The second-most controversial tour in history
England's tour of West Indies in 1953-54 had it all - diplomatic incidents, riots, a chucking row, and a gripping Test series. Stephen Chalke remembers:
Charles Palmer had had remarkable success with Leicestershire. In 1949 they had finished bottom of the table and were close to bankruptcy. The following spring he left schoolmastering in Bromsgrove to take up the reins as both secretary and captain of the little Midland county, and his gentle charm and steely dedication brought a transformation. "They were all good players," he says, "but they had not been a team." He made himself known to everybody involved with the club - "I went to 50 dinners in the first summer" - and he introduced a football pool that brought in fresh revenue. Such was their progress that for a brief spell in late August 1953 Leicestershire stood, for the first time in their history, at the top of the Championship table.
At that moment of glory MCC were sitting down to choose a manager for their winter tour of West Indies and, with more experienced figures unavailable, Palmer was an obvious candidate. Further, he was a good enough allround cricketer to double up as the party's 16th player. It was a unique arrangement, a manager submitting his authority to the captain on the field, and it was doubly unique in that the captain of an MCC tour was for the first time a professional cricketer, Len Hutton. With only Bill Ferguson, the unobtrusive baggage-man and scorer, for support, the new manager faced a challenge that would prove even greater than the one he had undertaken at Leicester.
Up to 1950 the leading English players would only tour Australia and South Africa. But the progress of West Indian cricket had been dramatic. In 1947-48 Gubby Allen's second-string side had failed to win even an island match, and the full England team had been beaten at home 3-1 in 1950.
So, of the side that won back the Ashes at The Oval, only Alec Bedser and Bill Edrich were missing when the tourists climbed onto the BOAC Stratocruiser in December, the first party ever to fly out for a tour. "There wasn't enough petrol to fly direct," Palmer says. "We had to refuel in Ireland. Then we were diverted to Newfoundland."
Landing finally in Bermuda, the manager got his first taste of Caribbean politics. A colour bar. "We were standing round the airport. I was talking about the playing conditions with this Bermudan chap, and I said, 'Let's sort it out at the hotel.' Then I saw people in the background semaphoring: 'Not allowed to fraternise. Black and white.' We had to arrange a special meeting elsewhere."
Much had happened in six years since Gubby Allen's tour. India had won its independence, and in its wake there was an upsurge of home-rule movements throughout the Empire. The resident white population in the Caribbean was filled with fear for the future of their way of life.
"Every day on the tour we were being invited to social functions, invariably with the white people, and it was difficult to refuse. All the time they would be saying to us, 'For God's sake, beat these people, or our lives won't be worth living.' It became a big millstone round our neck. We were almost afraid to talk to a white person. We knew what they were going to say. We wanted to win, but not for them. After a while it ate into our souls."
Matters were not improved by Len Hutton's decision to play the series as a Yorkshireman would play Lancashire: no fancy strokeplay, and a minimum of socialising with the opposition. The West Indians had been warmly welcomed in England, they played with a sense of fun, and Hutton's approach upset them. Further, Hutton as captain did not want his players worn down by too many functions, and the manager - recognising the need for them to be ambassadors - found himself pulling the other way. "I could understand Len's point, but the two-fisted structure of authority made it very difficult."
It did not help that, with England now holding the Ashes, many West Indian journalists claimed that the series was for the championship of the world. Nor that the umpiring was so contentious. In the first Test in Jamaica the local hero JK Holt was adjudged lbw when he was on 94, and the umpire's family was physically assaulted. After that, the mentality developed in the England camp that the officials were frightened to give their fellow countrymen out.
On the fourth evening of the Test the groundsman Menzies put up his finger when his fellow Guyanese Clifford McWatt was short of his ground, going for the 100th run of his partnership with Holt, and the decision brought a hail of bottles from the crowd. Was the riot fuelled by drink, or gambling, or political unrest at the removal from power of their left-wing prime minister? Whatever the cause, Hutton refused to leave the field. "I want to take these last two wickets this evening," he said, and play resumed with no fielders in the deep and Johnny Wardle defusing the tension by swigging drunkenly from a bottle. A police guard was stationed outside the groundsman's house.
Then there was the matter of Tony Lock's quicker ball. He had been no-balled in one match in England, by Fred Price at The Oval in 1952, and he would eventually - in the aftermath of the "chucking" controversies of the 1958-59 tour of Australia - have to remodel his action. But in the first Test and again in the match against Barbados he was called, and he had to cut out his deadliest weapon. "The no-balling caused quite a rumpus," Jim Laker wrote. "Yet to my eyes his quickest ball was a genuine throw, and it looked glaring in Barbados." To his surprise Charles Palmer recently discovered some cine film that he had taken on the tour, and a sequence of frames confirms Laker's judgment. "It certainly shows up Tony Lock's action."
And then there was Freddie Trueman, the young and fiery fast bowler whose bumpers upset the crowd and whose raw personality created incidents both on and off the field. Some, like the debonair southerner Denis Compton, criticised Hutton for not talking to him sternly at the outset, but the West Indian Frank Worrell thought Trueman to have been made the scapegoat unfairly, losing his good-conduct bonus and not touring again with MCC for five years.
