Robin Marlar, accurate and deceptive spin bowler who captained Sussex and became president of MCC – obituary

Robin Marlar in around 1970 - Ken Kelly/Popperfoto
Robin Marlar in around 1970 - Ken Kelly/Popperfoto

Robin Marlar, the Sussex cricketer, who has died aged 91, always had the courage to be his voluble and idiosyncratic self, whether as a player, as a journalist and businessman, or, in 2005-06, as president of MCC.

Some labelled Marlar a Right-wing radical; and indeed, he did stand twice for Parliament in the Conservative interest, at Bolsover in 1959 and at Leicester North-East in 1962. But these were not seats that promised a Tory any chance of success. Others saw him rather as a maverick whose actions and views, at once forthright and diverse, were never entirely predictable.

First and foremost, however, Marlar was a fine off-spin bowler, naggingly accurate and with a deceptive, looping flight. In the early 1950s he came close to playing for England.

For five years, from 1955 to 1959, he captained Sussex during a difficult transitional phase. In his first year in charge, the county achieved fourth place in the Championship; by 1959 they had slipped down to 15th.

This was not so much Marlar’s fault as his fate, though he regretted that he had not followed his original plan and cast off the captaincy at the end of the 1958 season. “We had a terrible season in 1959,” he later admitted. “I should have stuck to my guns.”

Certainly, Marlar’s tactics were sometimes puzzling. “They used to say that the Sussex team only followed him on to the field out of curiosity,” “Bomber” Wells once observed.

Jim Parks made the same point more kindly: “He did some odd things as captain, but he always had Sussex cricket at heart.” That, at least, was a truth universally acknowledged.

In Marlar’s last game in charge, against Warwickshire at Hove, he bowled Sussex into such a strong position that they required only 39 to win in their second innings. With one run required, Ken Suttle deliberately got out so that the retiring skipper could secure the victory.

Applauded all the way to the wicket, Marlar fell for a duck. His batting was generally stronger on enterprise than achievement.

Playing for the Rest of England against the champion county, Surrey, in September 1955, Marlar was sent in as nightwatchman, under protest, by Doug Insole. Two balls later he was back in the pavilion, stumped McIntyre, bowled Lock for six. “As I was saying,” he resumed, “I am not a nightwatchman.”

Marlar in 1964 - Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images
Marlar in 1964 - Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

Fifty years later, Marlar’s appointment as president of MCC was also felt to carry some risk. Indeed, he was plunged into controversy within hours of taking office after remarking that it was “absolutely outrageous” that women should play serious cricket with men.

He spoke, he said, as someone who, as a young man, had been knocked around by Fred Trueman. Nevertheless, his comments drew much flack – though not from Rachael Heyhoe Flint, the doyenne of women’s cricket in England.

Critics even resurrected his old nickname of “Snarler Marlar”, originally bestowed on account of his style of appealing. The object of their wrath, however, was not a whit repentant, merely incapable of understanding how anyone could disagree with him on such an obvious point.

In fact, he had always been a strong supporter of women’s cricket, and continued to be so. Likewise, believing that the world could not have too much of a good thing, he eagerly encouraged the development of cricket in the US, Europe and China. And during his presidency MCC launched a commentary service for blind and vision-impaired spectators at Lord’s.

Marlar also argued the need to produce more affordable bats, of whatever material. As for the game itself, he stressed the importance of taking effective action against bowlers who threw the ball, and remonstrated against fielders who made too much noise, whether over-keen babble or vicious sledging. Clearly he had learnt the game in another age.

Robin Geoffrey Marlar was born in Eastbourne on January 2 1931. His mother’s family, named Stevens, had long been established in the town, his maternal grandfather having been a builder who worked with the Duke of Devonshire to develop the Meads area in the town.

Robin was at first educated at King Edward VI School, Lichfield, where his father, EAG Marlar, was teaching. In 1944 he won an Exhibition to Harrow. In three years (1947-49) in the cricket XI, he took a total of 17 Etonian wickets at Lord’s.

In 1950 he went up on another Exhibition, to Magdalene College, Cambridge, to read History. He won a cricket Blue in his first summer term, when he was the university’s leading wicket-taker.

At Lord’s he took five for 41 in Oxford’s first innings. Cambridge, however, narrowly lost, despite the presence of David Sheppard, Peter May, Raman Subba Row and John Warr in their side.

Selected in that summer of 1951 to play for the Gentlemen against the Players at Lord’s he was unlucky enough to have to bowl against his hero Denis Compton in full flood. Subsequently, though, he performed promisingly in his first matches for Sussex. The captain, Jim Langridge, used to stand at mid-off and tell him how to bowl.

It was not all plain sailing. Marlar remembered in particular his first match for Sussex in his native Eastbourne, at the Saffrons ground, close to where his grandfather had laboured for the Duke of Devonshire. When the opposition, Derbyshire, began their innings, Marlar bowled and bowled without any success.

