Managing editor Matt Thacker makes his selection from the Summer 2021 issue. We publish one article from each edition on the website, but you can see the rest if you subscribe or buy a single issue or four-issue bundle. Matt has opted for Stephen Chalke’s story of a quite amazing spell.
• • •
I’m writing this a day after I learnt of the death of David Foot, one of the very, very best cricket writers there has ever been. I read a beautiful obituary by Stephen Chalke and thought it would be fitting to have his piece on Charles Palmer’s grand day out.
Matt Thacker, Summer 2021
A STRANGER IN PARADISE
Stephen Chalke recalls the most improbable tale of them all
Stokes and Leach at Headingley, Carlos Brathwaite’s last-over sixes in the World T20 final – or the day back in 1969 when the touring West Indians travelled to Northern Ireland and were bowled out for 25. Oh the joy of such unlikely moments! How they enrich the folklore of the game!
Yet, for sheer crazy improbability, none of these can match what occurred on a Saturday in May 1955, in a routine county fixture at Grace Road, Leicester. The sparse morning crowd had grown to 4,000 by late afternoon, and what they witnessed must rank as the most extraordinary bowling spell in the long history of the first-class game.
Leicestershire versus Surrey. It was David versus Goliath. The cash-strapped Midland county, more often than not near the bottom of the Championship table, against a Surrey side in the fourth summer of an unparalleled seven-year reign as champions. The previous August, when Surrey had visited Grace Road, they had steamrollered their hosts in quick time, the first in a run of 18 successive victories that remains even now the record in first-class cricket. They were the greatest county side of all time, and they were at the height of their powers.
May 1955. Another world. Television was in its infancy, with just one channel broadcasting for limited hours, and even that was a worry for the Leicester Chronicle’s TV critic. “The real trouble with television,” she wrote that Saturday, “is that there is too much of it, and it is catering for too large an audience.” Yet perhaps it was not so different a world. The country was in the grip of an epidemic of polio, with hopes resting on a new vaccine. Amid the standard insults of a General Election, a Conservative MP was crudely capturing the headlines by likening his government to a vaccine against the crippling polio-like effects of socialism.
Offering relief from such worries, Tony Bennett was top of the hit parade with “Stranger in Paradise”, a romantic ballad from the musical Kismet:
Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise,
All lost in a wonderland, a stranger in paradise.
Saturday, 21 May 1955. It was a dull, overcast day, with a north-east wind blowing across the Grace Road field. Owned by the city’s education authority, the ground was not one of county cricket’s more popular venues. The exposed five-acre playing area was much too large, with several parts of the outfield rough from schoolboys’ football, and the old Victorian pavilion with its ancient baths in the basement had splinters everywhere. According to Trevor Bailey, when the Essex team jokingly discussed suitable punishments for the most heinous cricket crimes, they reckoned one of the worst “would be to sentence the guilty party to playing all his cricket at Grace Road”.
Through the 1950s, on and off the field, the threadbare Leicestershire club was in the hands of Charles Palmer, a former schoolmaster who had been recruited from Worcester to double up as both secretary and captain. “Why on earth are you going there?” the Worcestershire secretary asked him. “They’ve got no money, no side, no ground.” But Palmer was feeling the claustrophobia of his schoolmaster’s life, and he took up the challenge.
He had neither the physique nor the bearing of a top sportsman. A slightly-built, bespectacled man, with a soft voice and an engaging line in self-deprecating humour, he was once described by Trevor Bailey, rather unkindly, as “a natural for the role of hen-pecked bank clerk in a farce”. Yet those appearances deceived. He worked tirelessly throughout the year to keep the club from bankruptcy, he was always in charge on the field, and he contributed much-needed runs – some 10,000 in his first six summers – and, with his medium-pace bowling, some useful wickets.
That Saturday there was a certain inevitability about the first two sessions of play. Leicestershire, after a bright opening stand of 68, succumbed to the all-conquering Surrey spinners, Laker and Lock, and were all out for 114. At tea Surrey had reached 42 for 1, with Peter May, the best batsman in the country, on 28 not out and looking ominously set for a big score. Already Leicestershire’s two finger spinners were in action, the left-arm Vic Munden and the right-arm Vic Jackson, but they were not getting the help from the pitch that their counterparts had done.
During the tea break the spinners pointed out that they were bowling at the wrong ends. “Fine, I’ll alter you round,” Palmer replied cheerfully but, as the club’s secretary, he had plenty to attend to during the interval, and it went out of his mind till he was leading his team back onto the field. “Oh heck,” he suddenly thought, “I’ve got to get someone to bowl one over.”
The easiest thing was to do it himself – except that his back had been playing up and his doctor had given him instructions not to bowl, not even in the nets. However, he had tried a couple of tentative overs in the first match of the season and had come to no harm. “Oh well,” he thought, “one over won’t hurt me.”
He marked his run-up from the Pavilion End as Peter May walked past him. “Look, be a good chap,” Palmer said, summoning up all his charm. “Don’t hit me for six fours. Keep it friendly.”
Then it happened. With his second ball he tried an off-cutter, delivered from wide of the crease, and, to everybody’s astonishment, it went through May’s defence and hit the wicket. “I suppose I’d better have another over,” he told his team cheerfully.
