Frank Fee was, on his day, a superb off spinner.
- Born: 14 May 1934 Belfast
- Educated: Methodist College, Belfast; Queens University Belfast
- Occupation: Schoolteacher, Chief Educational Psychologist
- Debut: 25 August 1956 v Sussex at Rathmines
- Cap No.: 475
- Style: Right hand batsman; right arm off spin
- Teams: Cregagh; Queen's University
Frank Fee was, on his day, a superb off spinner. On a wicket that gave him the slightest help, he was devastating, able, as visiting MCC, Scotland and Free Forester sides to College Park and Observatory Lane would testify, to produce the unplayable delivery almost at will. Yet his brilliance was transitory. Less than three years after his debut, he was out of the Irish side, never to return, though he was still to be found playing for Ulster Town in the Guinness Cup eleven years later. Reasons for his abrupt and permanent departure are suggested below, but his non selection still has an air of mystery about it, half a century after he last ran his economical few strides to the wicket to bowl for Ireland.
A tall man who used his height to obtain lift and bring added discomfort to batsmen, Frank was a prominent schoolboy cricketer at "Methody", playing for Cregagh while still at school, before joining Queen's on entering University. His form in NCU cricket brought him selection for Ireland v Sussex at Rathmines in the late summer - if such an abysmal period of weather could be so called - in 1956. Rain washed more than half the playing time in this two day match, so his real debut came v MCC in College Park the following week. It was also his first class debut. On a wicket which gave him considerable help, he returned astonishing figures, the second best on debut in a first class match anywhere in the 20th century. His first innings analysis of 24 - 8 - 56 - 7 was bettered by his second innings 28 - 11 - 44 - 7. At the other end two top class slow left armers Scott Huey and Barclay Wilson shared four wickets, Larry Warke and a run out taking the rest. Unfortunately for Ireland, that very good medium pacer George Chesterton, a frequent visitor to College Park in these matches, also bowled superbly to have a first innings return of 7-14, MCC eventually winning by 22 runs. I, the writer of this piece, watched the first day's play. I was 12 year old and seated at mid wicket as Frank bowled, so was unable to appreciate the finer points, but the memory recalls his unfailing accuracy and the apparent perplexity of the visiting batsmen, with only the future South African Test all rounder JP "Pom -Pom" Fellows-Smith able to counter him. Yet he too went to Frank in the end, caught by Stuart Pollock off a skier at mid wicket, a fate four of his colleagues shared as they hit out in desperation, completely at sea against Frank's flight and sharp spin. Wisden, which forgot to record the match until its 1958 edition referred to "two memorable bowling performances", in describing the work of Frank and George.
The following summer he extended his wicket tally to 43, causing Derek Scott to write in the first of his 51 annual contributions to Wisden, "Fee is tall, changes his pace well, has flight, spin and looks like a true successor to the great JC Boucher." The West Indians came to Ireland in June, having just drawn the Third Test at Nottingham thanks to two magnificent innings by Frank Worrell in the first innings and the ill fated "Collie" Smith in the second. At Ormeau, where rain destroyed the second day's play, Frank was accurate but wicketless. The teams then moved to College Park, where rain again intervened in a one day match, but the visitors just managed a win. Frank had 4-61 as the Windies raced to 140-7 in 108 minutes. His wickets were all good ones Nyron Asgarali and Bruce Pairaudeau, both Test openers, the latter with a Test century to his name, the great Worrell and a young slow left armer, who was starting to experiment with a faster style and was seen by some as potentially a good batsman. His name was Garfield Sobers.
In July, on a rain affected College Park track against Scotland, Frank was again to produce a sensational performance. Ireland batted first and were bowled out for 139 after a late start. Kevin Quinn, Aubrey Finlay and Stuart Pollock all passed 20, but no one else could make much of the bowling of David Livingstone, whom Wisden described as "specialising in leg breaks." Other authorities, including Livingstone himself, believed he was bowling off spin that day, as he always did! There was time for Frank to take one wicket before the close of play on the Saturday night, then on the Monday morning he produced a very remarkable spell of bowling, floating the ball in the air, but also turning it sharply he took the visitors' batting apart. Aided by what would now be an illegal cluster of short legs, who held four catches - Warke taking three - he had a spell of 8-7 reducing the Scots to 49-9. However, as often happens in this unpredictable game, he was unable to take the 10th as a last wicket stand almost doubled the score. Eventually, Larry Warke ended the agony by bowling the No 11. Frank's overall figures were 22 - 12 - 26 - 9. He thus established a new bowling record for Ireland beating Tom Ross who had taken 9-28 v South Africa at The Mardyke in 1904.
