He may not have been the greatest cricketer to have donned the whites of Sussex CCC, but the legendary C.B Fry’s status as the nation’s finest ever all-round sportsman is surely unrivalled. And when I say ‘all-round sportsman’, I’m not talking about Ian Botham bashing the Aussies in the summer of 1981 before strapping on the boots for Scunthorpe United during the grim winter months when the smell of leather on willow had given way to the scent of de-icer on glass. No, in comparison to C.B, Botham’s sporting prowess was, er, small fry…
Not content with captaining both Sussex and England at cricket, Fry’s athletic repertoire extended to being capped by his country and reaching an FA Cup Final with Southampton at football, turning out for the mighty Barbarians at rugby union, and breaking the world record for the long jump – an event he didn’t even bother training for. On a warm summer’s day in 1893, Fry was lounging around in his dressing room sucking on a cigar awaiting the start of the Oxford University athletics trials, when he was summoned to the long jump pit. According to legend, he calmly placed his stogie in the ashtray, strolled to the track in his civvies, slipped on his vest and leapt to a then stunning distance of seven metres and 17 centimetres, before casually retiring to the changing room to finish his smoke. Three years later, with Fry away on England cricket duty, the American Ellery Clark claimed Olympic long jump gold with a winning mark a full metre shy of Fry’s world record.
With the greatest show on earth fast approaching (the Olympics, not the new series of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings), I began to wonder if it was possible, in the modern era, to succeed in more than one sporting discipline. Before we go any further, I think it’s important to highlight my own stellar all-round sporting pedigree… Back in the mid-90s, my first post-university job was to manage a pub in the city of Worcester, where I was swiftly co-opted onto the darts, dominoes, fives-and-threes, pool and cribbage teams, despite being a good 30 years younger than any of my teammates. Darts was my pub sport forte, until one soul-destroying Wednesday night league clash when my wits were pitted against a teak-tough scaffolder whose body was adorned with more ink than the residents of an entire American penitentiary. After confidently stepping up to take out double 18 for the match, my arm suddenly started trembling like a jelly in an earthquake. My first arrer lodged itself in the wall, and the next two had the scorer ducking for cover. My darts career was over, and a few days later another event contributed to my ‘sporting’ retirement; during a fag break in a tense cribbage encounter against the Black Bull, I was asked out on a date by a lady called Brenda who can’t have been a day under 50. Mind you, she rustled up a lovely breakfast…
Where was I? Oh yes, all-rounders. Last year I had the pleasure of spending time with the fastest man on earth, Usain Bolt; a man so cocksure of his sporting prowess that he’s convinced that he can break into the Manchester United first team once he hangs up his running spikes.
Sensing my skepticism about the likelihood of this future career materialising, he added: “I’m telling you, man, how can I prove it to you?”
Just then I had an idea. The following day I was playing for my local Saturday side, Old Varndeanians FC, in the Mid Sussex League, and I had an inkling that a pacy, left-sided player could be the perfect addition to our ageing squad.
“How do you fancy a game tomorrow?” I asked.
“Yeah, man. I’m in the UK for a few more days and I ain’t got nothing on. I’ll show you!”
We began discussing tactics, where he would play and how – the absurdity of the situation now totally lost on me.
At that point, reality bit as Usain’s mother sidled over to us. “I heard that,” she said, in a stern Jamaican accent so strong it made Bob Marley sound like Prince William. “My son is a multi-million dollar athlete. He is NOT playing football with you.”
Usain bowed his head like a chastised child who’d just been caught bunking off school. My dream of lining up next to the world-record-breaking sprinter on a remote football pitch in Falmer had been dashed. “Cribbage, Usain?”