Ray Illingworth is one of only four England captains to have won an Ashes series in Australia since World War II, in 1970-71. He was one of cricket's great strategists and England under his leadership proved uncompromising, aggressive and for a while imperious, as a then record 27 Tests without defeat between 1968 and 1971 testifies.
How big an achievement was winning the Ashes in Australia in 1970-71?
People don't realise how hard it is to win in Australia. A lot of sides have beaten Australia at home but not a lot beat them over there. I am talking about full sides, not without the Packer players and the South African situation. When Mike Brearley went back to Australia against a full side they lost 3-0. I think in living memory there has only been Douglas Jardine, apart from me, who has won the Ashes out there. People have defended them, like Len Hutton did in 1954-55, but not won them back and I am quite proud of that. They were pretty long tours as well, you know. Four and a half months, including New Zealand afterwards, is a really hard slog. So when it all comes to a climax in the last match, as it did in Australia, it's a wonderful feeling. We didn't take any inviting for a drink that night, I must say.
You were 1-0 up with one Test to play. Australia were chasing 223 to win the final match. That last day must have been special…
They only wanted around 100 with five wickets left on that final day of the series. With Greg Chappell and Rodney Marsh in, it only needed one of them to get a quick 30 or 40 and the game was gone. But we won it quite comfortably in the finish. I don't think I ever had another feeling like that.
Would you say you were a tight unit as a touring group?
It was a really good set of blokes. I never had any problems at all that way. All I ever said to the lads was: "Have a pint or two if you feel like it but just make sure you've had enough sleep and are fit for play in the morning." They were all responsible people, and when I see the trick cyclists and psychologists and everything they've got these days, I always feel that, if they are all required, you've picked the wrong people in the first place. John Snow would have sent them round the twist, wouldn't he? We were a good side and we all got on well together. That was the secret. We tended to switch room-mates so you didn't get too cliquey. Swapping about every couple of matches ensured we got the northerners and southerners mixing together. All I ever had to say to them was, "Come on, lads, here we go again, so let's go." No more than that.
The only time I spoke to them any differently was in the dressing room during the first of the Sydney Tests. At tea on the fourth day I felt the game was there for winning, so I went into the back room and said to them: "I can't quite put my finger on what is missing, I can't say that no one is trying because that isn't the case, but there is a difference between trying and giving that little bit more. I would like you to all imagine you are playing in a one-day Lord's final. Imagine they need eight runs to win and the last over is being bowled." We went back out and in 40 minutes the game was as good as over.
That 1970-71 series has a reputation as one of the most heated in history. Is that fair?
It was never like that between the actual teams. The teams always got on all right. We had a system whereby, if we had been in the field, then as soon as we were back in the dressing room, the Aussies would come in and have a drink with us and vice versa. I can remember once in Sydney the dressing-room attendant coming in to complain: "Aren't you buggers going? I want to shut up shop. I've got a home to go to even if you haven't."
But there was a lot of hostility, wasn't there? How much of it was down to the umpire Lou Rowan?
"When I see the trick cyclists and psychologists and everything they've got these days, I always feel that, if they are all required, you've picked the wrong people in the first place"
Without doubt he was the main culprit. It was the only time I ever felt that an umpire wasn't being completely honest. The fact that we didn't get a single lbw in six matches proves the point. Lou Rowan was a very officious sort of character. It was a really silly thing that he did. He got it completely wrong. The game could have got out of hand. For example, we played the first Test in Brisbane and there was one young kid sat with his legs dangling over the wooden boundary fence. Rowan stopped the game and walked 70 yards to tell the lad to get his legs the other side. Yet this was the same guy who told me the ground was fit to continue when 30 or 40 bottles had been thrown on the field. It didn't just happen once, it happened a couple of times. I called the players to the middle and we sat down while they cleared the bottles and cans off. We agreed to start again and then it all began again and that is when I took them off. People forget that I stayed on the field the first time. Rowan was making it appear as if it was nothing, but the bloke who moved the sightscreen was hit on the back of the head by a bottle and was taken to hospital. That could have been Snowy or another of our players. I told them to make an announcement over the loudspeaker that when the ground was cleared, we would go back. "If it starts again we shall come off again," I said. "If we have to forfeit the game, we have to forfeit the game. But there is a principle at stake here." Rowan laid it down that we would have to forfeit unless we went back but I was adamant that we would only go back when it was ready for us to go back.
The inaugural ODI occurred during that tour…
Yes. We had a rained-off Test at Melbourne and we could have started halfway through the fourth day. But the feeling was that there was no point in beginning a Test with a day and a bit to go. So we cancelled that day and arranged a one-dayer for the day after. It was all arranged overnight and we got 45,000 people there. A Test match was then added to the series, which we weren't happy about because it meant we played five Tests in six weeks in the hot part of the summer. The other grumble for us was that the Aussies were promised a full match-fee and we weren't promised anything, so that nearly caused a strike. You can imagine that David Clark, the tour manager, went out with a flea in his ear. He had just spoken with Don Bradman, Sir Cyril Hawker [president of MCC] and Gubby Allen, who were out there watching. They went ahead and did it without speaking to me as captain. When I was told, I warned them that if someone got injured, there would be no one to call up from England. I also warned them that unless we got something for our trouble, they would have a strike on their hands, so they rang Donald Carr and he agreed we should get something. We finished up with 25 quid for the extra match. That's great, isn't it? Even the Aussies were on £200-£250 as a fee. Our amount was a pittance.
How much did the adrenaline of the Ashes help your team?
The crowd are very much on your backs out there. Some of it is quite funny, you know. Certain things like, "I wish you was a statue and I was a bloody pigeon." If you laugh with them, it can help. The old Sydney hill was very much about taking it rather than getting the pin. If you did, they would just give you more stick. Have some fun, give them a wave and you'd have no trouble.
Snow had a wonderful series. How crucial is a genuine fast bowler in any England team's bid to win an Ashes in Australia?
Wonderful was the right word. My biggest disappointment was Alan Ward breaking down more or less before we had played, because he was quick and got bounce. Unfortunately we never had the advantage of having him. I used to talk to John Edrich and Geoff Boycott quite a bit about things and I asked them: "Where do we go from here? Because we have got to get somebody." John told me to go for this young lad [Bob Willis], 6ft 6in, sharp and able to bowl it in the right areas. I remember asking him: "Are you sure, John?" And the reply was: "I don't think he will let you down." So I went on John's say-so.
Do you see similarities between Willis and Steven Finn?
Very much so. Funnily enough, the first time I saw Finn bowl on TV I turned to the wife and told her he should go to Australia because he could do what Bob did for us.
Short balls can cause problems in Australia as John Snow proved.
When he famously hit Terry Jenner, that wasn't even a bouncer. If he had stood straight up it would have hit him on the chest. What he did was get you playing back to a length and under your armpit and then he made it change direction off the seam, so he would get people turned around, knocking it into the slips. That was his great strength. That was why there was such an argument when he hit Jenner. I was at short leg and picked him up, and as he was helped off, Lou Rowan marched over to Snowy and warned him for bowling a bouncer. I told him that even if he considered it a bouncer - which I didn't - he had only bowled one. He went over to Tom Brooks, the other umpire, who wouldn't support him on it. But what worried me most was Snowy - because of his temperament and the fact I knew he was upset by the whole bloody thing - who was mouthing off: "That's not a bouncer". I feared he was going to start letting fly, so I tried to calm him down. The next ball was inevitably a bouncer and was followed by Snow's confirmation: "That's a bloody bouncer."
Geoff Boycott was incredible for you on that tour, wasn't he?
He will tell you that he played better on that tour than at any time in his life. He played magnificently. It was a shame he couldn't play in that last Test. Not that he would have scored many on that pitch. It had been covered for two days, we had non-stop rain and it went all over the place. If I had won the toss, we would've bowled them out for 50. In fact, I was on the verge of declaring at around 170 for 7 or 8 on the first day, for the simple reason that I knew we had to get some wickets that night. I knew with sun on the pitch the next morning it would change, and just as I had my head in my hands, thinking about whether to do it or not, we were all out. We got the two openers out that night for less than 20 and it made all the difference in the match. If they had been there the next morning, it was a different game.
Was one of the sweetest things about 1970-71 the sense of overcoming the odds?
Absolutely. I still have a piece at home, written by Richie Benaud. He said something about Ray Illingworth going home victorious when nearly all the breaks have gone against him, what with injuries, the itinerary, one thing or another.
This article was first published in the December 2010 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here