Charles-John-MacDonald
Charles Fox – Caught in a different kind of partnership, he could not resume his innings © Getty Images

August 12, 1891. Kent required 139 to win in the final innings but found themselves a batsman short after lunch. Arunabha Sengupta tells the story of Charles Fox who had to be retired out because his heart was elsewhere.

Nowadays, with strict clauses surrounding the wives and girlfriends of cricketers, with pictures of Virat Kohli with Anushka Sharma resulting in innumerable headlines proclaiming the breach of Players’ Protocols, some of the stories of the amateur cricketers of yore may seem steeped in apocrypha.

However, there is something to be said for those days when sporting men, as long as they did not live by their deeds on the cricket field, could take great liberties and get away with them.

Our man of the moment is Charles John Macdonald Fox. Perhaps his rebellious nature was a result of nurture. He was born at Dum Dum near Calcutta, just months after the start of the Sepoy Mutiny.

Whatever the reasons for his sterling spirit might have been, what he did that day could have landed him in some serious disciplinary soup in the modern day.

Prolonged lunch

The scene was Hove, 1891. It was a few years before KS Ranjitsinhji would set the ground and imaginations afire with his silk shirt fluttering in the wind and the ball disappearing to curious corners of the ground by the magic of oriental wrist-work.

By August of the year, neither Sussex, nor visiting Kent, had any tangible hopes for Championship glory. But, there was a healthy neighbourly rivalry between these two South-Eastern counties.

Sussex batted first on a beautiful wicket. George Bean, in his best year, played some superb cuts on the way to a century. The strong attack consisting of Frederick Martin and the Hearne brothers George and Alec was neutralised. On the second morning, C Aubrey Smith, who had led England to its first tour of South Africa a couple of years earlier, flung his bat around on the way to an adventurous unbeaten 50. A total of 328 was imposing enough.

The Kent reply was built around a well compiled 120 by the Harrow and Oxford man William Henry Patterson. It was mainly through his efforts that the visitors managed 267, and the second day ended with Sussex on 25 for 1 in their second innings.

Rain fell that night, and the following day batting became a nightmare on the resulting mud-cake. Martin and Walter Wright, two left-arm pacers, bowled unchanged and had the batsmen groping with deliveries that spat from the wicket and slanted away. Martin picked up seven wickets that morning and Sussex crumbled for 77. The track was treacherous, but with just 139 to get, Kent fancied their chances.

However, soon they were in extreme trouble. Fred Tate, that untiring medium pacer, ran in and made the ball ask incredibly difficult questions. Those were the days when his career was still taking off; his script had not yet been blotted by the infamous Old Trafford Test of 1902.

At the other end, Jesse Hide was also near unplayable. Only captain Frank Marchant, the Rugby, Eton, Trinity man with a severe moustache, managed to get bat to ball and picked up a few boundaries.  The other men were all at sea.

But, at his personal score of 21, Marchant was the third man to be dismissed as Hide’s delivery shot through and hit timber.  With the score reading 33 for 3, our man Fox walked in to join the first innings centurion Patterson at the wicket.

Fox was in decent form. A few days ago, in Tonbridge, he had flayed a strong Nottinghamshire attack comprising of Frank Shacklock, William Attwell and Billy Barnes to score 103 and 44 not out. That season he had also  negotiated the bowling of old WG Grace, Frank Needham, George Burton and the devilish Australian JJ Ferris to compile a half century against MCC. To a great extent, the Kent fortunes rested on his shoulders.

However, even as he stood at one end, Tate bowled Patterson and Leslie Wilson. The Kent innings tottered at 33 for 5 as the players came in for lunch.

Yet, with the wicket becoming slightly easier, and Fox in form, there was still hope. The Kent players lunched pensively. It was only as the match was about to resume, they discovered that Fox was nowhere to be found. In fact, it struck them that he had not joined them at the table at all.

After a few minutes of frantic search, Fox was retired out and wicketkeeper Frederick Atkins trotted in with the other not-out batsman Arthur Daffen. Neither of them got a run, and it was only by virtue of some bold hits by Wright and some leg-byes and byes that Kent managed 54.

Tate finished with 6 for 24, and Hide with 3 for 20. They did not need the other wicket. By the time Fox returned to the ground, the game was long over.

Marchant, the captain, his moustache bristling in pent up fury, now stood in front of the batsman who had played truant. Where had he been? Could he explain his absence?

A nonchalant Fox answered, “I was having lunch with a widow.” His manner suggested that it explained everything to a nicety.

What followed?

Disciplinary action?

Incredibly, the very next day, Fox turned out in Kent’s match against Yorkshire at Maidstone and compiled an impressive 34 against a tough attack. He played the rest of the season, and was back batting for them in 1892 and 1893 as well.

The amateurs could get away with a lot.

A free spirit and a traveller, Fox passed away in 1901 at the age of just 42, in Albury, New South Wales.

Brief scores:

Sussex 328 (George Bean 102, Francis Marlow 42, C Aubrey Smith 50*) and 77 (Frederick Martin 7 for 27) beat Kent 267 (William Patterson 120; Walter Humphreys 4 for 97) and 54 (Fred Tate 6 for 23) by 84 runs.

(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)