Wilfred Wooller

WOOLLER, WILFRED, who died on March 10, 1997, aged 84, was one of the greatest all-round sportsmen Wales ever produced. More than that, he was one of the nation's richest - and certainly most combative - characters. He was captain of Glamorgan for 14 years, secretary for 30 and club president for the six years before he died. He had 18 rugby caps for Wales, played soccer for Cardiff and was later fearsome at bowls. Even when he was in his seventies, it was always likely that Wilf's latest exploit would be the talk of the principality. He was brave and bull-headed, on and off the field. There will be never be another.

Wooller was a North Walian - which some South Walians say accounted for his extraordinary character - born at Rhos-on-Sea, the son of a successful but mild-mannered businessman who moved from Manchester. He became famous when he was still at Rydal School, though he was 20 years old, having failed his first attempt to get into Cambridge. He was chosen to play for the Welsh rugby team at Twickenham and starred in their first-ever win there. He played in another historic victory, against the All-Blacks, two years later. His cricket developed more slowly and, when he did eventually reach Cambridge, he did not play in his freshman year, but won Blues in 1935 and 1936.

By then, Wooller was already making headlines of the sort that would follow him all his life: a drunken adventure involving the theft of a receiver from a phone box resulted in a £5 fine from the magistrates and a headline in the national press: NIGHT TIME EXPLOITS OF CAMBRIDGE BLUE. He got a job with a Cardiff coal firm, who made him spend the next two summers supervising the company's operations at docksides in places like Algiers, so it was 1938 before he could play for Glamorgan. He finally came into the side against Yorkshire, opened the bowling with Jack Mercer, swung the new ball sharply and took five for 90. The following year he made a hundred against the West Indians. But his cricket career had barely started when the war came, and he was shipped overseas. In 1942 Wooller found himself against a force even he could not take on single-handed and was obliged to surrender to the Japanese with the rest of his regiment. When he returned from Changi Jail - emotionally and physically fragile - he began to throw himself into Championship cricket for the first time, aged 34.

He had a fair season in 1946, and the captain Johnnie Clay recommended him as his successor; Wooller became secretary as well, and for the next three decades would be synonymous with Glamorgan cricket. At once, he gave the team a sense of purpose - deriving from a mixture of rugby fervour, military strategy and his own remarkable personality - and in 1948 it paid off: "I left nothing to chance, and when playing at Swansea even consulted the tide tables." Glamorgan travelled around the country with a small lorry carrying a large mangle and some blankets; if it rained, the players would spread the blankets on the field and keep putting them through the wringer. They fielded like demons and the then-newest of the counties became champions for the first time.

Glamorgan remained a force in the Championship for most of the Wooller years. Wooller himself became a formidable all-rounder and did the double in 1954. He never played Test cricket, and lost the opportunity because of business commitments: he made himself unavailable when he had a chance of the vice-captaincy on the 1948-49 tour of South Africa, and captaincy to India in 1951-52. He was a Test selector from 1955 to 1961. Even when he was secretary and off the field, he still effectively was Glamorgan, and he found it desperately hard to moderate the constant involvement that had characterised his captaincy. Not only that, he was supplementing his rotten pay by writing and broadcasting, so he was often chief prosecutor as well. He never minced words on any subject - most particularly politics, where he became a ferocious supporter of sporting contact with South Africa. "These antis make me puke," he said and called them "lefties, weirdos or odd bods - some of them may be all three."

Even now, almost everyone in Wales has a Wilf anecdote. He took on fast bowlers with bat and mouth: "Bugger off, Tyson. You're not fast enough to hurt me." "You're slow, Loader. How did I ever pick you for England?" He was 46 at that time, and facing a fusillade of bouncers. His own players were never exempt. There is some dispute about exactly which opponent he said had just scored the worst double-century he had ever seen, but he probably said it every time anyone reached 200 against his teams. There is no question about the authenticity of the dispute at Swansea when Wooller, as secretary, became incensed about Brian Close's tactics as captain of Somerset and announced over the loudspeaker: "In view of Somerset's negative approach to this game, we are willing to refund the admission money of any spectator who wishes to call at the county office."

Having retired from the club completely, he chafed even more against non-involvement and he became a trenchant critic of the club's policies as Glamorgan drifted into years of failure - on the air, in his Sunday Telegraph column, the letters pages or the bar. He was usually right. However furious the dispute, he would always have a drink with opponents. His exemplary family life emphasised the softness that lay underneath. Those who hated him always did so with a tinge of affection; those who loved him did so with a touch of exasperation. He was always "that bloody Wilf Wooller".

© John Wisden & Co