Fatso: The Big guys of Cricket

In every generation there have been cricketers who were overweight. Until recent decades fitness was not even regarded as strictly needed for the game, even at the highest level, and we have all played in teams with a fat guy fielding at slip or else ‘hidden’ in the field. But have we gone too far in our demands? Would some of the best cricketers of the past not have made it under current fitness regimes? In recent years, overweight players have increasingly come under criticism. It was not too pleasant when Jos Buttler body-shamed Vernon Philander in the 2nd test earlier in 2020, referring to his ‘fat gut’. Rishabh Pant has been referred to on field in the same way. Philander was noticeably perhaps, but not very, overweight, but it did not prevent him being one of the very finest medium-fast bowlers of recent years with a record that speaks for itself.

Fitness became an issue in the early 1960s. On their way to Australia in 1962 the England cricketers encountered the runner Gordon Pirie on board their ship, and he was asked to advise them on fitness regimes. These were strenuously resisted by the likes of Trueman and Cowdrey, who, it is said, on their forced runs used to take a short-cut between decks. On disembarkation Pirie described the English players to the Australian press as ‘unfit, overweight bar flies’: not, I suppose, a good start to the tour. In the early 1970s England’s Ray Illingworth complained that he could hardly stop fours with an off-side consisting of Colin Cowdrey, Colin Milburn, Tom Graveney, and Ken Higgs, all heavyweights who had little chance of stopping a ball unless it came straight to them, although Cowdrey of course had the defence that he was a superb slip catcher despite his fitness issues. And Milburn was great at short leg.

During cricket’s early years fitness was definitely not an issue. The great WG himself played until he was 50, and was decidedly overweight; yet he is regarded as one of the very greatest cricketers ever. Another early giant in both senses was Australian captain Warwick Armstrong, originally a lithe young man whose eventual 133 kg did not prevent him being a successful allrounder as well as captain. It was said that the Lord’s pitch was never the same after Armstrong sat on it. In 1898 William Nicholson’s famous lithograph ‘Cricket’ portrays the game as played by a batsman who is middle aged and very much overweight, with a backside the size of Brazil, as Bridget Jones would have it. One assumes this would have been a common sight in the late Victorian or Edwardian period.

Then of course there was Colin Milburn himself, whose ample proportions caused mirth when he got literally stuck in a toilet at Northampton. But Milburn pulled in the crowds and many who saw him would say that nobody in history, no, not even Percy Fender or Gilbert Jessop, hit a cricket ball as hard as Milburn. His off drives seemed to scorch the turf, and his fierce pull shots literally broke benches. So what, if a better point fielder could have saved 16 runs?

Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga was another plump guy who is the subject of a famous story. Shane Warne was being successfully blocked by Ranatunga and asked Ian Healy how he could ‘get this guy out of his crease’. ‘A Mars bar on a good length – that should do it’, came the reply. Not to be outdone, the overhearing Ranatunga added, ‘not if [David] Boon gets there first!’. Boon, persistently paunchy and big-moustachio’d, was a highly successful batsman who was also one of the greatest short-leg fielders.

Inzie – Inzamam-ul-Haq, Pakistan captain and great batsman, was seriously overweight, but despite his resemblance to a large sack of potatoes a highly popular batsman of exquisite timing but little inclination to run. This disinclination was usually acquiesced in by his batting partners who were in severe danger of being run out, unless there was a two in the offing that could be finessed into a rather comfortable one. They were not, however, in as much danger as Inzie himself, who holds the record number of runouts in test cricket.

A number of factors contributed to a new emphasis on fitness from the 1990s. One day cricket and the Packer World Series demanded better fielding. Five-day tests with no rest day became troublesome for injury-prone bowlers. Even Shane Warne, whose frame was built from meat pies and burgers, started going to the gym, after seeing Brett Lee emerging therefrom ‘looking like a Gucci model’. It was said at the height of his career that ‘it’s not over til the fat boy spins’. Mike Gatting, however, seems never to have made it as far as a gym, although you might say he could bat a bit. ‘Gatting could be a bit wider at slip’, intoned a commentator. ‘If he was wider he’d probably burst’, came the reply.

Now the issue is not whether players should be fit, but what kind of fitness regime is desirable. Older players shake their heads when they see the rigour of modern regimes. Geoff Boycott was dismayed when Martyn Moxon injured himself using weights and missed half a season’; ‘Weights? Weights?’, expostulated Boycott, ‘Oh dearie me’. Fred Trueman claimed he just needed to bowl – and he bowled a thousand overs a season; his partner in crime Brian Statham said all he needed before bowling was a cup of coffee, a fag and good cough. Medium-pacer Derek Shackleton turned up to the Hampshire nets in the late 1950s, and after passing the outside edge with his first ball and the inside edge with his second ball, walked off saying everything was fine – and it was. Nowadays bowlers have extensive fitness advice and facilities, and nutrition regimes. Bowlers will be regarded as hugely overworked if they bowl 400 first-class overs in a season, never mind 1000.

Fat guys have been gradually weeded out of the game but occasionally one survives the filter mechanisms. In 2020 English grounds were darkened (although there was nobody there to witness it) by the enormous hulk of West Indian offspinner, Rakheem Cornwall, officially the heaviest man ever to play test cricket at 140kg. Cornwall fields at slip and proverbially catches swallows in that position. His ‘run in’ is more of a painful-to-watch slow walk, and when batting he does not run, dealing only in boundaries. Yet 10 wickets in his second test against Afghanistan earned him a place on the England tour and one uneventful test appearance. In domestic cricket he carries all before him in all formats.

Jesse Ryder of New Zealand was another unfiltered plump guy who was mercilessly criticised for his lack of fitness, but again, his figures speak for themselves, and he was in much demand during a short career resulting in a test batting average of 41; by all accounts Jesse was a brilliant gully fieldsman and a useful medium-paced bowler.

Fat men have more often been good batsmen (Colin Cowdrey, David Shepherd, Peter Burge), good spin bowlers (Warwick Armstrong, Jack Simmons, Athol McKinnon), and occasionally medium-pacers; but never really fast bowlers, for obvious reasons. Left-arm quick Fred Rumsey of Worcestershire was one who tried to be quick in spite of a pear-shaped frame, but he was never more than fast-medium. Shannon Gabriel, on the other hand, although he looks somewhat overweight, is also genuinely quick.

So it seems to me that fitness is fitness for purpose not fitness for fitness’ sake. They say if you are good enough you are old enough, but why do they not say if you are good enough you are fit enough? Admittedly, everybody should be good fielder, and useless outfielders are probably no longer tolerable. Shimron Hetmyer manages to be a good outfielder despite the extra pounds, and his lofted drives certainly pack a punch. This is more of a problem in white-ball cricket, in which you will not be likely to stand at slip for three hours - the fall-back for the big guys seems to be a spell at short-third-man. But there has to be a balance, and so long as players try to keep fit, and maintain a decent diet, it should not be made politically correct to look like Brett Lee or Hardik Pandya, if large contributions are being made in batting or bowling. Apart from that the fat guys are often characters of the game and we do not want all cricketers to look the same. David Shepherd became a much-loved figure, so to speak, as an umpire with a ballooning paunch. Who can forget Cowdrey’s late cut or him pocketing a catch, and then producing it delightedly while the crowd looked to the third man boundary? Who can forget David Boon’s pull shot, or him standing truculently at short leg, his moustache visible to the square-leg umpire behind him? So, I say long live the Ryders and the Ranatungas, the Shepherds, the Warnes, the ‘Flat-Jack’ Simmonses, the Cornwalls, and the Inzamams. Without them the game is reduced to a robotic game of percentages, whereas it has always been a game of character.

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