Obituary: Raymond Illingworth, cricketer

WHEN Raymond Illingworth, who has died at 89, made his debut for Yorkshire in 1951 he was one of four Pudsey-born players in the dressing room and long into his retirement he still cared for the game that seems to be in the blood of all Pudseyites.

Ray Illingworth

WHEN Raymond Illingworth, who has died at 89, made his debut for Yorkshire in 1951 he was one of four Pudsey-born players in the dressing room and long into his retirement he still cared for the game that seems to be in the blood of all Pudseyites.

The Illingworth family – father was a cabinet-maker – moved the short distance from Pudsey to Farsley when Raymond was three years old and it was at the Farsley club that he began and ended his days in cricket.

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In the autumn of his life he would cut the grass, dress the wicket and paint the crease-lines at Farsley and no doubt reflect on his days at the heart of the national summer game.

He won the Ashes as England’s captain in Australia; he was a key figure in one of the greatest of Yorkshire teams; he guided Leicestershire to their first Championship; he worked tirelessly to restore Yorkshire’s fortunes as manager during the “civil war” and led them to the Sunday League title in his fifties; and he wielded huge influence as England’s chairman of selectors.

It would be wrong to say that Illingworth – always Raymond – was universally liked. He had his opinions and stood by them, not particularly caring for those who took a differing view but, for all his brushes with controversy and excellence as a cricketer, it will be as an outstanding, maybe great, captain that he will be remembered.

He once said that the qualities required to be a successful cricket captain could be summed up in one word: versatile. He then swiftly brushed in the detail: “He needs the patience of a saint, the diplomacy of an ambassador, the compassion of a social worker and the skin of a rhino. Boundless enthusiasm, the insight of a psychologist and the smooth-talking style of a con-man might also come in handy.”

Raymond Illingworth learned the first lessons on his way to becoming one of the best captains in the game’s history on summer evenings at Farsley Cricket Club, joining with established Bradford League players like Donald Waterhouse and Harry Bailes in pushing the heavy roller up and down the square, talking endlessly about cricket after another of the twice-weekly net sessions.

He did not only listen, he put into practice what he learned and by the age of 15 he had earned his place in Farsley’s first XI in the Bradford League as a technically correct batsman and seam bowler with an inclination to work on his off-spin. He attracted Yorkshire’s attention with an innings of 148 in a Priestley Cup tie spread over several evenings which drew record crowds, all eager to see the young man destined for the top.

He toured with a Yorkshire Federation team which included Brian Close and Fred Trueman and continued to impress while doing his national service. He was still in the RAF when announced himself to a wider public, making his debut for Yorkshire as a 19-year-old against Hampshire at Headingley in 1951.

He worked assiduously at his off-spin, reasoning that if he could reach county standard as a bowler as well as a batsman then he would present two reasons for selection. He was very much the junior spinner in Yorkshire’s ranks, behind Johnny Wardle and Bob Appleyard and only seemed to be thrown the ball when conditions did not suit slow bowling but he continued to impress with the bat, scoring 146 in another crisis, this time against Essex at Hull and he was awarded his county cap in 1955.

The arrival of Ronnie Burnet as Yorkshire’s captain provided the turning point in Illingworth’s career. Wardle was dismissed, Appleyard retired to begin a career in business and suddenly Illingworth was the county’s foremost spinner, soon to be team up with left-armer Don Wilson in an alliance which played a major part in a run of success which began in 1959 and extended through the Sixties.

Yorkshire’s championship success in 1959 owed much to Burnet’s handling of the team and to Illingworth’s all-round success, crucially his 122 innings against Sussex at Hove which ensured the champions’ pennant would fly above Headingley.

Illingworth remained a key figure in the Yorkshire team until, in the autumn of 1968, at the age of 36 and after taking 131 wickets in the season just ended, he sought the security of the three-year contract. The cricket or full committee never discussed his request; it was brusquely rejected by the all-powerful Brian Sellers and Illingworth left for Leicestershire.

Illingworth had made his debut for England as a 26-year-old in 1958 against New Zealand at Old Trafford and played in all five Tests in the 1959-60 tour of the West Indies but thereafter could not establish a regular place in the side.

During the 1962-3 tour of Australia, under the captaincy of Ted Dexter and management of the Duke of Norfolk, he berated the vice-captain, Colin Cowdrey for what he saw as arrogance and on his return to England fund he had been docked £50 of his “good behaviour” bonus.

Ironically it was Cowdrey he succeeded when he took over the England captaincy in 1969 – fulfilling Mitchell’s prophecy – and led the side to a 2-0 series victory over the West Indies.

His greatest triumph as captain came in the winter of 1970-71 when he led England to victory in the seven-Test Ashes series in Australia. He never let discussion of that tour pass by without mentioning that England did not win a single lbw appeal in any Test match.

On the second afternoon of the final Test in Sydney, Illingworth led his team from the field after John Snow had been pelted with bottles and cans as he walked to his fielding position following an over in which he had hit Terry Jenner on the head with a short-pitched delivery. He always believed a captain’s first duty was to his team.

Snow headed a formidable fast-bowling line-up which also involved Peter Lever, Ken Shuttleworth and the young Bob Willis. England’s batsmen included Geoffrey Boycott, Cowdrey, Brian Luckhurst, John Edrich, Keith Fletcher and Alan Knott and the series was won 2-0.

He played the last of his 61 Tests against the West Indies in 1973 and his record in the 31 matches in which he led the side was 12 wins, 14 draws and only five defeats.

Away from the Test arena, Illingworth enjoyed a decade of success at Leicestershire, winning the Benson and Hedges Cup in 1972, the Championship and Sunday League in 1974, another B&H Cup the following season and the Sunday League again in 1977. The young David Gower was just one of many cricketers who benefited from playing under Illingworth during his time at Grace Road.

In Illingworth’s absence, Yorkshire had struggled. Close was sacked as captain and moved to Somerset, the title-winning team broke up and the rebuilding process began with Boycott as captain.

Michael Crawford, Yorkshire’s treasurer, approached Illingworth in the summer of 1977 with a view to him becoming Yorkshire’s first cricket manager and, after lengthy deliberation with his wife Shirley, he accepted the post, to begin in 1979 after he had seen out the last year of his contract with Leicestershire in 1978.

Yorkshire, frustrated by their lack of success despite the runs Boycott was accumulating, decided on further action at the end of the 1978 season and appointed John Hampshire as captain in succession to Boycott, who stayed with the club as a player with devastating results for Yorkshire cricket.

When Illingworth began his new role in April 1979 the club was split into two factions and the manager found himself – with his wife and two daughters – at the heart of a bitter dispute which lasted for five years. He was sacked in 1983 after the pro-Boycott group finally gained control of the committee; he was glad to be out of it

Illingworth later described those years as “at best interesting, at worst downright frightening” but there were bright spots, notably his return to playing at the age of 50 and, following his assumption of the captaincy in succession to Chris Old, Yorkshire won their first trophy in 14 years – the Sunday League.

After his strife-torn second spell at Headingley he became a broadcaster and writer on the game, spending much of his winters with Shirley at their second home in Spain and served as England’s chairman of selectors from 1995-7. One of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year in 1960, Illingworth was an honorary life member of Yorkshire and an honorary member of the Marylebone Cricket Club. He was awarded the CBE for his services to cricket.

All the while he had maintained close contacts with Farsley, returning to captain the first XI after his second departure from Yorkshire, and when he finally put away his flannels he continued his labours of love for the club where his great career had begun.

Shirley died last March and Illingworth is survived by their daughters.