Today in our Ashes 100-1 countdown, Rafiq Copeland of World Cricket Watch takes a look at two Ashes (and Sussex) icons back from the day when men were men and cricketers attended the League of Nations and almost became King of Albania.
If you’re thinking of English cricket legends in the early days of the Ashes it is fairly difficult to go past the gigantic presence of W.G. Grace – but if you do penetrate beyond the famous beard, there a couple of Grace’s teammates who deserve the title of legend in their own right. C.B. Fry and K.S. Ranjitsinhji may not be household names, but these two unlikely friends were both outstanding cricketers and remarkable characters.
C.B. Fry was one of those all round geniuses and renaissance men who seem to have been a speciality of Victorian England. An Oxford scholar, writer, broadcaster, footballer, acrobat and champion cricketer, one gets the impression that if Fry wasn’t so talented he might have been regarded as a bit of a show off. Famously Fry’s party trick was the ability to jump backwards from a standing start onto a mantelpiece. Imagine being at a society function and seeing the impeccably turned out Fry perform that feat – I’m sure he got invited to a lot of parties! As well as captaining England’s cricket team, C.B. Fry was at various times the captain of the England football team, an FA Cup finalist (for Southampton) and the joint world record holder in the long jump.
As a cricketer C.B. Fry was not just distinguished by his extracurricular fame – he was a genuinely great player. Fry played 26 tests, captaining in his last six, for an average of just over 32 – much more impressive in those days of low scores. Even more impressive was Fry’s first class total of 30,886 at an average of over 50. At that time the only player to average more in first class cricket was Fry’s close friend K.S. Ranjitsinhji.
Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji Jadeja, Marahaja Jam Sahib of Narwanagar is perhaps not a name that you would normally associate with English cricket. This is especially true when you point out the fact that Ranjitsinhji was actually the first Indian ever to play cricket at test level – albeit for the English side.
Ranjitsinhji had never played cricket when he arrived in England to study at Cambridge in 1891. Five years later he played his first test match. Ranjitsinhji was just the second England batsman to score a century on debut – against Australia in the Ashes. His score of 175 in his first test on Australian soil the following year was the highest ever made for England. In 15 tests he averaged 44.95 and in 307 first class matches he averaged 56.37 – the highest ever average at that stage. Ranjitsinhji still holds the record of being the only man to score a first class century in each innings of a match, both on the same day.
After his cricketing career Ranjitsinhji became the Chancellor of the Indian Chamber of Princes and represented India at the League of Nations. It was in this last role that Ranjitsinhji almost handed C.B. Fry what would surely have been the most remarkable conclusion to his sporting career. Fry accompanied his friend Ranjitsinhji to the League of Nations in 1920 as a secretary and advisor to the Indian delegation. Europe was still in a state of turmoil after World War One and according to the story – which some say may have been invented by Fry himself – Fry was offered the position of King of Albania. This seems ludicrous today – and one would hope it seemed fairly ludicrous then – but Albania needed a king and really, who better than a man who could jump backwards onto a mantelpiece? Fry rejected the offer and Albania became a republic.
Sadly C.B. Fry suffered a massive mental breakdown in the late 1920s after spending time in India. The effects of this turmoil included a phobia of Indians which made it impossible for Fry to spend time with his friend Ranjitsinhji. Fry became a successful writer, but the rest of his life was plagued by bouts of mental health problems. Ranjitsinhji died in 1933 at his family place. In 1935 the Indian first class competition was named the Ranji Trophy in his honour.