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Obituaries

Ray Illingworth

Moment that changed his life was witnessed live by millions on television

England captain Ray Illingworth is lifted onto the shoulders of his team-mates after the Ashes win  •  Getty Images

England captain Ray Illingworth is lifted onto the shoulders of his team-mates after the Ashes win  •  Getty Images

ILLINGWORTH, RAYMOND, CBE, died on December 25, aged 89.
The moment that changed Ray Illingworth's life was witnessed live by millions on television - not that he knew anything about it. On May 25, 1969, England captain Colin Cowdrey was batting for Kent in a Sunday League game against Glamorgan when he snapped an Achilles tendon. With the First Test against West Indies less than three weeks away, England needed a new leader. Blissfully unaware, Illingworth was busy steering his new county Leicestershire to victory over Nottinghamshire.
Cowdrey's injury was front-page news. "I expect the selectors will look no further than their senior man Tom Graveney," wrote E. W. Swanton in The Daily Telegraph. John Woodcock in The Times believed the choice lay between Graveney and Roger Prideaux, "with Ray Illingworth holding an outsider's chance". John Arlott in The Guardian saw significance in Prideaux's selection to lead MCC against the touring team.
In the first week of June, chairman of selectors Alec Bedser appointed Illingworth. The news came late in the day. Bedser had failed to contact the new captain, who was driving between Leeds and Hove. En route, he called in to the Northampton hospital where Colin Milburn was recovering from a car crash in which he lost an eye. With Illingworth out of reach for seven hours, Bedser eventually had to break the news; when he arrived on the south coast, he was greeted by a posse of journalists. "I wondered what the hell was going on."
He was 37 on the day his first squad was announced. As an off-spinning all-rounder, usually batting at No. 7 or 8, he had played 30 Tests, taking 71 wickets and scoring 548 runs - hardly compelling. And after leaving Yorkshire for Leicestershire, he was only seven Championship matches into his career as a county captain. Yet Illingworth became one of England's greatest leaders, losing only five of his 31 Tests in charge, and regaining the Ashes in Australia in 1970-71.
Tough, shrewd, an unrivalled reader of pitches and conditions, a canny motivator and a brilliant tactician, he moulded a team in his own image: uncompromising and hard to beat. "He enjoyed the challenge of the game," said his Leicestershire team-mate Jack Birkenshaw. "Generally, he defended - but he knew exactly the right moment to go in for the kill." Ian Chappell, his Ashes opposite number in 1972, recalled: "I learned from him how to captain the side when the opposition is starting to get on top and you know that you have got to save some runs, but you don't want to totally hand over control to the batting side." Mike Brearley added: "I always learned things from him, got ideas and ways of thinking."
Illingworth was born in the cricket nursery of Pudsey, six miles from Leeds, the son of a joiner and cabinet-maker. He excelled at cricket and football. As captain of the school cricket team, he averaged 100 with the bat and two with the ball, and was a seamer until an umpire saw him bowl an experimental off-break. "If you can spin it like that, lad, I'd forget the seamers."
He was invited for football trials by Aston Villa, Huddersfield Town and Bradford City, but in his mid-teens decided to focus on cricket. At 15, he was in Farsley's first team in the Bradford League, and soon scored a century in a cup final. He made his Yorkshire debut in 1951 during his national service, making a fifty against Hampshire, but not until 1953 did he have a run of games. It was a tough apprenticeship. A dropped catch off Bob Appleyard was met with a withering put-down. "No word of encouragement, no helpful tips, no pat on the back," he said. "There was no mitigation, no excuse accepted, no allowances made. You either swallowed the insults and gritted your teeth, or you went to pieces."
But he was good enough to survive, then thrive. He hit his maiden century against Essex at Hull in 1953, passed 100 wickets in 1956, and achieved the first of six doubles in 1957. That season, he claimed a career-best nine for 42 against Worcestershire, taking particular satisfaction from the fact that Johnny Wardle was bowling at the other end. In 1959, Ronnie Burnet took over as Yorkshire captain, creating a more harmonious dressing-room and leading them to their first Championship for 10 years. Illingworth imbibed lessons in man-management, and responded to the improved atmosphere with 1,726 runs at 46 and 110 wickets at 21. In the title-clinching win against Sussex at Hove, he made a crucial century and took seven wickets. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
