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When you met the former head coach of the indoor school at Lord's, you could be sure you'd get plenty of stories, unprintable stuff, and great insights into county cricket
July 28, 2012
In the early days of the new indoor school at Lord's, you could hear Don Wilson cajoling and carousing (and occasionally canoodling) from about 50 yards away. There was a throaty cackle, a roll of those big ping-pong eyes, and the head coach was off into another story, always about cricket, always funny, almost always unbelievably rude.
And he was nearly always there: he had a flat inside the ground, with its very own gate to the outside world on St John's Wood Road. You got a great insight into county cricket - and a pretty sore head - from a session with "Wils".
Don was a rangy left-arm spinner who had won seven County Championships with Yorkshire and played six Tests for England: five in India in 1963-64, and one in New Zealand in 1970-71, as a kind of thank you after slogging round Australia as Derek Underwood's understudy on the successful Ashes tour. Australia was always supposed to be the great tour, and India a trial, but not for Wilson: "In India I was part of the team, played every game, it was great. In Australia I was just a spare part, so which do you think I enjoyed more?" he'd ask, before adding something unprintable about the Sydney red-light district.
He gave up playing in 1974. "Boycott got to me," he once confided. "I couldn't take any more of the constant sniping. I was vice-captain then and the dressing room was terrible, like a war zone sometimes. One day I didn't even want to get up and open the curtains - and I knew it was time to stop." He moved seamlessly into coaching, and took on the Lord's job when the indoor school was built in 1977.
Don might not have liked Geoff Boycott much, but that didn't stop him helping the great man out. I once witnessed a centre-wicket practice on the Lord's Nursery during which the cricket staff bowled to Boycs, who had been out of form. He batted as if it were a Test - elbow high, bat straight, no nonsense. Each delivery was treated on its merits, very occasionally greeted with a grunt of "Well bowled". But if the ball was a fraction wide, Boycott's eyes would light up, he'd call "Bad ball - four", and stroke it effortlessly to the boundary. He did this about a dozen times, and never missed... and I got the message, if I didn't know it already, that this was rather a different game to the one I tried to play. Don materialised alongside me: "He's a great player, isn't he? Pity he's such a $%*@, though, eh."
I was MCC's Cricket Office manager, and working with Wilson was often illuminating - but it was often infuriating, too. He was terrible with names, so writing down teamsheets was fraught with danger: "No, not him, I mean the tall lad with long hair, looks like the blond one in Abba - the bloke with the guitar, I mean, not the bloomin' girl!" Don called me "Chris" for about two years, and alternated between addressing my assistant as "Mark" or "Philip". His actual name was Tony.
More of a problem was that, at a time when MCC was much more hidebound than it is today, Don found the rules and regulations too stultifying. He reckoned, largely correctly, that he was out of sight of the pavilion in his domain at the Nursery end, and so could do pretty much what he liked. He'd say "Yes, sure" when asked about something, then jog back round the ground and do the opposite. This did lead to the occasional spectacular argument: once, when Peter May was chairman of selectors, he took a stroll round the ground and admired the form of one of the young professionals practising assiduously under Don's tutelage in the nets. "Who's that young fellow?" asked May. "Jolly nice action." Enquiries established that the "young fellow" was actually Dennis Lillee, getting in some unauthorised pre-Test practice. Questions were asked - not quite in the House, but certainly in the Long Room.
|People found Don Wilson scary, funny, or even slightly loopy - but they usually emerged from the experience as better players. Better people too, probably|
Wilson was great at spotting talent and bringing it on. There were occasional whispers that he was biased towards left-arm spinners and Yorkshiremen, and particularly left-arm spinners who were Yorkshiremen (Stephen Booth fitted both bills, and played a fair bit for Somerset after his Lord's stint). And he had a bit of a downer on "jazz hats" (players, usually from the south, who sported fancy blazers and caps; it meant I had to keep my own club's snazzy headgear well hidden). But it was largely down to Wilson that Dermot Reeve changed from being a wicketkeeper who batted into a handy medium-pacer who batted better, and he did something similar for Richard Doughty, who joined the Lord's staff as a wicketkeeper and ended up taking the new ball for Gloucestershire and Surrey.
Wilson was one of those who spotted the talent in the young PCR Tufnell (yes, another slow left-armer), and persuaded some doubting Thomases to take a chance on him when there was a feeling he might be hard to handle (surely not!). Phil DeFreitas was another unlikely triallist, arriving with his kit in a plastic bag. Wilson realised there was something to work with, and DeFreitas soon played for England too. One of my most pleasurable moments while working at Lord's was ringing Daffy and Tuffers to tell them they'd been selected for an England Under-19 tour of the West Indies: I can still hear the whoops and hollers of delight. All in all, around two dozen players graduated to successful county careers during Wilson's 13-year stint at Lord's.
Not just England benefited. One morning early in April 1981, I received a call from Don. I'd just sent a jet-lagged New Zealander, who was joining the cricket staff on a scholarship, round to meet him. "You'd better come and watch this," he said. I hurried round, and was confronted with Martin Crowe in full flow. "This lad is just magnificent - too good for us!" breathed Wilson. "Look at that on-drive, it's like watching Greg Chappell." He lost little time in signing Crowe up for his Yorkshire League club... cue more grumbles from others, and more wide-eyed protestations of innocence from the coach.
And now he's gone: no more stories, no more laughter, no more terrible jokes. But he wasn't just there for prospective county and Test players: thousands of less-talented individuals benefited from his coaching at Lord's, Ampleforth and elsewhere. People found Don Wilson scary, funny, or even slightly loopy - but they usually emerged from the experience as better players. Better people too, probably: somehow he got the balance between serious and fun just right.
Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2012Feeds: Steven Lynch
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