Originally written for ESPN Cricinfo, cricket journalist Paul Edwards looks back at Warwickshire's great 1951 County Championship-winning season.
Should you be walking along the wide concrete concourse which runs around and beneath the stands at Edgbaston, you will see many reminders of Warwickshire’s recent triumphs. Pictures of Brian Lara, Dermot Reeve, Allan Donald and Ian Bell enliven the dull walls and recall the county’s four championships and other trophies in the past quarter-century.
But images revisiting the team’s more distant glories are harder to find. There is, for example, no comparable photograph of Fred Gardner, although maybe that is to be expected. “He is better known on the cricket fields of England as a plodding, conscientious and even tedious opening bat with an attenuated back-lift and a monumental patience,” wrote JM Solan of his hero in 1959. “His almost ascetic abstention from scoring has occasionally roused affectionate irritability in those under whom he has served.”
Yet Solan, the cricket correspondent of the Birmingham Post also knew that Gardner had played a host of valuable innings for Warwickshire and that his three centuries in 1951 had helped his side to one of the most significant title wins in the post-war era.
But acknowledgement without revelry seems to have been what Warwickshire’s class of ’51 preferred. Their skipper, HE “Tom” Dollery, had been the first professional to be appointed to that post by a county club and two years later he had overseen the assembly of a squad, all of whom were paid to play cricket.
The only amateur to represent Warwickshire in 1951 was the wicketkeeper, Esmond Lewis, and his one match took place nearly a fortnight after the title had been decided. And when Professional Captain appeared under Dollery’s name the following year, its author quickly scotched any idea that his book would be a vanity project: “It is not, in any sense, a ‘how we did it’, an account of special stratagems which enabled Warwickshire to win the County Championship in 1951. Modesty, if nothing else, would forbid the writing of such a book – modesty and the fact that Warwickshire look forward to 1952 in the knowledge that honours are hard to win and even harder to retain.” There was shrewd prescience in those final words. Dollery’s county did not finish higher than sixth in any of the next seven seasons.
Others were more effusive. Warwickshire’s 1952 annual report called the title win “a success in the best traditions of the game for a team playing perfectly together as a co-ordinated entity under the man who proved himself the greatest professional captain the game has known and one of the greatest natural cricket leaders of all time.”
Norman Preston, the editor of Wisden, made Warwickshire’s skipper one of his cricketers of the year and considered his achievement again in his Notes: “Dollery showed that a paid player can become a captain in the real sense of the word. By his astute work, Dollery has raised the status of the professional just as Hobbs did in the days when every county had one dressing room for the paid and another for the unpaid.”
Warwickshire’s captain probably appreciated Preston’s compliments, not least because they slightly shifted the attention away from him and towards the tightly-knit group of blokes who had played by far the best cricket in the country. But he also knew he had been a trifle fortunate. Six of his team had remained fit for all 28 championship matches and two others, the wicketkeeper, Dick Spooner, and the middle-order batsman, Bert Wolton, had missed only one game. Spooner and Wolton were two of five Warwickshire batsmen who scored over a thousand runs in a wet summer but none were invited to play for England against South Africa in a series the home side won 3-1. Wisden also noted that no Warwickshire cricketers were asked to play in July’s Gentleman v Players game, although that rather overlooked the obvious point that Dollery’s gentlemen were only eligible to represent the Players in any case.
Perhaps even more usefully, Roy Tattersall’s form helped ensure that the selectors would not call on the leg-spinner, Eric Hollies, who was thus free to take 149 championship wickets that summer and to bowl an average of almost 50 overs in each match, even when hampered by an ankle injury later in the season. The balding medium-pacer, Charlie Grove, was the only other bowler to take 100 wickets and he formed a potent new-ball combination with the New Zealander, Tom Pritchard, who bowled perhaps 15mph quicker. Pritchard managed only 38 wickets in the first 13 games but took 36 in the next four and finished with 93 in a season curtailed by a shoulder injury.
So instead of representing their country or appearing in an increasingly anachronistic contest, Warwickshire’s cricketers stayed fit and pledged themselves to the bear and ragged staff. Even their first names suggested a lack of pretension. There was Bert, Fred and Eric and there was Tom, Dick and Charlie. Gardner’s ponderous batting may have irritated the captain on occasions: “Get out or I’ll send someone in to run you out,” read one memorable message; but the captain knew the value of a man described by Donald Trelford as “the apotheosis of works league cricket, the most stolid and slowest of openers, his face like an unsmiling Bob Hope”. Perhaps so, but only Spooner and Dollery himself contributed more runs to the cause in 1951. It was “an extraordinary team of ordinary cricketers playing purposeful cricket,” said Dollery.
