Willie Watson 1920-2004 April 24, 2004

A man for all seasons

Willie Watson, who has died at 84, saved the 1953 Lord's Test with a memorable innings, and was one of the last to play both cricket and football for England

Willie Watson, who has died at 84, saved the 1953 Lord's Test with a memorable innings, and was one of the last to play both cricket and football for England. Four years ago Scyld Berry marked Watson's 80th birthday with this essay in Wisden Cricket Monthly:

Willie Watson: hero of the 1953 Lord's Test © The Cricketer

A lot of cricket was played at SuperSport Park in Centurion when South Africa and England contested the fifth Test of their 1999-2000 winter series. Not on the field, of course: only a little was possible there. But in the President's Suite of the Northern Cricket Union, where Richard Harrison held hospitable court, a lot of cricket was played out in the mind's eye.

The partnership of 402 between Willie Watson and Tom Graveney against British Guiana in 1953-54 was one example. "We were 51 for 3 when we came together," Graveney remembered, and both batsmen went on to make double-hundreds. Together the pair recalled that they were sent a message, along with some fresh gloves, to get themselves out so that Ken Suttle, England's reserve batsman, could have a knock.

But Watson, who celebrated his 80th birthday on March 7, 2000, is not the type to make any boasts or extravagant claims about the superiority of cricket in his day. I wouldn't have been good at it, he said simply of the one-day game. Neither from his talk nor demeanour would you be able to deduce that he was the last double international to represent England at cricket and football with any frequency.

For long periods of the Test, during the three rainy days, Watson would stand at the window and look out upon the empty field, fascinated not by the past but by the game as it is and was played. I don't believe most cricketers when they say they don't know their career statistics, but I did in this case (Watson scored 25,670 first-class runs at an average just under 40 on uncovered pitches). He mused about whether he was right to stay so sideways-on in his batting style and be such an off-side batsman: he is still convinced that sideways-on is best for wet or bad wickets, but now thinks it is better to be slightly chest-on on flat pitches so as to be able to work the straight balls to leg.

Sometimes when standing at the window Watson would place a cigarette into his old-fashioned holder and ruminate with it in his left hand. He has enjoyed a happy marriage for 55 years, and smoking for even longer, and does not wish to give up either. In his profile of Watson as one of the Five Cricketers of the Year in the 1954 Wisden, Bill Bowes wrote: "A quiet modesty prevented him making full use of his ability ... Only occasionally did he exhibit the powerful pull or the stroke to cover as smoothly perfect as any by Frank Woolley."

As the rain pelted and the groundsmen mopped, it was a privilege to be granted access to the past of one of our finest sportsmen, and of a gentleman in every sense save the one which hidebound English cricket applied until 1962.

He moved from his birthplace of Wath-on-Dearne near Sheffield to Huddersfield at the age of one when his father, a miner, was signed by Huddersfield Town. With Billy Watson in their side at wing-half, and Herbert Chapman as manager, Town won the First Division title three seasons in a row in the mid-1920s. Naturally Billy's son wanted to follow in his footsteps, and by the time war came in 1939 he had made two first-team appearances for Huddersfield.

He had left school at 14 and joined a firm which made car chassis as a cleaner and oddjob boy at a penny and three-farthings an hour for a 52-hour week. No wonder he joined Town's groundstaff as soon as he could; and at 16 he was also going to the Headingley nets for coaching from George Hirst, another of nature's gentlemen from Huddersfield.

Watson scored two Test centuries for England, and vital ones both were - against Australia at Lord's and West Indies at Kingston - as he was never one to cash in with superfluous runs. But when he starts to reminisce, he tells you about making 0 in his first game for Yorkshire's 2nd XI, and a pair against Lancashire II in his second. In those pre-war days Yorkshire's secretary John Nash informed players of their selection, and when and where to meet, by postcard: and when Watson was chosen for a third match, against Staffordshire, Nash sensitively added at the bottom of the card: Good luck this time. And then the war came, and this 19-year-old, so evidently gifted at both sports, was to lose his next six years.

When he returned to football after the war he found that he had been transferred from Huddersfield, no longer a power in the land, to Sunderland, who were. He had married Barbara, a Huddersfield girl, towards the end of the war, and together they moved house to Sunderland, where he remained even when playing for Yorkshire in the summers. Having started as a left wing, he moved to inside-left, as they used to say, and finally his father's position of wing-half. Those who saw Watson play liken him to Bobby Moore, swift not so much of foot as of thought and in reading of the game.

Watson: 23 England cricket caps ... and four for football too © Wisden

He became good enough at Sunderland to be selected for England four times and for the World Cup squad of 1950, when he was the understudy of Jimmy Dickinson and Billy Wright in the three games which England played in Brazil, including that infamous 1-0 defeat by the United States.

The squad had two weekends of training in London before going off to the World Cup. Watson remembers catching the train down from Sunderland to one of them, and buying the third-class ticket which the FA allowed, only to find the compartments packed. So he paid 10/6d to upgrade to first - and the FA refused to pay the difference. For representing England in that World Cup he was paid £60, whereas Yorkshire at the time were paying £40 per match, although out of that a player had to pay his travel and accommodation. Bitter about footballers earning £40,000 per week nowadays? "I'm glad I played when I did. It was more fun, you know. There was a bit of this sort of thing" - and like a more restrained Ancient Mariner he takes the sleeve of your shirt and gives it a gentle tug - "but none of this shoving and tackling from behind like they do now."

His cricket also had six prime years to make up. He was 31 by the time he made his England debut in 1951 against South Africa, in the same match as Graveney. For Yorkshire Watson had never been given a settled place in the batting order: when Len Hutton and Frank Lowson were opening, he would bat at No. 5, but if Hutton was away at a Test, Watson was compact enough to open. In 1950 he was in top form after the World Cup, but the Ashes party was chosen in mid-season in those days so the players could make their winter plans: otherwise he might have got in ahead of Gilbert Parkhouse, the Glamorgan opener. When he was picked for England, he was often given a game here and another there, and only had two full series while winning 23 caps. Bitter? "There were some good players around - Denis Compton, Bill Edrich, Tom Graveney, Peter May, Colin Cowdrey. I used to get picked when one of them was injured."

He played in the Lord's Test of 1953 all right, when the Watson-Bailey stand of immortal memory took place. No hyperbole again from Watson, only matter of fact: "It was a good wicket on the last day and Denis batted very well until he got out. As usual you tried to get through the first hour and then have a look. The main thing was there was a lot of rough outside a left-hander's off stump and Australia had their spinners to bowl into it, so there couldn't be any cover-driving out of the rough or that sort of thing. The next thing was to get through the second new ball in the afternoon. After that I remember going up to Trevor and saying `Do you think we should go for the runs?' Trevor just turned his back on me and walked away."

A more objective account of the heroics which took place, as England under Hutton fought to regain the Ashes in Coronation Year after 19 years without them, can be provided by others who were at Centurion. It's partly because you probably haven't heard of Bernie Coleman that he was one of the best administrators English cricket has ever had, the man who gave it what commercial and marketing nous it had before the 1990s and never sought any limelight. He attended every day of that 1953 Lord's Test with Boris Karloff, Bernie bringing the salmon and the veal-and-ham pie, Boris responsible for the sherbet. There was a very small crowd at the start of the final day as England were three wickets down overnight and nobody gave them much chance of saving it, Coleman remembered. But it kept growing through the afternoon as it looked as though England might save the game.

Perhaps the most famous of all England rearguard partnerships, along with the Atherton-Russell one at Johannesburg in 1995-96, was ended when Watson was given out caught at slip for 109. Freddie Brown on the England balcony walked over and looked towards Q Stand, where Barbara Watson was sitting, with her habitual butterflies, and bowed to her. Brown then went out and batted in a swashbuckling style which raised everyone's hair on end - even Karloff found it scary - but was his natural game.

England just clung on for the draw, but there was no time to celebrate then as now: Watson had to catch the evening train from Paddington to Taunton to play next day for Yorkshire. No wonder triumphalism has never been part of the England cricketer's psyche.

In 1957, at the height of one of Yorkshire's internecine feuds, he moved to Leicestershire as captain. In the 1930s the county had the first professional captain of the 20th century in Ewart Astill, but Watson was still one of the first professionals to be thus anointed. Unfortunately his senior players soon departed, as Charlie Palmer retired and Maurice Tompkin died of leukaemia, and he had too many young players to achieve success, but that was to come under Tony Lock.

After retiring from cricket at the end of the 1961 season he helped Halifax Town and managed Bradford City for a couple of seasons, taking them from the bottom of Division Four to the top. In 1968 he emigrated to South Africa, to become sports manager at the Wanderers, and he has remained in Johannesburg ever since, as South Africa's winter climate is better for his health than England's. After committee discussions, Yorkshire even allowed him to take some of his benefit money with him. The custom was still for the county to keep most of a beneficiary's money lest he succumb to drink.

At Centurion both Tom and Jackie Graveney were reunited with Willie and Barbara Watson. They had met at Scarborough, after the Graveneys had got married and gone there for their honeymoon and the cricket. Scarborough Festivals were the nearest the Watsons got to a holiday, when the pros and their wives would stay at the Royal and the amateurs at the Grand, and they would join in dinner-dances together. Until Watson retired from football at Christmas in 1953 to tour West Indies, the Watsons never had a holiday - well, they once had a week off in January after Sunderland had been knocked out of the FA Cup. Otherwise he went straight from one sport to the other, fit and skilled enough to miss the pre-season training of both. Early on Yorkshire and Sunderland had come to an agreement that if Yorkshire were in the race for a trophy at the end of a season, they could keep him, and vice versa.

Micky and Sheila Stewart were also at Centurion. Micky remembered fielding at short leg to Watson and how he used to say to himself "Wait, wait, wait," as the bowler was running up, and even louder if he was out of form. "Maurice Leyland suggested to me to wait - not to reach for the ball - as something he used to do," explained Watson. Doug Insole was present as well, another contemporary and friend, and called him Billy. Barbara always calls him Bill, but for football purposes he had to be distinguished from his father, so he was always Willie to the public.

It wasn't the same in football at all, said Barbara Watson. We were friendly with the other players and their wives, of course, but it wasn't the same as cricket. Cricket allows the time for lifelong friendships to be made, between players on the same side and between opponents.

Watson's final assignment for England was to go on the 1958-59 tour of Australia as a 38-year-old makeshift opening batsman, when an old knee injury flared up to trouble him. So did Australia's fast bowlers, not only chucking the new ball but doing it from less than 20 yards as they dragged so far. Then 40 years later one of them, Gordon Rorke, turned up in South Africa on a business trip and greeted Watson, who found his former adversary to be "A very pleasant man".

Even when cricket is not being played, and the time for it has passed, it can still be the greatest of games.