Ray Illingworth: Ashes winning England captain with a sharp cricketing mind

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 (Getty)
(Getty)

Ray Illingworth left his Farsley, West Yorkshire school at 14 years of age with a batting average of 100 and bowling average of 2.0. He played for Farsley’s Bradford League team a year later and five years after that made the first of his 496 first-class appearances for Yorkshire. He went on to become captain of Leicestershire, captain and then manager of England, won an Ashes series in Australia, manager and briefly captain of Yorkshire and as he passed his 70th birthday he was back cutting the grass and marking the pitch at Farsley.

He could not be described as a great off-spin bowler, nor a great batter, nor a great fielder but he was sufficiently expert, to quote a Yorkshire history “in his employment of experience, knowledge, tactical insight and psychology as a captain to be remembered without qualification as a great cricketer. [David] Gower, who served under him at Leicester, accords him the highest praise”.

Illingworth, who has died aged 89, was also expert enough to play in 61 Test matches, mostly as first-choice off-spinner; his 1,836 Test runs included two centuries from his usual spot at number seven and his 122 wickets cost 31 runs each. He also took 45 catches, often a gully but he had been renowned as a safe deep field from a boy. He sought always to be involved in the game and if the ball avoided him he went seeking it.

Illingworth lifts the Benson and Hedges Cup for Leicestershire in 1975 (PA Wire)
Illingworth lifts the Benson and Hedges Cup for Leicestershire in 1975 (PA Wire)

With Brian Close he formed the axis of a Yorkshire team that won seven Championships. While Close led mostly by inspiration, physical and mental, Illingworth applied one of the sharpest intelligences the game has seen. They were a formidable combination in the mid-1960s and county cricket was convulsed a decade later when, as respective captains of Somerset and Leicestershire respectively, both having fallen out acrimoniously with Yorkshire, they finished a fiercely contested one-day game by accusing each other of cheating.

Raymond, as he is usually addressed around home, was born in Pudsey, the son of a cabinet-maker and joiner, whose skill, strong hands and forearms he inherited. The family moved to Farsley when he was three and by the age of eight Frances Street School had already noted his cricketing promise. He was 16 when he attracted attention, and crowds, by batting on several evenings for 148 not out in the Bradford League’s Priestley Cup Final against Pudsey St Lawrence. He joined the Yorkshire Federation (Schools) team’s then annual tour (along with Close and Fred Trueman) and would recall a match against Sussex Schools before which Trueman bowled slow left arm in the nets and then disconcertingly fast right arm once the match had started.

When he became Aircraftsman Illingworth, at 18, he was posted to RAF Dishforth, in North Yorkshire, where a sympathetic CO ensured that he was given all the time needed for cricket, scoring 56 on his debut for Yorkshire against Hampshire in 1951. His first real chance came in 1953 when, with Bob Appleyard ill, Close injured and Trueman still on National Service, he became a front-line county bowler. It was another five years, after the retirement of Appleyard and Jim Laker, before England recognised his talents. Bowling for England against New Zealand at Old Trafford in 1958 his figures read 45-18-59-3 and his career flourished under Peter May’s captaincy. He then fell out of favour, after some fairly astringent criticism in the media of the Duke of Norfolk’s management and Ted Dexter’s captaincy of the Australian tour of 1962-3.

Not until his county captain Close was chosen to lead England, briefly, in 1966, was Illingworth recalled, despite having had a strong claim to have been England’s best off-spinner. His first Yorkshire career ended abruptly after an argument with the then cricket chairman Brian Sellers over a playing contract ( a notion then unheard of in Yorkshire) and he left to become captain of Leicestershire where he led the Foxes to their first Championship, to two Benson and Hedges Cups and two Sunday League championships. On his arrival at Grace Road in 1969 he ordered the boundaries extended, the outfield shaved so that the ball soon lost its shine and the pitches hardened. Seam bowlers had to work hard, spinners thrived, batters enjoyed the ball coming on to the bat and the over rate went up to 20 an hour.

Even the English establishment could hardly ignore such accomplishments and he was chosen as England captain for 36 Tests and became one of the few to win a series in Australia in 1970-71. On retirement in 1978 he was lured back to Yorkshire as team manager, an attempt by the committee to resolve the eight-year-long civil war but Geoff Boycott’s supporters read the move as another attack on their favourite.

In 1979, after a highly-public dispute about Boycott’s fitness, Yorkshire lost a Benson and Hedges semi-final against Essex – Boycott did not play – Illingworth believing that a Lord’s Final appearance would have established him in the job.

Yorkshire captain Brian Close (left) with Ray Illingworth, Fred Trueman, Don Wilson, and Phil Sharpe in 1966 (PA)
Yorkshire captain Brian Close (left) with Ray Illingworth, Fred Trueman, Don Wilson, and Phil Sharpe in 1966 (PA)

He had hopes of a revival in 1980 until John Hampshire, Boycott’s successor as Yorkshire captain, was driven away to Derbyshire the following season, and Illingworth, at 51, became the county’s first manager-captain and took them, mostly by demonstrating how to bowl tight in one-day cricket to their first Sunday League championship. It did not save him; when Boycott supporters overthrew the committee at the next annual general meeting one of their first decisions was to sack Illingworth.

He became a BBC TV commentator, a media pundit, turned down the chance to manage England in 1986 when he realised his powers were very limited. Given full control a decade later he began well, earning praise from Wisden but as England’s results deteriorated, partly because of a limited number of players of the requisite quality, criticism of Illingworth and his coaches, players of his generation who were derided in the tabloids, rebounded. An attempt to re-fashion the fast bowler Devon Malcolm, in South Africa, caused a storm with the media, especially the newspapers, taking Malcolm’s part. It was ironic that a man who tried to advance players’ rights in the Yorkshire dressing room should eventually collide with player power both with his county and his country, a vivid reminder of how much cricket had changed in his lifetime.

He enjoyed his second home, and golf, in Spain, went back to his first love, Farsley, occasionally contributed pithy comments in newspaper columns, could usually be seen at Test matches with Close, heads together, as always, and would respond to suggestions that he was old fashioned and out of date by saying: “Players, styles, tactics may change but the principles of cricket remain as they always were.”

Illingworth’s wife Shirley died earlier this year, leading him to speak out about assisted dying reforms. He is survived by two daughters.

Raymond Illingworth, cricketer, born Pudsey 8 June 1932, died 25 December 2021

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