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Ray Illingworth – Yorkshire Personified

Ray Illingworth was capped 61 times by England at Test level. At the point at which he appeared for the last time no more than a dozen men had played more often. Yet Illingworth was 35 before he became anything like a regular, and at first glance his record is far from impressive.

An all-rounder, Illingworth’s batting produced 1,836 runs at 23.24 for his country. The captaincy, that came his way in 1969, saw a marked improvement. The first half of his Test career brought him just 448 of those runs at 13.18, disappointing on any interpretation. With the ball Illingworth’s slow off spinners brought him 132 wickets overall at 31.20. This time the first half of his career was a little better, as he averaged 28.18, but that was due to some decent performances in 1967 and 1968. For his first 23 Tests he had only 35 wickets at 39.94 to show for his labours.

Had it not been for the availability during Illingworth’s time of Gloucestershire’s David Allen, and Fred Titmus of Middlesex Illingworth might have played much more frequently. Allen’s record in 39 Tests is 918 runs at 25.50 and 122 wickets at 30.97, yet who remembers David Allen today? Titmus played for England 53 times and his record is slightly inferior to Illingworth’s, although there isn’t much in it; 1449 runs at 22.29 and 153 wickets at 32.20. Neither man is anything like as well known as Illingworth

The claim to fame arises out of Illingworth’s captaincy of course. His is a decent record without being quite up there with the best, but more than forty years on he is still the last man to lead an England side to Australia and recover the Ashes, and for that reason alone his name will always resonate. The only other men to match the achievement are Plum Warner and Douglas Jardine. Warner in fact achieved the feat twice, in 1903/04 and 1911/12, although on the latter occasion Essex all-rounder Johnny Douglas led the side on the field.

Illingworth was born in Pudsey, then a small market town approximately midway between Leeds and Bradford, so as Yorkshire as you can get. And Illingworth sounded like a Yorkshireman, looked for all the world like a Yorkshireman, and he played his cricket like a Yorkshireman. With the bat he never gave up his wicket easily. He was dour and defensive but, always a team man, he wasn’t afraid to put bat to ball when quick runs were needed, although he never looked entirely at home in that role. With the ball he was much the same. He could give the ball a tweak and plenty of air if the occasion demanded, but he wasn’t a bowler given to extravagance.

One of the longest of all First Class careers began at age 19 in 1951 when Illingworth was called up at the last minute for a Championship fixture against Hampshire. He was a National Serviceman at the time and had to get permission from his Commanding Officer to miss a game for the Combined Services in order to play. He was soon out in the middle too as Yorkshire collapsed to 40-4 in the face of a fine spell of seam bowling from Vic Cannings who clean bowled all four. He did the same to Illingworth as well, but not before he had contributed 56 to a partnership of 96 with his skipper Norman Yardley. Cannings’ efforts were all in vain however as his side were bowled out twice and lost by ten wickets. All twenty Hampshire wickets fell to spinners, but with Bob Appleyard, Johnny Wardle and Eddie Leadbeater all wanting to bowl Illingworth did not get so much as a single over.

Wisden commented that Illingworth showed the right temperament and good stroke play. His cover driving was of the best quality. It is an interesting observation. The Illingworth I remember was primarily a nudger and nurdler, but the early version seems to have been a little different. The debut innings wasn’t enough for Illingworth to be retained, but then with three batsmen, Len Hutton, Frank Lowson and Willy Watson coming back from England duty, that was hardly surprising.

As the 1950s wore on Illingworth quickly grew into his role as a Yorkshire all-rounder. It was a marvellous Yorkshire team. The White Rose boasted the best batsman in England, Hutton, the best pace bowler, Trueman, the best left arm spinner, Wardle as well as other class acts like Appleyard, Close and Watson. For a decade however they couldn’t lift the Championship title, and Illingworth watched and learned.

The formidable collection of individuals were no sort of a team. Illingworth singled out the triumvirate of Hutton, Appleyard and Wardle as the three hard men of the side. The latter two were difficult men who were often selfish and very hard on the younger members of the side. Trueman didn’t brook any nonsense of course, but then he was unchallenged as the side’s strike bowler, and if the old stagers had a go at him for dropping a catch, he snapped back. So did Illingworth eventually, but it took him a while to feel sufficiently sure of himself to answer back. Hutton was different, and in truth what Illingworth describes sounds more to me like diffidence than anything else, but Illingworth is critical of the role England’s first professional captain’s adopted in the Yorkshire dressing room.

