September 5, 2014

Illy the groundsman

Former England captain Ray Illingworth tended the square at Farsley Cricket Club till his health gave way. He still helps out there most days

Everything from Farsley is uphill. Leeds to its east. Bradford to its west. The New Pudsey train station is uphill. From Calverley Lane even the Farsley Cricket Club is uphill. It's a good walk of about a mile. All uphill. Until about four years ago, before he had a heart attack at the age of 78, Ray Illingworth, who lives here, used to walk that walk, get to his beloved club at 7am, water the square, come back to wake his wife up, have breakfast, and then resume work by 10am.

His work involved mowing the square, watering, rolling the main pitches and the practice pitches at the far end, getting the ground ready for at least two junior and one senior match a week. He can still tell you what weather to expect, judging by the direction of the wind.

Illingworth was, until his back forced him to give up, the groundsman at Farsley Cricket Club. His friend, John Cockshot, used to, and still does, look after the outfield, Illingworth the square. There are no other assistants.

Around four years ago, Illingworth's back finally began giving him enough trouble to make it impossible for him to do everything himself. He passed the square on to Henry Hinchcliffe, for whom it is a passionate hobby. Hinchcliffe brought his own modern equipment with him. The pitches are harder than before, reckons Illingworth. However, he can't stop himself from popping in on Saturdays to help draw the white lines or the ropes around the sightscreen.

For Illingworth, it is difficult to imagine a life without cricket, and in particular at Farsley. He began playing for them when he was 14, when cricket had just resumed after the war, in 1945. Apart from the times he has been away, there hasn't been a year when he hasn't been associated with Farsley. As we sit there alone, on a bench in the ground, Illingworth says, with not a hint of overstatement, "In the West Indies they say: 'My island in the sun.' This is my island in the sun."

Farsley is a beautiful ground. It has about as much of a slope as Lord's does. It has one building block, which has a small club office and bar, and two basic change rooms. There are benches around the fence if spectators want to watch. The two small sightscreens are painted immaculate white. A few houses have come up at the far end, but it used to be all trees before. The houses now have their windows broken.

It is an old-fashioned club with an old-fashioned president, the former groundsman. He is from an era we don't even realise we have forgotten. Back when Illingworth started playing, cricketers were expected to help the groundsman - Cockshot's grandfather in Farsley's case.

"Always been interested in it," Illingworth says. "I got to know John's grandfather quite well. I was always helping him out because I was interested in it. It is something that stayed with me. Actually it stood me in good stead when I was playing cricket, in judging wickets, whether to bat or bowl. I had more of a judgement of wickets."

Illingworth asked for similar help when he became a groundsman. "You expect players to help," he says. "In our days we did. We had a big roller. Pushed it all the way down there. You rolled three or four times a week them days. Now if we grabbed them like that, the players would help. In my day it was your job. It was automatic. You did it without thinking. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and every Saturday morning. Nowadays you have to ask them lads, 'Do you think you can put the roller on?' That's a different attitude. To life, unfortunately."

It's a tough job being a groundsman. You have to work hard, and around the weather. You have to be available with covers should it rain. Picking up the droppings of seagulls is hard work of an hour and a half. To Illingworth it was a natural extension of his cricketing life. He played county cricket with Leicestershire until he was 46, then he came back to Yorkshire as manager, and at the age of 50 decided to play again.

"Because I bowled so much in my younger days, I could leave bowling for a fortnight, and come back and bowl straightaway again. Don't forget I was bowling a thousand overs every season"

Yorkshire even won the John Player under the 51-year-old Illingworth. In his first match back, he got the wickets of John Wright and John Hampshire, both internationals, in an analysis of 8-0-36-2. Wright is known to have later said he got done in by a spinner of a different class.

Illingworth came in because Yorkshire had some captaincy problems, and says he didn't find it difficult to bowl at that age. "I was still pretty fit," he says. "No weight or anything. The weight didn't vary much from 12 stone 10, something like that. I won't say I trained a lot, but I trained enough to stay normally fit. Never a problem that way. The hardest part was batting. I batted lower down. But batting in one-day cricket was the hardest part. Running between the wickets. They want threes!

"I had done a fair bit of that at Leicestershire, batting with Roger Tolchard. He was a fit lad. He would dab it and go, 'Yeah come on, yeah three.' He really was quick. He was possibly the quickest in the country. Running with him kept me in good stead. I had to occasionally say to him, 'Hey, I'm 45, it can't always be three. Might only be a two.'"

The captaincy problem might have provided Illingworth the opportunity, but he already missed playing. He didn't need second invitations when the selectors said he might be fit enough. And he was fit enough. "Because I bowled so much in my younger days, I could leave bowling for a fortnight and come back and bowl straightaway again," he says. "I didn't need another match to get fit again. I could always bowl length and line, no problem. Don't forget I was bowling a thousand overs every season. Plus, if you went on tour. If me back would have been better I could have still gone out and bowled length and line."

After finishing up with Yorkshire, Illingworth came back home, and captained Farsley for four more years. At 55, his arm used to ache after he bowled ten overs. That's when he realised time was up, but he found another way to stay involved, preparing pitches.

He still watches cricket, on TV, and at Headingley and Farsley. He is worried about chucking, which has become rampant. He is not bothered about T20, except that he wants players to first get a solid base by playing first-class cricket before branching out into the shorter versions. Often you will find him watching nets at Farsley, or helping Cockshot and Hinchcliffe.

"Very pleasant up here. Simple things in life. We didn't have computers. You made your joy here. Probably as a ten-year-old, I was playing here. We never stopped doing that. They used to chase us out. We used to wear the grass off. We played from daytime till bedtime. It's been my life. Enjoyable life. Don't want to change it."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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