The batting record that stood for over a century
Ross Taylor's magnificent 290 in the second Test in Perth guided New Zealand to safety after Australia's imposing first-innings total. Along the way, he broke a number of long-standing batting records. The oldest of these was held by Reginald "Tip" Foster, who had till then been in possession of the highest score by an overseas batsman in Australia. Foster's 287 - made on debut - in the first Test of the 1903-04 Ashes at the SCG had stood for over 111 years. His story is as fascinating as the length of time he held this record.
Foster was born in Malvern, Worcestershire in 1878. He appeared to be genetically predisposed towards cricketing excellence; he was the third oldest of seven brothers, who all represented Worcestershire, and they played a combined total of 819 first-class matches. Tip's parents, the Reverend Henry and Sophia Foster, had 11 children, and with the exception of a daughter who died tragically during childhood, all showed significant sporting talent.
Foster was educated at Malvern College, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, and his father was a housemaster there for nearly a third of that time. All seven sons represented Malvern College and went on to play for Worcestershire County Cricket Club, which, not surprisingly, soon came to be nicknamed "Fostershire". However, Tip was the standout cricketer in the family and the only one to go on to play for England.
After finishing high school, Foster continued his education at Oxford and made his first-class debut for the university against AJ Webbe's XI in 1897. Webbe was an independently wealthy former Test cricketer who arranged annual matches against Cambridge and Oxford University between 1885 and 1901, inviting high-profile players to join his side. The 19-year-old Foster acquitted himself well, scoring a fine 53, and began to establish a reputation as one of England's most promising young batsmen, while continuing to play for Oxford.
However, he did not play his first match for Worcestershire until 1899, which interestingly also saw the county debuts of his brothers Henry and Wilfrid. Foster finished the 1899 season with solid statistics of 1173 runs at 32.58; he also made his maiden first-class century, 134 against Hampshire. His potential was noted with his selection for an invitational England XI against the touring Australian team.
The following season Foster emerged as a genuinely world-class batsman. He scored 1807 runs at an average of 51.62 in 1900. In the time of uncovered pitches this performance put him into the top echelon of batsmen in the country, with the possible exception of Ranjitsinhji. Foster showed that this was not a fluke when he scored 2128 runs at 50.66 the following year. This 1901 season was the first in which Foster was named captain of Worcestershire. It also earned him the Wisden Cricketer of the Year honour.
Foster had by now finished his university studies and had commenced a career as a stock broker. This employment decision was to have a major impact upon his availability for cricket, and the following seasons he made only occasional appearances. While he would have been an obvious choice to represent England in Tests, his business commitments meant that he simply could not arrange sufficient leave to continue playing regular first-class cricket.
He did, however, have time to demonstrate his considerable sporting versatility by representing England in soccer. After leaving Malvern College he played for the Corinthians, an amateur club that predominantly played friendly matches, and was selected for England in 1900. He scored two goals in a match against Ireland, and another one against Wales. Tip starred in England's first soccer match against Germany, scoring six goals in a 12-0 thrashing at White Hart Lane in 1901, although this is generally not officially recognised as a proper international match. He was named captain of the England side in what was to be his fifth and final international match, played against Wales in 1902.
Though he only played three first-class matches in 1903, Foster managed to arrange his stockbroking affairs to make himself available for the 1903-04 Ashes in Australia. He played the lead-up first-class matches against South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and performed satisfactorily but without hitting a century. Nonetheless, he was chosen to make his Test debut in the first Test, in Sydney.
Australia captain Monty Noble chose to bat first. The home team made 285, thanks to a fine innings of 133 by Noble. Overnight rain after day one affected the pitch and England got off to a shaky start. They immediately lost opener Plum Warner for a duck and were in trouble at 73 for 3. Foster came to the middle, but after a brief recovery England faltered again at 117 for 4. Foster started a bit nervously and was dropped on 51. However, the pitch was drying out, and he and Len Braund were largely untroubled by the bowling for the remainder of the second day.
The third day was totally dominated by Foster. He pushed on from his overnight score of 73, quickly passing his century. Braund also passed a hundred, but fell soon afterwards for 102. After being 309 for 4, England collapsed to 332 for 8. Foster then started to play expansively, striking the ball with great power all around the ground. He put on 115 with Albert Relf for the ninth wicket, and then 130 for the final wicket with Wilfred Rhodes. He raced past his 200 and then 250, before finally being the last man dismissed for 287. His innings took just under seven hours and included 37 fours. England had only a slight lead when the eighth wicket fell, but they ended up with a substantial first-innings advantage of nearly 300, Foster's score exceeding Australia's.
In the second innings Australia responded with a strong batting performance of their own, led by Victor Trumper with an unbeaten 185, but ultimately England would go on to win a close match by five wickets and an exceptionally exciting series 3-2.
During his 287, Foster broke the record for the highest score in Test cricket, previously held by the Australian batsman Billy Murdoch, whose 211 had stood for nearly two decades. Foster's score remained the pinnacle of individual batting achievement for a quarter of a century, finally being overtaken by his fellow countryman Andy Sandham, who scored 325 against West Indies in 1930. Foster's score was naturally also the highest by any player on debut, and the record still remains, with Jacques Rudolph's 222 for South Africa against Bangladesh in 2003 the nearest challenger.
Foster played the remaining four Tests in the 1903-04 series, but his business interests then limited him to only another three Tests, against South Africa in 1907, before his retirement. In spite of his relative lack of experience internationally, he was named captain of the England side for the home series. He successfully led his team to a 1-0 series win; England dominated the three-day Tests but South Africa managed to hold on to two draws. Foster was asked to lead the next touring party to Australia, but he had to again decline due to his business commitments. This effectively marked the end of his serious cricket career, and he only made limited appearances thereafter.
It was not widely known that Foster suffered from serious health issues throughout his career. He had diabetes, and sadly, the management of this disease was not effective in the early 20th century. Foster died aged 36 at his London home on May 13, 1914, following a period of illness and associated complications from his diabetes. This was not an uncommon occurrence of the time; fellow diabetic and Test cricketer John McLaren also died at age 34 in 1921.
While Taylor recently broke one of Foster's long-standing batting records, the latter still remains the only man to captain the English football and cricket teams, and this feat appears unlikely to be matched in the foreseeable future. Wisden ranked him, along with "MacLaren, Fry, Jackson, Tom Hayward and Tyldesley, among those who stood nearest to Ranjitsinhji", indicative of the high regard in which he was held. The centenary of his death was commemorated last year with a service of remembrance at Malvern College and the unveiling of a plaque at Worcestershire.
Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow