More than the sum of his parts

Stephen Fry delivering the MCC Cowdrey Lecture

My morning newspaper brings me glad tidings. The MCC or Marylebone Cricket Club to give it its full nomenclature, has just announced that its next President will be none other than the celebrated English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, polemicist, television presenter and film director, 64-year-old Stephen Fry. Not to mention that he is a gripping and side-splittingly witty public speaker. My research on the man also reveals that Fry has been a long-time advocate for mental health and has been President of Mind, the mental health charity, for well over a decade. The more astute and observant among you are probably reading this and going, ‘All that is very well but we do not detect the word cricket anywhere in that brief, though awesome, resume of MCC’s somewhat unusual choice for such an exalted position.’ On the face of it, dear reader, you would have made a telling point, but you would have been guilty of missing the wood for the trees. The MCC is not a body that takes decisions on a whim, even if this particular choice bears close scrutiny.

Around 20 years ago, on BBC Radio’s much-loved Test Match Special broadcast at the Oval, Stephen Fry was invited to the commentary box to have a chat with Jonathan ‘Aggers’ Agnew at The Oval, a day on which Sachin Tendulkar made 54 on his 100th Test appearance. Amongst other things, including high praise for India’s little master, Fry shared his world view on the game. ‘It’s a whole cultural world and the marvellous thing is it’s not just a British one. I can’t bear the snobbery that says real cricket is cricket played within sight of a spire and an English field. It’s wonderful, village cricket, but cricket on a coir mat or on a beach or in an alleyway in Calcutta – that’s cricket as well. It’s a game that’s much bigger than its roots. That’s what’s so wonderful. Rather like the English language.’

That pretty much sums up Stephen Fry. A lifelong cricket lover, supporter and a patron of the MCC Foundation, the multi-faceted Fry was invited last year by the MCC to deliver its prestigious annual MCC Cowdrey Lecture, a sure sign that the once undisputed headquarters of world cricket had Stephen Fry in its sights for bigger things. Expressing his overwhelming emotions at the invitation to speak, Fry pointed out that he was only the second non-cricketer to be so invited after the Reverend Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa – ‘big shoes to fill.’ Fry will take over as President of the MCC from former England women’s captain, Clare Connor in October this year. Connor had notched up a unique distinction when she became the first woman president of the MCC in 2021.

While Fry’s love for the game of cricket needs no elaboration, his appointment to this august position underscores his deep concern and anguish at some of the darker aspects that have bedevilled the game in recent years. Yorkshire cricket’s infamous racism row last year, when Pakistan-born cricketer Azeem Rafiq had to face racial abuse in the dressing room, had the British thespian feelingly expressing his solidarity with the victim. ‘When he (Rafiq) said today that he didn’t want his son to go anywhere near cricket my heart fell to my boots. But actually, that simple statement crystallises everything, it gives us a clear human image that says it all. It is a rallying cry.’ In a typical example of Fry flamboyance, he described the handling of that abhorrent incident in Yorkshire as having exuded a ‘mephitic stink.’ He rounded off his observations on this unsavoury incident thus, ‘Unless all our nation’s sons and daughters with the talent and desire to have a life in cricket are confident that cricket will want to have a life with them, the spirit of cricket, its very flame, will flicker and go out. Let’s dedicate ourselves to ensuring that that will never happen.’ That is the kind of language one would like to hear from a president-elect.

While I was driven to hastily pen this appreciation of Stephen Fry’s rise to cricketing stardom, in a manner of speaking, I cannot but take this opportunity to recall some of his brilliant moments on print and television. His comic double act with fellow British actor Hugh Laurie in A Bit of Fry & Laurie and the same partnership delighting fans the world over in their televised interpretation of P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal creations, Jeeves and Wooster, his hilarious partnership with Rowan ‘Mr. Bean’ Atkinson in the memorable Blackadder series – we can watch these again and again and never tire of them.

Fry’s atheistic views on religion saw him take on the high and mighty of theology without taking a backward step. He often stood solidly side-by-side with friend and fellow non-believer, the brilliantly coruscating late Christopher Hitchens. You, dear reader, could do a lot worse than spend a relaxed evening watching these titans at their eloquent best on YouTube. Lest I forget, Stephen Fry’s role in the film Wilde, in which he portrays the protagonist, author and playwright Oscar Wilde, is so eerily uncanny. That Fry is a dead ringer for the controversial Wilde and given Fry’s own unabashed sexual orientation which meshes with Wilde’s, one could be forgiven for mistaking the one for the other. Fry is happily married to British comedian, Elliot Spencer, who is 30 years his junior. Stephen Fry even gained a brief period of notoriety when he was sent to prison for three months for a credit card fraud at the age of 17. Never a dull moment.

As a writer, Stephen Fry is an unmitigated delight. From his hilarious columns which are available in book form (Paperweight, The Stars’ Tennis Balls), his autobiographical works (The Fry Chronicles, More Fool Me), his magnificent retelling of Greek myths (Mythos, Troy and Heroes) – just a few dishy morsels from a wide and impressive body of work.

There you have it. Stephen Fry, a man of many parts and I may even be guilty of merely scratching the surface in describing his astonishing variety of achievements. In inviting such an extraordinary personality to helm the affairs of the MCC for the period 2022-23, the cricketing mavens at Lord’s should be warmly congratulated for their choice. One is confident Stephen Fry will carry out his responsibilities as MCC’s President with erudition, compassion, skill and above all with his renowned wit and humour – qualities the game and the world need more than ever, right now. The silver-tongued orator and soon-to-be cricket boss once famously said, Better sexy and racy, than sexist and racist.’

May the force be with you, Stephen.

(This article appeared in Deccan Chronicle dated May 8, 2022).

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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3 Comments

  1. A brilliant mind, imaginative. Wide interests. True renaissance person. I can’t see the MCC being a white body for much longer. Needs someone with Fry’s standing to pull it into the 21st century.

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