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Cricket at the Crossroads

Cricket at the Crossroads

England have not regained the Ashes in Australia very often. Two teams led by Plum Warner, in 1903/04 and 1911/12, managed it but since then only two others have done so. The first, led by Douglas Jardine in 1932/33, needs no introduction from me. That series has been studied and picked over ever since and a total of 20 full length books, the last published as recently as 2009, are testament to the enduring fascination that “Bodyline” holds for cricket lovers. Given the rarity of the achievement it is therefore strange to say the least that the fourth English team to regain the Ashes away from home, Ray Illingworth’s in 1970/71 has, essentially, been forgotten.

There was a contemporary account of the tour published, Captains Outrageous by Australian RS Whitington but, although the series has inevitably played a part in the autobiographies of those of the protagonists who have gone into print, and indeed umpire Lou Rowan, nothing else of substance has appeared, until now.

A new book by Guy Fraser-Sampson looks at English Test cricket between 1967 and 1977 and dwells at length on Illingworth’s tour bringing the benefit of hindsight to the examination of a series which, if not quite in the league of Douglas Jardine’s for controversy, came a pretty close second.

There were problems, of a typically English variety, that started before the party even left for Australia, Fraser-Sampson’s fascinating account of them begins as follows:-

……. the selectors faced the problem of selecting the squad for Australia, and one familiar name was again causing problems: that of Basil D’Oliveira.

It seems clear that there was a substantial anti-D’Oliveira clique within the selectors and that, left to their own devices, they would not have picked him. He had actually been left out of the team for the Oval, and though it seemed clear that this was to allow the selectors to have a look at Dennis Amiss, it had never been publicly confirmed.

It seems fanciful to think that he may have suffered from lingering resentment at his role as the innocent agent of the selectors’ largely self-inflicted embarrassment two years earlier. However, the reason that was officially advanced, that he had been a bad tourist under Cowdrey in the West Indies, seems rather thin. He had been a bad tourist in 1968; he acknowledged that himself. Yet he had toured Pakistan the following winter in much more trying circumstances, and had been both a good tourist and a good performer.

Perhaps there was a temptation to prefer the tall, blond Tony Greig, but the grounds for such a preference were far from overwhelming. It was clear that Greig had great natural talent, but it seemed to be a raw talent, as yet unformed. His bowling could be very effective, yet at other times could be embarrassingly wayward. His batting could be destructive, yet he lacked shot selection – the knack of when to attack and when to defend. Only in fielding skills, which were truly brilliant in any position, could he be said to be undeniably superior.

In the end, the reason that D’Oliveira was chosen in 1970 but not in 1968, was that in 1970 his captain insisted on having him in the squad, whereas in 1968 his captain did not. Illingworth told the selectors that when D’Oliveira had been left out of the team for the Oval, the captain had given his word that he would be chosen for Australia. Either Basil goes, he told them bluntly, or I don’t. Faced with uncompromising Yorkshire determination plainly expressed, the selectors backed down.

Illingworth and Cowdrey had already been chosen as captain and vice-captain. The three opening batsmen effectively chose themselves: Boycott, Luckhurst and Edrich. So did the wicketkeeper, Alan Knott, while Bob Taylor was universally acknowledged to be his obvious substitute.

In the spin bowling department Underwood could not be denied a place, but Illingworth wanted, and got, Wilson too to keep his options open on good wickets.

In the fast bowling department, England ignored the likes of Brown and Arnold, and gambled on three young talents allied with the experience of Snow. A young Bob Willis was discussed but discarded, as was Chris Old. Instead, the selectors chose the Lancashire fast-medium pairing of Lever and Shuttleworth together with the undeniably quick but undeniably injury-prone Alan Ward. For “Big Dave” Brown, it brought to an end his Test career of 26 matches. Having taken his wickets at an average of only just over 28, he was surely unfortunate never to represent England again.

That left the middle-order batting; here there were concerns, and no clear choices. With Cowdrey and D?Oliveira now pencilled in, there were two specialist middle-order places up for grabs. Fletcher and Amiss were the two men most recently in possession, but there were doubts over both.

Fletcher had done just enough against the Rest of the World to retain his place, but Amiss was felt to have done not quite enough to regain his. John “Jackie” Hampshire of Yorkshire was his slightly surprising replacement, having been ignored by England all summer. Certainly both Phil Sharpe and Peter Parfitt must have felt they had equally strong cases for selection. In the event, England might certainly have benefited from Sharpe’s slip catching, but it was not to be.

David Clark had already been announced as manager of the touring party, even before any decision had been made on the identity of the captain; this was to prove an unfortunately premature move. Of Clark’s courage there could be no doubt ? he had fought and been taken prisoner as a paratrooper officer at Arnhem – but his character was not to prove adequate to the demands of the coming tour. Where flexibility, pragmatism, tact and the common touch were required, he seems to have had only stubbornness, authoritarianism, and an affable hauteur to offer, particularly when he felt his authority to be challenged. Certainly in maintaining good relations with captain and players he was to fail dismally, and end the tour largely ignored by them.

Clark had been one of those amateurs brought in to captain a side in which he would not have been able to command a place as a player. In his case, a first-class career average of 15.8 for a specialist batsman tells its own story. That the county in question was Kent will perhaps go a long way towards explaining why his relationship with Illingworth, who would later describe him as “amiable but somewhat ineffectual”, was to break down so quickly and completely.

