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Obituaries

Ted Dexter

Cricket was lucky to have had him

20-Apr-2022
Ted Dexter sits on the verandah of the Tunbridge Wells pavilion during a county game, Kent v Sussex, County Championship, 3rd day, Tunbridge Wells, June 16, 1964

Ted Dexter sits on the verandah of the Tunbridge Wells pavilion during a county game  •  Robert Stiggins/Getty Images

DEXTER, EDWARD RALPH, CBE, died on August 25, aged 86.
The most charismatic English cricketer of his generation, Ted Dexter was, along with Garry Sobers, the most exciting batsman in the world in the early 1960s. Tall and correct, he rolled out cover-drives to delight the purists, while in defence, even against high pace, the ball usually hit the middle of the bat. "He seems to find time to play the fastest of bowling and still retain dignity, something near majesty, as he does it," said John Arlott.
Dexter packed 62 Tests into a relatively short career, captaining in 30, and hit nine centuries - although two of his best-remembered innings were shorter show-stoppers. At Old Trafford in 1961, he seemed to be hauling England to an Ashes victory with 76 - "the finest short innings I have seen in a Test," wrote Richie Benaud, who ended the fun with a magical bowling spell. Then at Lord's in 1963, Dexter took on the fearsome West Indian fast bowlers Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith in a rapid 70. "The earth itself seemingly stood still as he played one of the truly great innings of our time," eulogised Ian Wooldridge, who described the atmosphere when he walked off: "Anyone who did not feel some tiny tingle down the spine must have been soulless or very, very cynical."
Cricket was lucky to have had him. Dexter was adept at most sports, particularly golf, which he played to an advanced age. In the early 1960s, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player admired his swing, and suggested he could become a tour professional. He also loved horse racing, once declaring Sussex's innings closed by phone from a local meeting; he later owned horses and greyhounds, and admitted to a bad gambling habit.
A roving mind was rarely still. He wrote newspaper columns and commentated on television, ran a PR company, stood for Parliament, drove fast cars (or sometimes arrived at meetings in motorbike leathers) and piloted his own light plane: in 1970-71, he flew his family to Australia to cover the Ashes. His former England team-mate Fred Trueman quipped: "He had more theories than Darwin."
Perhaps his most lasting contribution to cricket was devising the rankings for batsmen and bowlers, now widely quoted in the media, in 1987. He wanted a better system than the conventional runs-divided-by-dismissals - adding, only half-jokingly, that he was "pissed off with Geoff Boycott always being top of the averages". But then little about Dexter was conventional. He was born in Italy, where his father was an insurance underwriter in Milan. When he was later mulling over prospective jobs, Dexter wondered about following him into the business, because it had "clearly provided him with a comfortable life and enough leisure time to play as much golf as he wanted".
At Radley College, he acquired his lifelong nickname, after forgetting to notify the local paper about the teams' results and - otherwise engaged at dinner - ringing the cricket master, Ivor Gilliat, and asking him to do it. "He referred to me as 'Lord Edward' from then on. And it stuck." After national service, he went up to Cambridge, although he rarely attended lectures: he left during his finals, without a degree.
Cricket was another matter. His maiden first-class hundred came at Fenner's, against Sussex in 1956, with one straight six off his bowling persuading their captain, Robin Marlar, that they should sign him up (the joke was that he qualified for Sussex because it was the nearest county to Milan). The following year, Dexter spanked an imperious 185 against Lancashire, whose influential captain Cyril Washbrook - a Test selector - thought he had rarely seen the ball hit harder.
Dexter might have appeared for England that season, but picked up an injury and played little after the end of July. The first cap was not long delayed. July 1958 was a heady month: Dexter led Cambridge to victory over Oxford, stayed at Lord's to play for the Gentlemen, and made his Test debut a week later at Old Trafford. He made 52, but the opposition were a weak New Zealand team, and he was omitted from that winter's Ashes tour before receiving a late call after some injuries. Pausing only to propose to Susan Longfield, his model girlfriend - "in order to deter predators in my absence" - he went to Australia, but managed only 18 runs in two Tests. Things perked up in New Zealand, with a boundary-studded maiden century at Christchurch. He also took three wickets with his waspish seamers.
