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Ray Illingworth: One of the most astute England captains of all time

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The death of Ray Illingworth at the age of 89 has robbed English cricket of one its most fertile minds — and the architect of one of its greatest triumphs.

Until his final days, he would happily tell the story of how he led England to victory in the 1970-71 Ashes, despite his team not winning a single lbw decision from Australia’s umpires. ‘They weren’t giving many caught-behinds either,’ he would say, burnishing the legend with the dry understatement of his native Yorkshire.

Yet by the end of a series England won 2-0 Illingworth was being chaired off the SCG by grateful team-mates — an image that deserves to go down in English cricket history.

The death of Ray Illingworth at the age of 89 has robbed English cricket of one its most fertile minds — and the architect of one of its greatest triumphs

The death of Ray Illingworth at the age of 89 has robbed English cricket of one its most fertile minds — and the architect of one of its greatest triumphs

Only three men remain who have led England to Ashes victory Down Under: Mike Brearley, who captained them to a unique 5-1 win in 1978-79 against an Australian side denuded by defections to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket; Mike Gatting, whose side won 2-1 in 1986-87; and Andrew Strauss, who presided over a 3-1 triumph in 2010-11.

Yet Illingworth would have needed little encouragement to point out that he had trumped them all, and everyone before him, too. No England captain before or since has come away from Australia after a series of more than three Tests without losing a single one.

It was a characteristic stat, since Illingworth, who conceded just 1.91 runs an over with his canny off-breaks during a 61-Test career stretching from 1958 to 1973, was loathe to give much away. As if to prove the point, England lost only five of his 31 Tests in charge.

Until his final days, Illingworth would happily tell the story of how he led England to victory in the 1970-71 Ashes

Until his final days, Illingworth would happily tell the story of how he led England to victory in the 1970-71 Ashes

He was not the world’s greatest all-rounder: his Test batting average of 23 and bowling average of 31 would have been better off in reverse. But the adjectives that attached themselves to him across three decades at first-class level — beginning and ending with Yorkshire, with 10 summers at Leicestershire in between — told their own story.

He was cussed, shrewd and canny, and usually able to get the most out of his players — even if Yorkshire’s refusal to offer contracts of more than a year drove him to Grace Road, where in 1975 he captained Leicestershire to their first championship title.

Among his charges that summer was an 18-year-old David Gower, who told Sportsmail that Illingworth was ‘one of the most astute captains, of both his era and of all time. But before he put his faith in you, you had to earn it’.

Gower added: ‘He was very much my mentor in my first years at Leicestershire. His role, as he put it, was to turn me from a gifted amateur into a gifted professional. I owe him much for his backing and advice.’

Ian Chappell, whose first full Ashes series as Australian captain was in 1972, when a 2-2 draw against Illingworth’s team meant the urn remained with England, remembered an opponent who was always ‘trying to win from the first ball’.

He added: ‘I learned from him how to captain a side in the most difficult circumstances — when you needed to save runs but not hand over control. He would pull back a little bit but always let you know he was trying to get you out.’

A victorious England team carry their captain Ray Illingworth off the field after clinching the Ashes by a 62 run winning margin in 1971

A victorious England team carry their captain Ray Illingworth off the field after clinching the Ashes by a 62 run winning margin in 1971

Trevor Bailey, one of his predecessors as a streetsmart England all-rounder who made the most of his ability, once observed that Illingworth ‘only liked to gamble on certainties’.

It was no coincidence that England won close matches under his leadership: by 30 runs against West Indies at Headingley in 1969, by 62 in the decisive 1970-71 Test at Sydney, by 25 against Pakistan at Headingley in 1971 and by 38 against New Zealand at Trent Bridge in 1973.

Above all, he loved cricket, leaving school in Farsley at the age of 14 with, it was said, a batting average of 100 and a bowling average of two. A seamer before he turned to off-breaks, he was still in his teens when he first played for Yorkshire, scoring 56 against Hampshire in 1951.

Between 1959 and 1968, he helped the club win seven championships, spectacularly knocking Surrey from their perch. 

And when Yorkshire were beset by one of their periodic bouts of infighting, he returned to manage them in 1979. It was typical of Illingworth that, three summers later, only a fortnight shy of his 50th birthday, he was playing once more, and guiding them to their first 40-over John Player League title. He finished with over 24,000 first-class runs and more than 2,000 wickets.

Illingworth’s native acumen was one side of the coin. On the other was an unshakable self-belief. At Sydney in 1970-71, after a ruckus with umpire Lou Rowan, he led his team off the field when angry spectators hurled cans and bottles on to the outfield.

Eight years earlier, as an Ashes tourist under Ted Dexter, he had upset the venerable Colin Cowdrey by objecting to his preference for a leisurely 11am start at nets. Their relationship never fully healed.

In 1993, Illingworth was appointed England’s chairman of selectors, quickly becoming team manager too. It did not go according to plan.

Illingworth (batting at the crease) scored 1,836 Test runs at an average of 23.24 for England

Illingworth (batting at the crease) scored 1,836 Test runs at an average of 23.24 for England

After taking the credit for sparing his captain Mike Atherton greater punishment for the ‘Dirt in the Pocket’ affair at Lord’s in 1994, he had a high-profile fallout with fast bowler Devon Malcolm at the end of the 1995-96 Test series in South Africa. He and Atherton did not see eye to eye, and the tabloids dubbed him ‘Illytollah’.

The truth was he had lost touch with the modern game, not that he would ever admit it. It was better, perhaps, to recall the smart man-manager who, as captain, was one of the few to get the best out of the temperamental Sussex fast bowler John Snow, his spearhead during that imperishable winter of 1970-71.

‘He harboured and nurtured his bowlers like no other captain I have served,’ said Snow, who responded to his captain’s sympathetic probings with an Ashes-clinching haul of 31 wickets. Even now, Illingworth is probably recalling his own part in each one.

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