For if Denness was Cowdrey’s protege at Kent, Cowdrey had been Clark’s. Clark had first selected him for Kent, and was the man who had awarded him his county cap. It is clear from the warm language in Cowdrey’s autobiography that he had a very deep and genuine regard for Clark, and is anxious to show him in the best possible light, even trying to gloss over his limitations as a player. Clark had previously managed the MCC tour of India in the winter of 1963, a tour which Cowdrey had originally been asked to captain before he broke his arm in that famous match at Lord’s. Mike Smith led the team in his place, but Cowdrey did in fact fly out later as a batting replacement when illness claimed all but five of Smith’s squad, leading to the celebrated episode of journalist and future TMS commentator Henry Blofeld being asked to be ready to take the field and earn his first Test cap (with characteristic Etonian modesty, he asked if he would be allowed to hold his place in the side notwithstanding Cowdrey’s arrival).

Clark enjoyed an excellent relationship with both Smith and Cowdrey, all of them of course being public school gentlemen amateurs. For a tour captained by Illingworth, however, he was to prove a disastrous choice.

For one thing, he had been brought up in the era of amateur captains who were called “sir” by the professionals, and who were accustomed to having their directions accepted without question by the “players”. The idea of a professional captain who answered back, and bluntly at that, and who saw the manager as someone who was simply in charge of administration, must have been something that was simply beyond his ken. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that this likely outcome was not obvious to those in charge at Lord’s, and that the appointment was not changed. Surely a former professional like Alec Bedser or Ken Barrington would have been a more appropriate choice.

Perhaps, however, it would have been simply unthinkable for the manager of the England cricket team to be anyone other than an officer and a gentleman (though Les Ames had played as a professional, he had served as a Squadron Leader in the RAF during the war, thus earning honorary “gentleman” status). It was only a few years since the Duke of Norfolk had been appointed manager of an Ashes tour. As a concession to informality he had asked the players (for the duration of the tour only, mind) to call him “sir” rather than “Your Grace”.

For another thing, Clark was both a Kent man through and through, and a personal friend of Cowdrey. With the best will in the world, it is impossible to imagine that he had not been rooting for Cowdrey as captain, and been almost as disappointed as Cowdrey himself when he had been denied the job. This was hardly likely to be conducive to a warm and friendly relationship with the man who had been given the post instead.

While Illingworth states the facts of what was to occur in his autobiography (Cowdrey does not, perhaps realising that his own brand of bland amiability would be unequal to the task), and leaves the reader to judge for himself, John Snow is quite explicit. He says “the management of the tour was split”, and that “nobody wanted the parting of the ways between management and ourselves, but it was inevitable as a result of the manager’s attitude”.

For the social historians among cricket fans, Illingworth’s Ashes tour clearly marks a very real break with the past. For the first time, an almost entirely “professional” team ran its own affairs, at least in cricketing terms, and refused to be cowed by establishment figures. That they were able to do so is a mark not only of Illingworth’s strength of character, but of his track record of success which made it all but impossible for the establishment to move him aside – at least, for a while.

For the establishment did not give up without a fight, and the ongoing tension between “gentlemen” and “players” would rattle on down the decades, with the appointment of former amateurs such as Lewis and Brearley, and with public schoolboys such as Mark “Jardine” Nicholas (Bradfield) and Peter Roebuck (Millfield and Cambridge) being spoken of at different times as possible England captains. It was Marx, of course, who said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. A final Marxist twist to this particular plot would see Christopher Cowdrey (Tonbridge) actually appointed to the job by his godfather and father’s best friend, Peter May. Cowdrey fils would play just six Test matches, scoring 101 runs and taking four wickets. His averages of 14 and 77 respectively “remain a low point in the history of nepotism”.

If for Illingworth the tour was a stressful experience but one with a hugely successful outcome, for Colin Cowdrey it must have been a personal hell. Deserted first by the selectors, then by his batting form, and finally even by his slip-catching ability, he ended the series a sad echo of the man who had laid out his Five Tours Plan just three years earlier. Let the fast-bowling poet John Snow have the last word:

The one sadness among the players concerned Colin Cowdrey, who never really came to terms with the trip after his hesitation in accepting the invitation to tour under Ray’s leadership. Not getting the captaincy was a terrible disappointment to him. Ray and he didn’t hit it off, and he didn’t agree with the attitudes of the majority of us regarding the manager – so that by the end of the tour he was a self-created exile. The waste of his great ability was a big loss to the side……

The divide between Clarke and Cowdrey on the one hand, and Illingworth and the rest of the team on the other, remained throughout the tour and events off the field illustrated that. On the field there were problems with the umpiring, even the Australian press criticising their own men. Not a single lbw decision went in favour of the England bowlers in the entire series and the home side, opener Keith Stackpole in particular, seemed to live a charmed life. England’s spearhead, John Snow, fell foul of the umpires for allegedly using excessive short pitched bowling and at one point Illingworth, who backed his men in the face of adversity all tour, took the England team from the field after a member of the crowd attempted to manhandle Snow. All these controversies, and more, are explained and analysed in Cricket at the Crossroads

CricketWeb are grateful to Guy Fraser-Sampson and his publisher, Elliott and Thompson, for allowing us to use this extract. You can read our review of “Cricket at the Crossroads” here. The book is available, a snip at GBP13.29, from Amazon, or alternatively from all other booksellers worthy of the name.


Looks a good read. Thanks for the exerts. Believe Cowdrey should have been Captain of England. Illingworth came across as not being “a peoples person”

Comment by JBMAC | 12:00am BST 3 October 2011

Also The “Dolly” was a very underated cricketer. A test average round 40 odd is pretty good for the times and a useful change/partnership breaking bowler. If he played now would it be under Kolpak rules? I wonder

Comment by JBMAC | 12:00am BST 3 October 2011

I’m pretty sure Australia would’ve retained the Ashes had Cowdrey skippered the 1970/71 tourists – did you see much of the series JB? Did the batters go about their business with a different approach given that they were playing under that very batsman-friendly experimental LBW law?

Comment by fredfertang | 12:00am BST 3 October 2011

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