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Ray Illingworth: A cricket man for all seasons and all moments

Ashes-winning captain, autocratic "supremo", Farsley CC groundsman - "Illy" was one of the game's true greats

David Hopps
David Hopps
Ian Chappell and Ray Illingworth check the weather conditions  •  PA Photos

Ian Chappell and Ray Illingworth check the weather conditions  •  PA Photos

Raymond Illingworth had a fair claim to be considered the most competent English cricketer since the war. He was not, as Yorkshire's Official History pointed out, a great batsman, nor a great bowler, nor a great fieldsman. But he was a professional's professional, "sufficiently expert, in his employment of experience, knowledge, tactical insight and psychology as a captain to be remembered without qualification as a great cricketer".
In fact, there was little Illingworth (known throughout his career as "Illy") did not know about cricket and virtually nothing he could not do in the game. As a small boy he would help prepare his local club ground for a match and when his race was run, and he had a distinguished record as a former England manager and captain, he still enjoyed rolling the grass and marking the pitch at his local Bradford League club, Farsley. He had opinions on groundsmanship as he had opinions on everything else that was cricket related. He was truly a cricket man for all seasons and for all moments, critical or contemplative.
The son of a cabinet-maker and joiner, he inherited strong hands, long fingers, powerful arms and an attention to detail. He left school in Farsley at 14 with a batting average of 100 and a bowling average of two. He furthered his cricketing education on the damp pitches and in the stinging winds of the Bradford League which encouraged in him a pragmatism that never wavered. When he was only 15, he scored 148 not out in a Priestley Cup Final spread over several evenings.
Illingworth was playing for Yorkshire's 2nd XI before he gained wider prominence during national service when playing for the RAF and Combined Services. He was 19 when he scored 56 on his debut for Yorkshire in 1951 but was unable to compete for a regular place until after his release in 1953 when a series of mishaps to Yorkshire's bowlers left a vacancy.
Illy had bowled right-arm medium until he discovered, in a league match, a talent for offspin and it was as an offbreak bowler, with a well-disguised "arm" ball that he would be mostly remembered. His smooth, contemplative approach and curl of his bowling arm before delivery imposed an impression of order and he resented every run he conceded. His versatility was such that for a quarter century he was numbered among the world's most reliable allrounders, as reflected in his career figures: 24,134 runs at an average of 28.06, 2,072 wickets at 20.28.
He hit 22 first-class centuries and took 446 catches, usually at gully from where he kept an eagle eye on the play, as analytical as any player in Yorkshire's history. As a young player, he had to withstand a bullying Yorkshire dressing room where senior players held sway. He was no more than an average fielder when he entered the Yorkshire team and suffered some sarcastic outbursts from the acerbic Johnny Wardle until, after a confrontation, he became Wardle's favourite fielder in the deep.
Many of Illingworth's runs were made at a critical juncture in the innings when either defiance or dash was needed and his ability to provide either made him a major figure in Yorkshire's seven trophies, including five Championships, in the 1960s. Cricket was a job and the job was to win, from the outset. Throughout he was captain Brian Close's right-hand man and the story goes that when one of the ebullient skipper's cunning wheezes went awry the team naturally turned to Illingworth to restore order. They were a potent blend, Close possessed of a gambler's instinct, Illingworth shrewd and intense. They were solid friends, each convinced they knew more than the other.
Judged a batting offspinner by the England selectors, he had to compete for a Test place with several expert practitioners, including his fellow Yorkshiremen Bob Appleyard and Jim Laker, who played for Surrey, and did not play for the first of his 61 Tests till 1958. He toured Australia in 1962-63 where public comments about the captaincy and the tour management made him a suspicious character to cricket's establishment.
"Playing under Illy was a marvellous experience, going to school under a stern and humorous headmaster whose own foibles made him that much more of a human being"
David Gower
His future at Headingley seemed considerably more stable when he followed Close as Yorkshire's captain, but he was not a man given to gamble in cricket or in life and, in 1968, at 37, he sought some insurance from Yorkshire through a written contract. By a piece of mismanagement spectacular by even Yorkshire's history he was sacked, became Leicestershire's captain and transformed them into one of England's leading teams, taking them to the Championship for the first time in their history.
