Not only was Moseley legend J.F. ‘Fred’ Byrne an England captain and British Isles tourist he was also an accomplished all-round cricketer.
Byrne made his first class cricket debut in 1897 when he played for Warwickshire in their match with Leicestershire at Edgbaston. The home side won the match by an innings and 29 runs with Fred’s contribution being 100 with the bat and 0 for 11 with the ball. One critic commented, “Several of his strokes were scarcely correct” but that “taken as a whole his innings was an excellent one.”
In his next appearance for Warwickshire, against Surrey, also at Edgbaston Byrne scored 10 and 54 and took 2 for 19. He also had “a marvellous escape” when running between the wickets he fell over and was lying prostrate several yards outside his crease when the wicketkeeper completely missed the throw in from his fielder and the ball went sailing over the boundary for four runs!
Fred also made some other notable scores during the 1897 season, hitting 63 against Lancashire at Old Trafford, 58 versus the same opponents at Edgbaston, 53 in the match with Essex at Leyton and 63 not out against Gloucestershire at Gloucester. At the completion of the season his average was 33.7 which was third in the Warwickshire averages for the year.
Early in his cricketing career Byrne crossed swords with the redoubtable W.G. Grace during a match with Gloucestershire. A bowler who tossed the ball so high that it appeared from above the sightscreen and in the face of the setting sun was troubling Fred, who was then a young and inexperienced batsman. The umpires upheld Byrne’s appeal as long as one more over was bowled from the other end. Grace reacted predictably and showered Fred with a torrent of ridicule. However, the young batsman stood his ground and at the completion of the over strode off to the pavilion obliging the fielders to follow suit. This action seems to have gained Grace’s respect for as the Warwickshire players were changing there was a loud knock on the dressing room door and W.G. enquired ‘Is young Byrne there?’ because ‘I’d like him to join me in a glass of champagne’.
During 1898 Byrne’s Warwickshire appearances were curtailed due to his business commitments, his highest score being 47 against Essex, at Edgbaston and his best bowling figures 2 for 14 in the match with Gloucestershire, at Cheltenham.
Fred did not play again for Warwickshire until 1900 because he was in South Africa on business where he married while under siege in Kimberley during the Second Boer War. In the season of his return he played only one match, against Hampshire, at Edgbaston, when he scored 34 and 14.
The following season saw Byrne, once more, playing regularly for the county. His best scores were 63 against Essex, at Leyton, 76 at Derby and 110 versus Worcestershire, at Edgbaston. As with most of life Fred liked to get on with things and having taken an hour to score 14 runs, of his 76, against Derbyshire he resolved never again to bat in such a slothful manner.
Byrne achieved a notable feat during the 1902 season when playing for Warwickshire against London County, at Crystal Palace, he dismissed W.G. Grace twice. Perhaps, after their earlier encounter the great man forgave Fred. At all events he was presented with a silver mounted cricket ball to mark his achievement.
In 1903 Fred Byrne was appointed captain of Warwickshire, an appointment that was greeted with universal approval. As mentioned previously Fred’s philosophy of life was not to hang around too much and any batting partner who did not share his view of the need to get the scoring moving was likely to find himself back in the pavilion after being called for a suicidal run!
In similar vein on another occasion when a Worcestershire steward had the temerity to move Mrs Byrne from her seat he soon found himself heaved bodily from the members’ enclosure!
Byrne began his period of captaincy in his usual no-nonsense way leading his side to a win at The Oval in his first match, which had seemed destined for a draw on the final day until the Warwickshire captain set his team a ‘grand example’ and hurried them to victory.
However, as the season progressed there was some criticism of Fred’s leadership. After the Derbyshire match one commentator observed that “the captain lacked a clear plan of action” and following the game with Lancashire the Birmingham Post correspondent noted, “Byrne was too reluctant to experiment.”
Predictably none of this seemed to faze Fred and against Gloucestershire, at Bristol, on a final day punctuated by rain interruptions, he hit three towering sixes out of the ground to win the match minutes before another downpour.
During his first year as Warwickshire captain Byrne scored 569 runs at an average of 21.88 with a highest score of 77 not out against Gloucestershire in the game mentioned above. Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac reported that he had led the side “with much credit” and “generally set the eleven a good example by his keenness in the field.”
In 1904 Fred Byrne was again appointed captain of Warwickshire and during an undistinguished season for the county he had a highest score of 83 against Cambridge University, at Edgbaston, and recorded bowling figures of 5-57 against Leicestershire, at Leicester.
Byrne again led the county in the following season and against Lancashire, at Edgbaston, made his highest-ever first class score of 222. He also shared in a record opening partnership of 333 with S.P. Kinneir who scored 158. This record first wicket partnership stood until 1960.
Against Sussex, at Hove, Fred Byrne, was involved in an unusual incident and benefited from a lucky escape. During his innings he ran out of his ground by about three yards to play a drive but missed and the ball grazed his leg stump but strangely dislodged the off-bail. The wicketkeeper missed the ball, which fell to the ground two feet behind the stumps. Much confusion followed with appeals for both stumped and bowled. Byrne himself was unsure of what had happened exactly and so stood his ground. The umpire at the bowler’s end thought that he had been stumped and therefore gave him not out for having been bowled while the square leg umpire who could see that he had not been stumped also gave him not out and Fred survived!
At the conclusion of the 1905 season the famous cricket and rugby journalist E.H.D. Sewell reported in the Evening Standard and St. James Gazette that Byrne was ‘”a fine captain.”
Fred Byrne’s start to the 1906 cricket season was delayed by a knee injury that he had picked up in the final of the Midland Counties Challenge Cup while playing for Moseley. He made a modest start with 8 against Northamptonshire, at Coventry, but soon got into his stride with 115 in the match with Leicestershire. Overall, however, there were few highlights for Warwickshire during the year and their cricket was “of a very mediocre level.”
The position of Warwickshire captain during 1907 was surrounded by uncertainty. Initially the committee re-appointed Byrne but he declined the honour ‘for business reasons.’ Pressure was then brought to bear and he reversed his decision, however, before May was out he decided that he was unable to lead the county as he would wish to and he resigned the captaincy. He did, however, undertake to play in a number of matches when he would ‘still act as captain.’ Such a situation could not have helped the other players in the side who would, at times, not know who was to lead them on the field. In the event Byrne led Warwickshire on 11 occasions during the season and made a highest score of 73 against Worcestershire at New Road.
Fred’s appearances for Warwickshire became more sporadic from 1908 although he still led the side on occasions such as against Hampshire, in 1911, when he captained his side to an overwhelming victory.
Byrne played his last match for the county in 1912 having played in 138 matches and having scored a total of 4,730 runs at an average of 23.07. With the ball for Warwickshire he took 71 wickets at an average of 29.80.
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