This week’s Openers from Richard H Thomas looks at the curious tale of Arthur Fagg. A man who found himself present although not actively involved in some of cricket’s biggest days but who, in 1938, became the first person to achieve a remarkable feat – never since equalled…
At the Mexico Olympics of 1968, Bob Beamon broke the world long jump record. By so much, they said, that no one would ever beat it. And they didn’t, until Mike Powell went further 23 years later. That record itself is now 23 years old and counting, and those that know about these things seem to think that this time, it really will never be outdone.
Cricket too, has some records similarly described as unbeatable; most seem to involve Donald Bradman. One seemingly untouchable feat, however, has nothing to do with the Don. Instead, it belongs to a ‘nearly man’ of English cricket – Arthur Fagg. A dashing opening batsman for Kent especially fond of hooking, when Hobbs and Sutcliffe had finished he looked in pole position to fill the breach. He didn’t stand out in two Tests against India in 1936, but had clearly done enough to make England’s tour to Australia in 1936/37 on that awkward first trip back after the Bodyline series. Fagg had hardly got going before he contracted rheumatic fever – serious enough for him to be shipped home to convalesce for the whole of the next domestic season. You’d hardly credit what happened next.
Against Essex at Colchester in his comeback year of 1938, he had a match beyond cricketing dreams before or since. Opening up, he reached his fifty in 42 minutes and completed his century – before lunch – just over 50 minutes later. His 150 took just over three hours, and 40 minutes after that he reached 200. Finally, Essex got him for 244 in an innings which contained 31 boundaries. At the end of the first day’s play lasting more than 125 overs, Kent were all out for 429 and Essex scored a dozen before the close. Cricket might have evolved significantly since 1938, but not, apparently, when it comes to value for your gate money and sprightly over-rates.
The next day, after dismissing Essex for 350, Kent went in again. Fagg outscored opening partner Peter Sunnucks by a factor of three, and after 69 minutes passed his hundred. On the final day of the match, Fagg took another 50 minutes to get to 150, passed 200 in 165 minutes, and was 202* when Kent declared. Rain prevented a result, but it hardly mattered. In a match yielding 1,100 runs in three days, Fagg had scored 40 per cent of them. More importantly, he became the first and only player to register two doubles in a first-class match. For Fagg, it proved to be the highlight of a truly wonderful season; 2,297 runs and nine hundreds earned him selection for the Oval Test against Australia.
And what a match it was, too. England racked up 903-7 declared, and while Hutton broke records and batted on and on, twelfth man Fagg was witness rather than participant. Curiously, being there to watch while not being part of the action was to become a familiar theme throughout his subsequent career as an umpire. Like the fictitious narrator in The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, on hand to watch so many notable historic moments, Fagg had a habit of being at square-leg for plenty of cricket’s equivalents.
For example, who was umpiring when D’Oliveira embarrassed the selectors with 158 at The Oval in 1968, giving them a huge problem when picking their team for South Africa? In the same match of course, the crowd mopped up a sodden pitch for Underwood to take a seven-fer and win the Test.
Which umpire refused to come out on the morning of a Test match in protest at the West Indies’ on-field behaviour in 1973?
Who watched from one end while Bob Massie, seemingly controlling the ball with elastic, took 16 wickets at Lord’s on debut in 1972?
Who was it that watched a youthful Graham Gooch get a pair on his debut?
And, finally, which umpire woke one morning at Leeds in 1975 to news that the Test wicket had been wrecked by vandals?
Fagg, Fagg, Fagg and Fagg again. He could certainly say ‘I was there’ for plenty of red letter days and startling incidents.
Watching quietly while headlines and record books were written and re-written, perhaps he allowed himself a smile when reflecting that of all those amazing feats, his own was perhaps the least likely ever to be equalled.