Off the fourth ball of his second over Bernie Constable mistimed his shot, skying a catch, and he had a second wicket. This brought Micky Stewart to the crease, a young man with a point to prove. After coming into the Surrey team the previous season and having great success, he was smarting that he had started the summer in the second XI. “I said to Jim Laker: ‘If I’m not in the side by the time this season ends, then I’m away.’ I felt a bit emotional.” Now, with Ken Barrington selected to play for MCC at Lord’s, he had his chance to make clear the mistake Surrey were making. He took guard for his first delivery from the unthreatening Palmer – “his pace was no faster than the quicker ball of a spinner” – and the ball, landing on the pitch’s last damp patch, kept low, went under his bat and hit the stumps.
“The pitch was dry,” Leicestershire’s Terry Spencer said, “except for this dinner plate of a patch right on Charles’s length.” It was too full for the quicker bowlers and too straight for the spinners, but Palmer was a bowler of great accuracy and he hit it repeatedly. In his fifth over he bowled David Fletcher, the Surrey opener who had been watching bemused from the non-striker’s end, and in his sixth he bowled Ronnie Pratt. Six overs, five wickets and not a run scored off him.
“He just treated it as a joke,” Spencer recalled. “After each wicket he would say: ‘I suppose I’d better have another over now.’”
Andrew and Tim Palmer, his two young sons, were at the game. “The first wicket was met with bright applause,” Andrew, then eight years old, recalls. “But as each wicket fell the cheers seemed to morph into sounds more like the ‘Olé’ shouts at a bullfight.”
On and on it went. Two wickets in his eighth over – Olé – then one in his 11th, all bowled. And, with the fielders leaping and diving with a fierceness untypical in those days, he completed his 12th over with figures of eight wickets for no runs and Surrey had subsided to 66 for 9.
More than 40 years after the Leicestershire game, a week before he died, I met Bernie Constable, the only one of the eight Surrey batsmen not to be bowled, and he still shuddered at the memory of it. “There may have been a wet patch,” he said, “but it was terrible batting. Charles Palmer was just a dobber.”
Others have bowled longer spells of maidens, notably the slow left-armer “Bapu” Nadkarni who, in a Test against England at Madras in 1964, went 131 balls without conceding a run – but that was because half the England team were lying sick in bed. Brian Bolus and Ken Barrington were trying to stay at the wicket till some of them made it to the ground. And Nadkarni did not take a wicket.
Charles Palmer had taken eight wickets for no runs, and in Wisden’s table of “Extraordinary Analyses” his figures were set to take pride of place among those with eight wickets, overtaking Jim Laker’s 8 for 2 in the 1950 Test trial at Bradford. Some in the crowd and in the pavilion, aware of the record, hoped he would take himself off, but Palmer himself had no such thought.
Out of the commonplace,
Into the rare somewhere in space,
A stranger in paradise.
And who should be facing him as he started his 13th over but Jim Laker himself? “Jim was well aware of his record,” Micky Stewart says. According to Palmer in the Daily Mirror: “He looked at me. ‘Charlie, I’m going to do you,’ he said. And he did, all off the edge.”
Laker’s first shot, a drive, took the inside edge, went between his pads and the leg stump and ran away to fine leg for a two. Then he miscued a shot that lobbed in the air, bisecting two fielders in the covers, and they ran another two. In the next over he hit a three before being bowled by Terry Spencer.
Leicestershire had dismissed the mighty Surrey for 77, and the team formed a guard of honour as their captain – a “dobber” with a bad back, supposedly coming on for just one over – strolled off with figures of 14 overs, 12 maidens, eight wickets for seven runs. The most extraordinary bowling spell in the history of first-class cricket. The story goes that he put his head around the Surrey dressing-room door and said: “Gentlemen, I do beg your pardon.”
At close of play, when the local reporter pushed into the pavilion, he found the place swarming with excited cricketers and their supporters, all buzzing with the fairy-tale spell of their captain/secretary. “Everybody seemed to be talking furiously except Charles himself. He was quietly occupied, practical as ever, opening bottles for the celebrants.”
“All I remember,” he said in later life, “was that I learnt how much whisky I could drink. Very quickly, too, I think.”
In the second innings, with Surrey winning by seven wickets, he gave himself another 13 overs. This time, with the damp patch gone and the Surrey batsmen treating him with great caution, he did not take a wicket – though he conceded only one run, scored by Bernie Constable off his 71st ball.
The following day, back at The Oval, the Surrey players studied the horses for that afternoon’s Derby. Constable knew about racing, but for once he took no notice of form, spotting the name of the jockey riding a horse called Phil Drake. “Palmer!” he exclaimed in his high-pitched voice. “That’s got to be the winner.” It was only its third outing, and several horses had shorter odds – but, when they huddled round the pavilion radio after bowling out Lancashire, it was Phil Drake, ridden by Freddie Palmer, that came home in first place.
Charles Palmer, asked by Brian Chapman of the Daily Mirror if it was his proudest moment in cricket, replied “not on your life”, recalling a day seven years earlier at Worcester when he faced the Australian Keith Miller bowling at his fastest. He hit him for a four and, knowing the next delivery would be a bouncer, “I was ready for it and carted him for six. Boy, was that a thrill!”
The ball that had taken eight wickets, mounted with the bowling figures engraved on a silver band, sat for many years on the Palmer mantelpiece. It was a source of pride to his boys who, more than 65 years later, still love to drop the unlikely tale into conversation. But to their father it was only ever a source of amusement, not so much a “rare somewhere in space” as “a fluke and a freak”.