Yorkshire Grit: The Life of Ray Illingworth

Published: 2023
Pages: 288
Author: Peel, Mark
Publisher: Pitch
Rating: 4 stars

Between 1969 and 1996 Ray Illingworth lent his name to four autobiographies, but other than one by Mike Stevenson that appeared in 1978, there has never been a biography. As many of the more controversial moments in Illingworth’s life lay ahead of him in 1978 an objective account of his life has been long overdue. Fortunately, and I am sure the man himself would have approved of this, the project has fallen into a safe pair of hands, those of Mark Peel, in the past the biographer of Ken Barrington, Colin Cowdrey, Colin Milburn, Mike Brearley, Douglas Jardine and Roy Gilchrist.

But then a Yorkshireman is a very different sort of subject and, as the reference in the title to grit suggests, Illingworth must be considered the archetypal Yorkshireman. Three others loom large throughout Yorkshire Grit, Brian Close, Fred Trueman and Geoffrey Boycott, but none of them are quite as good an example of a Yorkie as Illingworth. Trueman was a little too brash, Close had his sense of adventure and whilst Boycott did come close for many years the entertaining streak he has developed in his later years sets him a little apart.

Illingworth on the other hand was always dour and, whilst not without a sense of humour, was a man who took life and cricket very seriously. He always said what he thought, making him popular with journalists, and he thought endlessly about cricket, a game he knew as well as anyone who has ever lived, and he proved an outstanding tactician and captain of Leicestershire and England.

When Illingworth first entered the Yorkshire dressing room in the early 1950s it was full of great players with big personalities, and the dominance of the Surrey side that won the County Championship for seven years rankled. Unlike some however Illingworth at first survived, and then thrived in that hardest of finishing schools and, a decade later, was an integral part of a side that contained just as many greats but, by this time, dominated English cricket.

Between 1953 and 1968 Illingworth did the double on six occasions and was one of the county game’s best and most consistent performers. Against that background it was inevitable that he would come to the attention of the England selectors and he was certainly given plenty of chances, although 30 Test caps brought him just a solitary half century and two five wicket hauls.

Despite all his success with the county in 1968 Illingworth left Yorkshire as in their wisdom the committee would not break their time honoured practice of not giving their players contracts. Illingworth had put up with the almost feudal system for 15 years and did not think a three year deal an unreasonable request. But Yorkshire did.

The White Rose’s loss was Leicestershire’s gain and, the East Midlands county happy to give Illingworth the security he sought, he spent the next nine summers there. Historically one of the weaker of the counties Leicester became a power in the land under Illingworth’s captaincy and won the first five trophies in the county’s history, including a coveted County Championship in 1975. Illingworth also captained England between 1969 and 1973, famously becoming the (so far) last England captain to win back the Ashes on Australian soil when his side did so in 1971.

Looking back it might have been a good idea for Illingworth to end his cricket career in 1978, but he was attracted back to Yorkshire by the role of team manager, one which ended with his pulling his whites on again to lead the county as a fifty year old in 1982 and 1983. There was not a great deal to celebrate on the pitch over those five years, and a great deal of turbulence to negotiate off it. Undaunted Illingworth went on, of course, to fulfil similar roles for England in the 1990s. Again there were controversies aplenty, often aggravated by the fact that diplomacy was not one of Illingworth’s strong suits.

Many of those whose paths crossed with Illingworth’s have gone into print giving Peel, together with the thoughts of the many he interviewed in the course of his research, a wealth of material. As with all his books not a paragraph is wasted, and for every tale that I had read or heard before there was one that was new to me. The writing is always entertaining too, never less than when telling the well worn story of Garry Sobers’ first ball duck at the Oval in 1966. Most reading this review will recognise this as the Test when, after a disastrous England showing in the first four matches of the series, a new team led by Close and containing Illingworth gained a handsome consolation win. The Sobers dismissal episode did not however, it would seem, unfold in quite the way Close always claimed.

In many ways the measure of the quality of a biography is how long it takes to read, and even if Yorkshire Grit hadn’t arrived during a mini heatwave I have no doubt I would still have been unable to make it last more than two days. It is an excellent book and reminded me of many things that I had forgotten, and also made sense of aspects of Illingworth’s life that I had previously struggled to put in their proper context. One small gripe is the lack of a statistical appendix, but on the other hand there is a good selection of photographs and an index.

In fact the only piece of disappointing news is that Peel’s next project is a biography of a politician who, as far as I am aware, has no connection to our great game. That much said at least the one after that should be of another fine England cricketer from the Illingworth era whose life fully merits Mark Peel devoting his time to it.

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