All Rounders

BILL THE BIRO on multi-talented players

CB Fry in his cricket gear (photo: G Beldam, 1906)
Most readers will remember Ian Botham, who captained England at cricket, and thirty years ago was taking wickets and slogging centuries against all comers.

But not so many will remember that he also played League footy (11 matches, for Scunny). He was one of a handful of players who have combined both sports at professional level. Arnold Sidebottom (Man. U./Huddersfield and Yorkshire/England), Jim Cumbes (West Brom/Aston Villa and Lancs/Worcs) were others of that era.

Going a bit further back, Denis Compton achieved more success, in a career interrupted by the Second World War, being a winger for Arsenal who scored 15 goals in 54 matches in the top flight, and, like Botham, was a crowd-pleasing all-rounder for England at cricket.

But a few years earlier, CB Fry eclipsed them all.
Born in 1872, at school he played any sport he could, and at the age of 16 played for Casuals in the FA Cup. He then went to Oxford University where he gained a blue (a discretionary award, only given to outstanding players) with the university's cricket and football teams, and at athletics. And he only missed out on one at rugby too, due to injury.

Big deal, I hear you say.

On leaving Oxford in 1895 he was invited to join the England cricket tour of South Africa, when his career took off.

At cricket he was another all-rounder (he would be, obviously), who twice took 10 wickets in a match, scored 94 centuries (6 consecutively, a still-unbeaten record) and retired with one of the highest batting averages of the time. He played for England for sixteen years (which also encompassed his professional football career), gaining 95 caps. He later became a cricket commentator on the radio.

At football he played 16 times for Southampton as a fast full-back. Ok, so Southampton were only in the Southern League at the time (this was a few years before Pools were even formed, yet alone in the Football League) but he also played once for England, and later played a few games (as an amateur) for Portsmouth as well.

At rugby he made ten appearances for Blackheath, three for the Barbarians and came close to having a trial for England.

At athletics he broke the British long jump record and equalled the world record, which was not bettered for a further ten years.

"A modern-day Ian Botham wouldn't be allowed to play two sports at a high level, and jumping onto mantelpieces would be out of the question." So he was quite sporty then.

He had a party piece which depended on the high ceilinged rooms of the circles in which he moved - he was a gentleman rather than a player, after all, even if financial pressures had been behind his professional football career. He would stand in front of his host's fireplace and jump onto the mantelpiece, twisting in mid-air, to land with his back against the chimney breast.

While his sporting career progressed into journalism, his other interests took him into education and diplomacy, and less successfully into politics, where he lost three parliamentary elections. Amazingly, he is also supposed to have once been offered the throne of Albania. However, nobody now seems to know how true that is - or if true, whether it was the offer of a job, or just the offer of an old chair!

Then there's his books. Mostly about cricket, but also an autobiography, one about the League of Nations, and even a novel.

He did have his down sides though. His sporting achievements at Qxford overshadowed (if not precluded) much in the way of academic ones; his admiration for Adolf Hitler didn't do him any favours, and he was cantankerous and prone to mental illness.

CB Fry died in 1956 aged 84. John Arlott said of him "... he was probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age."

His achievements were only possible in a less-demanding age. A modern-day Ian Botham wouldn't be allowed to play two sports at a high level, and jumping onto mantelpieces would be out of the question. But wouldn't it be great if another CB Fry came along.