Time has mellowed the celebrated and derided Ray Illingworth. But only just
"Have you had anything to eat?"
This was an unexpected question. When you meet Raymond Illingworth, an Ashes-winning England captain, there are certain things you prepare yourself for. Home truths. Unassailable opinions. Stories about how much better players were in his day. You do not imagine that his first concern will be whether or not you are hungry.
I said that I hadn't eaten.
"I'll make you a chicken sandwich."
Raymond Illingworth, the anti-hero of the Michael Atherton years, and the bester of Bill Lawry, went next door, to the kitchen, to make me a chicken sandwich.
Greg Chappell said that "the first thing you noticed when you played against Ray was that he was interested in having a real game of cricket"
I stayed in the living room, where Illingworth's wife, Shirley, was sitting in an armchair, watching television. The train ride from London to Farsley had taken two and a half hours, and for much of the way I'd worried that the box of chocolates I'd picked up on instinct - Cadbury Roses, the most old-fashioned of thank-you gifts - was inappropriate, the kind of thing you take to your grandparents. Here, amid the mid-century furniture, the walls adorned with family portraits taken at '80s weddings, it seemed the correct choice. There was something in the welcome I'd received that made me feel like I was visiting elderly relatives anyway.
Shirley told me that she'd had a stroke last year and has to walk with a frame. "So he has to do everything for me," she said, looking over her shoulder towards the kitchen. "He's a jack of all trades now."
Illingworth emerged with a sandwich and two cups of tea and led me to the conservatory, where we sat facing an immaculate lawn. The tall hedges that surrounded it were similarly well kept and I asked who kept them so trim. "I do it all myself," he said. Illingworth is 83, and had a heart attack five years ago. I told him I was impressed. He'd always been a bit green-fingered, he said. Has been ever since he was 12, when he started playing cricket for Farsley Cricket Club, and helped the groundsman out. "It helped me with my cricket really," he said. "When I was the captain I could read the wickets pretty well."
With Atherton during the "supremo" years: "Athers were a really stubborn man"
Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images
With Atherton during the "supremo" years: "Athers were a really stubborn man" Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images
When he was captain, Illingworth read everything pretty well. EW Swanton called him "tough, combative, grudging, shrewd". Greg Chappell said that "the first thing you noticed when you played against Ray was that he was interested in having a real game of cricket - he was trying to win the game from the first ball". But that wasn't the whole of Illingworth's story. It wasn't even the half of it.
Illingworth, who had first captained his country at the late age of 37, went on to become manager of Yorkshire, and a quarter of a century later, the "supremo" of the mid-'90s England team, a manager, chairman of selectors and strategist combined. It is as the latter that most younger fans, like myself, remember him: the man who promised that he had the answer to England's doldrums, but whose legacy was one of grumpy solipsism and dressing-room tension.
Back then he was a large man, one to whom the standard-issue tracksuit did no kindness. The man in front of me was trimmer. In fact, everything about him seemed more modest than I had expected -his house, his manner, the scope of his life now. We talked of his family - he and Shirley had become great-grandparents for the second time that week - and how his daughter lived in the house next door. He has lived in this village since he was four. The high street has barely changed in his lifetime; its buildings go back to the war.
A cloud burst over the conservatory. A few handfuls of hail threw themselves at the glass like popcorn. Illingworth looked up and tutted at the weather
Illingworth was seven when World War II broke out. The planes used to fly past his house on their way to bomb Liverpool. Wartime put paid to any cricket at his school - "all the fields were ploughed up". However, Farsley CC was lucky enough to have access to a horse. While there was no petrol for a mower, the horse could draw the cutters across the square, and Raymond and his friends - some of them evacuees - would head there to play games among themselves.
He was 13 when he started playing for the Farsley 1st XI; he left school a year later. His father had worked shifts at a munitions factory during the war, then returned to his cabinet-making business; Raymond was there to help him with the repairs, upholstery and French polishing. But it was hard to get timber, and Raymond was spending more and more time playing in the Yorkshire leagues. He was on the brink of the county side when he was called up for national service at 18.
I asked what his time in the RAF was like. "I got to play a lot of cricket." he grinned. "I played for the RAF and for the Combined Services, so I'd get four or five days off to travel for a match. And in winter I got time off to play football. So I did pretty well."
His bowler's keeper: Illingworth has a word with umpire Lou Rowan, who repeatedly pulled up John Snow (looking on at left) for hostile bowling in Perth in 1970
© Getty Images
His bowler's keeper: Illingworth has a word with umpire Lou Rowan, who repeatedly pulled up John Snow (looking on at left) for hostile bowling in Perth in 1970 © Getty Images
Yorkshire itself was a far tougher initiation. He arrived in a side dominated by senior players like Johnny Wardle, Bob Appleyard and Frank Lowson, who "to be honest weren't very pleasant. They were only out for themselves and they were very critical of the youngsters."
