Obituary, 2003

Geoffrey Howard

Howard, Geoffrey Cecil, died in Minchinhampton on November 8, 2002, aged 93, his place in cricket history secure as an enlightened administrator and popular tour manager. Geoffrey Howard was secretary of Lancashire and Surrey and had charge of three MCC tours of Australia and the Indian subcontinent. The 1954-55 Ashes tour were the focal point of his rich and varied life, with England winning a series in Australia for the first time since Bodyline in 1932-33. But for notoriety it would be hard to surpass the MCC A tour he took to Pakistan a year later. When the MCC players doused umpire Idris Begh with a bucket of water, all hell broke loose.

"Alexander's Rag-team Banned," punned a Daily Mirror headline after the MCC president, Field-Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis, offered to bring the tourists home. Fortunately Howard, the man on the spot, was a natural diplomat: tactful, courteous and - an attribute by no means commonplace in the English cricket establishment of the time - sympathetic to his fellow-man regardless of creed, colour or class. It was, after all, little more than four years earlier that the secretary of MCC had seen him off to India, Pakistan and Ceylon with a "Rather you than me. I can't stand educated Indians." Geoffrey Howard got on famously with them, so much so that in later years he acted as liaison officer for Indian and Pakistani sides touring England, and he was asked several times to take teams to India for jubilee games.

He inherited this respect for people and his deep love of cricket from his grandfather, Sir Ebenezer Howard, a founder of the Garden City Movement. It was Ebenezer who first took him to The Oval, where the ten-year-old Geoffrey touched the hem of Jack Hobbs's blazer. After leaving school at 16 to work in a bank, he played good enough club cricket as a batsman and wicket-keeper to be offered a place on the Lord's groundstaff. He declined, but had three games for Middlesex in 1930 while on annual leave. He made his debut at Lord's, pushing one of the professionals, the Arsenal and England winger Joe Hulme, down to twelfth man. When he went in to bat, the Gloucestershire captain, Bev Lyon, told Wally Hammond to take over while he went off for a haircut. In those three games Howard scored 25 runs, Wisden called one of his two catches "exceptional", and that might have been the end of his county connections but for the war. His outstanding operational and man-management skills were recognised in the RAF, which swiftly promoted him from auxiliary airman to acting squadron leader; the Essex secretary, Brian Castor, also noted them when Howard, restless after returning to civvy street, applied for his job in 1946. Castor was off to Surrey, and when Howard missed out at Essex he invited him to go to The Oval as assistant-secretary. Two years later Howard went north to Old Trafford to be Lancashire secretary until 1964, whereupon he returned to The Oval as secretary from 1965 to 1975. These were years of reconstruction - of grounds, finances and the very game itself - and he was at the heart of the changes, pushing for reform and sitting on various MCC committees. Sometimes his vision for cricket must have struck the game's establishment as downright revolutionary. Doubting the need for two major grounds in London, he thought the time would come when Surrey should move from The Oval into the county of Surrey, while Middlesex could play as London. Sporting a yellow shirt at one Surrey committee meeting, he said, "Why don't we wear these for our Sunday matches?" - and in time, albeit not until 1992, the counties came round to his way of thinking. In retirement he served the Minor Counties for eight years as honorary treasurer, and in 1989 Surrey honoured him with their presidency.

"Of all the tours I went on," Trevor Bailey said, "that one of Australia [in 1954-55] was easily the happiest." It could so easily have been a disaster. On arriving at Perth, Howard discovered that MCC had not provided funds to cover the team's accommodation and travel expenses, so he negotiated a £10,000 overdraft against his own personal guarantee. He took the initiative to call a doctor when the captain, Len Hutton, refused to get out of bed on the morning of the Third Test, with the series 1-1. "I can see Len now," he told his biographer, Stephen Chalke. "He was sitting up in his bed with a woollen vest on, staring at the wall." And when the Ashes were retained at Adelaide, he signed for 100 bottles of champagne. It was doubly fitting when his life story, At The Heart of English Cricket, took the Cricket Society Literary Award in 2002 that Geoffrey Howard, aged 93, was there for the presentation.

© John Wisden & Co