In 1958 Yorkshire appointed a 39 year old amateur to the captaincy, Ronnie Burnet. Falling well short of First Class standard as a batsman Burnet incurred the wrath of Wardle, the last of the triumvirate still standing, and the left arm spinner made his views known in a newspaper column. That was the end of Wardle as a Yorkshire player and the following year, at last playing as a team under Burnet’s skilful management the county won the title despite their side, on paper, looking a good deal weaker than that of just a few years before.

Whilst all the internal dramas were being played out Illingworth concentrated on developing his own game. In 1953 Appleyard had been missing with ill health, and Close had damaged his knee in a road accident so, the other two men on the staff who bowled off spin being incapacitated, Illingworth got to show what he could do with the ball as well as with the bat and by 1957 he was able to do the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets. It was a feat that he achieved six times between 1957 and 1964 and, barring a sea change in the way in which the English domestic game is played, he will remain the last Yorkshire player to achieve the feat in perpetuity.

The consistency with which Illingworth performed for a powerful and successful Yorkshire inevitably brought him to the attention of the England selectors and he was capped for the first time against New Zealand in 1958. The visitors were lamentably weak and although Illingworth did reasonably well, taking three wickets and not being dismissed, he did not do enough to interest the selectors in taking a longer look. He couldn’t however complain about a lack of opportunity, as his selection for 23 Tests over the next eight years demonstrates.

It was 1967 before Illingworth finally started to establish himself. He played in each of the three victories over India and then the first against Pakistan before giving way to Titmus for the remaining two Tests in their series. Illingworth took 23 wickets at 14.08 in the four Tests including what was to remain his Test best of 6-29 against the Indians. They were not strong opposition as their results demonstrated, but they knew how to play spin, so it was a giant stride forward for Illingworth. He must have been disappointed to miss out on a trip to the Caribbean that winter particularly as Titmus, who did get the selectorial nod, had achieved nothing out of the ordinary in his two Tests. It wasn’t to be a happy trip for the Middlesex man however as he achieved little of note in the first two Tests and then lost four toes in an accident involving a propeller. Nowadays Illingworth might well have been called up as a replacement, but then the selectors preferred to send out an emergency call to Perth and it was the veteran Tony Lock, in form for Western Australia in the Sheffield Shield, who replaced Titmus.

1968 was an Ashes summer and the off spinner selected for the first Test was the 21 year old Surrey man Pat Pocock, who had made an impressive start to his First Class career and had been the junior spinner in the Caribbean. He took six wickets in the second innings in a losing cause so must have been disappointed to lose his place for the second Test, and even more so when for the third, two spinners selected for the first time in the series, he missed out and the 36 year old Illingworth came in. There was a six-fer for Illingworth too, at home at Headingley in the fourth Test, and although again he made no significant contribution with the bat there were 13 wickets at 22.38.

As the 1968 season drew to a close Illingworth decided that, at 36, he was entitled to more security than the one year contracts that he had had all through his Yorkshire career, and which indeed had always been issued by the county to all of their professionals. Illingworth approached the committee with a proposal that he should have a three year term. Had it got before the committee it must remain a possibility that such a small move towards modernisation might have been agreed, but it got no further than the autocratic former captain Brian Sellers, who rejected the idea out of hand, and told Illingworth he could go, as could anyone else who wasn’t happy. Illingworth’s availability attracted plenty of interest, and eventually he went to Leicestershire, who made it clear to him they had ambitions, and their offer included the captaincy.

Illingworth’s name was not amongst the 16 named for the South African tour of 1968/69, nor the party that eventually visited Pakistan instead. At this time Colin Cowdrey, although not to universal approval, was firmly entrenched as England captain. At 35 he was clearly intent on carrying on for a while, and in particular was looking forward to finally, on his fifth visit, captaining his country in Australia. In the early part of the 1969 season however he snapped his Achilles tendon and was out for the summer. England needed a new skipper for series against West Indies and New Zealand.

