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Nigel Howard: Lancashire’s youngest captain

Nigel Howard. Photo Courtesy: Lancashire County Cricket Club
Nigel Howard. Photo Courtesy: Lancashire County Cricket Club

Nigel Howard was born on May 18, 1925. He went on to become the youngest captain of Lancashire. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the last men who carried the banner of the amateur cricketer in its final days.

Writing for The Guardian Andy Bull called Nigel David Howard “the last of the true amateur captains of England”. Wisden called him “an attractive bat with a good range of strokes, especially when runs were wanted quickly”. The numbers, however, suggest that despite his skills he was not really one who took the world of cricket by storm with his batting.

Howard was one of the last surviving remnants of the term “Gentlemen” that had been an integral part of English cricket even after World War II. To be fair, the word was befitting of Howard: he was as much a gentleman as any other to have played the sport.

In all, Howard played 198 First-Class matches, mostly for Lancashire. He was never a bowler, and his 6,152 runs came at 24.70; the tally also included three hundreds. From four Tests, all as captain, he managed a mere 86 at 17.20. Vinoo Mankad turned out to be his arch nemesis, dismissing him every time he batted in Tests.

Early days

Rupert Howard was a Lancashire batsman who played between the Wars; he later went on to become the Secretary of Lancashire Cricket Club for 16 years, and toured the England teams of 1936-37 and 1946-47 to the antipodes. His sons Nigel and Barry [a shade above a year younger to John, and a batsman for Lancashire] were born at Gee Cross, Hyde in Cheshire.

Howard studied at Rossall School and played for Rossall Cricket Club, where he led the averages in 1941 and 1942. He also showed excellent aptitude in both hockey and golf and represented Cheshire in both [Barry played for hockey for Cheshire as well].

He made his First-Class debut against Middlesex at Old Trafford in 1946, scoring four and three. The next season was a poor one too, but despite that he was [not unsurprisingly for an amateur] awarded the much-coveted Lancashire cap in 1948. To be fair to him, he had a decent season, finishing with 944 runs at 36.30. This included the 145 against Derbyshire at Derby [scored out of a team score of 245 for six]. It remained his career-best.

He was named Lancashire captain the next year, and remains the youngest to do so. Criticising [somewhat softly] this decision on BBC, Mihir Bose wrote: “If he [Howard] was the youngest to captain Lancashire it was because counties would rarely give the role to professionals.”

Howard had a torrid 1949, but did a much better job the next season, which was certainly his best. He scored 1,174 runs at 36.68 [the highlight being his 51 and 101 not out against Gloucestershire at home], but more significantly, Lancashire became joint winners of the Championship that season along with Surrey. They would not win another title till 2011.

“[Nigel] Howard was captain because he was a gentleman but required the assistance of the real player to achieve anything worthwhile on the field,” wrote Bose. Wisden, too, mentioned that Howard was “greatly helped by [Cyril] Washbrook, his senior professional” en route to the title; Washbrook finished the season with 1,294 runs at 58.81. As Bose had rightly pointed out, Howard had possibly not shared the same dressing-room with his star batsman!

Test cricket

Howard led Gentlemen in the prestigious encounter against Players in 1951. With several senior cricketers [Len Hutton, Denis Compton and Alec Bedser, to name a few] pulling out of the subcontinent tour of 1951-52 he was named the captain of England. Neither Howard nor Donald Carr [the vice-captain] had played a single Test till then.

Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) started on a high, almost winning the match against Services at Dehra Dun. Opening batting with Dick Spooner, Howard scored 51 and helped add 83 for the first wicket. Then came the Tests.

England were bowled out for 203 by Sadu Shinde and Vinoo Mankad in the first Test at Kotla. India responded strongly with 418 for six, with Vijay Merchant (154) setting a new highest score for the country and Vijay Hazare (164 not out) bettering it later in the innings. England finished on 368 for six; Howard scored 13 and nine.

Hazare scored another hundred at Brabourne Stadium along with Pankaj Roy. Hazare declared at 485 for nine, but a fighting 175 from Tom Graveney took England to within 29 runs of India’s score [batting at seven Howard scored 20]. India were bowled out for 208, but England never made an attempt to chase 238 in 100 minutes.

Eden Gardens saw an almost exact reversal of situation with Howard setting India a target of 251 in 90 minutes; England declined the chase. Howard scored 23 and 20 not out; the first-innings score remained his career-best at the highest level.

India were bowled out for 121 by Roy Tattersall and Malcolm Hilton in the fourth Test on a rank turner at Green Park. England secured an 82-run lead [Howard, batting at eight, scored a single] before Hilton bowled out the England for 157 again. England won the Test by eight wickets.

After this Test Howard suffered from pleurisy and could not lead England in the final Test at Chepauk. In fact, he never played another Test. Carr led England in his absence, and hundreds from Roy and Polly Umrigar along with Mankad’s 12-wicket haul resulted in India’s first Test win.

Howard did not recover in time and missed the rest of the tour. However, he finished his career with an unbeaten Test record as England captain.

Back to domestic cricket

Howard top-scored with 138 not out against Kent at Maidstone upon his comeback, but did little else of note in 1952. He played just one more season [where he top-scored with 78 not out against the touring Australians; the attack consisted of Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Bill Johnston, and Doug Ring].

He retired next season, and was replaced by Washbrook, the first professional to lead Lancashire. Howard played two matches in 1954, top-scoring with 81 for Free Foresters against Oxford University at their University Grounds and with 56 for MCC against Cambridge University at Lord’s.

Post-retirement

Howard joined his family textile business in 1954 and continued to do so till his retirement in 1976. He also served Lancashire Cricket Club Committee for several years.

On May 31, 1979 Howard suddenly died at Douglas, Isle of Man. He was 13 days past his 54th birthday.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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