He had made an unspectacular Test debut against a weak New Zealand the previous summer, but two tidy performances against India in 1959 earned him a winter tour of the Caribbean, where he played in all five Tests, though with modest returns. The end of Jim Laker's international career after the 1958-59 Ashes led to a beauty contest for the job of England's frontline off-spinner involving Illingworth, David Allen, John Mortimore and Fred Titmus. "I thought he was the best of them," said Birkenshaw, an off-spinner himself. "Starting as a seamer meant he had a lovely side-on action, and it was only when you batted against him in the nets that you realised how subtly he varied his length."
The hot competition meant Illingworth's appearances were sporadic. On his first Ashes tour in 1962-63, he played in just two Tests, and lost £50 from his tour bonus for failing to contribute to team spirit. Not until he became captain did he play a full home summer of Tests.
Compensation came at county level. Yorkshire were champions seven times in ten seasons, with Illingworth usually making a telling contribution. When his great friend Brian Close was appointed captain in 1962, he became a loyal deputy, to whom other players turned when Close's mind was drifting towards the racing results. In a profile, the journalist Norman Harris asked a friend of both to imagine them as First World War officers. Close, he guessed, would lead his men out of the trenches into the teeth of the battle. "Illy would call for a full intelligence report on the enemy's strength and positions, a detailed survey of the terrain between us, an up-to-date report from the Met Office, a final check on the men and weapons of his own forces, and then would probably decide against going because the odds were wrong."
In 1968, aged 36, Illingworth asked for the security of a three-year contract. But Yorkshire handed out only one-year deals, and would not budge. Illingworth resigned. Five counties were interested; Nottinghamshire offered the best salary, but not the captaincy. Leicestershire had never won a trophy, but Illingworth was impressed by the ambition of secretary Mike Turner. Fed up with getting splinters in his feet after using the Headingley showers, he also liked Grace Road's new dressing-rooms. He set about recruiting players who were not inured to defeat, improving fielding, and focusing, initially, on one-day matches, where victories were easier to achieve.
But England duty meant progress was slow. A breakthrough came in 1972, when Leicestershire won the first Benson and Hedges Cup, beating Yorkshire at Lord's. Illingworth said he had never been more nervous before a match. They added the John Player League two years later, and in 1975 were crowned county champions for the first time. They lost only once, and pipped Yorkshire by 16 points. Illingworth was outstanding. "As captain he was supreme, always leading by example," said Wisden. They had already lifted a second B&H Cup, to become the first county to win the Championship and a one-day trophy in the same season. "He turned Grace Road into a fortress," said Birkenshaw. "The wickets didn't always look great, but we knew how to play on them."
It helped that he was no longer a Test cricketer. Having led England to 2-0 wins over West Indies and New Zealand in 1969, he kept the job the following summer when South Africa's abandoned tour was replaced by a series against a Rest of the World team packed with galacticos. England lost 4-1, but Illingworth again led the team astutely and had a superb series with the bat: only his opposite number, Garry Sobers, bettered his aggregate of 476.
Although Cowdrey was short of form and fitness, there was still debate about who would captain England in Australia that winter. At the end of the fourth match at Headingley, it was announced Illingworth had got the job. "He is a shop steward rather than a cavalier, a sergeant-major not a brigadier: the personification in fact of the modern game," wrote Woodcock. Cowdrey was offered the vice-captaincy, but asked for time to think it over, even though Illingworth gave encouragement: "Colin is one of the best batsmen in the world and the best in England." Cowdrey eventually said yes.
It was an attritional tour. In expectation of Cowdrey being captain, MCC had chosen David Clark, a former Kent player and gentleman farmer, as manager. His relationship with Illingworth was fractious. At one point, Clark told the English press he would prefer an Australian victory to a string of stalemates. Illingworth's tactics were criticised by Don Bradman before the series had started, and the Australian media dubbed England "Dad's Army". "The other side of that was it meant everyone had a lot of experience," said fast bowler John Snow.
Much to Illingworth's irritation, Cowdrey was a distant figure. "He did not carry out his duties in the way I had hoped and, indeed, expected," he later wrote. It confirmed his opinion that Cowdrey's affable public persona was fake: "He was generally not liked by cricketers." Yet adversity glued the team together. "Illingworth did a magnificent job," wrote E. M. Wellings in Wisden. "Under severe provocation, he remained cool off the field and courteously approachable by friend and foe alike."
