A tribute to Sir Pelham Warner, the founder of The Cricketer magazine in 1921 - known affectionately as 'Plum' Warner and the 'Grand Old Man' of English cricket
`Plum' was an admirable player only a little removed from greatness, a Test batsman in his own right at the height of the Golden Age, the maker of 60 hundreds and, despite physical frailty and recurrent ill-health, all but 30,000 runs. Chiefly, though he will be remembered as a leader, as the only man who has ever twice brought back the Ashes from Australia; who ended his playing career in a blaze of glory by leading Middlesex to the most thrilling of all Championships. Many famous men who played under him maintained there was never such a captain. He not only knew the game inside out, but he could handle them all-from Sydney Barnes downwards!
Born in the West Indies (in 1873) he was an ambassador at large for cricket from the time he first returned there, at the age of 23, on one of Lord Hawke's tours until his last journey overseas when he came once more to the Caribbean with G. O. Allen's MCC side 50 years later. In between, besides his several visits to Australia, he had also been to South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, South America, Portugal, Holland and Denmark. The only country of cricket significance he never visited-strangely, since the ultimate symbol of imperial power must have had a strong romantic appeal to him-was India.
His spiritual home was Lord's, and he was a member of the MCC Committee, more often on than off, for nearly 60 years. When he stepped into the breech for the duration of the Second World War during Colonel Rait Kerr's absence, as Deputy Secretary, he was in his element. His service as a selector lasted from 1905 to 1938. His writing on cricket filled some 20 books as well as, for 12 seasons, the columns of The Morning Post. He was cricket correspondent of that paper in that time, and afterwards briefly of the Daily Telegraph, and for several summers was actually and simultaneously both selector and critic.
To try and sketch `Plum' in broad outline to the modern reader is to run, straight away, into the paradoxical. Small and frail he was, on the cricket field, a fighter of remarkable tenacity. His exterior was benign and gentle, yet he stuck to his opinions like a limpet, almost at times, beyond the limits of obstinacy. No man was regarded with greater respect and affection by the professionals, yet behind the most considerate manner he was an autocrat with whom no liberty could be contemplated. He was called to the bar, but though a frequent spectator in the courts and in Parliament he never followed the law. A deep hater of violence and of rows, his favourite reading was military and naval history.
Though all the teams he led were inspired by a conspicuous devotion to their leader, for reasons which at this distance are not easy to fathom he could also engender strong antipathies. Whereas his background of Rugby and Oxford, allied with his playing ability, should have qualified him almost automatically, he was not elected to I Zingari until he was nearly 60. Though no man had served MCC with greater devotion he had to wait for the Presidency until his 77th year - the oldest of all Presidents bar one. But when he was at last named, at the Annual General Meeting of 1950, the decorum of the occasion, as I well remember, gave way to a touching enthusiasm.
He could scarcely think ill of a cricketer, and though his technical judgement of a player was a byword his assessment of character was, accordingly, more questionable. It was he who, following Percy Chapman's decline, chaired the Committee of three (T. A. Higson and P. Perrin being the others) who appointed D. R. Jardine as captain of England. There was no lack, of warning voices, as no doubt poor `Plum' may have remembered in Australia when, with himself as MCC manager, the Bodyline controversy broke in all its violence. The irony was that tactics he abhorred were being ruthlessly pursued by the man he had chosen and, short of the ultimate and unprecedented sanction of resigning the managership, there was nothing he could do about it.
That 1932-3 tour left a permanent scar and, though some, retrospectively blame him for a lack of moral courage, can he honestly be criticised for avoiding a deep split within English cricket, preferring to ride the storm and to work, after all was over, for reconciliation with Australia?
A second costly, though less fateful, decision was his preference for Walter Hammond, newly turned amateur, over Allen for the England captaincy against Australia in 1938. Once in the saddle Hammond remained there, with war intervening, until after the MCC tour to Australia of 1946-7. That superb player lacked nearly all the requisites of leadership and English cricket suffered accordingly. But if in terms of psychology `Plum' was naive, this not unlikeable failing has to be balanced against all the good he achieved for the benefit of cricket and cricketers over so long a span. In how many respects would his deep knowledge, to say nothing of his special qualities of enthusiasm and optimism, be of value in the councils of the game today!