Episode 69: Tantrums and turmoil, racism and riots, class conflicts and colonialism – and some great cricket – in a historic tour

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

In the winter of 1953, the MCC sent a full-strength England team to the West Indies for the first time, led by Len Hutton, the first professional captain. The party included Denis Compton, Tom Graveney, Peter May, Trevor Bailey, and two pairs of great bowlers, Jim Laker and Tony Lock, and Fred Trueman, and Brian Statham. They played a thrilling series against a West Indian team with the three Ws, Clyde Walcott, Everton Weekes and Frank Worrell, and the spinners Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, who had triumphed in England three years before. The series was billed informally in advance as the world championship of cricket.

But the cricket took second place to the external dramas, including arson and riots which exposed deep social, political, and racial divisions on both sides. Dr David Woodhouse has written an enthralling book about this series, and its context in both West Indian and English history: Who Only Cricket Know: Hutton’s Men in the West Indies 1953/54. He is the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast. In Peter’s unavoidable absence, Roger Alton is guest host.

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David briefly outlines his academic and cricket career. A Byron scholar, he gives the latest news of Byron’s batting performance for Harrow in the first recorded Eton v Harrow match – in which the poet followed an even more famous literary name to the crease. 1-2 minutes

Without giving away the results David narrates the main incidents of the 1953/54 England tour in each of its centres:

Jamaica first Test:  Coolness between sides over Hutton’s initial non-fraternization policy (inspired his postwar experience in Australia); crowd fury at injury to returning idol George Headley; Tony Lock no-balled for first time in Test; attacks on family of umpire who gave out local hero on 94; threats to West Indies captain Jeff Stollmeyer. 5-7 minutes

Barbados second Test: Tony Lock no-balled again by uncle of Clyde Walcott; touring players accused of bad language and drunken behaviour; England jeered for setting new record in slow batting. 8-9 minutes

British Guiana third Test: Hutton complains of umpiring; two black umpires replaced by one of Indian, one of Chinese origin; two England players accused of using racist language; full-scale crowd riot stops Test. David notes that the colony (its then status) was under a state of emergency, with extra British troops sent out by Winston Churchill’s government in London and nationalist leaders under house arrest. He also mentions the distance between Georgetown, BG, and Kingston, Jamaica – very nearly as far as London to Moscow – to illustrate the distance and disparity of the West Indies. 9-17 minutes

Trinidad fourth Test: main stand at Test ground burnt down in arson attack; Trueman enrages crowd in tour match; Graveney shows fury at umpiring decision; Laker hit by bouncer, staggers off field. 18-20 minutes

Jamaica fifth Test: both teams ordered to “cool it”, England by both MCC and colonial governor, Hugh Foot (brother of Michael); calmer on field although bouncer war continues; allegation against Hutton leads to diplomatic incident and invasion of England dressing room. Teenaged Garry Sobers makes Test debut (26 minutes) – as specialist spinner batting number 9. 20-21 minutes

David explains his motives for writing the book, which took him seven years: the tour had been neglected although it was as dramatic as the much-covered Bodyline series and arguably of even more historic significance to the countries concerned as they approached the end of empire. 22-26 minutes He analyses the calls for a “new Elizabethan age” in English life after the young Queen’s accession and their background influence on the tour. 31-32 minutes

He unpicks the complex racial, social, national  and inter-island factors behind the many dramatic incidents  and the ambivalent attitudes of the English cricket Establishment, especially the West Indian born and still influential Plum Warner. Hutton and his tourists were under great pressure, especially from local whites, to win and maintain British prestige (18 minutes), but at the same time they were expected to play the game in the right (amateur) spirit. 27-28, 41-48 minutes

David sheds new light on the stress on Hutton and the secret moves to replace him with David Sheppard, and on the treatment of Trevor Bailey, ousted as vice-captain and designated successor, despite his heroic performance in the final Test. 28-31 minutes He also describes how Fred Trueman was scapegoated after the tour and analyses the allegations against him and his Yorkshire team mate Johnny Wardle, of using racist language and the offence they caused. 33-37 minutes

David analyses the way the tour was reported in both countries, and the way this created a “feedback loop” of mutual tension between them.  English cricket followers got their news from a handful of press journalists missing many famous names and also from close of play radio summaries from E W Swanton. He notes that the West Indies was 20 years ahead of England in ball-by-ball radio commentary, which became a collective experience for people all over the West Indies. 38-41 minutes

David Woodhouse’s book Who Only Cricket Know: Hutton’s Men in the West Indies 1953/54 is published by Fairfield Books on 15 November and can be pre-ordered through The Nightwatchman

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller & Roger Alton

Roger Alton, guest host for this episode, was formerly editor of The Observer  and The Independent, and is currently the Sports Columnist for The Spectator. 

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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