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A personal epigraph

Speak as you find. Personally, I found Raymond (never Ray) Illingworth approachable and interesting. Get these older players in the right mood and the right environment and you would be a fool if you did not listen and learn. At least that was how it was in the days when players would socialise in the bar at the close of play. The amount of socialising would obviously depend. Sometimes it was no more than a swift half before players would drift off; sometimes the carousing would go on until the small hours. But the possibility was always there, if you had ears to listen, that an experienced player with a bottomless pit of anecdote and opinion would expound freely on a wide variety of cricketing topics. Raymond Illingworth was one such sage.

I first spoke to him while he was re-setting the field. He was the captain of Leicestershire and he believed – he certainly announced it loudly to all and sundry – that he had spotted a weakness in my technique. “We won’t ‘ave you there, son,” he said to one of his team, “’E won’t hit it there in a moonth of Soondays.” No doubt he was right but the point was he was standing right in front of me, slap-bang on the ‘business area’ of the pitch, just short of a length. He should not have been there. Players – bowlers, batsmen and fielders – are supposed to keep off the pitch as much as humanly possible and if they do not

they risk stern admonition from the umpires. Illingworth knew this, I knew it, and as soon as the umpires spotted it, he would have been moved on. But the umpires were distracted and oblivious. The purpose of his provocative stance was unknown to me. Perhaps he was attempting to rough up the pitch. Perhaps he was attempting to intimidate me. Perhaps he was testing me out, trying to upset my concentration. There was nothing for it, I decided. I had to say something.

“Excuse me, Captain.”

He frowned and looked down at his feet as if irritated that they had led him to such a position while he had much more pressing matters to address. Wordlessly, he moved. Nothing said. No glowering looks. No muttered curses. The really good players – we should step back from the edge of calling him truly ‘great’ – do not need to say much. Their record, their reputation, speaks for itself.

Later that day – this was the summer of 1975, the year of The Great Heatwave – both teams were relaxing on the dressing room balcony, quietly rehydrating. As both dressing rooms gave out onto the same balcony, desultory chat between the two teams after a blisteringly hot day’s cricket was taking place. I fell into conversation with the Leicestershire captain. In point of fact, he talked and I listened, not because he liked the sound of his own voice but because he was more than willing to deliver his opinions on any subject that I tentatively brought up. I asked him why on earth John Snow had not been selected for the recent Ashes series Down Under. The memory of England’s humiliation at the hands of Lillee and Thomson was still raw and I simply could not understand why our best fast bowler had been left at home. After all, he had terrorised the Australian batsmen on the last tour over there, in a team captained by Illingworth, as it happened, who had overseen a famous Ashes triumph. “I never ‘ad any trouble with Snowball,” he told me, recalling to mind Snow’s chequered discipline record under a number of captains, for club and country. What Illingworth said about managing a fast bowler’s workload made so much sense at the time but it is difficult to believe – for that was the way it was back then – that common sense took so long to penetrate the mindset of captains, coaches, selectors and administrators. “Look,” said Illingworth, “A fast bowler cannot bowl at maximum speed seven days a week. I said to Snowy, I don’t care what you do between Tests. All I want you to do is be ready when I want you to give me ‘alf-a-doozen overs at maximum speed. ‘E was as good as gold, were Snowy.” Indeed. Snow in that series (1970-71) took 31 wickets and together with Boycott (another supposedly ‘difficult’ character superbly handled by Illingworth) was the architect of England’s reclaiming of the Ashes.

“See that young lad over there?” said Illingworth, suddenly changing the subject. He was nodding in the direction of a youthful member of his team, one who had curly blond locks and a deceptively angelic face. “’E’s going to be the future of English creekit.” Earlier that day, David Gower had run me out. He had picked the ball up on the run at mid-wicket and thrown down the stumps at the non-striker’s, where I was headed and failed to reach in time – just. I was given not out. He sidled up to me and said, “That was a bit close, Murt, wasn’t it?” “I was well past the stumps,” I lied and we both grinned. As I remember, Gower was not actually playing in that game, so he must have been fielding as 12th Man.

Which made the words of Illingworth that more surprising. Gower had not yet made a name for himself on the county scene, let alone the international stage. Clearly Illingworth, with his sharp eye for latent talent, had spotted something in the young lad that had not yet flowered. “’E ‘as natural timing. You can’t teach that. If ‘e knuckles down and learns ‘ow to play properly, like a pro instead of a bluidy jazz ‘at amateur, ‘e’ll pull up trees.”

Did David Gower destroy forests? There are some who contend that he did not quite fulfil his enormous talent in his England career. “I played over 100 Test matches and scored over 8,000 runs at an average in the mid-forties,” he said, defending his record, “So I must have been doing something right!” I think we can all agree that Gower did pull up trees, hundreds of them, and that Illingworth’s prediction was spot-on. For his part, Gower has always paid full tribute to Illingworth for having fashioned him in those early days into the fully-fledged Test match batsman he later became.

It was a poignant moment when I caught up with my old mate, Roger Tolchard, after a long, Covid-induced period of separation. Tolly of course was Leicestershire’s wicket-keeper-batsman when Illingworth, having fallen out with his native Yorkshire, accepted the position of captain at Grace Road, heralding a period of unprecedented success for the county and a new lease of life for Illingworth himself. Leicestershire at that time were well stocked with spinners. In addition to Illingworth, there was another competent off-spinner, Jack Birkenshaw, as well as two left-arm spinning all-rounders in Chris Balderstone and John Steele. It was a standing joke on the county circuit that if the pitch was spinning, Illingworth would put himself on and if it wasn’t Birkenshaw would be bowling. And if the dimensions of the outfield favoured one end for an off-spinner, Illingworth would take that end while Birkenshaw would have to contend with the short, leg-side boundary. Tolly would have none of this. First, it should not be forgotten, he insisted, that by now Illingworth was well into his forties, the season was long, and, as captain, he would want to play in every match without rest. Secondly, there was no better off-spinner in the country if there was a bit of turn in the pitch. “I will always remember him, above all,” said Tolly, “for his bowling. He was just magnificent.” Tolchard should know. He kept wicket to Illingworth more than most.

Illingworth’s later career as England selector/coach/supremo was less successful than he would have liked – his principles and methods were considered out-dated – but as a pundit he was always knowledgeable and informative. Certain precepts in the game are immutable and his critique of unquestioned developments – he would call them ‘fads’ – was incisive. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater was his presumption. He was a shrewd reader of the game and got the best out of those around him. We could do with a captain like Illingworth right now. And tell me if there is a better off-spinner around than he was.

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