A subdued summer saw him play only twice against India in 1959, but Dexter really blossomed as a Test cricketer in the West Indies early the following year. He hit 136 not out in the First Test, at Bridgetown, where E. W. Swanton observed: "He showed us some fine cricket, flicking the short ones to the midwicket fence with the least possible effort, and forcing off the back foot into the covers and past mid-off in a way that reminded the older school of Walter Hammond." He added 110 at Georgetown, and in all scored 526 runs at 65, his best series return.
"In Dexter," declared Alan Ross, "we had found a successor to the luckless Peter May." May, who had undergone an abdominal operation, missed the whole of the 1960 season, and Dexter - newly installed as captain of Sussex - was a contender to replace him. But Colin Cowdrey was the man in possession, and Dexter did not sparkle at home against the South Africans, although his Caribbean exploits may have helped in his being named one of Wisden's Five in the 1961 Almanack. But the return of the Australians that year brought renewed riches: Dexter applied himself for almost a day to save the First Test at Edgbaston, finishing with 180.
That winter, with May virtually retired and Cowdrey unavailable, Dexter took over for an enervating tour of the subcontinent. "Travelling by road and staying in somewhat rudimentary guest houses was exhausting," he recalled, "although our hosts did their best to look after us, often in the most primitive conditions." An England team lacking several senior players went down 2-0 in India, but won 1-0 to record a rare series victory in Pakistan. It was sealed in the drawn Third Test at Karachi, where Dexter made 205, his highest first-class score, and the joint-highest at the time by an England captain overseas. Leslie Smith delivered a mixed verdict in Wisden: "He played many fine innings… As a captain he learned as he went along, but never seemed to possess the inspiration which a leader needs to make ordinary players do so much better." It might have helped if he had won the toss more than once in eight attempts.
The Test captaincy was a season-long soap opera in 1962, with the choice between Dexter and Cowdrey complicated by the return of David Sheppard, briefly available again on sabbatical from the Church. Dexter eventually won the day for the Ashes tour, and many looked forward to him doing battle with the equally dashing Benaud. But the series was a disappointment, its attritional nature contrasting with Australia's recent games against West Indies. Dexter did well with the bat, though: his 481 runs (with a best of 99 at Brisbane) remains the most by an England captain in a series Down Under. He kept the reins for the visit of West Indies in 1963 - the highlight that 70 in the exciting draw at Lord's - and for the 1964 Ashes. In that series, he responded to his opposite number Bob Simpson's 311 at Old Trafford with a studied 174; with Ken Barrington contributing 256, both sides topped 600, and there was barely time for Australia to start their second innings.
It was uninspiring stuff, and Mike Smith took over when Dexter initially made himself unavailable for the tour of South Africa. He had decided to stand as a Conservative candidate in the General Election, but had a tough opponent in his bid to win Cardiff South East: Labour heavyweight Jim Callaghan, later prime minister, increased a slim majority of 868 to a more comfortable 7,841, and became chancellor of the exchequer when Harold Wilson appointed his new administration. Dexter decamped to South Africa, where he revelled in the freedom back in the ranks: "It allowed me to relax and enjoy some spectacular tourism." In a series England squeaked 1-0, he hit 172 in the Second Test at Johannesburg, the last of his nine hundreds. It completed his set against the six available opponents.
