1931 October 21, 2006

Percy's assault on the rule book

Percy Fender ... a tactical genius but one who in 1931 stretched the Laws to the limit

Percy Fender: adroit at stretching the Laws to snapping point © Cricinfo
Percy Fender, the bespectacled allrounder who was one of the leading inter-war cricketers, is best remembered for hitting the fastest first-class hundred of all time. But he led Surrey for more than a decade, and in an era where gentlemen played by the rules, Fender was adroit at stretching the Laws to snapping point.

While his own committee may have been embarrassed by some of his antics, there was no doubting that he was a brilliant captain - some contemporaries even considered him a tactical genius.

Fender's eccentricity reached its zenith in 1931, his final year as captain before he was sacked and replaced by Douglas Jardine. Ironically, he had offered to stand down in Jardine's favour at the start of the summer but had been rebuffed by the committee. By the end of August they might have regretted their decision as on four occasions Fender made the headlines, and all for the wrong reasons.

The first incident came during the Championship match against Lancashire at The Oval in July. Heavy rain overnight prevented a prompt start on the first day, and further showers left the uncovered pitch wet. As a result, each time the ball pitched it made a divot. Fender was aware that should the pitch dry over the weekend, then Surrey would have to bat on an uneven surface. So at the fall of every wicket, he instructed his team to tread down the marks on the pitch. Ernest Tyldesley, Lancashire's captain, protested, but Fender challenged him to show where in the Laws what he was doing was illegal. The umpires, perhaps reluctantly, agreed with him. As it was, the second day was washed out and the match drawn.

Surrey travelled down to Bournemouth for their next game and again Fender upset the opposing captain. Unhappy with Hampshire's slow progress on the opening day, Fender took to bowling booming lobs with his fielders spread far and wide. That might have been enough to make his feelings known, but Hampshire had a left-right pair at the crease at the time. Each time they took a single, Fender insisted that all nine fielders changed over to the same position for the other batsman. At one point, Andrew Sandham started to jog from square leg between balls and was sternly rebuked by his captain and told to walk. One over took 12 minutes to complete .

In Surrey's next match - back at The Oval against Kent - they were set a stiff last-day target by Kent and Fender, a renowned quick scorer, promoted himself to open with the veteran Jack Hobbs. Hobbs played the first ball straight to mid-on, Fender called for an impossible single and was run-out without facing. He skulked back to the pavilion and immediately called off the chase in a fit of pique.

Surrey 's next six matches passed off without incident, but at the end of August Yorkshire came to London. This was always a needle match, and in 1931 it was made more so as Yorkshire arrived already having secured the Championship with games to spare.

Despite poor weather, there were around 5000 at The Oval and Yorkshire were persuaded to start after winning the toss. Strangely, Fender had not gone out to inspect the conditions before tossing.

After three overs Fender left the middle and suggested to Frank Greenwood, Yorkshire 's captain, that conditions were unplayable as his bowlers could not stand up. Greenwood wanted to carry on, but Fender returned to the middle and appealed to the umpires who backed him. And so the players left the ground while the crowd were left bemused.

After a few minutes, several hundred spectators came onto the pitch and protested in front of the pavilion, and soon tempers flared. Frank Chester, the leading umpire of the day, was kicked and had his foot trodden on when he returned after a pitch inspection.

Faced with an increasingly angry assembly, Surrey's committee asked the captains to resume. They agreed, but an extraordinary statement was issued to the press stating that Fender and both umpires still considered the conditions unacceptable. After an 80-minute delay, the game resumed. Further rain breaks meant the match drifted to a draw.

The rest of the season passed without incident. The Cricketer noted that Fender had led the side "with his customary wary insight". Despite that, by the start of the following summer he had been replaced.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.

The Cricketer October 2001
P.G.H. Fender Richard Streeton (Pavilion Books 1987)
Various newspapers

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo