The star who might have been
People generally remember two things about Graham Dilley, whose sudden and horribly premature passing has been received with shock and grief. One, that he took the lead and clobbered 56 of that unforgettable 117-run stand with Ian Botham at Headingley in 1981, inspiring, even embarrassing, his partner into an eruption of Australian-deflating shots that turned a 92-run deficit and impending defeat into a lead - the first giant step towards the most miraculous victory yet seen in a Test match. Two, that he lent his name to the daftest pun ever perpetrated in the title of a cricket book: Hick 'n' Dilley Circus. He deserves to be commemorated for rather more than that.
In his pomp he was a fearsome fast bowler possessed of a certain elegance. Blond and rangy, with an elbow-pumping action, he surged to the crease in almost stately fashion, arms high at the point of delivery, a chilling vision in that chest-on release; batsmen had every reason to suspect that they were about to be impaled by a javelin.
Sadly, fitness and confidence were not regular assets. Most grievously, in 1984 a disc became trapped against his spinal cord; the surgeon decided to replace it with a piece of reshaped bone transplanted from his left hip, an extremely delicate and chancy procedure. Had anything gone awry, he was warned, "there was a real danger I could end up a cripple". Nor was there any guarantee that "feeling would return". It robbed him of an entire season just as he was beginning to make an unanswerable case to succeed Bob Willis as England's spearhead. Happily he recovered to enjoy a brief reign as the world's finest Caucasian quick. To describe him as his country's best out-and-out fast bowler of the eighties might draw all manner of retributory fire from Botham and Willis, but for 25 months he was as intimidating, and as good, as both.
Plucked from Hatton Garden, where he was training as a diamond-cutter, Dilley always looked the part. That he was quick became painfully clear to one experienced opponent when, at 18, he made his championship debut for Kent against Middlesex: he struck Mike Selvey on the right calf with such ferocity that the resulting haematoma prevented the former England seamer from walking that evening. Two years later Dilley was imperiing the Australians in Perth, sending back Peter Toohey and Rod Marsh, as England's seventh-youngest debutant. In the second innings he achieved a snickering sort of immortality, the last link in that most assonant of scorebook entries: Lillee c Willey b Dilley.
But consistency proved as elusive as health. There were 11 wickets in three Tests against West Indies in the sodden summer of 1980; in Bridgetown early the following year he inflicted ducks on Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards, and dismissed the latter three times in the series; but when he took guard that afternoon at Headingley he knew the only way he could keep his place was to "score some runs". One of the main reasons Australia reached 401 "was that I bowled crap".
His frank recollections, conveyed to Alastair McLellan during our research for 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81, spoke eloquently, if depressingly, of the fragility of the sporting psyche. "My bowling was dreadful, absolutely dreadful." Indeed, for all those heroically lusty lashes through the covers, he was dropped for Edgbaston. "Two weeks [later] I was bowling that badly, I was playing for Kent Second XI against The Army at Woolwich. I'd lost it totally. Some people are relatively fortunate in as much as once they lose it, it goes from being all right to not relatively quickly. Mine took three months, running up to bowl thinking 'I'm not too sure where this is going.' Eventually it got worse and worse, until I had no idea where it was going."
Fulfilment arrived in the second half of the decade. In a purple patch that extended from the start of the 1986 series against India until the end of June 1988, he was the world's leading wicket-aggregator in Tests, taking 82 at 25.84, at a strike rate of 53.7, including half-a-dozen five-fors. His most memorable contribution, the defining stint of his international career, came at the Gabba in the opening installment of the 1986-87 Ashes. Swinging the ball at pace and generating sharp bounce, he took 5 for 68 in Australia's first innings, his first such haul in Tests, laying the foundation for a comprehensive victory that gave Mike Gatting's party a lead they never relinquished.
He saved his most productive outing for the mighty West Indies. At Lord's in 1988 he brushed aside the game's most formidable top four, Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson and Richards, before lunch on day one; that spell of 13-4-35-4 would have been still more impressive had Derek Pringle not dropped Gus Logie. Dismissing Haynes and Greenidge the second time round, Dilley finished with 9 for 128 all told.
It was not, however, a match-winning performance. They seldom were. His misfortune, not to mention that of his country, was the palpable lack of effective support. That England won just two of those 20 Tests - both against a modest Australian side - can be attributed in good part to the comparative impotence of Dilley's aides; the other bowlers who claimed more than 20 victims during that span all had greatly inferior strike rates: John Emburey (40 wickets, SR 145.1), Phil Edmonds (34, SR 95.3), Neil Foster (31, SR 66.9), Phil DeFreitas (23, SR 93.8) and Derek Pringle (21, 67.8). Nor does it say anything terribly complimentary about that attack that Dilley shared new-ball duties with no fewer than eight other bowlers during those two years, including Emburey, an offspinner. In another era, abetted by a foil such as Brian Statham or Bill Voce, his overall record - 138 Test scalps at 29.76, SR 59.3 - would assuredly have been even better.
He left Kent after that triumphant Ashes expedition, believing they were not paying him what he was worth, and joined Worcestershire, whom he helped win two County Championships. His international career, like that of many others, ended when he signed on for Gatting's ill-fated "rebel" tour of South Africa in early 1990. By then, though only 30, the mind was making promises that a battered body had scant hope of keeping. Had he remained at Kent, and hence not missed out on a benefit, he may have felt less inclined to cock such a flagrant snook at the Gleneagles Agreement. Then again, Chapter 4 of his aptly titled 1987 autobiography, Swings and Roundabouts, did carry the headline "Oh for Hindsight", a rueful reflection on his decision to pull out of Graham Gooch's South African Breweries-backed tour of 1981-82; it would have given Dilley "far greater financial security than I was to achieve staying within the legal framework of the game".
Retiring in 1992, he flew below the radar, beset by financial troubles, before embarking on a series of coaching gigs with England (men and women), Zimbabwe, Surrey and, latterly, Loughborough University. When he was captaining England and Dilley was working with the bowlers, Nasser Hussain, never one to mince words, said Dilley was far too nice for the hurly burly of a senior international dressing room - "a lovely bloke but not hard, dynamic or imaginative enough" - which doubtless hampered his prospects.
As Middlesex's director of cricket, Angus Fraser, who made his England debut in Dilley's final Test, worked with him at Loughborough over the past two summers: "He was as accommodating and helpful as anyone could be. It is extremely sad that such a wonderful talent and decent man is no longer with us." A fitting epitaph to a man for whom fortune smiled just once.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton