To meet John Woodcock, whose grandfather was born before the Battle of Waterloo, whose home in a Hampshire village of antiquity contains a full set of Wisden and countless artefacts, and who has been a journalist since 1950, is to embrace cricketing history. Now that his close friend Richie Benaud has died, there can be no one alive who has seen so many Test matches, befriended so many great players and overseen so many controversies - all with enthusiasm for the game undiminished.
Journalism has probably evolved even more rapidly than the game itself during his lifetime, yet Woodcock, who was cricket correspondent of the Times from 1954 to 1987, would choose no other occupation if he were starting out all over again. He doubts, though, whether he could cope with the greater pressures today. In a less hectic, less televised age, he relished the matches, the touring (for the most part), the sunshine, the friends. Particularly the friends, many of them made while sailing four times to Australia and once to South Africa from 1950-1963.
Even in the 1970s, the Times had no objection to their correspondent driving from England to India before Tony Greig's tour - with Henry Blofeld, in a 1921 Silver Ghost Rolls Royce. There were precipitous roads, potential diplomatic incidents, copious quantities of whisky, a scary moment or two in the Khyber Pass, opium-smoking through a hookah near Mashad - "We coughed ourselves stupid," said Blofeld - back-tyre blowouts, and dinners in exotic company. There were no health and safety concerns, no mobile phones, night matches or internet distractions.
More recently, the chief sub-editor in the Times sporting department, as it was always known, was impressed and amused when he rang the Old Curacy in Longparish and was informed that it was a difficult moment to talk as the Bedser twins were just arriving for afternoon tea. A vision of a charabanc from The Oval floated before him. Alas, Woodcock feels there might not have been a place for Alec in the modern game, given the emphasis on agility in the field.
Woodcock spoke to Colin Cowdrey on the telephone most weeks, if not days. He shared a room on tour with Brian Statham. Alan Knott asked to use his bathroom in one particular hotel - a rather superior bathroom - and spent so long in it that Woodcock was concerned for his well-being. Knott's fastidiousness was as fascinating to Woodcock, as was the strain that even such a great bowler as Statham felt on the first morning of a Test match.
This bond between players and press could not have been more apparent than when Len Hutton invited Woodcock into the dressing room when he was recovering from illness, to watch England retain the Ashes in Adelaide in 1954-55. "That would not happen now. We were probably more of a family in those days."
Woodcock went duck-shooting with Harold Larwood, partridge-shooting with Imran Khan, played golf with the three great Yorkshire openers Herbert Sutcliffe, Len Hutton and Geoff Boycott (surely a record of sorts) as well as Don Bradman, fished with Ian Botham, and batted with Wally Hammond in his last ever match, at Richmond, near Durban, in 1965.
Benaud would make the Old Curacy his summer base, at least until his views and Woodcock's differed on Kerry Packer's World Series. The flamboyant Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, who liked his Hampshire players to go to bed before breakfast, "could not have been as nice as he appeared, but he was". Barry Richards was, Woodcock thinks, the finest batsman he saw, better even than his namesake Viv - "if that is possible" - Bradman having been past his best in 1948.
Great cricketing names, and great journalistic names as well. Woodcock would observe John Arlott - "he did have a touchy side but what a brain" - drink three or four bottles of wine a day yet still be capable of writing four hymns in one evening. Neville Cardus would summon Woodcock, pull up two deckchairs, bring out two cigars and fetch two glasses of port on his first voyage to Australia. "Come and listen to me and don't waste your time dancing," he would say. EW "Jim" Swanton expected peace and quiet and a glass of whisky when he entered the press box to write his report. "Really, you wouldn't expect this noise," he once complained to Hutton, who had retired and was sitting behind him. "Did you know that Broderick Crawford arrived at London airport this morning?" was the characteristically cryptic response.
"Harder graft went into his articles than ever appeared to be the case. No one seemed to write with such ease and grace, or as Mike Atherton puts it, a lack of pretension compared with some sportswriters today"
There was, of course, more than the odd disagreement. The influence of the Times was such that Packer - "not at all my sort of chap" - had some sharp words for Woodcock, who, as with all the influential correspondents, was strongly opposed to what was regarded as a circus. Greig, too, came to resent Woodcock's having written that "it has to be remembered Greig is not English through and through", when, as England captain, he had been secretly recruiting for World Series.
Woodcock's comments mattered not only because they were in the Times and therefore read by those in authority, but because they carried authority. This was also the case when he wrote for the Cricketer and edited Wisden. Television had yet to set the agenda. "Hard writing, easy reading" was the advice Woodcock was given by the sports editor of the Manchester Guardian, for whom he worked for two years before joining the Times. And surprisingly, harder graft went into his articles than ever appeared to be the case. No one seemed to write with such ease and grace, or as Mike Atherton, his successor at the Times, whom Woodcock much admires, puts it, a lack of pretension compared with some sportswriters today.
Apart from the World Series, the major controversies he had to cover were the D'Oliveira affair and subsequent unofficial tours to South Africa. Few people, Woodcock believes, came out with any credit other than D'Oliveira himself. As editor of Wisden, Woodcock had to decide whether the matches played by Graham Gooch's breakaway side of 1982 should be first-class. "I said that depended on the board of control of South Africa and was criticised in a leading article in the Guardian. Had I foreseen [FW] de Klerk's incredible volte face, I like to think I might have thought otherwise and not seen the sporting 'bridge' between the two countries as having something to be said for it."
Some tours Woodcock went on wound their way wearily to an end, although, as a bachelor, being away from home for periods of up to seven months at a time were not so trying as for colleagues who had families.
Although, inevitably, there are some aspects of the modern game he does not like - helmets, the reverse sweep, the brutal nature of batsmanship, the lack of identity in Hampshire's team - he follows it avidly, his knowledge and memory undimmed. He is unfailingly helpful and generous to the thirsty array of writers, old players and obituarists who descend on the thatched Old Curacy.
That said, the postman in decorous Longparish has had to handle letters forwarded by the Times to Woodcock containing some fairly unprintable messages, for he has been nothing if not a correspondent with strong views. None was more specific, though, than the postcard sent on in Sir William Haley's day as editor. "Your cricket correspondent is either a pompous ass or a maiden aunt. God preserve him or her from a rugger tour." Fortunately for the game and his many friends and admirers, Woodcock stuck to cricket.