"I like Fred," Charles Palmer says, "but he'd been pulled out of Yorkshire and put in a context which was entirely alien to his upbringing. There was no malice in him, but he spoke as a Yorkshireman would speak in Yorkshire. I remember in a bar one night, this fellow came up. He said he had a friend in Yorkshire and did Fred know him? And instead of Fred saying, 'No, but I'll look out for him' or some such words, he said, 'Never 'eard of the bugger.' They were little things, but they didn't go down very well in a highly sensitive situation."
In each island there were complaints about the English team: from slights supposedly inflicted at social functions to the incident in the final Test at Kingston when Hutton, leaving the field for tea with a marathon double-century to his name, did not stop sufficiently to receive the congratulations of a large, flamboyant man in a white tailcoat: Alexander Bustamente, the nationalist leader who had become Jamaica's first Chief Minister. A few moments later Palmer, in the dressing-room, was being grasped by the lapels and lifted off the floor by a 6ft 5ins member of the Minister's retinue. "'This is the crowning insult,' he said. 'Your captain has insulted our prime minister.' I said, 'Put me down first of all, and we can talk about it.' I was then involved in 48 hours of nonstop diplomatic consultations. Morning, noon and night something was happening. It got to the stage where I didn't know where the next arrow was coming from. All I knew was that it was coming."
The cricket itself, for all the problems, provided a magnificent series. In the first two Tests, West Indies won easily. Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine bowled England out for 170 on a good batting track at Sabina Park, then Clyde Walcott hit a magnificent 220 at Bridgetown where the manager, making his Test debut, found himself admiring the batsman from the covers. "He'd got tree trunks, not arms. He really did hit the ball hard. Not like Frank Worrell, who stroked it with such grace. The only batsman I can remember hitting the ball harder than Walcott was Wally Hammond, in one of my first matches before the War. I fielded at cover point to him and, oh boy, you really didn't want to field the ball."
But at Georgetown in the third Test England were victorious. Though he had dropped his instruction to his fellow batsmen to play conservatively, Hutton led from the front with a faultless safety-first innings of 169, and a new-ball burst by Brian Statham destroyed the West Indian top order. At Port-of-Spain, on a matting wicket, the three Ws all made big hundreds, but Peter May and Compton reciprocated, and the series went to the final match at Sabina Park with England still 2-1 down.
"The pitch was bone-hard like marble," Palmer says. "You could see your reflection in it." The groundsman had told Hutton that the team batting first would make 700. Statham was unfit, and Hutton lost the toss. He threw the new ball to Trevor Bailey. "Three for 100 would have been really good figures on that, and he took 7 for 34. Then Len batted nine hours for his 200. He'd got such powers of concentration, and a wonderful technique. But Trevor, somehow he had produced something out of the bag which was quite impossible." The series ended 2-2, and there were no world champions.
After four months in the Caribbean heat the tourists sailed out of Kingston. According to The Times, it was "the second most controversial tour in cricket history". To Wisden, the primary intention of the tour - "to further friendship between man and man, country and country" - was not achieved. "We got to the Equator," Palmer remembers. "We were relaxing on the boat, and we started to feel that we weren't far from home."
The manager returned to an inquest at Lord's, and delivered a report that strongly recommended that a player should never again act as manager. He still retains a sheaf of letters congratulating him on his "splendid performance" at the meeting. Gubby Allen speculated how the tour might have avoided trouble: with a slightly different party, a less single-minded captain and Palmer himself "with a different brief and more power". Wisden concurred: "Palmer won much credit on his first tour as manager but, as a principle, the policy of a player-manager was not to be commended."
"It was just about the worst decision ever to come out of Lord's," Jim Swanton wrote with typical forthrightness 20 years later. Hutton was the player of the series, with 677 runs at an average of 96.71. But he missed much of the following summer, exhausted and with back problems. After his 205 at Kingston, he would play just 15 more Test innings and manage only 306 more runs.
"Len reckoned that that tour shortened his career by two years," said Palmer. "I'm surprised that he only said two. That innings in the fifth Test, he batted nine hours in the heat. After all the worries of the tour, he was magnificent. He played with a kind of divine inevitability."
Through the following summer speculation grew in the press that MCC would turn to the amateur David Sheppard to captain in Australia. By then Palmer was back in the calm of Grace Road, but he attended the meeting at Lord's which made the decision.
"At the start of the West Indian tour," he says, "I found Len enigmatical. If you asked him a question, you got another question in reply. But as we were tempered by fire, we got to know each other and I developed a great respect for him."
Neither Trueman nor Lock boarded the boat to Australia in 1954, but Hutton was still in charge, sailing out to secure his place in history with an Ashes victory. "I don't think I could have done very much more than I did," Palmer reflects. "A different man, somebody who could bang the fist, might have made it better. But then they might have made it a damn sight worse."
This article was first published in the March 2004 issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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