The forgotten England captain
The roll-call of England captains is an evocative list. Almost an A-Z: Atherton, Brearley, Cowdrey, Dexter, Edrich, Flintoff, Graveney, Hutton, Illingworth … With a Hammond and a May and a Strauss thrown in. Since the Second World War, it's been an unbroken list of the biggest names in English cricket.
In fact, Nigel Howard had taken over at Lancashire in 1949, when he was only 23, still their youngest full-time captain. He led them to a share of the Championship in 1950, and had enjoyed four reasonable seasons with the bat - over 900 runs each year since becoming a regular in 1948, with 1174 in 1950. For the time, it was solid but unspectacular: nothing really to suggest that here was a Test player in the making… except for one important thing. Howard was an amateur, and England's captains (and most of the county captains too) came from the unpaid ranks back then. England hadn't been led by a paid professional since the days of privately raised teams in the 19th century.
During the home summer of 1951, England had been led by Freddie Brown, who had proved a popular captain in Australia the previous winter, despite losing heavily. But Brown was over 40, and didn't fancy a winter in India: he stood down from the captaincy. I'd always imagined that Howard must have been MCC's third or fourth choice to lead that winter tour - but actually the committee minutes reveal he was the first one asked, in June 1951.
These were different times. It wasn't only Brown who wasn't too keen on playing in India: of the XI that won the final Test at The Oval in 1951, to clinch a 3-1 victory over South Africa, only four went on the tour, none of them established players. Howard's Lancashire team-mate, the offspinner Roy Tattersall, had nine previous caps, including all five games that summer, but the other three - the young Hampshire allrounder Derek Shackleton and the Yorkshire pair of opener Frank Lowson and wicketkeeper Don Brennan - had only two caps each. There was no Hutton, no Compton, no May, no Evans, no Bailey, no Bedser, no Laker …
It all seems rather peculiar now, but the fact was that England had long felt they didn't need a full-strength team to subdue anyone who wasn't Australia. It might have been true before the war, when only South Africa had given regular trouble, but the times were a-changing. In 1947-48, West Indies had seen off an experimental side - captained by 45-year-old Gubby Allen - and showed that was no fluke by winning a joyous series in England in 1950. Even New Zealand, who would not lower England's colours until 1977-78, showed they were no longer pushovers by drawing all four Tests in the summer of 1949. Those were only three-day games - only Australia were deemed worthy of the full five - but that was changed the following year.
That left India, who had been playing Tests since 1932, but still hadn't won one. However, more regular international exposure had begun to harden them into a useful team, featuring batsmen like the two Vijays - stylish opener Merchant and prolific captain Hazare. At home, they would be difficult to beat, and any inferiority complex that might have existed before had been buried, chiefly by the combative allrounders Lala Amarnath and Vinoo Mankad.
And so Howard was up against it. A successful series might have secured him the England captaincy at home as well, and there was an Australian visit looming in 1953. But India had the better of the first Test, in Delhi: only a superb rearguard from the Glamorgan left-hander Allan Watkins saved their blushes. He resisted for nine hours for 137 not out, and put on 158 with Donald Carr, the vice-captain.
That innings of Carr, another amateur, posed a few problems for the management. Tom Graveney, the side's best batsman, had missed the first Test, but had to return for the second, in Bombay (where he would score 175). Who would make way for him? Watkins grabbed the nettle, and suggested the captain - who'd made just 13 and 9 in Delhi - should step down. But, as Carr said, "It became clear that he was not going to let himself be left out." Instead it was Carr, who'd just made 76 on debut, who was dropped. "I suppose it was inevitable really," he admitted, "and I've sometimes wondered what I would have done in similar circumstances." There's not much doubt who Graveney himself would have left out: Howard was, he said, "a very ordinary cricketer - and that's putting it kindly". Carr was somewhat more generous: "I found Nigel a very nice fellow, and he had a good record as captain of Lancashire."
The second and third Tests were drawn, but Howard continued to struggle - 20 in Bombay, 23 and 20 not out in Calcutta. He only made a run in the fourth Test in Kanpur, but it didn't matter much: England's spinners outbowled India's, and the match was won. Victory was set up by Howard's Lancastrian colleagues Tattersall and slow left-armer Malcolm Hilton, who shared 17 wickets.
Ironically, Howard did now stand down - he had contracted pleurisy, and had to return home. It fell to Carr to captain England for the only time in the final Test in Madras - and it was a historic game, as India finally broke their duck and squared the series, in a match that had an unscheduled rest day when news came through late on the first afternoon that King George VI had died. Vinoo Mankad did the damage with 8 for 55 in the first innings (and four more in the second), then centuries from Pankaj Roy and Polly Umrigar set up a big lead. It was probably England's lack of quick bowling that cost them: both Roy and Umrigar would struggle against the fiery young Fred Trueman in England later in 1952. But that's not to detract from India's win. The Times admitted: "Over the whole series England seemed rather lucky to have shared the honours."
Carr remembered: "The Indians were very polite to us after the match and said the reason we had lost was because we were so upset by the news of the King's death."
The tour manager was Geoffrey Howard (no relation). He recalled his captain in Stephen Chalke's fine 2001 memoir At the Heart of English Cricket: "He was very young, and his upbringing had been so materialistic. In a way, he'd had things too easy in his life. He'd got where he had because of his father.
"He didn't like India, and he never really felt well. He was as fit as a flea really, but I'm sure he thought he was going to pick up some awful plague. He was so apprehensive about his health - and the strange thing was that he died at the age of only 54." That was in 1979, not long after he'd retired from the family textile business to the Isle of Man.
Howard played on for Lancashire until 1954, but never did captain England again. It was Len Hutton, a professional, who would take on (and beat) the Australians in 1953. Still, MCC remained keen on the idea of amateur captains, even after the distinction between Gentlemen and Players was officially abolished in 1962. But they never took India - or anyone else - quite so lightly again.
Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2014