effect do chroniclers have in our perceptions of the game?

There is a theory that a lot of the great feats on the field, when performed in the islands of the Caribbean or the remote cricket grounds of New Zealand, never captured the imagination of the cricket fans as did lesser acts of brilliance in England and Australia. Why not? Because there was no Neville Cardus or John Arlott or Jim Swanton creating the glorious glow around the heroic deeds, stretching and converting them into epics through the flicks of their gifted pens and the intonations of their famed voices.

We all know of Vinoo Mankad’s Test, his 72, followed by 73 overs to capture five for 195 and then finally the 184. It certainly helped that his pivotal performance came at Lord’s, the home of cricket, housing every cricket writer of note, moving them into outdoing each other in penning eulogies. Ten years later, Polly Umrigar took five wickets for 107 and followed it up with knocks of 56 and 172 not out against Wes Hall, Charlie Stayers, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs. Not many paeans were sung about this performance at least as great as Mankad’s, simply because it took place in Trinidad, with most of the best and brightest of cricket writers thousands of miles away from the scene.

It is perhaps acceptable, if not ideal, that some deeds will be highlighted more and some barely given a mention because of the physical presence or absence of great scribblers. However, it ceases to be kosher when readers are forced to swallow mythical stories, fabricated, concocted and threshed out by stretching the edges till it hardly resembles the truth. If it is done to satisfy the creative urges of the writer in question it is nothing but misleading the readers, there are no two ways of looking at it.

The Cardus Chicanery

Remember ‘Ranji, Fry and Sussex’, that famed piece of Neville Cardus that remains a glittering example of cricket literature? Yes, maybe the accent should be more pronounced on literature – or more precisely, the art of historical fiction.

It has gone down as a landmark piece of cricket writing. And I have nothing against the ‘writing’ bit. It is a fascinating creation – as long it is accepted as just that. Creation. The danger that the cricket world faces is that a lot of celebrated chroniclers have taken Cardus’s word. Alan Ross for instance quotes his essay extensively in his otherwise fantastic biography Ranji: Prince of Cricketers.

Generation after generation of cricket lovers and writers have been influenced by Cardusian flair. Many still swear by him. And this essay is one of the favorites of many.

Yes, the ones who look at the lines of Cardus with scientific scrutiny often find glaring factual flaws. In his Autobiography he gives quite a humorous and graphic description of a Lancashire match on his wedding day which on scrutiny turns out to be entirely fictitious. He also writes about becoming aware of the outbreak of the Second World War when workers removed the bust of WG Grace from Lord’s while he was watching a match. The truth remains that there was no such match and he was far away in Australia at the moment.

However, while we overlook those blemishes with the kindly eye one casts at love and war, what of the many many other inaccuracies and fabrications? What about Emmot Robinson’s honest and limited efforts given lasting lustre of immortlity? What about ‘Ranji, Fry, Sussex’ piece which has duped generations of readers into believing in the astonishing feats performed by the duo?

What Cardus does here is unpardonable. He puts words into the mouth of the late Yorkshire and England all-rounder Ted Wainwright. “Ranji and Fry at Brighton on a plumb wicket. It were t’ same tale every year. Sussex 20 for one at half-past twelve. Vine out. Then Sussex 43 for two at one o’clock. Aye, we told oursel’s, every blessed year, we’re doin’ reight well. Yorkshire! But bless your soul, we knowed there were nowt in it. At the fall of the second wicket Ranji’d come to the middle, swishing that bat of his like a cane. At close of play the score read, more oft than not, 392 for two.”

Perhaps conveniently for Cardus, Wainwright passed away in 1919, just as his own career as a cricketing journalist was taking off. Hence, it left Cardus at liberty to quote him as he wanted to. Those days few bothered with the scorebooks, and it was enough to know KS Ranjitsinhji and CB Fry were great batsmen, the poetic license perhaps being provided by the additional attribute of their being great friends.

Now let us take a look at the scorebooks which Cardus so pompously dismissed as ‘asses’.

Ted Wainwright played 12 matches at Hove during his career  between 1888 and 1901. Of these, only the period between 1895 and 1901 coincided with the careers of Ranji and Fry.

Ranji, Fry and Wainwright featured together in only five matches at Hove.  These saw five partnerships between Ranji and Fry, amounting to 0, 76, 13, 28 and 135.

Yes, they added 252 in those five innings at a good average, with a fair share of failures in between a decent and a big stand. But, there was no monster partnership that took Sussex from 43 for two to 392 for two. Not anything remotely of that kind.

In fact, if we consider all the other matches that Ranji and Fry played against Yorkshire at Hove, even the ones that did not feature Wainwright, they enjoyed just one more stand – a rather modest one of 29.

If we go back to the matches played by Wainwright, we find that the colossal 392 for two, or something of those proportions, was amassed only once, in 1901. On that occasion the second Sussex wicket fell only at 415. The interesting fact is that Ranji and Fry did not even bat together in that innings. Fry was out for 219 at 415, and Ranji came in to hammer 86. Joseph Vine was out at 66, not 20. And Ernest Killick went on to score 200 himself, there was no 43 for two. And there was no Ranji-Fry collaboration that kept the Yorkshiremen at bay for hours.

The highest stand Ranji and Fry ever put together at Hove was 196, against Surrey in 1900. They put on decent enough partnerships, some very good ones, and collaborated on 11 century partnerships at Hove. However, they did not notch up those monster stands as Cardus would have us believe.

What about 20 for one, 43 for two and 392 for two? The match having that particular progression of scores was played in imagination. It might have been the tricks of the failing memory of an old Wainwright. But, somehow, it seems much more likely that the game was the creation of a much more fertile memory with a proven history of serial fabrication – that of Cardus himself. And of course, he was helped a great deal by the fact that dead men don’t talk.

Yet, due to Cardus’s casual disregard for history and his rather low regard for recorded numbers weighed against the freedom of his flourishing pen, generation after generation of cricket followers and readers have been hoodwinked into believing in the colossal stands put together by these two friends at the seaside ground.

Ted Wainright at Hove – Yorkshire vs Sussex
Year Innings Fry Ranji Partnership

1895

1

Did not Play

59

-

2

74

-

1896

1

14

100

0

2

42

125

76

1897

1

8

33

13

2

55

12

28

1900

1

55

87

135

1901

1

209

86

-

According to Cardus, “While Ranji seemed to toss runs over the field like largesse in silk purses, Fry acquired them – no, not as a miser his hoard, but as the connoisseur his collection.”

Did he actually watch them bat together? I for one will not be surprised if it comes to light that he never did so.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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