Percy Fender (second from left) and his Surrey team of the early 1920s © Getty Images
Percy Fender (second from left) and his Surrey team of the early 1920s © Getty Images

Percy Fender had a brainwave on July 30, 1920. As a result of that he asked his Surrey teammates to stop scoring runs. Abhishek Mukherjee narrates yet another calculated move by a strategic genius.

The thrilling climax of the 1920 County Championship has been recounted far too often. One need not go further than Arunabha Sengupta’s wonderful narration of that thriller at Lord’s where Middlesex beat Surrey to clinch the title. It was the kind of boost English cricket needed after the gloom of The Great War. It was also the kind of farewell a man of Plum Warner’s stature deserved.

Percy Fender’s rise as Surrey captain paled in significance. Fender had been around since 1910. He had peaked in 1914 (he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1915) before War took away his best years.

When cricket resumed in 1919, Fender was not an obvious choice as captain. Cyril Watkinson continued to lead. However, when Wilkinson opted out for a chunk of 1920, Fender was named captain. Such was his tactical acumen that he was quickly acknowledged (by most) as the finest captain in the country. They would call him “the best captain never chosen to lead England.”

That season he created another world record that still stands: he smashed a 35-minute hundred against Northamptonshire, still a First-Class record for the quickest century.

We have already seen how Fender bowled bad balls deliberately to earn wickets. There are numerous examples of his aggressive, shrewd, unconventional leadership, of which we will see one here.

Surrey lost only once in Fender’s first 14 matches as captain. They were routed in the 15th, against Kent at Blackheath, in a day and a half. They needed crucial points from Somerset match to remain in the hunt for the Championship.

The match 

Only half an hour’s play was possible on the first day of the match (Somerset finished on 9 for 2). When play resumed on Day Two, Somerset were bowled out for 138. Surrey lost Jack Hobbs early, but the middle order did well. They reached 81 for 2, and later 114 for 4. They had no reason to worry.

However, the light kept deteriorating. Unlike most other contemporary captains, Fender had a habit of checking the weather forecast. The verdict was clear: there was almost no chance of play on Day Three, the last day of the match.

Then Fender had a brainwave. But before we get into that, we need to check the laws.

The laws

Back in 1920, in the days when logistics were not as improved as today, not every team managed to play every opposition twice. That year only Sussex played their full set of 30 matches. Worcestershire and Derbyshire played as few as 18 each.

A team was awarded 5 points for a win and 2 for a lead in a drawn match. Everything else earned them 0. However, if no first-innings lead was possible in the match, the match did not count.

The ranks were decided based on points-percentage (let us call this PP), a number obtained by dividing points by maximum possible points.

If this sounds complicated, let me cite an example. Sussex won 18 matches but did not get a first-innings lead in any of the match. They finished with 90 points from 30 matches. However, a first-innings lead was not decided in 2 of their matches (thus they did not ‘count’). Only 28 matches were considered, from which a maximum of 140 points were possible.

Sussex’s PP was, thus, 64.286 (or 90/140).

The plan

There was little chance of a direct result in the match, which left three options open: a first-innings lead for either side or a match without a first-innings lead. Fender did some quick calculations.

Till that point Surrey had played 15 matches, winning 11, losing 2, and taking a first-innings lead in 1. A lead was not obtained by either side in their match against Hampshire, where only one incomplete day’s play was possible.

Surrey had 57 points from a maximum possible of 70, which gave them a PP of 81.429. If they got 2 more from the Somerset match, it would drop to 78.667 (59 out of 75). On the other hand, a ‘not counted’ match would help them stay at 81.429.

So Fender sent out a message, asking the batsmen to not score.

Man proposes…

Thomas Shepherd and Bill Hitch adhered to his advice, leaving everything or presenting a dead bat. Runs came nevertheless, mostly off edges. Dar Lyon (brother of Bev) was not as his best either: he conceded 17 byes, a significant number for a low-scoring match.

Those inadvertently scored runs pushed Surrey to 138, level with Somerset. It is difficult to fathom what was going through the minds of the people who had flocked to The Oval that day. Why would a team shut shop when two vital points were so crucial?

It came down to the last ball, when, much to Fender’s chagrin, the ball found Shepherd’s edge and sped to the boundary. Surrey ended up getting points they did not want to.

What would have happened?

The rest of the tournament was not as rosy for Surrey. Their last 8 matches fetched 4 wins and 4 defeats. They finished with 79 out of a maximum of 115, which gave them a PP of 68.696. Had Shepherd not edged the ball, they would have got 77 out of 110, a PP of 70.

They would still have finished third (after Middlesex, 77, and Lancashire, 74.615), but Fender’s move was in the right direction.

A side tale

Fender’s strategy was met with mixed reactions. Some criticised his defensive strategy. Some doubted the points system. However, Yorkshire captain Cecil Burton was definitely inspired by the strategy.

Less than a week after Fender asked Surrey to slow down, Burton did the same against Leicestershire in a rain-hit match. Leicestershire batted till the third morning in a rain-hit match, scoring 202. Yorkshire slowed down towards the end, finishing on 201 for 9.

“The system which penalises a strong county for being ahead on the first innings, unless it can bring the game to a conclusion, has produced some ironical performances this summer,” wrote a reader to Observer shortly afterwards.

Brief scores

Somerset 138 (Tom Rushby 4 for 38, Percy Fender 3 for 44) drew with Surrey 142 for 6 (Jack White 3 for 38).