Presenting Michael Atherton with the Cricket Writers Club Young Cricketer of the Year award in 1990 - Patrick Eagar/Popperfoto via Getty Images
Presenting Michael Atherton with the Cricket Writers Club Young Cricketer of the Year award in 1990 - Patrick Eagar/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Finally Jim Langridge told him, most apologetically, that he would have to take over with his left-arm spin, and proceeded to take four quick wickets, finishing with five for 85. Marlar’s analysis was 0 for 123 from 40 overs. “Someone hadn’t done very well that day,” he reflected, “and it wasn’t Langridge.”

In 1952 Marlar was laid low with glandular fever but recovered in time to take seven wickets in Oxford’s first innings at Lord’s. This time the match was drawn.

At the tail-end of 1952 he bowled sensationally well for Sussex, grabbing 27 wickets in a single week, and 34 in three games. Despite his illness, that summer he claimed 108 victims at 21.21 apiece.

This promise was fulfilled in 1953. Captain of a seemingly weak Cambridge side which was plagued by injury, Marlar bowled more than twice as many overs as anyone else and took 61 wickets (the next best bowler managed only 37). Against Kent at Folkestone he returned match figures of five for 58 and (the best of his career) eight for 32.

He did almost as well in the Varsity match, setting Cambridge on the road to triumph with analyses of five for 94 and seven for 49, and then hanging on with the bat as Dennis Silk secured a two-wicket victory.

The year was also a great season for Sussex. Under David Sheppard’s captaincy they finished second to Surrey in the Championship, with Marlar contributing important wickets at the end of the campaign.

That summer he bowled 1,332 overs, more than anyone in the country save Johnny Wardle. At Lord’s, eight days after his triumph in the Varsity match, he skittled out a strong Players side with figures of seven for 79 to bring the Gentlemen victory.

His final tally for 1953 – 136 wickets at 25.50 – left many feeling that he was unlucky to be left out of MCC’s tour of the West Indies. Jim Laker, however, was a formidable competitor for the off-spinner’s place.

In 1953-54 Marlar taught at Eton. Although free to play in 21 matches for Sussex in 1954, he had a relatively poor season. From 1954 to 1959 he secured a salary as librarian to the Duke of Norfolk, the president of Sussex, at Arundel Castle. It was a job which proved predictably untaxing in the summer.

Indeed, 1955 proved to be statistically Marlar’s best year in county cricket, with 139 wickets at 21.55 apiece. In 1956 he once again topped 100 wickets, including nine for 46 against Lancashire.

Thereafter, perhaps due to the cares of captaincy, Marlar’s bowling rather fell off. It seemed that he lost the confidence to flight the ball, tending to push it through in the unprofitable cause of economy.

Robin Marlar in 2006 - Dustin Shum/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
Robin Marlar in 2006 - Dustin Shum/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

In 1960, the year after relinquishing the captaincy, Marlar still played regularly for Sussex. After turning out only three times for the county in 1961, he seemed to have retired. In 1968, however, he answered an emergency call and appeared in two last games.

Altogether, he played in 289 first-class matches, and took 970 wickets at 25.22 each. As a batsman he scored 3,033 runs at an average of 9.72. His highest and most sensational innings was 64 (including five sixes and six fours) in 44 minutes for Sussex against the Australians in 1956.

Marlar had written for The Daily Telegraph from 1954 to 1960, sending in admirably balanced reports of matches in which he was appearing. From 1960 to 1968 he worked for the banknote company De La Rue, and then in 1968 became a consultant and partner at Spencer Stuart, which advised companies on the provision of staff. In 1971 he set up his own head-hunting business, the Marlar Group of Consultancies.

In 1970 he had begun a 26-year stint as cricket correspondent for The Sunday Times. He never shirked controversy, declaring in 1974-75 that Mike Denness, England’s captain, should be sent home on account of the poor performance in Australia. In 1976, by contrast, he stood up for Denness when he was sacked by Kent after winning two trophies.

In 1977 Marlar stood out strongly against Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, though his aggressive and indignant confrontation with a far cooler Packer on The Frost Programme perhaps did his cause more harm than good.

Then in 1986, after Clive Lloyd had been applauded all the way to the wicket on his final appearance at Lord’s in the NatWest final, Marlar chose the moment to launch an attack on him for his ruthless tactics, as captain of the West Indies in terrorising batsmen with short-pitched fast bowling.

In 1993 Marlar undertook a final brush with politics when he stood for the Referendum Party in a by-election at Newbury. He received 338 votes.

Marlar’s services to Sussex cricket were far more profitable. Elected chairman for 2007-08, he helped to initiate a series of reforms which took the county from ninth place in the Second Division in 2000 to First Division title winners in 2003, 2006 and 2007. Gratifyingly, Marlar was president of the club from 2005 to 2007.

He published The Story of Cricket (1978), Decision Against England (1983) and Golden Minnows in the World Cup (2019), as well as editing The English Cricketers’ Trip to USA and Canada, 1859 (1979).

Robin Marlar married first, in 1959, Wendy Dumeresque, who died in 2000; they had four daughters and two sons. In 1980 he married Gill Taylor, second daughter of Lord Taylor of Hadfield, the founder of the Taylor Woodrow Group; she died in 2019. He is survived by his children.

Robin Marlar, born January 2 1931, died September 30 2022