Sad story of Frank Foster, Ashes hero that time forgot

Warwickshire bowler was an England star 100 years ago but died penniless in a psychiatric hospital. Stephen Brenkley tells his tale

The world was once at Frank Foster's feet. He was a gilded cricketer who rose quickly and splendidly. All that Foster touched seemed to turn to gold.

Yet he is all but forgotten now, or at least barely mentioned when the great deeds of English cricket and its players are recalled. There are no plans to mark the centenary of his annus mirabilis in 1911, when he performed deeds that should ring down the ages. It was written of him then: "Everything is possible at three-and-twenty. Cricket at its brightest is a young man's game and Foster is the personification of youthful energy."

Foster is a footnote when he should be a chapter. The full, dramatic collapse of his life has only now been revealed because it had been convenient to airbrush him from memory and therefore history.

From cricketer of genius, who pioneered leg-theory bowling, led Warwickshire to their first County Championship title and played a key role in a legendary Ashes series victory, the rest of Foster's life was catastrophic. He died in a psychiatric hospital alone and touched by madness.

He was an undischarged bankrupt who had consorted with prostitutes and been implicated in the murder of one; he was estranged completely from his family and the prosperous high-street clothing store chain they ran; he had no friends in cricket; he probably had no friends in the world.

This wreckage of a life has been pieced together by the redoubtable cricket statistician Robert Brooke, who long ago became fascinated by the fact that one of the country's most formidable all-rounders seemed so little celebrated.

"He did such marvellous things in such a short time and then disappeared from the scene," said Brooke. "I had always thought it was a bit strange and wondered if there was a story but I never imagined this. A few years ago I decided to get a death certificate to see what he had died from really and when it said he had died in a mental hospital I thought 'blimey' and it all started from there."

So Brooke set to painstaking work, the results of which are contained in a diamond of a little book from the Association of Cricket Statisticians. It is a remarkable chronicle of triumph and disaster, neither of which was treated the same.

Foster's father, William, founded the gentlemen's outfitters, which he called Foster Brothers, although there was no brother. The business would eventually grow so that it was a part of the retail scene in England. There was a branch on every high street. Foster is often, mistakenly, assumed to be one of the Foster brothers, most of whom played for Worcestershire and were sons of clergyman. He is not.

It took a little while for Foster's cricket talent to be spotted but he made a swift impression when he first played for Warwickshire in 1908. By 1911, he was invited to be the county's captain, partly because of his ability, partly because he was an amateur.

He declined, insisting that he had retired from the game to concentrate on business. He had done likewise the previous season when announcing that he had fallen in love, intended to be married and would play no more. This was the first sign of a capricious personality.

Warwickshire started that 1911 summer dreadfully, losing to Surrey by an innings under Lt Charles Cowan, who was keen but hapless. A telegraph was sent to Foster's father impressing on him the county's urgent need. "They want you, my boy, you had better go," said father to son.

No man could have led from the front more singularly. Foster took all before him as his side crept up the table. Victory followed victory as the captain, so to speak, fostered a wonderful team spirit. Finally, in the last match of the season at Northampton, the title belonged to Warwickshire.

It was unbelievable for the time when nobody outside the "Big Six" – Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Middlesex, Kent – was expected to prevail. He took 141 wickets at 20, scored 1,614 runs at 42. Two decades later when his life was following a different course, Foster wrote in some rambling memories which Brooke unearthed in the library of Warwickshire's home ground, Edgbaston: "My joy was unbounded. I will always remember Northampton for giving me the greatest day of my life." How poignant that sentence was to prove.

Foster and his team were met by cheering thousands at Birmingham station and taken by a fleet of cars to the Grand Hotel. The Championship meant something then.

This resplendent amateur all-rounder was an obvious choice for the Ashes tour that winter and his resplendent form continued. England lost the first Test match but won the next four. Sydney Barnes and Foster were irrepressible. Barnes took 34 wickets, Foster 32 for fewer runs. The series always seems to be remembered for Barnes not Foster, yet it was Foster who also scored 226 runs at 32.

Foster played for England again in the disastrous Triangular Series of 1912 and rediscovered his superlative touch for Warwickshire in 1914 when he again did the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets and in one innings made a triple century. Here was a future England captain.

Then his life began to unravel. The First World War found him uncertain what to do and in August 1915 it was taken out of his hands when he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg in a motorcycle accident. Only his fitness prevented his foot from being amputated but his major cricket career was over.

Thereafter, Foster drifted. He was given a handsome salary by the family business but he was not much good at his job. By 1928 his services were dispensed with, though he was given an allowance. He gravitated to London. In 1931, the body of a young prostitute, was found in an empty shop. She had been strangled. In her seedy flat, a cheque for £10 was found. It had been signed by Foster.

His eccentric version of events was accepted at the inquest though eyebrows were raised. There was to be no redemption. Foster was on a downhill course. He parted completely from his young family, ran up huge gambling debts and was eventually formally declared bankrupt.

There was the odd foray into cricket. Before Douglas Jardine took England to Australia in 1932-33 it is known that he met Frank Foster. Twenty years before Foster had bowled leg theory to Australians, coming left arm round the wicket. What he advised Jardine at their meeting in Belgravia will never be known, though Foster bizarrely disowned Bodyline as the method came to be called.

In 1934, Foster, then 45, the gilded youth gone for ever, suggested that he should be picked in that summer's series against Australia as he knew how to bowl to Australians. He was becoming unhinged. He stayed in Birmingham during the Second World War, but in 1946 after the resumption of cricket he was banned from Edgbaston "for his disgraceful conduct in the past season, notably towards amateur players and the catering staff".

Four years later, Foster was arraigned on charges of larceny and defrauding and escorted to the establishment that had begun its life as Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum. Eight years later, he died there. Robert Brooke's memoir is called The Fields Were Sudden Bare, a line from John Clare's poem, "Remembrances". Clare spent his last 23 years in the same hospital.

When Brooke began his research, he spoke to Leslie Deakins the long-time secretary of Warwickshire. "When I asked about Foster, he said 'Sad case, I think you ought to let him rest in peace.' I thought, blow that." The outcome is a painful but compelling exhumation of a man who plummeted from the stars.

Frank Foster Factfile

Born: 31 January, 1889, Deritend

Action: Left-arm fast-medium bowler

Died: 3 May, 1958, Northampton

County Career

1908-1914: Warwickshire

Matches: 159 Highest score 305

Best Bowling in an innings: 9/118 Average 20.75

International Career

Test Debut: Australia v England, Sydney, 15-21 December, 1911

Matches: 11 Highest score 71

BBI: 6/91

Average: 20.57

Foster's unique bowling style and aggressive attitide with the bat saw him command impressive figures in a brief career. Making his county debut in 1908, he took 23 wickets in his first five matches. Joining the 1911-12 Ashes tour, Foster more than justified his selection, taking 32 wickets in helping to bowl England to a 4-1 series victory, while scoring an impressive three half centuries himself. His triple-hundred in a day for Warwickshire against Worcestershire at Dudley in 1914 stood as a county record until Brian Lara's 501.

Matt Bass

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