That experience taught Illingworth a lot about how not to manage a side. "It was discipline really. Norman Yardley was a lovely man but not tough enough with the ones that were awkward. He would say, 'Have a bowl that end' and I'd take my sweater off and Appleyard would come up and say, 'What you doing? I'm going to bowl.'
"And if you dropped a catch off their bowling, there was murder. As a youngster I was a better fielder than what they were but we had big crowds in those days - an ordinary county match had between 10 and 15,000, so there was a lot of pressure on you." I said it reminded me of Kevin Pietersen's story about a bullying culture in the England team a couple of years ago. "Very much so. And it doesn't work. Never will."
"I inherited Michael [Atherton]. I got on all right with him but he wouldn't have been my choice as captain. I don't think he had enough, what's the word now, imagination"
Illingworth discovered his own aptitude for leadership relatively late. After 17 years with Yorkshire, it was his move to Leicestershire that gave him his first taste of captaincy. "Happiest ten years of my life," he said. "Happiest for the wife, too." Shirley and he had been childhood sweethearts; they'd had two daughters. And while Shirley was long used to being a cricketer's wife, the divisive atmosphere at Yorkshire was never one she enjoyed - she and other players' wives were even refused permission to use the same toilets as the committeemen's wives.
Renting a house in Leicester and returning home to Farsley whenever he could, Illingworth guided Leicestershire to their first-ever trophy in 1972, and led them to four more over the next five years, including the County Championship in 1975. David Gower said Illingworth took him from a gifted teen to a professional in three short years. He also pointed out that while they were as socially different as could be, they always got on well.
It was early in that period that Illingworth got the England call, originally as a temporary replacement for Colin Cowdrey, out with an Achilles tendon injury. He ended up captaining the national side for five seasons.
Yorkshire frenemies Illingworth and Boycott in 1996
Rebeca Naden / © PA Photos
Yorkshire frenemies Illingworth and Boycott in 1996 Rebeca Naden / © PA Photos
Outside, a cloud burst over the conservatory. A few handfuls of hail threw themselves at the glass like popcorn. Illingworth looked up and tutted at the weather. Wearing tracksuit bottoms and a polo shirt, he struck me as much more casual, less formal, than I'd expected him to be. More affectionate too - there was a residual warmth in the way he talked about players like John Snow and Basil D'Oliveira, like the glow of a pavement on a late summer evening.
Mostly he liked to remember how he had managed them. The way he carefully talked to Snow after he'd been playing up in the field. The fact that Geoff Boycott had enjoyed the best batting spell of his life in Illingworth's tour party to Australia in 1970-71. How Chris Old had tried to pull out of a domestic semi-final with a leg injury and Illingworth had told him, "Bad luck, you're playing", whereupon Chilly had bowled his overs for next to nothing "and we never heard another word about it".
The stories all gilded the same basic outline - Illingworth as a no-nonsense figure whose tough love paid dividends. "That was my way of handling players," he told me. "I was honest with them and they all came under the same rule." I asked him how he thought he'd have handled Pietersen. "I'd have got on all right with Kevin," he said. "Because he was a good cricketer but he was also a strong cricketer mentally. I wouldn't have had a problem with that."
The bullish confidence of old was flooding back. His voice never rose above a gentle rumble, but his opinions were enlarging, his self-certainty revealing itself
I held my tongue; Illingworth's ability to get the best out of players as England captain (and later Yorkshire manager) had not followed him into the modern era. In the mid-'90s, when England were looking to climb out of a hole nearly a decade deep, the Test and County Cricket Board had come to Illingworth, whose thoughts, regularly broadcast in his job as a BBC pundit, were considered full of sound common sense. Illingworth accepted the position of chairman of selectors on the sole basis that he would have full control over the team in a managerial capacity too. He was, in the phrase newly coined by the press, England's "supremo".
But with great responsibility - as Spider-Man would have said if he had ever got involved in top-level sport - comes even greater scrutiny. From 1994 to 1996, under a new young captain, England's team delivered disappointingly little of what they had promised. While when he captained Illingworth had made it a point of both principle and pride to have the players he wanted, as chairman of selectors he did not repay the favour. And so England fans became used to discovering, in each new squad, the maddening whims of a man who seemed increasingly out of touch with the modern game.
The decision that always rankled with me was in Brisbane in 1994-95, overlooking Angus Fraser, indisputably England's sole precision weapon, for Martin McCague, who would end his Test career with six wickets at 65. "It looks like it wasn't a good decision," Illingworth allowed when I brought it up. "But what you don't know enough about is a bloke's temperament and guts. He got picked because he played well in England, but when he got out to Australia, it came over that he wasn't a very tough character. Maybe he wasn't handled right. I don't know. Maybe if I'd been captain of that side it would have been a good decision."
Illingworth took 122 wickets in 61 Tests with his offspin*
© PA Photos
Illingworth took 122 wickets in 61 Tests with his offspin* © PA Photos
This, then, was the Illingworth I had come to meet. The one stubbornly sceptical that he could be wrong in any regard; the one convinced that mistakes were other people's fault. And yet he had asked for - and got - total control of the team. I asked if he used to be frustrated that he couldn't captain them as well, direct what happened on the field. "Yeah," he said. "You spoke to the captain at lunchtime and teatime and things like that, but Athers wasn't the easiest bloke to speak to.
