Obituary, 2005

Willie Watson



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WATSON, WILLIE, died in Johannesburg on April 23, 2004, aged 84. Willie Watson was the last-but-one of the long-gone breed of all-round sportsmen who played cricket and football for England. He played 23 Tests, scoring 879 runs at 25.85, but will be best remembered for his century in the 1953 Ashes Test at Lord's, when his defiant four-hour partnership with Trevor Bailey on the final day staved off what had seemed certain defeat. Coming together at 12.40 p.m., they survived until 40 minutes before the close. Watson, who had come in the previous evening at 12 for three, briefly entertained thoughts of going for the victory target of 343, and asked Bailey mid-pitch whether they should. "Trevor just turned his back on me and walked away," he recalled.

Watson's 109, in 346 minutes, came in his first Test against Australia - but did not secure him a place for long. He was dropped before the end of the series, and missed the Ashes-winning triumph at The Oval. He was, however, named as one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year: Bill Bowes's 1954 essay observed that "unfortunately, a quiet modesty - perhaps until recently an inferiority complex - prevented him making full use of his ability".

His England debut came against South Africa at Trent Bridge in 1951, and Watson scored 57 in his first match and 79 in his second. But it was a golden era of English batting, and he found it difficult to nail down a regular place. Watson toured the West Indies in 1953-54, and added a second Test century in Jamaica. He flitted in and out of the England side until the end of the decade, playing his last Tests in 1958-59. He was a graceful and correct left-hander who scored over 25,000 runs in a first-class career that spanned 25 years, first for Yorkshire, starting in 1939, and later for Leicestershire, whom he joined as assistant secretary-cum-captain in 1958. His second season there, immediately after what proved to be his final Test appearance, turned out to be his most prolific, and he passed 2,000 runs for the first time.

As a footballer, he played for Huddersfield, Sunderland and Halifax, and won four England caps as an attacking wing-half. He was part of the first England squad that took part in the World Cup, in Brazil in 1950, when they famously lost 1-0 to the unfancied United States, although he didn't actually play a match. Doug Insole recalled Watson in both guises: "He was as graceful a player at cricket and football as you could imagine. He glided around at soccer, with a lovely left foot and a spot of acceleration." Arthur Milton, the 12th and last of those double internationals, never played against Watson at football, but remembered him kindly as a cricketer and a man: "He played well off both feet, and always seemed to be in charge of himself. He was a delightful chap." Milton also remembered him as a skilful bridge player on the boat to Australia in 1958-59.

Watson did better financially from cricket than football: he was paid £60 for that trip to Brazil but missed out on payments of around £300 from Yorkshire while he was away - and got "hopping mad" when the Football Association sent him a bill for 16/3d (81p): "I'd taken a first-class rail supplement travelling to London to avoid standing all the way from Huddersfield." He was player-manager of Halifax for a time in the 1950s, and had a second stint in charge in the 1960s, going on to be manager of Bradford City. He was also a Test selector for three years from 1962. But in the late 1960s he emigrated to Johannesburg to become manager of the Wanderers sports club. He saw out his twilight years in South Africa in somewhat straitened circumstances, but Scyld Berry observed in the Sunday Telegraph: "Though not much wealthier than a church mouse he was far from bitter, happy indeed that he could play cricket and football when both were fun." He enjoyed a final reunion with Bailey at Lord's in 2003, 50 years after their famous stand.

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