CB Fry is only one of the three batsmen to score 6 First-Class centuries off consecutive innings © Getty Images
CB Fry is only one of the three batsmen to score 6 First-Class centuries off consecutive innings © Getty Images

CB Fry, born April 25, 1872, was an England cricket captain, football international, the world record holder for long jump and a classical scholar. These were a few of his remarkable deeds in a life worth living. Arunabha Sengupta revisits the days of this greatest of all-rounders ever to walk on the planet.

Cricket will perhaps be graced by many men with skills and records that rival, and often surpass, Charles Burgess Fry. Yet, as a marvellously gifted personality whose brilliance sparkled from every facet of his many-sided genius, he will perhaps never be matched by any man in flannels.

Apart from leading England to victory in the experimental triangular Test tournament of 1912, and never losing a Test match as captain, Fry’s biggest cricketing achievement was perhaps his six hundreds on the trot in First-class cricket in late summer of 1901. Since then, Don Bradman equalled the feat in 1938-39 and Mike Proctor in 1970-71.

But then, to add to the eulogy of Neville Cardus, “Neither Bradman nor Proctor were classical scholars, nor did they ever write speeches for the Indian representative in the League of Nations, neither did they ever hold the world record for long jump, nor did either of them represent their country in football.” And in spite of having done all that Fry considered himself primarily as an educator of the young.

Of course, Cardus added that it was Fry’s speech, written to be delivered by KS Ranjitsinhji at Geneva that turned Benito Mussolini out of Corfu. However, much like the tale of Fry’s turning down the throne of Albania, the Mussolini story needs to be viewed after peeling off the layers of romantic exaggeration, much of it Fry’s own.

Multi-dimensional genius

Cardus would naturally have his well-honed tentacles of romanticism luxuriously slurping on those delicious anecdotes. For him Fry was his ideal cricketer, who merged the world of cricket with that of intellectual sophistication.

He wrote: “Fry must be counted among the most fully developed and representative Englishmen of his period; and the question arises whether, had fortune allowed him to concentrate on the things of the mind, not distracted by the lure of cricket, a lure intensified by his increasing mastery over the game, he would not have reached a high altitude in politics or critical literature. But he belonged — and it was his glory — to an age not obsessed by specialism; he was one of the last of the English tradition of the amateur, the connoisseur, and, in the most delightful sense of the word, the dilettante … He was known first as an England cricketer and footballer, also as a great all-round athlete who for a while held the long-jump record, a hunter and a fisher, and as an inexhaustible virtuoso at the best of all indoor games, conversation.”

But, the charm of Fry’s personality was not just a figment of the famed Cardus fancy. Almost as great a chronicler of cricket, with feet far more firmly rooted on the ground in spite of genuine poetic talents, John Arlott was no less impressed by the remarkable versatility. “Charles Fry could be autocratic, angry and self-willed: he was also magnanimous, extravagant, generous, elegant, brilliant – and fun … he was probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age.”

What makes both the word portraits’ similarly striking is that in both the immensity of his excellence could not be confined just to the cricket fields.

Ranji and Fry

It was the immortal Cardus account of the partnership of Fry and Ranji that introduced many later generations of Indian youngsters to the tales of the men, often as compulsory reading in the pages of Radiant Reader.

“The conjunction at the creases of CB Fry and KS Ranjitsinhji was a sight and an appeal to the imagination not likely ever to be repeated; Fry, nineteenth-century rationalist, batting according to first principles with a sort of moral grandeur, observing patience and abstinence. At the other end of the wicket, Ranji turned a cricket bat into a wand of conjuration. Fry was of the Occident, Ranji told of the Orient.”

Indeed, Fry and Ranji formed a collaboration fit for epics when they batted for Sussex, and sometimes the combined efforts flashed — and flickered — for England. There was a difference though, in method and extent of cricketing genius.

Ranji, the conjurer, could create angles acute and exotic from a bat that swished like a wand. Fry on the other hand dealt with the mathematical perfection of the right angle, conservatively adhering to the principles of the straight bat. While Ranji created and essayed the leg-glance with spirit free and feet lissom, Fry was known to be stiff of style with cast-iron defence, with grandeur emerging from the soundest theory in glorious drives.

Ranji rode on his silken magic carpet across the grounds of cricket into the Test arena, turning into one of the best batsmen of his era at the highest level, as well as the most. Fry’s feats for England on the cricket ground did not soar as high; they remained respectable without being remarkable.

Early tales of versatility

One of Fry’s first accomplishments on the cricket field was at Repton, when he almost killed the ‘grandfather of Mr. Kipps and Mr. Polly.’ Joseph Wells, the father of the famed HG Wells of The Time Machine fame, was the professional and groundsman at the school. He was standing at square leg as an umpire when Fry’s leg hit struck him squarely on the forehead and knocked him out.