“They didn’t seem ordinary to me,” responded Trelford in his wonderful essay, written over 30 years later and shining with childlike love. “Not Pritchard. Not Spooner, the left-handed opener who was also a stumper in the old sense… He had a brisk walk between overs, hurrying with his body bent forward, his peaked cap and his big nose to the fore, gloved hands behind his back.”
And Warwickshire’s title-win was notable in other respects. Other counties, notably Yorkshire, who finished distant runners-up in 1951, pointed out that only Gardner and Grove out of Dollery’s regular squad had been born within the county boundaries. (Hollies came from Old Hill but that was in Staffordshire until 1966.) There were three New Zealanders and three others from the north-east. That latter trio included Alan Townsend, who made just 789 runs but pocketed 39 slip catches, some of them absurdly fine.
In any case, Warwickshire felt their recruitment strategy was not something for which they needed to apologise. They were not poaching players from other first-class counties – Ray Weeks, the slow-left armer, came from Camborne – and at the previous year’s AGM the President, Dr Harold Thwaite, had said the policy was “breeding a spirit of emulation in Warwickshire youth in town and village”. It was a typically confident claim from an official at the club which was to launch its own football pool in 1953. That project, modelled in part on Northamptonshire’s scheme, was criticised by the moral establishment but by 1972 it had raised £2m, half of which had been spent on Edgbaston.
Such enterprises were invaluable to the counties in the 1950s, a decade in which attendances at championship matches declined and the pressure for a briefer format of the game grew, even in the committee-rooms at Lord’s. But in Warwickshire’s great summer neither popular entertainments nor the weather could deter supporters who saw their team go to the top of the table on June 1st and stay there. The county also visited Stratford and Coventry but the crucial matches against Lancashire and Yorkshire which finally confirmed the dominance of Dollery’s team were both played at Edgbaston in late July. And ironically, perhaps, for a team without stars, Dollery scored a century in both contests.
Over 25,000 spectators crowded into the ground on the Saturday of the Lancashire game but saw the home side put out for 184, Tattersall taking six wickets. Cyril Washbrook’s seven-hour 209 not out gave his team a lead of 149 and left Warwickshire with a draw as their only objective. They were 113 for 5 on the last day when Wolton joined Dollery in a stand of 68. Two other time-consuming stands with Pritchard and Grove followed and when the draw was agreed Dollery had completed his first hundred of the season.
A quick trip to Taunton gave Warwickshire one of their six two-day wins in 1951 and the team returned to the Midlands to meet Yorkshire, four of whose players, Len Hutton, Frank Lowson, Willie Watson and Don Brennan were at the Headingley Test.
For nearly two days it was a respectable contest. Yorkshire grafted their way to 249 in 126.4 overs on Saturday but Dollery’s second century in a week and fifties by Spooner and Jimmy Ord established a 113-run advantage. Two down with only ten runs to show for their efforts on Monday evening, Yorkshire collapsed to 97 all out the following morning, Hollies taking 5 for 47 and Weeks 3 for 3 on a wearing pitch. Leslie Duckworth’s superb history of Warwickshire cricket puts the attendance at 8000 on Tuesday and the total for the three days, including members, at 55,000. Certainly the number of paying spectators, 43,000, beat the record that had been set against Lancashire a week earlier. It was the home side’s fifteenth championship victory of the season and their first double over Yorkshire since 1890. Just over a fortnight later the title was sealed when Worcestershire won at Scarborough.
The Birmingham Post produced a supplement to mark the local victory and asserted that the title “had been coming these last few seasons”. But the Manchester Evening News could have said much the same during most of the 1950s and on many occasions in the 80s and 90s. The
problem was that the pennant never arrived at Old Trafford in those decades. Dollery, however, having complained at the AGM that his team were being labelled champions even before the clocks had gone forward, went about the business of proving the predictions absolutely correct. “The skipper”, wrote Trelford, “had the air of a man wholly at ease with himself, a true yeoman, a natural leader.”