The man most likely to was the existing vice-captain, the vastly experienced Tom Graveney. He was nearly 41 and had, with Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, plenty of captaincy experience. He would have been a safe pair of hands, but had always been his own man, and had been outspoken in his criticism of the conditions the players had faced in Pakistan. Close would have been a popular choice, but he had blotted his copybook when he lost the captaincy in 1967. Illingworth’s leadership experience was far from extensive but it was he and not Graveney who got the job, initially for just the first Test.

The 1969 West Indians were not the side of the recent past. Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith were gone and the new opening bowlers were nothing like as fearsome. Of their batsmen Rohan Kanhai was not in the side and Seymour Nurse had retired, but there was still the great Garry Sobers, and several other fine players as well. No one expected England to cruise to a ten wicket win, but that was how the first Test ended. As to Illingworth’s captaincy all went well, although he had one difficult decision to make, insisting to the selectors that paceman John Snow should not be considered for the second Test. The reason was a failure on Snow’s part to, as Illingworth saw it, bowl flat out when he had been asked to do so.

Sobers’ side fought back in the second Test. They scored 380 and then reduced England to 61-5. Debutant Jack Hampshire then got a century, Alan Knott a fifty and Illingworth finally came good with the bat with a fine captain’s innings and his first Test century. A fascinating Test ended with England 37 runs short of victory with three wickets in hand. England won the third Test to take the two match series 2-0. A similar scoreline against New Zealand set the seal on a very satisfactory season for the new captain.

The following English summer was the first in peacetime since 1927 that did not have a Test series, though we didn’t know it at the time as a series of five matches between England and a Rest of the World XI were played with all the trappings of a Test series. The Rest were an immensely strong combination and England did very well to win one match and push the Rest hard in two more. Illingworth himself led from the front with bat and ball. His scores were 63 and 94, 97 (in the game England won), 15 and 43, 58 and 54, and finally 52 and 0. With the ball he bowled plenty of overs, never being really collared despite the dazzling array of batting talent that faced him. He took 11 wickets at 41.90, but went for less than three runs an over.

In Australia Illingworth masterminded a 2-0 victory. It was not an easy series. The umpiring was controversial, England not getting a single lbw decision in any of the Tests, and Australian opener Keith Stackpole seemingly having a charmed life. Illingworth also had little or no help from his vice-captain, Cowdrey, and with the tour manager David Clark being another man of Kent that was not an easy relationship either. Illingworth forged a superb team spirit though. He was on his team’s side throughout, ensuring they received at least some further remuneration when the management, without reference to him, added a seventh Test at short notice after a wash out. He also placed great faith in Snow, managing him superbly after their initial problems the year before, and firmly supporting his man in more than one conflict with umpire Lou Rowan. With bat and ball Illingworth was consistency itself. His greatest gift as captain lay in creating the illusion that he had 14 or 15 players on the field,” wrote John Thicknesse. “So expertly did he block a batsman’s favourable scoring strokes that when the opposition were in trouble it must frequently have seemed that there were no runs on offer anywhere.”

The following summer the bubble burst somewhat as England lost a home Test and indeed series to India for the first time and were given a good deal to think about by Pakistan before securing a narrow win in the second part of the summer. In 1972 the Ashes were retained thanks to a 2-2 draw. Illingworth chose to miss that winter’s tour to the sub-continent and for 1973 the selectors were faced with making a decision as to whether to allow his replacement, Tony Lewis, to continue or whether to bring Illingworth back. They chose the veteran who, not without some alarms, led England to a 2-0 win over New Zealand before a West Indies side that was on the way back up under Kanhai beat them easily by the same margin. With Illingworth then 41, and with memories of his ineffective visit to the Caribbean more than a decade earlier the selectors decided a new man was needed for the trip to West Indies in 1973/74 and Mike Denness took over. It would be four years before, under Mike Brearley, England would win a major series again.