For Repton, Fry finished at the top in Latin Verse, Greek Verse, Latin Prose and French, while ending second in German. He also led the cricket and football teams.

A scholarship landed him at Wadham College, Oxford, where he became a Blue in football, cricket and athletics, but just missed out in rugby because of an injury.

In 1892 he broke the British long jump record with a leap of 23 feet 5 inches. And a year later Fry equalled the world long jump record of 23 feet 6 and 1⁄2 inches, thus far held by Charles Reber of the United States. The following year, 1894, saw him leading the University team in cricket, football and athletics.
The same year, Vanity Fair magazine published a caricature of the 21-year old Fry with the caption: “He is sometimes known as ‘C.B.’; but it has lately been suggested that he should be called ‘Charles III’.”

Fry was also a reputed shot-putter, hammer-thrower, handy with the javelin and represented his College in Ice-Skating. Wadham College included two future Cabinet Ministers, FE Smith and John Simon. However, Fry’s all-round majesty ensured that when he was remembered along with his alumni the expression to be used in future would be “Fry and small fry”.

Alongside, during his college days, he wrote articles to tide over financial constraints, including one for Wisden.

Early trouble and cricket to the rescue

However, not everything was rosy in the life of this remarkable all-round phenomenon. During his final term, he suffered from the first of his many bouts of mental illnesses. The break-down was caused partly by the debts he had accumulated during his university years. His monetary difficulties had also forced him to accept offers of posing as a nude model. Besides, his mother was critically ill. The combination of all this stress took its toll. Fry, a brilliant student, managed to just scrape through his final examinations.

The solution for his strained means came in the form of cricket. He was chosen to tour South Africa as a member of Lord Hawke’s 1895–96 England touring party. Fry’s first couple of Tests brought him fairly decent scores of 43, 14 and 64.

He did not participate in competitive athletics after his Oxford days. Yet, his favourite parlour trick remained leaping backwards from the floor on to a mantelpiece. This was performed with feline agility till he was well into his seventies.

A tearaway fast bowler in his younger days, Fry’s action was considered suspect and he was no-balled by umpire Jim Phillips. He concentrated more and more on his batting, and had soon forged that golden link with Ranji for Sussex.

Yet, he might not have made it to the English team for the home Tests against Australia of 1899 had it not been for WG Grace. Lord Hawke was not really in favour of playing Fry in the eleven at Trentbridge, but the old man put his foot down in his last Test match. Fry scored 50 in a low scoring game and played all the five Tests in the series.

Football and Cricket for England

The next winter saw another facet of Fry. Having played football for the famous amateur outfit Corinthians earlier, Fry now graduated to the senior league. Described as a defender with exceptional pace, he made his debut for Southampton. In March 1901, he received his only England cap, as a full back against Ireland at Southampton.

He took a break from the football field to score 3,147 runs in the English summer with 13 hundreds — 6 of them in consecutive innings. In the winter that followed, he played in the final of the FA Cup as Southampton drew 1-1 with Sheffield United before losing the replay 2-1.

As Baily’s Magazine put it in June 1902:  “If we were to put the question to any schoolboy `Who is the greatest all-round athlete of today?’ we should expect to hear the word ‘Fry’ as sufficient answer.” Leisure Hour went further, shortlisting him for the title of “greatest living Englishman.”

Fry’s forays into the Test arena were not always successful. He failed miserably in 1902 during that famous Ashes series. In the summer of 1905 he thrived, starting with 73 at Lord’s and ending with 144 at The Oval – his first Test century.

When the South Africans visited in 1907, he hit 129 in the final Test, once again at The Oval.

He never toured for England after that first South African odyssey of 1895-96. But runs continued to flow for Sussex.  Over 2500 runs were scored in each of the years  1903, 1904 and 1905.

Captaincy and end of  Test career

In 1912, the cricket authorities experimented with the first Triangular Test Tournament. The earlier year had witnessed Fry’s glorious summer of 1911, with 1,728 runs with a highest of 258 not out for his adopted county Hampshire. It had earned him not only a return to the English side, but had also procured the captaincy for him. It was a yawn of a tournament with endless rains in the wettest of English summers, but Fry led England to victory in four of the six Tests, drawing the other two.

After the First World War, Fry was asked to play under Johnny Douglas when Warwick Armstrong’s Australians toured England in 1921. However, Fry declined saying there was no sense in recalling a 49-year old as a mere player. He was also offered the captaincy when England were hammered at Nottingham. But, Fry refused yet again citing poor form. He was more willing when England lost the second Test, but an injury during the Australia-Hampshire encounter kept him out.

Fry never played for England again after that successful Triangular series. He ended with 1,223 runs in 26 Tests at 32.18 with 2 hundreds. In First-class cricket, however, he was a colossus with 30,886 runs at an average of 50.22, unheard of in that era, with 94 centuries.

