Bears ace Chris Woakes and the rest of England’s squad are in Australia in search of answers to the old question:
“What does it take to win the Ashes down under?”
Well, here’s one way: Take two great mavericks from the West Midlands and unleash them on the Aussie batsmen.
That’s what happened in 1911/12 – with sensational results…
The summer of 1911 was momentous for Warwickshire. They won the County Championship for the first time – and at the same time unfurled arguably the most remarkably unexpected triumph in the history of sport, never mind cricket.
After a string of mediocre seasons, the Bears began 1911 with an innings defeat to Surrey inside two days at The Oval. They were a bit of a shambles.
So a call was made to 22-year-old all-rounder Frank Foster. In typical maverick style, Deritend-born Foster, who had played for Warwickshire since 1908 had, despite an apparently brilliant future, recently announced his retirement from cricket. The club begged him to think again – and come back as captain. He said yes.
Foster had not played for England before but was to bestride his debut Ashes series just as he had the previous county season – and form a devastating partnership with another great West Midlands maverick: Sydney Barnes.Brian Halford
Foster immediately led his team to victory over Lancashire at Old Trafford. Exactly 108 days later, on a damp morning in Northampton, the Bears polished off Northamptonshire to clinch the title. The team that was a shambles were champions. Transformed by Foster’s dynamic leadership.
Alongside his leadership skills, the captain played brilliant cricket and his 1,383 runs and 116 wickets that season earned him selection for the winter Australia tour. Foster had not played for England before but was to bestride his debut Ashes series just as he had the previous county season – and form a devastating partnership with another great West Midlands maverick: Sydney Barnes.
Smethwick-born Barnes had played four games for Warwickshire as a young man, then 46 for Lancashire between 1899 and 1903, but disliked the grind of the county game. Though one of the finest and fastest bowlers in the world, he preferred club cricket and representing his beloved Staffordshire. Although 38 years old, Barnes had played only 12 Tests, and none in the last two years, when he was selected for the 1911/12 Australia tour.
He was much-feared – and not just by opponents. Perhaps the grumpiest cricketer ever to represent England, S.F. was not a man to drop catches off. He was an intensely moody individual, as proven right at the start of the 1911/12 Ashes.
In the opening Test, at Sydney, England captain Johnny Douglas chose to open the bowling with Frank Foster and himself. This offended Barnes who duly sulked, performing far below his best. Australia began their defence of the urn with a 146-run win, though Foster marked his Test debut with a stylish half-century and a five-for.
With Australia 1-0 up, Douglas reconsidered. In the second Test, at Melbourne, Barnes took the new ball – and his near-unplayable opening spell of five for six in 11 overs reduced Australia to 38 for six. Barnes’ blistering pace and Foster’s brisk, perfectly-pitched swing brought them a combined 15 wickets in the match and England won by eight wickets. The series was levelled, but the West Midlands maestros had only just begun.
In the third Test, at Adelaide, Australia chose to bat and were skittled for 133 as Foster took five for 36.
Frank Foster played all five Tests in the 1911/12 Ashes but was to play only six more. From May 1911 to March 1912 he coruscated for Warwickshire and England, the best all-rounder in the world, but he never recaptured that form.Brian Halford
Warwickshire’s captain then scored 71 as England piled up 501 on the way to a seven-wicket win in which Foster and Barnes shared another 14 wickets. England led 2-1 after a match which continued one curiosity – when Aussie veteran Victor Trumper was injured, Sussex batsmen Joe Vine, who was to make his debut for England in the next Test, went out and fielded for the Aussies. A noble gesture – though Bears wicketkeeper Tiger Smith had mixed feelings about it when Vine took a catch off Tibby Cotter to get rid of him.
Back at Melbourne for the fourth Test, Australia were swept away again as Foster and Barnes shared another 14 wickets in an innings-and-225-run win which brought the Ashes back into England’s possession. The Aussies simply had no answer to the chaps from Brum and Smethwick and suffered again in the final Test at Sydney. It appeared that Australia would have a consolation victory when, chasing 363, they reached 209 for three, but they fell in one final heap as Foster (30.1-7-43-4) and Barnes 39-12-106-4 saw England home by 70 runs.
Barnes finished the series with 34 wickets and Foster 32 as well as 226 runs. Here were two great cricketers at the peak of their powers. Yet neither, for different reasons, would tower for England long-term.
The First World War would soon intervene, of course, but Barnes never obeyed convention for long and was to play only 27 Tests, taking 189 wickets at 16.43 apiece. His fleeting county career brought 226 him wickets (at 19.71) yet he was to torment batsmen on Staffordshire’s behalf for decades. In 1928, at the age of 55, he took 76 wickets for them at 8.21 apiece. The West Indies tourists that year averred that Barnes was the fastest bowler they faced. He played his last game for Staffordshire, aged 62, having taken 1,441 wickets for them at 8.15 apiece.
Frank Foster played all five Tests in the 1911/12 Ashes but was to play only six more. From May 1911 to March 1912 he coruscated for Warwickshire and England, the best all-rounder in the world, but he never recaptured that form.
Back with the Bears in 1912 he looked tired and, in 1913, fell so far from fitness, mentally and physically, he had to rest in mid-season.
He returned to form in 1914, completing the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets and becoming the first Warwickshire player to score a triple-century (against Worcestershire at Dudley). In the last match of the season,
Foster and the richly-promising Percy Jeeves bowled champions Surrey to defeat at Edgbaston – but neither would set foot on a first-class cricket field again. In July 1916, Jeeves disappeared without trace during the Battle of the Somme. Eleven months earlier, back in Birmingham, Foster had been involved in a motor-cycle accident which left him with leg injuries which ended his cricket career.
Between the wars, Foster’s life became tangled and troubled. He drank heavily, a succession of business ventures failed and his mental health deteriorated. So did his behaviour. In 1946 after the resumption of cricket following the Second World War, he was banned from Edgbaston “for his disgraceful conduct in the past season, notably towards amateur players and the catering staff.”
The dashing, brilliant all-rounder, who in his heyday had trounced the Aussies, spent the last eight years of his life in Northampton County Asylum, where he died in 1958. A tragic and anonymous end for a great – arguably Warwickshire’s greatest ever – cricketer.
Test Cricket at Edgbaston in 2018
England face India at ‘Fortress Edgbaston’ in 2018 determined to build on their three consecutive victories here in Birmingham over the last three seasons.
Starting on Wednesday 1 August, tickets are on-sale now priced from £29 for adults and from £16 for under 16s.