"I inherited Michael," he continued. "I got on all right with him but he wouldn't have been my choice as captain. I don't think he had enough, what's the word now, imagination, for me." And then, he added without a hint of irony: "Athers were a really stubborn man." He was in his stride; the indiscretions came pouring out. "The other selectors were very experienced England players and they all felt the same. Both of them said, you should get rid of him. I said if I do, there'll be a right bloody eruption."
It was as if Illingworth was reinhabiting the era as we spoke; the bullish confidence of old was flooding back. His voice never rose above a gentle rumble, but his opinions were enlarging, his self-certainty revealing itself piece by piece. There was his part in Darren Gough's stellar career - "I remember him playing his first match against New Zealand in Birmingham. He bowled really quick, and the chairman of the board said, 'Raymond, where did you find this bloke?'" A question about Devon Malcolm triggered both barrels ("I'm disappointed with him" is one of few printable quotes). The two have never healed the rift that emerged after the England tour of South Africa in 1995-96. He has an ongoing feud with his equally stubborn fellow Yorkshireman Boycott, which you suspect both heartily enjoy and will continue to do till the grave.
He laughed. It was a good-humoured laugh, the kind of laugh that said he knew he was living up to expectations
Sometimes Illingworth was willing to claim credit for more, perhaps, than was his due. He praised Mike Brearley as a "great" captain, then added: "That's cos he listened to me. When he got picked he asked me to go out for dinner with him, and I spent a bit of time with him talking about cricket. Nobody knows that." On the other hand, he seemed genuinely pleased to note Alastair Cook's improvement in the art of captaincy. "He was very dogmatic at one time, and I didn't rate him too highly, but he's thinking more about the game. I still don't rate him as that good a batter, though. Fred Trueman would've got him out for a pastime."
He laughed. It was a good-humoured laugh, the kind of laugh that said he knew he was living up to expectations. I asked who his own mentors were, and he named a couple of coaches at Yorkshire who had influenced him, but the person he really wanted to talk about was his idol, Len Hutton - a distant hero, one he played alongside yet never got to know. "He lived just up the Bradford road, not far from where we lived, and I didn't have my licence. So suddenly I were travelling with him to matches. He was a funny man was Len - slightly sarcastic all the time. He'd hear an argument in the dressing room and he'd throw a bit of wood on the fire to keep it going.
"He looked after himself, he was very much of a loner. He would stay at the Great Western and we'd be in the pubs down the road. And he always used to talk in riddles. Do you remember that song, 'Tulips from Amsterdam'?" I did. We sang a snatch of it together. "He used to be always whistling that."
Great-grandchildren on yer knee: a kinder, gentler Illy
© Emma John
Great-grandchildren on yer knee: a kinder, gentler Illy © Emma John
It seemed extraordinary to sit talking so familiarly about a cricketer who had made his Test debut before the Second World War. Then Illingworth's great-granddaughter arrived, in the arms of her mother. Illingworth took the baby gently into his lap, and softened to a companionable silence. Family was important to him. He had told me earlier, entirely unbidden, of the trauma they had experienced when his daughter Vicky, then 18, was dating Neil Hartley, who had recently separated from his wife and whom Illingworth had just appointed Yorkshire captain.
Certain gossips - Illingworth blamed the club's pro-Boycott faction - claimed Vicky was responsible for the break-up of Hartley's marriage, and photographers began to camp outside the house. In the end Illingworth had managed it all in his typically forthright manner, inviting a photographer in to take photos - then charging him for them.
Watching them pass the newborn from lap to lap, while her older brother, holding up a toy car, begged his great-grandfather's attention, it was clear that the family retained the kind of everyday closeness that has become old-fashioned in large parts of Britain. They still holiday together in Spain - Illlingworth bought a villa there in the '70s and one of his daughters now lives in another nearby.
This was a place where courtesy and decency still mattered, and where firmly held beliefs seemed comforting. A place where Illingworth made perfect sense
People criticising Illingworth used to write that he was a great cricket strategist who understood little outside of the game. They obviously hadn't seen him in his role as paterfamilias. I left the ageing patriarch playing with his great-grandson and walked up the hill towards the centre of the village. The building that had once housed his father's cabinet-making workshop was now a café offering lattes and pastries, although a glimpse in the window showed that the old brickwork and fireplace still stood.
Rows of modest stone houses that had stood for a century looked on benignly as a teenage boy walked his grandma to the supermarket. Cars slowed and stopped to let them cross: this was a place where courtesy and decency still mattered, and where firmly held beliefs seemed comforting. A place where Raymond Illingworth made perfect sense.
*June 9, 0630GMT: The photo erroneously mentioned that Illingworth was bowling against Rest of the World XI at Lord's in 1970
Emma John is the author of Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket
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