Obituary, 2005

Bill Alley

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ALLEY, WILLIAM EDWARD, died on November 26, 2004, aged 85. Bill Alley became a Somerset legend, although he was born in Australia and did not make his county debut until 1957, when he was 38. In 1961 he was the last man ever to score 3,000 first-class runs in a season. He later became a Test umpire, and one of the game's most durable characters.

Alley arrived in Sydney in the 1940s, working as a labourer, nightclub bouncer, blacksmith's assistant and oyster fisherman. He was also making a name as a New South Wales batsman, and as a boxer: he was unbeaten in 28 fights as a welterweight. But boxing - and almost cricket too - came to an end after a gruesome accident in the Adelaide nets in 1946. His team-mate Jock Livingston hooked a ball that went through the net and poleaxed Alley in the adjacent one. He needed 60 stitches in his jaw and was in a coma for two days. He pulled through, but the accident set back his hopes of touring England in 1948. A year earlier, Bradman had hinted that Alley was likely to win a spot on Australia's first post-war tour, to New Zealand early in 1946 - but Ron Hamence went instead. Alley had even acquired a dozen new white shirts for the trip.

After his first wife died in childbirth (their son, Ken, also died young in an army accident), Alley decided to take up an offer to play in the Lancashire leagues, and enjoyed ten prolific seasons with Colne and Blackpool. Apart from a tour of India with a strong Commonwealth XI in 1949-50, when he plundered two unbeaten double-centuries, it appeared that Alley's first-class days were over: some counties made offers, but the sums involved were hardly more for six-days-a-week cricket than for Saturdays only in the leagues. Finally, though, he decided to give county cricket a go - with Somerset, he later wrote, "because of the sheer magic of the name".

Alley was no stylist, a left-hander who favoured the leg side and the horizontal bat; but every now and then he would play a beautiful cover-drive. The man himself summed up his own philosophy succinctly: "If the ball is there to be hit, for Christ's sake hit it." And in 1961 he hit it everywhere. "The crease was his God-given territory," wrote David Foot. "He occupied it with the mannerisms of a lusty, lovable black-sheep squire." In 1960, Alley had made only 807 runs at 23. But now, aged 42, he was relentless. His 3,019 runs at 56.96 included 11 centuries, among them his career-best 221 not out against Warwickshire at Nuneaton. His Somerset team-mate Roy Virgin preferred his 156 at Northampton: "Malcolm Scott, the left-arm spinner, was bowling, and Bill was almost placing his field for him. He'd say 'No, you want that bloke at mid-wicket a bit squarer', and then he'd smash the ball over the chap's head anyway." He even made 134 and 95 against the touring Australians.

The following year Alley persuaded his captain to use his right-arm seamers rather more, and he finished with 112 wickets (at only 20.74 apiece) to go with 1,915 runs. He was record-conscious enough to rue the missing 85 runs that cost him an even rarer double. His bowling fell away a little in later seasons, though team-mates remember how nimbly he would run in. And he continued to field brilliantly in the gully ("Bill just plucked legitimate cut-shots out of the air," said Virgin) and collect his annual 1,000 runs every year bar one until 1968. Bill kept talking too. Once he waved a handkerchief at Fred Trueman, and said it would do as a thigh-pad against him. His forthright manner offended some of his teammates, and this appears to have cost him the chance of the county captaincy in 1965 after he had deputised the previous year. He played on and would have been there after his 50th birthday, except that Somerset offered him terms for one-day games only. He angrily turned them down and stomped off to join the umpires' list. Fearless in that role too, he stood in ten Tests and nine one-day internationals between 1974 and 1981. But he was too trigger-happy for some batsmen and he had several seasons off the international list, which he put down to aggrieved captains' reports; he finally retired in 1984.

Alley retreated to a smallholding in Somerset with Betty, his second wife, and was happy raising chickens and shooting rabbits. Ill-health marred his later years, although knee replacements gave him temporary relief: spotted striding up the pavilion stairs at Lord's in his mid-seventies, he announced that his brand-new knees were tempting him to make a comeback. To umpiring? "Stuff that, mate - I'm talking about playing!" His funeral service was held in St James's Church, next to the ground in Taunton. Merv Kitchen, another Somerset player-turned umpire, observed that the setting was appropriate, as Alley had hit so many balls into the graveyard.

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