Charlie Palmer, the Worcestershire and Leicestershire mainstay for over two decades, was born on May 15, 1919. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of a durable all-rounder and a capable, if controversial, administrator.
Charlie Palmer never looked like a cricketer. He had a small frame and wore glasses from his childhood. Trevor Bailey wrote of him that he looked like ‘a hen-pecked bank clerk in a farce’. He turned out to be a very good all-rounder at First-Class level, though.
Though he was a solid, reliable batsman with excellent wrists, balance, footwork, and an impeccable sense of timing, his type of bowling could at best be classified as ‘dibbly-dobblies’. Despite his limitations, Palmer finished with 17,458 First-Class runs in 336 matches at 31.74 with 33 hundreds, and also picked up 365 wickets at 25.15 with five five-fors.
He also had a distinctive style of bowling. Mike Turner wrote: “They were uncanny. He ran up normally but then the ball went as high as the roof of a house — I’m not joking — and the length was such that it literally fell on the stumps. Jock Livingston of Northamptonshire saw one coming. And I can see him now, leaning over the stumps looking to slog it. It ran down the face of the bat. Caught at slip.”
Early days and war
Though an amateur, Palmer wasn’t an Oxbridge student: he studied in a grammar school, and then went to Birmingham University, and played with distinction in his University days.
Palmer got selected early to represent Worcestershire, and made his debut against Yorkshire in 1938. He scored three hundreds in his second season — 132 against Northamptonshire at Dudley (where he added 261 with the wonderfully named Harold Harry Ian Haywood Gibbons), and then top-scored with spectacular knocks of 128 against Glamorgan at Cardiff and 110 against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. He became an instant hero in Worcestershire.
Just when Palmer was about to establish himself in the county circuit, World War II broke out, and Palmer found himself next to an anti-aircraft battery at Sussex for six years. Returning in 1945, he immediately turned up for Europeans (alongside the likes of Denis Compton and Reg Simpson) against Hindus in the Bombay Pentagular, but did not find much success.
Palmer took time to regain his lost form — till the 1947 match against Glamorgan at New Road, where he scored 51 and 124, and also picked up two crucial wickets. Two matches later he smashed a 177 against Nottinghamshire, and was again back in the reckoning.
Don Bradman’s Invincibles visited England next year; as their juggernaut carried on, Palmer defied an attack consisting of Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Ian Johnson, Colin McCool, and Ernie Toshack — top-scoring with a dominant 85 off 169 balls. He scored 34 more in the second innings, but Worcestershire still lost by an innings.
The innings brought him into contention for the national squad, though, and he was selected for the South Africa tour of 1948-49. Though he scored 116 against Eastern Province at Port Elizabeth and followed it with 65 against Border at East London, he did not make it to any of the Tests.
Move to Leicestershire
However, on his return to England, he was appointed by Leicestershire as their captain and secretary. To pursue the dual role, he gave up his job of a teacher at Bromsgrove, and went into cricket full-time. He continued to score runs, and now, being at the helm, take wickets in the county circuit, the bowling spree starting with a spell of 17-10-13-4 against Glamorgan.
However, Palmer had problems of a different sort to tackle now — to raise money for Leicestershire, who did not even have a serviceable ground of their own, and were on the verge of bankruptcy. He went to as many as fifty dinners that summer to raise money, and also introduced a football pool to bring in cash.
Slowly, but surely, Leicestershire began to find a groove, and so did Palmer – as a captain and all-rounder. Against Warwickshire at Coalville in 1950, Palmer scored 143 and picked up 6 for 68, but could not prevent defeat for his side. He was getting there, though, and Leicestershire climbed up the ladder as time progressed.
In 1952 he pulled off yet another excellent all-round performance — this time against Hampshire — when he scored 60, and returned figures of 14-5-13-5. Leicestershire won the match by an innings. Towards the end of the season he was selected to represent Gentlemen against Players.
Palmer scored a duck in the first innings as Alec Bedser and Jim Laker skittled out the Gentlemen for 146, and they were eventually left to score 323. The Players boasted of an attack comprising of Johnny Wardle and Derek Shackleton to go with Bedser and Laker, and the Gentlemen were soon reduced to 73 for four. Palmer added 105 with Doug Insole, 57 with Bailey, and 70 with Freddie Brown; when he was finally out for 127, the usually quiet Lord’s applauded in unison. Bedser played spoilsport, though, and from 305 for six the Gentlemen collapsed to 320.
That one innings changed a lot of things. Palmer ended the 1952 season with 2,071 runs at 39.82 with four hundreds (he had scored 1,699 at 40.45 with five hundreds in 1951). However, the biggest change was the fact that he Leicestershire finished sixth (their best ever) in 1952, and then started with a bang in the 1953 season, reaching to the top at the start of the season for the first time in the history of the Championship, and eventually finishing at third (their new best). The Playfair Annual called him “a leader without flourish, but indeed a leader”.
This led to one of a singular selection. England were supposed to tour West Indies that winter, and due to his record with Leicestershire, Palmer was selected as a manager of the England squad. However, he was also selected as the 16th — and final — player of the squad.
Test debut as manager
The anti-Caucasian mindset was dominant in West Indies, especially after the Indian independence in 1947. This meant that the manager had his task cut out. Not only did he have to tackle the ruthless Len Hutton from going overboard with his professional aggression, he also had to maintain a good relationship with the locals.
