Ray Illingworth, shrewdest of them all

Andrew Strauss’s retirement inevitably brought the thought that he must be one of the greatest England captains. I agree but when one blogger squeezed Strauss into the top five and left out Ray Illingworth to ensure there was room I admit to seeing red, writes Ted Corbett.

Sports blogs are written, it sometimes seems to me, off the top of the head, by a writer who would rather be elsewhere doing something completely different and who wishes all such 21 {+s} {+t} century stuff had never been invented.

Thus, in the midst of much that is sensible, clever, thoughtful, insightful and genuinely worth a read, there is much rubbish.

I guess that Andrew Strauss’s retirement inevitably brought the thought that he must — by virtue of his 24 Test victories out of 50 — be one of the greatest England captains. I agree but when one blogger squeezed Strauss into the top five and left out Ray Illingworth to ensure there was room I admit to seeing red.

Who can quarrel with a list that includes Douglas Jardine, conqueror of Australia, and the inventor of Bodyline, Mike Brearley, the brainiest man to play cricket, Len Hutton, the first professional to lead England in the modern age and Peter May who for a long time led the leadership stakes with 41 Tests as captain.

But no place for Illingworth? I ask you.

Illingworth did not take charge of England until he was 37 and in the next four years he won back the Ashes and beat everyone else even though he had an ordinary team, had to do much of the slow bowling and was surrounded by officials who often mentioned that Colin Cowdrey might have been a better choice.

Just when he might have thought he could go on leading the side until he was 50, along came a West Indies side who won in England 3-0 — this was before the days of the terrifying fast bowlers — and with some delight the captaincy was removed from Illingworth.

It may not have been the wisest decision of all time. Illingworth was a Yorkshireman and cricketer from head to toe, not always easily understood by everyone and sometimes found wanting by his players. They knew he played for his average, only bowled when conditions suited him — these are exaggerations by the way — and batted at the most opportune time.

(That is to say he was like almost every other captain I know which is further proof of my contention, often denied, that cricket is no more a team game than golf or tennis.)

Anyway, his players still loved him, because he was a winner, because he was never afraid to teach them yet more about cricket, because he made brave decisions and because he was never afraid to say that Hutton was his favourite captain and the most knowledgeable.

I asked him why. “When I was just a kid, learning my trade with Yorkshire, he was captain in a match against Gloucestershire at Harrogate. The pitch there was usually a batsman’s paradise but this one took spin from the first ball and I thought I would take a cartload of wickets.

“He had me bowling straight away and I got a wicket in my second over and he called me across and said ‘Take a rest.’ I was cross. ‘Leonard,’ I said, ‘I’ll bowl ‘em out in quick time.’

“’No,” he said, ‘I’ll put Brian Close on in your place, he’ll get Tom Graveney, with his big spin and you can come back to get the rest.’ And that is just how it happened, right down to Tom playing on to a huge off break and the rest collapsing to me.”

There are just as many stories about the way Illingworth controlled Leicestershire. The umpire Barry Dudlestone told me that when he was a leading batsman at Leicester he had a run of low scores so bad that when Illingworth called him in for a chat he was sure he was going to be dropped for their most important match of the summer.

“Look,” said Illingworth, “you’re not batting so badly, you’re just short on confidence. I want you to make runs in this coming match so if you take my advice you’ll ask one of the local club sides for a game, make a hundred, say thank you very much and come back here full of confidence.”

Magically, it worked, and Dudlestone played in the big match and made runs there and for the rest of the season.

Every time I spoke to Illingworth he taught me something about the game whether he was captain of Yorkshire, their manager or in his spell as Supremo, chief selector and tour manager with England.

He was not a generous man in some ways but in passing on his knowledge he had not a moment of hesitation.

In his final tour as Supremo in South Africa he and I and his No. 2 Peter Lever, the former England and Lancashire fast bowler, watched Makhaya Ntini on his debut for Eastern Province. At the end of his first over Illingworth turned to us and said: “He’s all right — but this is his big test. Can he complete a maiden over? Does he even know he has bowled five dot balls in a row?”

I think that thought was in all our minds as Ntini ran in and bowled a delivery designed to complete his maiden. “He’ll do for me,” said Illingworth and marched off to the dressing room to try to sign Ntini for his local club at Pudsey.

Recently he has been president of Yorkshire and “the best we ever had” according to one sage. Now do you see why I rate him the shrewdest cricketer of them all.