In cricket statistics serve as the backbone of many individual stories. But in the case of Ray Illingworth, who has died aged 89 after a battle with cancer, the man was always better understood through the prism of his unyielding personality.
That is not to say Illingworth is poorly served by his numbers — 61 Tests, 122 wickets and a couple of centuries, not to mention a three-decade first-class career boasting more than 24,000 first-class runs and 2,000 scalps.
Illingworth the player was shy of true elite status, but as a solid lower middle-order batsman, infuriatingly miserly off-spinner and specialist gully fielder, he was never far from the action.
But such feats are window dressing when assessing his wider impact on cricket in England. At his best he will be remembered as one of the nation’s finest captains — a single-minded leader with an appetite for authority and broad enough shoulders to bear it.
It helped to inspire the many tributes to him posted on Christmas Day. ‘It’s always incredibly sad to lose a person who has given so much to the English game, and to the sport of cricket in general,’ Tom Harrison, the England and Wales Cricket Board chief executive, said.
Ray Illingworth was a true giant of English cricket and was one of England’s finest captains
‘Ray was a superb cricketer, and his deep love, passion and knowledge for the game meant he continued to contribute long after his playing days had finished.’
A statement from Yorkshire, a county whom he served with distinction, described him as the ‘club’s most successful captain’. ‘Our thoughts are with Ray’s family and the wider Yorkshire family who held Ray so dear to their hearts #OneRose,’ it read.
In Illingworth’s second act as selector, coach and over-arching ‘supremo’ of the national side, the same qualities engulfed both him and those who played and worked for him. But to others, not least those involved with his beloved Farsley Cricket Club, he will forever be cherished as the life-long club man who prepared wickets well into his 70s and could not resist arriving to paint the crease even after a heart attack slowed him down in 2011.
In his home life he was a doting husband to childhood sweetheart Shirley, father to Diane and Vicky and later both grandfather and great-grandfather. Shirley died in March after her own struggle with cancer, which led Illingworth to offer his support for law changes around assisted dying. I don’t want to have the last 12 months that my wife had,’ he said last month. ‘She had a terrible time going from hospital to hospital and in pain.
Illingworth (batting at the crease) scored 1,836 Test runs at an average of 23.24 for England
He was a infuriatingly miserly off-spinner and specialist gully fielder – never far from the action
‘I believe in assisted dying. The way my wife was, there was no pleasure in life in the last 12 months, and I don’t see the point of living like that, to be honest.’
Born in one of Yorkshire’s cricketing hotbeds, Pudsey, on June 8, 1932, Illingworth was seven when World War Two took hold. In the school team at 13, rising through the ranks at Farsley soon after and picked by Yorkshire Colts shortly after his 17th birthday, his path was clear.
A period of national service with the RAF proved little more than a minor detour and his fondest memory of that time came from representing the Combined Services’ cricket team.
After starting his professional career in a Yorkshire dressing room dominated by big characters, Illingworth grew in stature as a fixture of the dominant White Rose side which swept seven county championships in 10 seasons between 1959 and 1968.
Illingworth was also a man who knew his own worth and so when his request for the security of a three-year contract at Headingley was turned down — standard contracts were 12 months in length — he accepted Leicestershire’s offer to become captain in 1969.
Within four weeks, when Colin Cowdrey tore an Achilles, he was captain of England. Within a further 18 months, he was an Ashes-winning one on Australian soil. As England captain, he won 12 and lost only five of his 31 Tests.
In 1975, Leicestershire won their maiden Championship title. He also oversaw four one-day trophy successes at Grace Road.
Illingworth leveraged power on and off the pitch, demanding more concessions than ever before from the board and more input in selection than the job typically entailed. For those who made his cut, he called for outright obedience and a clear commitment to his game plan. If that caused a couple of bumps in the road, notably with the likes of Geoffrey Boycott and John Snow, it was frequently a productive arrangement for all concerned.
The era peaked with an away Ashes success against Bill Lawry’s Australia in 1970-71, arguably his career’s stand-out achievement. ‘He was a brilliant tactical captain,’ Boycott wrote when asked to recall the famous 2-0 series victory. ‘Ray did not follow the ball or wait for things to happen, he tried to work out the opposition beforehand and stay two steps ahead of the game.’
Illingworth made a remarkable return to Yorkshire colours at the age of 50. Originally appointed team manager, he eased himself back into the playing roster and ended up with a John Player League winners’ medal.
That would have proved a fitting finale had he not been tempted back into the spotlight as England’s new chairman of selectors in 1994.
Illingworth became the chairman of the board of selectors for England while Mike Atherton was captain
Illingworth (left) stands watches on along with John Edrich (right) during an England Test match with the West Indies
He joined what was essentially a sinking ship and hopes were high that his astute reading of the game and simplicity of approach would put things right.
Instead, his tenure was a debacle. Most obviously, he clashed on every conceivable level with captain Michael Atherton, declining to award the young Lancastrian the same powers he had claimed when holding the role.
The pair were generationally and temperamentally incompatible and Illingworth’s eye for a player appeared more than once to be offering only blurred vision.
In his three years in post he accrued enough responsibilities to warrant the ‘supremo’ moniker, but as results and relationships teetered off a cliff — most notably an ill-tempered and ill-advised public rebuke of paceman Devon Malcolm in South Africa — there was nobody with whom he could share the blame.