Wisden Obituary

Don Wilson

MCC head coach Don Wilson with Paul Crump, a 16-year-old accepted into a training programme, Lord's, April 27, 1982
Don Wilson (left): a Yorkshire mainstay © PA Photos
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Players/Officials: Don Wilson
Teams: England | Yorkshire

WILSON, DONALD, died on July 21, aged 74. Don Wilson brought the same unquenchable enthusiasm and broad smile to everything he did in a lifetime dedicated to cricket - bowling his canny slow left-arm for Yorkshire between 1957 and 1974, instilling inner-city youngsters with a love of the game as MCC head coach, or genially cajoling his pupils on the playing fields of Ampleforth College.

Wilson was one of the mainstays of the Yorkshire team that won seven Championships between 1959 and 1968, emerging from the giant shadow cast by Johnny Wardle to take more than 1,000 wickets. He also played six Tests for England, but perhaps his greatest legacy was turning Lord's into a centre of coaching excellence. Wilson welcomed them all to the Nursery Ground - goggle-eyed schoolchildren, Test players seeking technical or psychological counselling, and the occasional celebrity. He may be the only cricketer whose autobiography contained a foreword by Peter O'Toole.

His role in Yorkshire's last great era was almost as treasured for his contribution to the team's esprit de corps as for his playing efforts. Along with his great friend Phil Sharpe, Wilson was the leader of Yorkshire's very own choir, and led countless rousing sing-songs in sponsors' tents and hotel lounges. In a famously combustible dressing-room, the benefit to morale was incalculable.

Born in Settle in the Dales - not a fertile area of recruitment for Yorkshire - Wilson came to the county's attention in the most startling manner imaginable, bowling Len Hutton in a benefit match between the town club and a Yorkshire XI in 1953. Hutton invited him to a trial and, by 1957, Wilson was taking his initial steps as a first-team player. The following summer, he was the beneficiary of a row between Ronnie Burnet, the new captain, and Wardle. When Wardle was ignominiously sacked, Wilson was handed a frontline spinning role, and in 1959 Burnet's shrewd management of a group of talented Second Eleven graduates bore fruit with Yorkshire's first outright Championship since 1946. Wilson contributed 51 wickets.

Standing a fraction over 6ft 3in, he ran in off five easy paces and, after a prodigious leap, bowled with a classically high action. "He expected to take a wicket with every ball," Sharpe remembered, "and his eyes would nearly pop out." Wilson's line was impeccable and he was an acknowledged master of flight. "He was not a big spinner of the ball, although he could when the pitch was turning," said Sharpe.

Now led by the unrelated Vic Wilson, Yorkshire retained the title in 1960, with Don taking 72 wickets, and there were further Championship successes in 1962, 1963 and a hat-trick from 1966 to 1968. Wilson featured prominently in each of these, but his most productive year - 109 wickets at under 14 in all matches - was in the last of those title-winning summers. The Gillette Cup was also won in 1965 and 1969. There were occasional flourishes with the bat, too, notably a one-handed effort with a broken thumb that guided Yorkshire to an unlikely run-chase at New Road in 1961. And in 1967 he won the Sunday People trophy for the most sixes in a season. He was also a fine fielder, especially swooping to his left at midwicket - "the Settle windmill", according to Sharpe.

Wilson's love of the stage was cemented in 1961, when he first encountered the Black and White Minstrels in Scarborough. Already familiar to television audiences, they sang traditional American minstrel songs, backed by a glamorous female dance troupe. Several members were cricket enthusiasts. "They loved cricket and we loved the dancers," said Sharpe. "It was reciprocal trading." Wilson and Sharpe spent the first half of the winter of 1963 on the road with the Minstrels, working as prompters and backstage factotums. They introduced the repertoire to their team-mates, and the evening performances quickly became as much a part of that Yorkshire side as the Championships. Fred Trueman summed up the mood: "This is my type of music, not this bloody rock'n'roll business."

International recognition - for his cricket - came in India in 1963-64, when Wilson played in all five Tests and took nine wickets. He also appeared in the fourth and the fifth matches of the 1970 series against the Rest of the World, claiming four wickets, and was selected for the winter's Ashes tour under Ray Illingworth. With Derek Underwood established, opportunities were limited, and he assumed the role of social secretary, helping to bridge the touring party's north-south divide so successfully that he was retained after a hand injury looked like ending his tour. He was given a chance in the First Test of the series in New Zealand that followed. His Test record was 11 wickets at 42.

The early 1970s were an unhappy time. Too much work in the nets in Australia caused a fault with his bowling (later diagnosed by Fred Titmus from a photograph), and for a while he suffered the yips. The Yorkshire vice-captaincy also brought conflict with the new skipper, Geoff Boycott. Wilson retired from first-class cricket in August 1974, with 1,189 wickets at 21 in 422 matches. He took 100 wickets in a season five times; only three bowlers have taken more wickets for Yorkshire since the war. But his best figures were for MCC: eight for 36 against Ceylon in Colombo in 1969-70. He scored 6,230 runs at 14, his only century coming against South Zone at Hyderabad on that 1963-64 tour.

Wilson was reinvigorated by two years of captaining Lincolnshire, and began a career in coaching that took him to South Africa, where he was head coach at the Wanderers and undertook some pioneering work in the townships. That led, in 1977, to a phone call from E. W. Swanton, offering him the job as head coach at Lord's. He thought Swanton must be mixing him up with a Wilson who had played for Kent, but refrained from saying so. Although Ian Botham had been a recent graduate of the MCC Young Cricketers, the coaching system run by Len Muncer was haphazard. Aided by the opening of the indoor school, Wilson embarked on a revolution, and alumni that included Phil DeFreitas, Phil Tufnell, Norman Cowans, Dermot Reeve and Paul Nixon were testament to his success.

DeFreitas had particular reason to be grateful: "When I went for my trial for the groundstaff, I remember that Phil Tufnell and I were told at the end that we hadn't made it," he recalled. "But Don had seen something in us, and demanded that we were selected. If it hadn't been for Don, we wouldn't have got on the staff."

He also quietly looked after their interests. "We were very often excused the usual groundstaff boys' duties when the big matches were on," said DeFreitas. "Don would do his utmost to see that we were somewhere else playing cricket. He told you things straight, in black and white, but we could always have a laugh as well. He was an enormous figure in my life."

Emerging players from overseas were welcomed, too. An 18-year-old Martin Crowe arrived on a scholarship from New Zealand in 1981. "I remember Don's eyeballs popping out and his wild enthusiasm for cricket: 'Now then Crowie, I'm ready for ya, lad,' as he marked out his run-up." Between puffs on his small cigar, Wilson would dispense precious nuggets of advice. "He taught me about hundreds," Crowe recalls. "'No one remembers 60, lad, only big hundreds,' he said."

His house and garden, just behind the Mound Stand, were a popular party venue during Test matches and after one-day finals. Wilson left Lord's at the end of 1990 and took charge of sport at Ampleforth College, back in his native county. He wrote an entertaining autobiography, Mad Jack (a nickname first bestowed by Burnet), and to his huge delight became president of the Yorkshire Players' Association. His former spinning colleague Geoff Cope provided perhaps the most fitting epitaph: "I have never found anyone with so much enthusiasm for the game."

© John Wisden & Co