Mussolini and Albania

When not playing cricket or football, Fry kept himself busy with plenty of activities – astounding in their remarkable variety. He founded and edited the CB Fry’s Magazine; but wanted to be remembered for his contribution as an instructor in the Mercury naval training school at Hamble – a role that ensured no further part in the First World War. His contribution was also path breaking and significant in the Boy Scout movement.

The Ranji-Fry collaboration was carried into the world of diplomacy. Ranji, Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, was one of the three Indian delegates in the League of Nations in 1920. He appointed his batting partner Fry as his deputy, and soon the latter had to attend most of the meetings while His Highness sought pleasures in European cities.

It is here that the fable of the speech dealing with Mussolini’s Corfu was created. In his brilliantly written, hugely exaggerated and naively self-defaming autobiography Life Worth Living,  Fry wrote: “One afternoon I was in the lobby of the Salle de la Reformation (Geneva) … when a messenger came to tell me that His Highness wanted me. His Highness said briefly, ‘Charlo, we have got to make a speech.’

“‘What about?’

“’Lord Balfour wants me to make a declaration on behalf of the British Empire that, in the opinion of all its delegations, the Corfu question is within the competence of the league.’

“[Mussolini had argued that the League could not discuss the issue.]

“I said ‘When?’ He said, ‘Now.’ ‘But we can’t get it typed.’ ‘Never mind. Write it down large and legible’.”

Fry claimed that he went straight to work with a green pencil as thick as a walking stick. Within half an hour had come up with the speech, and it was being read out by Ranji. It was supposedly skilfully written despite the haste and Fry asserted that it had made Mussolini vacate Corfu. However, Fry’s biographer, Iain Wilton, sets things straight by stating that the decision had actually been taken elsewhere, and the one definite effect of the speech was that the three Italian delegates who were due to have lunch with Ranji cancelled saying they had headaches.

Similarly, the episode of being asked to become the King of Albania is also not as impressive as it sounds. The offer was made by an Albanian Bishop who looked a spitting image of WG. In truth, Albanians were looking for a English country gentleman who could finance £10,000 per year as their King. Fry was one of the many approached. He did not have the means to provide the suggested amount, and the man who could, his partner at the crease and at the League of Nations, Ranji, did not really agree “casually laying stress on the inconvenience of having to live in a lonely castle on an island and perhaps a bullet in the ribs.”

Hitler and Hollywood

Fry’s later years were not that happy, although his zest for life often seemed to continue in its fullest possible vigour. He failed to enter the Parliament, in spite of his stature and three separate attempts.  As his athletic prowess dwindled with age, the attention that had been lavished on him all these years diminished drastically. Whether as a result of that or not, his attire and behaviour became increasingly eccentric.

There was trouble at the home front, which came to light much later. In 1898, at the age of 26, he had married Beatrice Sumner. His wife was 10 years older, cruel and domineering with a scandalous past and a lover named Charles Hoare. The naval training school at Hamble which Fry had taken over had been started by Summer and Hoare.

Beatrice made Fry miserable all through their marriage until she passed away in 1946. Fry tried to stay away from her as much as possible. With neither money nor social stature, the former sporting great became increasingly insecure and vulnerable.

In the late 1920s, while in India with Ranji, Fry suffered another bout of mental illness, prolonged and rather acute.

He recovered in the early 1930s, and after six years of seclusion was invited into Nazi Germany to discuss youth issues.

The meetings left him impressed, especially the pool of Aryan men and women and their sporting ability. Fry spent hours trying to convince Von Ribbentrop that Nazi Germany should take up cricket, and proceed to the Test level. He argued about cricket being a pure Nordic game and the possibility of a blonde WG Grace. The Germans were, unfortunately, far from convinced.

He was also spellbound during his meeting with Adolf Hitler, and subscribed to his views on the Jewish people. Some of the Hitler Youth boys were advanced invitations to the Mercury training ship. On the eve of the Second World War, Fry was still expressing enthusiasm for the excellent progress he had seen in the country.

In early 1937, he travelled to Hollywood. In the company of Aubrey Smith, ex-England cricketer and famed character actor, he tried to make it big on silver screen. This venture was also not successful.

Hollywood was fondly remembered in Life Worth Living. Unfortunately, so was Hitler. When this autobiography was published in 1939, Fry’s reputation nosedived and never really recovered.

He remained a popular writer of cricket books, and also carried dreams of becoming a Hollywood star well into his sixties, but his personal habits turned increasingly bizarre. It extended to shedding all his clothes on the road to the beach and trotting around stark naked.

In 1955, the very fifth episode of the British television show This Is Your Life was based on Fry. Among those who were assembled to recount about his supreme deeds were Jack Hobbs and Syd Barnes.

Fry passed away in 1956, at the age of 84. It had been indeed a life worth living — in parts, and often punctuated by sadness. Such is always the case.

(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)