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May 20, 2014
Philip Sharpe, who has died at 77 after a short illness, played 12 Tests for England but, upon his passing, in Yorkshire they will talk only off his slip catching. On the subject of great slippers, Fred Trueman and Raymond Illingworth were just two Yorkshire bowlers who would opine that Sharpe had no better, not just in Yorkshire, but probably in the world in whatever era anybody cared to mention.
England's omission of Sharpe for the 1968 Test against Australia at Headingley still lives on in cricket folklore nearly half a century later. England preferred to give a Test debut to Keith Fletcher and the somewhat self-effacing Essex batsman had a traumatic debut as slip catches went astray, leaving the Headingley crowd in no doubt that Sharpe would have caught them blindfolded.
When the Headingley Test pitch was vandalised seven years later as part of the "Free George Davis" campaign, Trueman's after-dinner speeches quickly included the line that, if he had his way, they would be thrown off the pavilion roof at Headingley. "But I'm not a cruel man," he would say knowingly. "I'd have Keith Fletcher underneath to try to catch 'em." Loyalties to Sharpe ran deep.
Sharpe's Test record was an impressive one - he averaged 46.23, compared to 30.73 overall after a county career that brought 22,530 first-class runs. That discrepancy was partly the result of demanding Yorkshire pitches, perhaps also of a more carefree attitude to the county circuit, although he was always a respected player of quick bowling.
His finest county season was 1962, when he made 2,201 first-class runs, held 67 catches and helped Vic Wilson, Yorkshire's first professional captain, bring the Championship pennant back to Headingley. It was not enough to get him to Australia that winter, his Test debut coming against West Indies the following year.
In all, he took 618 first-class catches, often taking the catch as late as possible so that it seemed the ball was already behind him, and diving only when it was absolutely necessary. Yorkshire historians ranked him alongside "Long John" Tunnicliffe as Yorkshire's finest slipper. In the era he played, Australia's Bobby Simpson was of comparable quality.
As Don Mosey wrote in We Don't Play It For Fun: "He raised slip catching not only to an art form but a geometrical science by working out the optimum place to stand after taking into account the pace of the pitch, the type of bowling, the positioning of the wicketkeeper and the known technique of the batsman." All that done, he was then reliant upon his ability to judge the pace of the ball and razor-sharp reflexes.
He enjoyed his cricket and he enjoyed his post-match singalongs, too, needing little encouragement to team up with Don Wilson, an England left-arm spinner and Yorkshire colleague, for a rendition of songs from Gilbert and Sullivan or the Black and White Minstrels, a repertoire which in its entirety could last more than an hour. Not for Sharpe were the intense post-match Yorkshire inquests conducted by the likes of Illingworth and Brian Close after an unrewarding day. There were few more relaxed Yorkshire cricketers in that era, prepared to wash away the bad memories with a few pints and a song or two.
Sharpe's early forays in cricket were at Bradford Grammar School and Worksop School and he was capped by Yorkshire in 1960 as a new young side began to be built: the side of Trueman, Wilson, Close, Illingworth, Jimmy Binks and Jackie Hampshire.
During his 20-year career, Yorkshire won seven Championship titles and he had spells later on with Derbyshire and in the Minor Counties with Norfolk. He also played hockey for Yorkshire and the North. He served as a Yorkshire committee member for York and sided with the committee in the Boycott Wars in the 1980s, although he did so urbanely and his mild, easy-going nature meant that he showed little relish for the fight.
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