The West Indians had played enjoyed themselves in the Tests on English soil in the 1950s, which probably made them difficult to come to Hutton’s style. Things became worse when Hutton and Palmer had a tussle: when Hutton wanted his players not to fraternise with the locals and to abstain from parties, Palmer realised that building a strong relationship with the locals was crucial as ambassadors of his country — especially in the troubled times. Palmer later admitted “I could understand Len’s point, but the two-fisted structure of authority made it very difficult”.
With England having reclaimed the Ashes and West Indies having beaten England in England, the series was considered as the one that would decide the unofficial Test champion. The play got dirty, and when John Holt got a dubious leg-before decision in the first Test at Sabina Park, the umpire’s family was threatened.
After West Indies won the first Test by 140 runs, the manager made his Test debut at the age of 34 in the second Test at Kensington Oval. Palmer scored 22 and 0, and bowled five overs for 15 runs. West Indies won the Test by 181 runs. It turned out to be Palmer’s only Test.
However, thanks to Hutton’s heroics, England won two of the last three Tests, and leveled the series 2-2. Hutton was easily the best player of the series, scoring 677 runs at 96.71. On the fourth afternoon of the third Test at Bourda, there was a riot when the local Clifford McWatt was given run out by Badge Menzies while going for the hundredth run of the partnership. Hutton refused to leave the field (West Indies were eight down), which caused a lot of unrest.
More fuel was set to the fire regarding the fiery Fred Trueman’s aggression and bouncers, and the controversy over Tony Lock’s action during his quicker ball (even Jim Laker said “his quickest ball was a genuine throw, and it looked glaring in Barbados”). And finally, in the last Test, also at Sabina Park, when an exhausted Hutton left for tea on the third day after his famous 205 – chiselled by almost nine hours’ worth of batting – he was criticised severely for not stopping to shake the hands of Alexander Bustamente, the Jamaican Prime Minister.
A few minutes later a 6’5″ man, representing the Prime Minister, came to the English dressing-room and lifted Palmer physically off the ground, alleging “this is the crowning insult — your captain has insulted our Prime Minister”. This resulted in Palmer getting involved in 48 hours of diplomatic discussions, finally resulting in peace.
The Times put down the series as “the second-most controversial tour in cricket history”; according to Wisden, the aim to “further friendship between man and man, country and country” was not achieved.
When Palmer returned to England, he gave a tour report, recommending strongly that a player should never double as a manager. He received support from Gubby Allen, who said that things could have been better “with a slightly different party, a less single-minded captain and Palmer himself with a different brief and more power”. In Cricket Cauldron, Alex Bannister wrote that Palmer “tackled a terribly difficult job with a quiet effectiveness”.
Wisden supported the words of Allen and Bannister, but supported Palmer’s notion as well: “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.” Two decades later EW Swanton mentioned “it [appointing a player as a manager] was just about the worst decision ever to come out of Lord’s”. However, Swanton referred to the tour as “a diplomatic and sporting disaster of the first magnitude which, I am sure, could have been averted by the right man”. However, he also described Palmer as “charming, easy-going, and tolerant”.
Back to England and 8 for 0
Back home in 1954, Palmer was back in business, scoring 1,247 runs and picking up 17 wickets. In the next season in 1955, he scored 1,857 runs at 32.01 with four hundreds but picked up 48 wickets at 19.04 – which included the epoch of his career, that spell against Surrey.
The all-conquering Surrey team had arrived at Grace Road with the mission to steamroll Leicestershire. They were well on track when they bowled out Leicestershire for 114. However, Palmer, who had not bowled that season due to a bad back, took the ball to help Terry Spencer change ends.
With Peter May, the new England captain, in sublime form, Palmer went up to him and told him sheepishly: “go easy on me, I haven’t bowled this year”. He need not have worried. He bowled accurately, and exploited a single damp spot outside off-stump. As Wisden said, Palmer bowled “medium-pace with great accuracy and brought the ball back sharply off the seam.”
He got a couple of wickets, and laughingly said “I’ll stay on for another over now.” Eventually, he reached figures of 12-12-0-8 (seven of them bowled), which could have been 9 for 0, had Laker not been dropped at cover. He eventually finished with 14-12-7-8. To add insult to the injury, he turned up in the Surrey dressing-room with an innocent smile, uttering, almost apologetically, the words “sorry, gentlemen”.
Still not content, Palmer top-scored with 64 in Leicestershire’s second innings, and returned figures of 13-12-1-0 in Surrey’s second innings as Leicestershire lost the match by seven wickets. Palmer finished the match with 27-24-8-8.
Palmer continued to play cricket for four more seasons. Though his batting prowess reduced over the years (the batting average never went past 27), he did better and better as a bowler (the bowling never crossed the 27-mark). In 1956, especially, he scored 1,110 runs at 26.42 and picked up 51 wickets at 17.25.
Palmer quit cricket at the age of 40, and went into steel business. He returned as the Secretary of Leicestershire Cricket Club in 1964, and remained the Chairman for 25 years. He also became the President of MCC in 1978-79 during the Packer era — during which the two men of utterly contrasting physique often had heated arguments. He also served as the President of TCCB from 1983 to 1985.
Charlie Turner passed away on March 31, 2005.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)