Anthony Ainley (left), with Doug McClure

Anthony Ainley (left) in the 1975 film The Land That Time Forgot

© Getty Images

High Fives

Death becomes him

Cricket's foremost obituarist on his five most memorable ones (not as morbid as you might think)

Steven Lynch  |  

Anthony Ainley (1932-2004)
The Wisden Almanack's obituaries have changed in recent years, from rather dry, fact-based accounts of a player's career (longer if the chap went to the right school, or played in the Varsity Match) to, if at all possible, more rounded reviews of the person's life. Even jokes aren't banned anymore. The change really started when Matthew Engel took over as editor in 1993. The whole book became more expressive, more characterful and more fun.

I joined the Almanack's obituaries team before I started full-time for the Almanack itself. In 2004 I was still Cricinfo's editor, and Matthew asked me to help out when I could. I was lucky that an alphabetical accident meant my first obituary was a memorable one.

Anthony Ainley wasn't a first-class cricketer but an actor who won fame as "The Master", the evil nemesis of Doctor Who. I knew he was a keen club cricketer, as I'd played against him. I knew he batted in what looked like flying goggles, to protect his eyes for screen close-ups. And I knew - because he'd done it to me - that if he felt tied down at the crease he would leap out, Trumper-like, with bat behind ear, and try to scythe you through covers. At one of our encounters he'd had a tiff with a highly strung thespian team-mate and sloped off to take tea in his car. Gentle probing established that the argument wasn't to blame - he often did this, as he hated cheese, the ever-present staple of club teas, and brought his own food.

My club had an enthusiastic chronicler at the time, who would drop off match reports to the local paper on his way home. His words of wisdom on this particular game obviously excited the sports desk, as the headline for our match report exclaimed that "Inter-Galactic Terror" had been visited upon Surrey.

Don Bradman (1908-2001)
Probably my most memorable obituary - or appreciation - came in 2001. We were setting up (which later merged with Cricinfo), and were coming to terms with the 24-hour nature of the beast. Late one cold February evening I received a phone call: "Have you heard? Don Bradman has died."

The scoreboard at Adelaide Oval marks the passing of the Don

The scoreboard at Adelaide Oval marks the passing of the Don © Getty Images

I hadn't heard. And there wasn't much time to reflect: the news, and an appraisal of the Don, had to go up online pronto. It was pushing midnight, but the words seemed to flow, and about half an hour later I pressed the button. Satisfyingly, my verdict was out there. Not long afterwards, the editor of a sumptuous Bradman tribute volume asked whether he could include it. The piece duly appeared in there, opposite another appreciation by Australia's prime minister, John Howard - which, I suspect, impressed the Aussie half of my family more than anything else I've ever done.

Nigel Bennett (1912-2008)
At the Almanack we don't often have the pressure of time; with the book out like clockwork every April, there's usually a reasonable period to work on those who passed away the previous year - although the sad demise of Tony Greig on December 29 a couple of years ago ruffled the team's calm a little.

But perhaps there's a drawback in not preparing anything beforehand: many's the time I've fervently wished I had spoken to the player before he took his leave, to discover more about an obviously interesting life. One such was Nigel Bennett, the man who was appointed captain of Surrey by mistake. When he died in 2008 we consulted Alec Bedser, who just nodded and termed it "the cock-up".

It seems that not long after Surrey decided to appoint a Major Leo Bennett as their first post-war skipper in 1946, Major Nigel Bennett popped in to renew his subscription. Someone in the office totted up two and two and made five, and Major Nigel was duly asked to take over as captain. This peculiar story was neatly embellished when Matthew Engel discovered that the players decided they could put up with Bennett once they clapped eyes on his wife, who was "a real cracker".

Michael Mence: bat a bit, bowl a bit, drink a bit

Michael Mence: bat a bit, bowl a bit, drink a bit © PA Photos

Michael Mence (1944-2014)
There aren't many advantages to getting older, but I suppose it's a help to obituary-writers: you're more likely to have seen the player concerned. One such, who duly appeared in the 2015 Almanack, was Michael Mence, who I met several times when I worked at Lord's after leaving school.

Mence was an old-fashioned amateur who played hard and partied harder. I remember one morning bumping into my boss, Lieutenant-Colonel John Stephenson, and thinking he looked less dapper than usual following the previous night's committee meeting. I must have raised an eyebrow because he winced: "I know. Mence. Never again."

Don Wilson during his tenure as MCC coach, at a 1983 game

Don Wilson during his tenure as MCC coach, at a 1983 game © Getty Images

Mence had been a precocious schoolboy cricketer but played for Warwickshire and Gloucestershire without a great deal of success. He had more luck in Minor Counties cricket for Berkshire, and was also an MCC regular, especially enjoying their annual matches against Ireland and Scotland. And he was, according to MCC's annual report, probably the last player to appear at Lord's sporting a cravat - a titbit I wish I'd known before finishing the obituary. Somewhat spookily Mence passed away three days after his father (who also played for Berkshire) died in the same hospice on the Isle of Wight.

Don Wilson (1937-2012)
Someone else I knew well from my time at Lord's was Don Wilson, the Yorkshire and England slow left-armer who later became MCC's head coach. He was interesting (and occasionally infuriating) to work with, a fund of funny stories and far-fetched excuses for why he hadn't quite managed to do what he'd been asked.

But most of the time he was riotous company, so I was sad when I heard he had succumbed to emphysema in 2012. And, after a week in which very little seemed to have been written about him, I jotted down some memories of "Wils", which seemed to go down well.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2014