Frank took a further three in the second innings to establish a world record, never before had a bowler taken 26 wickets in his initial two first class matches. For good measure the excellent Scotland wicket keeper JT Brown weighed in by equalling another, making 7 dismissals in Ireland's second innings. Before the season's end Frank had bowled well against MCC at Lord's, taking 3-57 in the hosts' only innings and proving the sole Irish bowler able to restrain former England opener John Dewes (149), and totally destroyed a very poor Free Foresters batting line up at Rathmines. He had 10-55 in this match, sharing the spoils with former Cambridge Blue and Essex player Charles Kenny who had nine. Frank was unplayable, on a very helpful Observatory Lane wicket in the second innings, taking 6-19.
However after this season, Frank was never the same bowler again. He remained very accurate but his last six matches brought him only 15 wickets. Useful bowling spells against Worcestershire at College Park and MCC at the same venue, in 1958, brought him two three wicket hauls and Test match wickets of Peter and "Dick" Richardson in the county match and Colin Cowdrey v MCC, but his bowling was compared unfavourably - and perhaps unfairly - with that of Worcestershire's former and future England spinners , Bob Berry and Martin Horton. Incidentally, he also claimed the wicket of Horton who was to score 58 on Test debut v India the following summer. Perhaps Frank's is main contributions to Ireland's cause that summer - again a meteorological misnomer - were with the bat. Against New Zealand at Ormeau, he top scored causing Derek Scott to report, "Frank Fee played a little gem of an innings. It lasted only 18 minutes and he made 31 out of 33 in very correct style and hit a six and three fours." Against MCC he made 11 at No 10 doubling the score in partnership with Alec O'Riordan (58*) in his second match for Ireland. Frank's last match was v Leicestershire at Grace road the following summer. Ireland did well enough in the first innings but were then outplayed, Frank had 3-78 and 2-41, but was described as having "bowled badly." He did not play for Ireland again.
How had this change of fortune come about? Some lay the blame at the door of his club. Cregagh lacked opening bowlers of any real ability. Frank, a good club man, answered the call to become a medium pacer as well as a front line spinner. Thus he was delivering the ball faster and lost much of the loop and flight which had served him so well.
Yet he could bowl well in his old style and show all his old skills. In 1962 he played a major part in a 25 run win for Stuart Pollock's XI v Dublin University on his favourite College Park wicket! After taking only one first wicket innings in the first innings he had 5/51 in the second, spinning out the hosts' middle order. Martin Bagley, a similar type of bowler had been effective for the University, but had not caused the same trouble as Frank. Watching high up on the pavilion balcony, the score box being out of commission, it was impossible for this observer at least, to see why he had been discarded by the selectors. Some of the University's leading batsmen, such as opener Howard Markham, a fluent stroke player who was already a Minor County cricketer with Devon, and Chris Lea, a prominent batsman in club cricket in the English Midlands and later a mainstay of the Warwickshire batting in the Over 50s Championship, seemed to have little offer against him. He also speedily removed the left hander John West, later a famous rugby referee. John was an obdurate batsman, who sometimes seemed to have difficulty in moving the scoreboard along, but was also extremely difficult to get out. On the other hand, Frank bowled with little success in the handful of Guinness Cup matches he played in. In 1970, captaining Ulster Town in his last match, he did not even put himself on to bowl. He did, however, remain a force for Cregagh for a long time. Perhaps the answer to his non selection lies more in selectorial inconsistency. His apparent successor Ken Hope suffered an attack of the yips after gaining 11 caps, but Given Lyness (3 caps 1961) and Ken Kirkpatrick (2 in 1962) were also summarily discarded, Lyness in particular could consider himself unlucky to have been dropped. Hope did, of course, return to gain a 12th cap in 1966, but that was after he had reinvented himself as a batsman. Not until Mike Halliday appeared in the Irish team in 1970 was an off spinner settled in the team once more.
Francis Fee is justly profiled in Siggins and Fitzgerald, "Ireland's 100 Cricket Greats"