Arthur Mailey’s sketch of Percy Fender
Arthur Mailey’s sketch of Percy Fender

Leafing through the tour books penned by Percy Fender, Arunabha Sengupta finds plenty of delights to mark him as one of the most insightful cricket writers who was way ahead of his times. 

There are cricket tour books and more cricket tour books.

Men like Alan Ross have invoked every bit of their literary skills to make poetic masterpieces of works such as Australia 55. From the South African Louis Dufus to the New Zealander Dan Cameron to the early jottings of Australians Frank Laver and Tom Horan, this genre brims with delights waiting to be discovered.

Even Australian Summers, the chronicle of the 1936-37 Ashes tour by Neville Cardus, contains more facts and significantly less amounts of flowery fabricated fiction than the other works of this compulsively lying Manchester wordsmith.

Of course, we need to carefully avoid the pile of workmanlike products, which can strip the joy from the game and render it drier than desert sand. They are also aplenty in this field. But then, that is a malady of any produce that is plentiful.

And amongst the tour books, few are as rivetingly interesting and insightful as the ones by Percy Fender.

The tour books on The Ashes by the Surrey and England cricketer, of the contests between the Wars, are bona-fide masterpieces. Defending The Ashes, Turn of the Wheel, The Tests of 1930 and Kissing the Rod are as good, as incisive and as thoughtful as cricket writing ever gets.

Each volume sparkles with astute observation, analysis and thoughts that demonstrate how deeply this Surrey captain understood the game, and also how ahead of time his thinking was.

Defending The Ashes was scripted as a member of the English touring team in 1920-21.

Turn of the Wheel was as a touring journalist in 1928-29, when he was disgruntled enough not to have made the team as an all-rounder to include a strong statistical summary justifying his claims.

The remaining two were penned as pure journalist, who was still very much in touch with the game as a contemporary county cricketer.

Turn of the Wheel, obviously, has gained both popularity and notoriety because of Fender’s early analysis of a young 20-year-old batsman who played his first ever series.

On his debut, Don Bradman was all at sea against Maurice Tate, and got just 18 and 1. And after being dropped for the second Test, he came back to hit two hundreds and score over 400 runs in the series.

But Fender dismissed him as “one of the most curious mixtures of good and bad batting I have ever seen.” He ended this mother of premature proclamations with the words: “He makes a mistake, then makes it again, and again, and again; he does not correct it, or look as if he were trying to do so. He seems to live for the exuberance of the moment. Only time will show whether the mellowing and steadying effect of experience will make or mar.”

He did not go to the extent of Maurice Tate to say that Bradman would not get a run in England. But he was quite unduly harsh and hasty.

Yes, he erred, and erred big time in his evaluation of The Don. However, to be fair, the greatest batsman of all time did not have the supposed ideal technique. He was uncoached. He made runs, and made them in a way that has never been done before or since. However, he did not look pretty when doing so, nor impregnably safe. People have tried the cross batted-approach, and hitting golf balls with stumps, but the Bradman code is yet to be deciphered.

However, Turn of the Wheel is full of bits that show why Fender was one of the best captains in England, and also why he was more analytical than any other writer of his times.

While talking about his own claims to a place in the side in the absence of a genuine all-rounder, although not saying so in as many words, Fender took the help of the season’s statistics in a way that underlined his understanding of the importance of figures in the game.

This was also demonstrated in the way he kept his own score, with details about how many deliveries of each bowler was faced by each batsman. Hence, in his analysis, Fender could say with accuracy, rather than the casual gut-feel which seems to be the signature of cricket writers even today, which bowler had kept which batsman quiet and which batsman was really dominating which type of bowling.

Of course, there are small idiosyncrasies. Fender had an obvious fondness for his Surrey teammate and close friend Douglas Jardine. And hence, even a score of 33 at Melbourne received elaborate praise and almost as many words as Wally Hammond’s double hundred.

More importantly, when Jardine scored 98 from 378 balls at Adelaide, Fender took pains to defend the rate of scoring; he compared it with the Alan Fairfax innings at Melbourne that was essayed at the same pace but was hailed by many as a splendid knock.

This sort of statistics-driven defence, rather than the favoured tools of words and rhetoric, really made Fender far more compelling and justifiable than the other writers of that and every other cricketing era. His partiality towards Jardine is more than evident, but the arguments furnished in his favour cannot be faulted.

When Fender outlined the strategy he would have to use Maurice Tate’s batting talents, it made for excellent reading. According to Fender, irrespective of the number of wickets that had fallen, if England lost a wicket with about an hour’s play left in the day, he would always send Tate in. Tate’s aggressive batting, if it came off, could unsettle the opposition totally and change the equation of the game towards the end of the day. And if he got out, he could have much more time to recover for his main job, fast bowling, than he would if he came lower down the order.

It is something that really makes you think.

However, where Fender undeniably proves to be a forward thinker is in his views about the appeal for light.

After repeated interruptions during a Test, he was appalled enough to launch into an analysis of the different levels of light at which play was called off in different cricket grounds of the world.

Having shown the disparity, he went on to say that in future there needed to be a device with the umpires that showed the degree of light, and the players needed to continue to play until the light had reached an agreed to and documented index in that device.

Well, Fender came up with the concept of the light-meter about three-quarters of a century before it started to be used in cricket.