David Gower, a young aspirant when Illingworth arrived at Leicestershire and who was to one day follow him as captain of England, later remembered: "Playing under Illy was a marvellous experience, going to school under a stern and humorous headmaster whose own foibles made him that much more of a human being.
"Above all this headmaster had standards. And only if you observed those standards were you admitted to the inner circle of his confidence. You had to look after yourself in what he considered to be a proper manner on and off the field. If you did all that he loved you; if you didn't, he would be down on you. His attitude to any and every game of cricket was 100 percent effort."
Even the establishment was impressed and, strikingly late in his career, the England captaincy followed, a run of 31 successive Tests, plus five against the Rest of the World, which culminated in the regaining of the Ashes in Australia in 1970-71. It ended with his team triumphantly chairing him from the field in an obvious show of respect, but it was a controversial series and Illingworth's demeanour and attitude brought criticism from the more traditional pundits. He argued on the field about short-pitched bowling with the Australian umpire Lou Rowan in the Sydney Test, and when bottles and cans were thrown on to the outfield in protest, Illingworth led his players off the field in protest. England played in his manner: tough, pugnacious, shrewd.
The Yorkshire committee, beset by argument and furore over the future of Geoffrey Boycott, invited him back as manager in 1979 but such was the acrimony that by the end of the summer, he admitted he wished he had never returned from Leicester. Whatever the regrets he persevered in trying to restore the county's fortunes and in 1982, 15 days after his 50th birthday, he found himself appointed Yorkshire's captain, a post that should have been his more than a decade before. Yorkshire finished that summer bottom of the Championship for the first time, but Illingworth bowling many a crafty over, took them to the Sunday League title, their first trophy for 14 years.
That triumph failed to save him from a sacking at the next annual general meeting when the Committee was overturned by Boycott supporters so Illingworth once more departed to the media where his printed and on-screen comments were trenchant and wise. Even then his career was far from over for such was his prestige that he was invited to become England team manager in 1986; he looked at the terms, felt that the authority granted was insufficient and demurred.
Ten years later with England desperate for a saviour and with previous disagreements forgotten, Illingworth became chairman of selectors. While his brusque Yorkshire independence was enough for him to be the anti-establishment candidate, it was hardly a revolution - he became the oldest chairman of selectors for 40 years and had little patience with progressive ideas. Where he wanted assistants, he preferred old trusties.
When he added the position of team manager, he became one of the most autocratic figures in English cricket history, Jack Bannister wrote in One-Man Committee, a joint undertaking with Illingworth: "No one man has had so much power in English cricket at selection and managerial level."
The players, alas, were not of the kind he knew and he found it hard to adapt to changing social attitudes. Some of his selections might also have benefited from a stronger challenge from others. His most controversial run-in came with the fast but wild Devon Malcolm, who was dismayed by his hostility, but who later expressed regret at speculation that their fall-out had been racially motivated. Michael Atherton, a young captain with equally firm views, was not impressed. "My view was that the captain was there to make the important cricketing decisions and the manager was there to reduce the hassle," he wrote in his autobiography. "Raymond obviously thought it was the other way round!"
Illingworth became a CBE, and after his retirement he was a regular visitor to Headingley's press box where he enjoyed a good moan, his uncompromising opinions laced with humour, and shared his knowledge on every nuance of play. Yorkshire made some reparation for previous injustices by electing him club president in 2010-11, a position he took up diligently until he had a heart attack in his second year. He loved cricket to the end. Afflicted late in life by esophageal cancer, in one of his last interviews he suggested that he would like nothing better than to finish his life by watching a game of local cricket before walking home on a sunny day.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps