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The Sage of Longparish

John Woodcock 1926-2021

Mike Atherton
John Woodcock (first from left), on his last official tour as cricket correspondent of the <i>Times</i> sits with photographers behind the boundary, first Test, Pakistan v England, Lahore, 25 November 1987

John Woodcock sits next to photographers behind the boundary  •  Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

There is an intriguing image of John Woodcock. Taken by Adrian Murrell during the Lahore Test between Pakistan and England in November 1987, it shows Woodcock from a distance, sitting in a low-slung chair near the boundary watching the game - close to, but a little apart from, a line of photographers. About 20 yards away, over his right shoulder, you can just spot the shoes of a player prowling the rope. Woodcock looks utterly relaxed and content: striped shirt, sleeves rolled halfway up, legs crossed, notepad and binoculars at the ready, his chair at an angle. It is how I imagine he would have liked to watch Test cricket if conditions allowed: outside the press box to get a sense of the smells, sights and sounds of the game; away from other writers and close to cricketers, so he could watch intently, pass judgment, and hone a finely crafted piece for the following day's paper.
The photograph shows why there will never be another Woodcock. That can be a cliche´ when someone of significance dies, but in his case it is true: not so much because of his own qualities - there were good cricket writers before Woodcock, and there will be again - but because of the time in which he operated. Principally, that is to say, before television became ubiquitous, rendering the role of the match reporter in print increasingly superfluous, and reducing the proximity between players and journalists. What cricket writer could now wander to the boundary during a Test match, and plonk himself in a deckchair for the day? There would be all kinds of obstacles - security, mainly, and a growing feeling that cricket writers must know their place, and that place is nowhere near players, for heaven's sake.
When Woodcock operated, cricket writers mattered to the game's authorities more than today, when they are perceived as a nuisance to be tolerated. More likely, were you to come by cricket writers now, they would be tethered to their desks like goats, simultaneously checking Twitter, watching television, listening to the commentary and keeping half an eye on the game. A non-stop whirl of information to take in, action to follow, instant judgment to make - all before the thoughts turn to the match report.
Not that such engagement leads to greater profundity. There are exceptions, but only a few. Woodcock was, above all, a match reporter. No correspondent today could afford to ignore or refuse to write comment pieces, interviews and features. He did. He travelled, he watched the game and he reported on it, no more, no less. Along with the likes of E. W. Swanton and John Arlott, he operated in an era where newspapers were ascendant, and the words of these giants of sports journalism were awaited eagerly.
To get a sense of why Woodcock was such a good writer, you have to read these match reports in the round. They are mostly hidden away now in the archive of The Times, for whom he was the cricket correspondent for a little more than three decades, and a contributor for twice as long. His prose was clear, concise, rhythmical. He was a stylist, but not a show-off: a lovely writer. When he died, an editor on the newspaper said we should reproduce some of his best lines, but that wasn't easy. He wasn't a flashy writer, concocting memorable phrases or lines; rather his strength was giving an overview of the day, a sense of the ebb and flow of the game. "If I was good at anything, I could write a decent match report," he told me on his 90th birthday. "I was a decent reader of a match."
Informing all that was a deep love and knowledge of cricket. He watched his first Test at Lord's in 1936, and filed his last piece for The Times in 2020, on the occasion of Everton Weekes's passing. He had seen Weekes play, as he had many of the greats of the 20th century, and could give context and balance from first-hand experience. And he did so fairly: he was not an "in my day" kind of writer. He enjoyed the modern game, although he lamented the loss of variety that covered pitches have encouraged. Not only had he seen the greats play, he knew them well. He corresponded with Don Bradman, went duck shooting with Harold Larwood, batted in a friendly with Wally Hammond, played golf with Len Hutton, Herbert Sutcliffe and Geoff Boycott. When he travelled by boat on the 1954-55 tour of Australia, he was the same age as many of the players. They became lifelong friends.
He was closest to Colin Cowdrey. He told me, rather wistfully, that he could no longer see in his mind's eye the way Cowdrey played on that tour while making a hundred in the Melbourne Test - Woodcock's favourite innings of all he had seen - but he still remembered the way he felt during it. As a result of knowing them so well, he wondered whether he was too close to be objective - not a worry for many current writers. Before television, social media, and the decline of print, he knew he had the best of journalism, and was grateful for it. It afforded him a modestly comfortable but fun life.
At Woodcock's memorial service, Henry Blofeld recalled the 1976 journey the two had taken to India in a 1921 Rolls-Royce. Nowadays, entire tours are often shorter than the overland journey these old friends enjoyed, one that gave them memories to last a lifetime. Back then, the less frenetic nature of the sport allowed observers to take in far more than the cricket, and their journalism was better informed for it: rounded, with a sense of hinterland that encouraged them to keep the game in proper perspective. Woodcock's contemporaries at Oxford had been through the war, and they and he knew what sport meant in the grand scheme of things.
The requirements of travel and time can often play havoc with a cricket journalist's private life, but underpinning everything was Woodcock's sense of place, which anchored him throughout. He lived all his life in Longparish, a quiet Hampshire village on the river Test, and returned there happily whenever cricket was done. He knew everyone in the village; they knew him. He came to be indelibly associated with it through the name given him by Alan Gibson, a fellow scribe on The Times: The Sage of Longparish.
It was there, in St Nicholas's church - a place of worship with which his family had been associated for more than 250 years - that we gathered last August. Cricketers, journalists, administrators, friends, family and villagers turned out in their hundreds, with overflow areas laid out in the local school and pub, to say goodbye to a remarkable and very lovely man. In the small and relatively insignificant world of cricket writing, a giant had passed from the page.
Mike Atherton is cricket correspondent of The Times.