Percy Fender used to be a caricaturist’s delight, but there was more to him than that © Getty Images
Percy Fender used to be a caricaturist’s delight, but there was more to him than that © Getty Images

Percy Fender, was, by common consensus, “the best captain never chosen to lead England”. A shrewd strategist ahead of his time, Fender often drove batsmen into a false sense of security to dismiss them. One of the examples occurred at Trent Bridge on May 21, 1934, when he dismissed Arthur Carr. Abhishek Mukherjee narrates the tale.

They do not make them like Percy Fender anymore. I am not talking about his appearance here, though if you ask me, it deserves a mention. Fender would not have been Fender without those round glasses, the extra-loose sweaters on the beanpole structure, the formidable yet abrupt moustache, the unmistakable slouch; few cricketers have captured the imagination of caricaturists the way Fender has. Tom Webster would agree.

Fender still holds the record of the fastest First-Class hundred. He bowled brisk medium-pace and leg-breaks. He was also an outstanding slip fielder. However, it was his captaincy that made him stand out among peers.

Fender was way more proactive than any of his contemporaries, who mostly changed bowlers to give everyone a chance and changed fielders when they changed ends after overs. Not Fender. Fielders were moved around, often so frequently that batsmen never noticed. Bowlers were summoned at the sight of the slightest weakness.

Fender outthought batsmen with appropriate bowling changes and field placements. He also stressed on fielding. He hired a baseball coach for Surrey. Even when there was little turn, Fender got two slips for his spinner: “it might make them think it was turning.”

He ordered special caps for the team, with longer peaks, so that high catches were not interrupted by the sun. He ordered sweat-absorbent underwear.

These were virtually unheard-of concepts in English cricket, as were his multiple attempts to abolish the amateur-professional bar. Some suggest that these attempts practically cost him the honour of leading England. Fender had to remain contented with the sobriquet of “the best captain never chosen to lead England”.

His Surrey teammates swore by him. In 1924, when Fender was a contender for the post of the England captain, Jack Hobbs hailed Fender with the words “a finer and more interesting captain than any man now playing”. To quote Alf Gover, Fender was “worshipped by the whole team”. And Douglas Jardine, Fender’s successor at Surrey, lauded him as “the ablest, the quickest and most enterprising cricket brain”.

The paths of Fender and Jardine would cross. Fender toured Australia as a journalist in 1928-29 (he was the first to use a typewriter in the press box). He carried a home movie camera on that tour, filming Don Bradman.

Bradman amassed 974 runs on the 1930 tour, but Fender spotted his weakness against Harold Larwood’s short-pitched bowling during his 232 at The Oval. He passed over the information to Jardine. He also kept in touch with his fellow journalists in Australia, tracking Bradman’s performances. That data was passed on too. We know the rest.

The match in question involves a particular strategy developed by Fender. Journalist Dick Wilkinson described it best: “I have never seen better ‘bad’ bowling if you can understand that. Every ball was different. There was some rubbish sent down but you were aware all the time of his mind ticking over and the ball might have been deliberate.”

In other words, Fender deliberately bowled poorly at times, especially against the risk-takers. He recalled in an interview with his biographer Richard Streeton: “They would be slower to what I had been bowling, thrown up high and would drop just short of the block hole. They might cost a few runs but they got their share of wickets.”

In the match in question, Surrey had declared on 509 for 7 in a Whitsuntide match at Trent Bridge. Bob Gregory scored 180 and Stan Squires 99. The formidable Arthur Carr walked out with Nottinghamshire on 21 for 2, on Whit Monday.

Carr, like Bev Lyon of Gloucestershire, was the only contemporary county captain in the Fender mould. Carr employed leg-theory (he had Harold Larwood and Bill Voce) for Notts; and like Fender, he too had a crucial role to play in the development of Bodyline.

It was only inevitable that Carr and Fender were friends. For the match, Fender stayed at Carr’s place.

Let us return to the match. Carr was a known big hitter. Fender posted Alf Gover at forward short-leg (how many fast bowlers field at forward short-leg these days?). It was definitely not the safest place with Carr on strike, but Fender had a plan: when Fender would tug at his own collar before delivering a ball, Gover was supposed to fall flat on his chest.

Fender continued steadily. Carr waited impatiently for the loose ball to arrive. His eyes lit up when he finally saw the slow full-toss outside leg and aimed at the pesky forward short-leg.

Little did he know that Fender had tugged his collar a few seconds ago. True to instructions, Gover fell face-down, clutching on to the grass for dear life. As the wild swing soared towards deep mid-wicket, Fender yelled “Carr, caught Gregory, bowled Fender”: it turned out to be true.

Carr had to leave, swearing profusely at Fender. His reaction after Fender spent that night at Carr’s place remains undocumented. As for the match, Nottinghamshire were bowled out for 226 and 240, Fender taking 5 for 70 and 5 for 105.

Brief scores:

Surrey  509 for 7 decl. (Andy Sandham 50, Bob Gregory 180, Stan Squires 99, Errol Holmes 50; Harold Butler 3 for 99) beat Nottinghamshire 226 (Joe Hardstaff Jr 78, George Gunn 63; Alf Gover 3 for 31, Percy Fender 5 for 79) and 240 (Joe Hardstaff Jr 63*; Percy Fender 5 for 105) by an innings and 43 runs.