Dexter missed much of the 1965 season - and that winter's Ashes tour - after breaking his leg in a freak accident, when his Jaguar broke down and he lost control while pushing it. The Evening Standard's John Clarke observed: "'Retired, ran himself over', the entry should have gone down in Wisden." He never led England again, and the consensus was that his approach had erred on the defensive. Ray Illingworth - who, like Trueman, had an uneasy time under Dexter in Australia in 1962-63 - summed up: "I don't think he was ever a great captain, because he hadn't the powers of concentration that captaincy requires… Quite often he would be miles away playing a quite marvellous eight-iron shot to the green, while the ball was on its way to him in the gully. A good bloke, Ted, but not a great captain, in my opinion."
Dexter had greater success at county level, even if Sussex's first Championship title was still nearly 40 years off. But they did win the first two editions of the Gillette Cup, professional cricket's inaugural one-day competition, in 1963 and 1964. While other teams were playing it like a three-day game, he had twigged that the best way to keep scores down was to tell his seamers to bowl slightly short of a length, with the field spread wide. "He was the first to do this, and it wasn't very attractive," admitted county colleague Jim Parks. "He pushed the field back, and took second slip out, putting him in front of the wicket to stop the singles." In the first final, against Worcestershire at Lord's in September 1963, Sussex successfully defended a total of 168, with tactics Parks admitted were "unashamedly defensive and insidiously effective".
Dexter made a brief comeback to international cricket in 1968. A week before the Fourth Test against Australia, he played for Sussex against Kent at Hastings. Entering at six for two, he caned Derek Underwood and friends for a superb 203. The following day, he warned his Sunday Mirror readers they were unlikely to read his usual Test report the following week: "I've been asked if I'm prepared to play for England if selected. I've said 'Yes'." It wasn't a great success: he made ten and 38 at Headingley, then 21 and 28 in the Oval victory made famous by Basil D'Oliveira's 158. That really was it at international level, after 62 Tests and 4,502 runs at 47.
He played only one more first-class match, but appeared regularly in benefit and charity games, and also for Sussex in the Sunday League in 1971 and 1972. To prepare for those games, he once turned up to the practice nets on the Nursery ground at Lord's, and asked the bowlers - youngsters from the groundstaff, who disliked the task, as they had to stay late - to pitch it up so he could hone his cover-drive. According to legend, the first lad didn't think much of this instruction from a "jazz hat", so let him have his quickest bouncer. Dexter hooked it over the wall into Wellington Road, tucked his bat under his arm and - satisfied he still had it - strolled off, thanking Ian Botham for his efforts.
After he had finally finished playing, Dexter remained in the public eye, particularly when he became the first paid chairman of selectors in 1989. He kept the tabloids amused with more theories - one defeat was put down to Venus being "in juxtaposition to somewhere else" - and memorably asked everyone "not to forget about Malcolm Devon". Mike Atherton wrote in The Times: "He appointed me as England captain [in 1993]. I was always grateful for the faith and trust placed in me - even if he resigned midway through the first game I captained. I was very fond of him, and we stayed in touch until near the end." Others tried to sum up a complex character. "Ted was a man of moods, keen when the action was hot, uninterested when the game was dull," said John Snow, a similarly mercurial performer for Sussex and England. But no one was in much doubt about his batting. "You had to have seen this guy to understand how good he was," said the broadcaster Mark Nicholas.
Dexter produced a lively second autobiography, 85 Not Out, which came out in 2020, a few months before he succumbed to cancer. It followed Ted Dexter Declares, 54 years previously. He also wrote books on coaching and other subjects, and with Clifford Makins co-wrote two detective novels - Testkill and Deadly Putter - which featured a golf-loving England cricket captain. He remained a stylish dresser - like his wife, he occasionally modelled clothes - and had a reputation for elegance into old age. A prominent chain of London estate agents was named after him by its cricket-loving founder, and he even made it into the Beatles' consciousness. Early in their famous Savile Row rooftop concert in 1969, the first number was received with a smattering of polite, cricket-style applause, as people in the street below were only just starting to realise what was unfolding above them. Paul McCartney quipped: "Ted Dexter's scored another."