His international career over Illingworth went back to Leicestershire to finish the job he had started and in 1975 they won their first ever County Championship and took the Benson and Hedges Cup as well. Apart from the teenaged David Gower and veteran Australian paceman Garth McKenzie there were no stars in that Leicestershire side and it was very much down to Illingworth that they achieved what they did. Gower, after describing how shy he was when he began his career went on to write; the atmosphere at the club under Illy was so good that the little boy lost feeling didn’t last very long …… he was a fabulous captain to play under ……….. he had the amazing knack of being able to switch us all on to serious business at a moment’s notice, before concluding those first three or four years under Illy were as good a grounding as a young player could have.

Gower’s comments are particularly interesting given that he was not the sort of young man who was totally consumed by cricket, and they make it clear that at that time Illingworth must have been a very good man manager indeed, an ability no doubt fashioned from his recollections of the disparate forces at work in the Yorkshire dressing room in his early days, and the success he brought to an England side that was not overly blessed with talented individuals. It was hardly surprising therefore that Yorkshire, by then struggling with internal problems, brought him back as cricket manager for the 1979 season.

Did Illingworth work the same magic at Yorkshire as he had at Leicestershire? Sadly not. There were three years of marking time before in 1982 Illingworth, by then 50, took over the captaincy. It was a real throwback to the days of a captain who was not worth his place in the team and Illingworth contributed little with bat or ball, batting at 10 or 11 and taking just nine expensive wickets in the First Class game. He soldiered on into 1983 when the unthinkable happened, and Yorkshire finished bottom of the County Championship for the first and still only time in their history. To be fair to Illingworth he also led the side to success in the Sunday League in which format he was the side’s best bowler, and bowled pretty well in the First Class game as well, but that wooden spoon was a mortal wound to his job, and his contract was not renewed.

In time of course Illingworth did bounce back, and he became Chairman of Selectors and, in 1994, was put in sole charge of English cricket. I asked for – and got – an assurance I would have the final say. That was the most important thing to me was what he said at the time. His on field captain was Michael Atherton, no one’s “yes man” and the relationship between the two was often strained, although Atherton accepted that they developed a mutual if grudging respect.

Atherton’s most telling observation however was that Illingworth’s man management was poor as Duncan Fletcher’s was good, words that do not sit easily with Gower’s. Some things did not change, Atherton conceding that Illingworth has a knowledge of cricket and cricketers second to none in England, but others did. In 1995/96 in South Africa, clearly forgetting his own experience in Australia in 1970/71 Illingworth agreed to the adding of an extra fixture to the tour itinerary without reference to Atherton, and worse still for a man who so valued fast bowling and who did so well to get the best out of the prickly Snow, he made a total mess of his relationship with Devon Malcolm, publicly criticising and humiliating the man who was potentially Atherton’s most potent weapon.

Former Warwickshire opening bowler and respected journalist Jack Bannister wrote, not intending to be unduly critical, that Illingworth then was dogmatic and single-minded to the point of being blinkered. Somewhere along the line Illingworth failed to adapt to changing times. It would have been a great pity if he were to be remembered as the old curmudgeon who couldn’t manage Yorkshire or England, but thankfully he isn’t, the vast majority of England supporters choosing instead to remember him as the old curmudgeon who is still the last England captain to have gone to Australia to attempt to recover the Ashes, and succeeded.

The most fitting tribute to Ray Illingworth I have found comes from the pages of Wisden, and the words of editor Norman Preston when reflecting on the Illingworth Era; England turned to Illingworth at a time of a dearth of natural leaders and he responded in full with his sound knowledge of the game, his tactical skill and his own ability as a player when crises occurred. With the resources at his disposal , that he should win and then retain the Ashes was a great achievement for someone who for years was regarded as little more than an honest journeyman not quite of Test class.


These ‘short story’ length player pen portraits that you do are very good, Martin. Thank you, a really interesting read. I kind of wish he hadn’t taken on the England role in the 90s although when he first started (Gough/White/rejuvinated de Freitas etc.) I felt full of optimism. Be it Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson, Don Revie, Ian Chappell – I am mesmerised by the genius man-management skills that they possess, and Raymond sits equal with those in my mind. Hopefully he, DBC and FST are putting the world to rights together somewhere now again. (Well done – this is Marcus observing a self-suspension from Twitter right now)

Comment by Marcus Lee | 6:23pm GMT 26 December 2021

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