England went 1-0 up after winning the Fourth Test at Sydney, and had been astonished when Clark agreed to play a seventh match to replace the abandoned New Year Test in Melbourne (where the teams ended up playing cricket's first one-day international). "The first we knew about it was when Don Bradman poked his head around the door and thanked us for agreeing to play," said Snow. "We knew the Australians were being paid and there was a fee for the umpires, but there was no mention of money for us." Snow thought the consensus of an angry team meeting was that the players would refuse to play, but a cable from Lord's reassured them they would be paid.
In unpromising circumstances - injury ruled out Geoffrey Boycott - they eventually forced a backs-to-the-wall victory to secure the Ashes. In the first innings, a ball from Snow hit Terry Jenner on the head. When umpire Lou Rowan warned Snow, Illingworth stepped in angrily to indicate it had been his first short ball of the over. Snow went to field on the boundary, and was greeted by a hail of missiles, then grabbed by a spectator. Illingworth was calm and decisive: when debris continued to rain down, he led the players off. Clark demanded they go back out, while Rowan said England were in danger of forfeiting the match. "Ray said to him, 'We'll go back out when it's safe,'" Snow recalled.
In the second innings, Snow broke a finger trying to take a catch on the boundary, and could not bowl. Their chances of winning the Ashes were slipping away, but England fought tenaciously and, with Illingworth taking three key wickets and directing operations superbly, won by 62 runs. They took the series without a single lbw decision from the home umpires. Illingworth was chaired off. "No victory has ever given me so much satisfaction," he said.
Back in England, they beat Pakistan 1-0, then lost a home series to India for the first time. After a drawn Ashes in 1972, he elected not to tour the subcontinent, before regaining the captaincy from Tony Lewis. New Zealand were beaten in 1973, but Illingworth was 41 by the time West Indies won 2-0 later that summer. His time was up.
During the final Test, at Lord's, Mike Denness was appointed captain for the tour of the Caribbean. Illingworth sensed an Establishment plot led by Gubby Allen. He returned to Yorkshire in 1979 as cricket manager, but failed to heal the rifts in a dressing-room divided by the appointment of John Hampshire as captain after Boycott's sacking. In June 1982 - two weeks after his 50th birthday and almost four years since his previous first-class appearance - Illingworth took over the captaincy from Chris Old. "One of the most controversial moves of even Yorkshire's trouble-strewn recent history," wrote John Callaghan in Wisden.
There was no improvement. In 1983, they won the John Player League but finished bottom of the Championship. His 787th and final first-class appearance, 32 years after his first, came at Chelmsford, for the first and only time. He scored 24,134 runs at 28 and took 2,072 wickets at 20. Asked whether DRS might have made a difference, he declared that he would have had 520 more wickets.
He was sacked as manager in 1984, and began a decade-long career in the media which combined commentary for BBC television with trenchant punditry in the Daily Express. He was tempted away from those roles by the chance to become chairman of selectors in 1994. A year later, Keith Fletcher was dismissed as England coach, and Illingworth became their first football-style manager. It proved an unhappy time. He was in his early sixties, and plainly out of touch with the modern game. He appointed men of his generation to key positions - Fred Titmus and Brian Bolus as selectors, Peter Lever and John Edrich as coaches. His relationship with captain Mike Atherton was often uneasy. Several players grumbled about his manner, including Robin Smith, Graeme Hick, Darren Gough and Devon Malcolm, with whom he had a highly publicised falling-out after the tour of South Africa in 1995-96. After a shambolic World Cup in 1996, Illingworth resigned. Later, he was fined by the TCCB for bringing the game into disrepute after his account of the Malcolm dispute appeared in a newspaper.
It was not the end of his involvement with the game. For many years, he was groundsman at Farsley, using decades of wisdom to tend the square. Two weeks before his death, he spoke movingly in favour of assisted dying after his wife of 63 years, Shirley, died of breast cancer earlier in 2021; Illingworth revealed he was being treated for oesophageal cancer. After his death was announced on Christmas Day, the England players wore black armbands on Boxing Day at Melbourne. "I had a lot of respect for him," said Snow. "You can't argue with his record. He was down to earth, an old-school professional, not flashy. He was the shrewdest captain I played under."