Salute to Yorkshire CCC’s Ray Illingworth - one of England Test cricket’s finest captains

THE worst year in the history of Yorkshire County Cricket Club is ending, appropriately enough, with some sad news.

By Chris Waters
Sunday, 26th December 2021, 5:00 pm
Updated Sunday, 26th December 2021, 11:23 pm
Legends: From left, Brian Close, Ray Illingworth, Geoff Boycott and Fred Trueman.
Legends: From left, Brian Close, Ray Illingworth, Geoff Boycott and Fred Trueman.

Ray Illingworth – player, captain, coach, administrator, commentator, even groundsman at his beloved Farsley CC – died on Christmas Eve at the age of 89.

The mastermind of England’s 1970-71 Ashes triumph had been undergoing radiotherapy for esophageal cancer and, as recently as last month, poignantly said that he did not wish to suffer in the way that his wife, Shirley, had suffered before her own death from cancer earlier this year.

“I don’t want to have the last 12 months that my wife had,” said Illingworth. “She had a terrible time going from hospital to hospital and in pain.

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“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.”

Illingworth was mercifully spared that fate as he joined his former team-mates Fred Trueman and Brian Close in the celestial pavilion to leave only one of the ‘Four Greatest Living Yorkshiremen’, as they were so often called, in our midst.

Sir Geoffrey Boycott, 81, is still going strong, having conquered his own much-publicised struggle with cancer.

But, slowly but surely, the legends are leaving – childhood heroes for so many of our readers, who can picture them still in their glorious pomp.

Illingworth, who scored just under 25,000 first-class runs and took just over 2,000 wickets with his miserly off-spin, did not quite have the larger-than-life presence that the other ‘FGLY’ possessed.

He did not stand suicidally at short-leg like Brian Close, for example, and make light of getting hit on the head to the extent that it became something of a national joke, even tickling the fancy of the great comedian Eric Morecambe.

Nor did he fill the senses in the way of a young Freddie Trueman, unruly mop of jet-black hair flying hither and thither, as he terrified batsmen and knocked down their stumps. “On your way, sunshine...”

Nor was he, for all his outspokenness and talent for trenchant observation, quite as candid and compelling as Sir Geoffrey Boycott in that regard, a man absurdly deemed surplus to requirements by the now almost un-listen-able-to Test Match Special.

‘Illy’, indeed, was neither a great batsman, a great bowler nor a great fielder – just a great cricketer when the sum of his parts was collectively evaluated.

He was, however, a very great captain, losing only five of his 31 Tests in charge and squeezing every last drop of effort and skill from his team while at the same time draining such qualities from the bowels of his opponents.

Words like ‘shrewd’ and ‘canny’ attached themselves to ‘Illy’, a man who knew more about cricket than there probably is to know.

He had a confrontational side to him and was stubborn too – who wouldn’t be having grown up in the Yorkshire dressing room of the 1950s and 1960s, a tough school in which shrinking violets withered by the wayside?

The son of a cabinet maker and joiner, Illingworth was part of a truly great Yorkshire team that won seven County Championships in the space of 10 seasons, an achievement that will surely never be matched.

He was Close’s right-hand man on the field, supplying the tactical counterpoint to his captain’s gambler’s instinct, and he finally captained Yorkshire himself in 1982, by which time he was 50 years young, leading them to the Sunday League title the following year.

Of course, Yorkshire being Yorkshire, they got rid of him after the 1968 season when he had the temerity to request a longer contract. Illingworth went off to Leicestershire, leading them to their first Championship title and to several one-day trophies.

Yesterday, one of those who played under him at Grace Road paid affectionate respect.

“I must pay tribute to my now late captain,” tweeted David Gower, the former Leicestershire and England batsman.

“Ray Illingworth was one of the great captains. His job was to ‘turn me from a gifted amateur into a gifted pro’. Jury still out on that, but I will be eternally grateful for his support in my formative days.”

Others, though, were less enamoured - if forever respectful of his cricketing achievements.

Illingworth clashed with such as the former England captain Mike Atherton and the fast bowler Devon Malcolm when he served as head coach and chief selector of the England team, his authoritarian streak not to everyone’s liking.

Often, it seemed as though it was Illingworth’s way or the highway; the art of compromise was perhaps not among his plethora of qualities.

But that was tribute to his cricketing intelligence and confidence also. As a cricketer in the round, and certainly as a captain, he deserves to be remembered in radiant terms.

“Absolute LEGEND of a man you will be sorely missed by many!” tweeted Farsley CC of the Pudsey-born star.

“RIP Raymond Illingworth.

“Cricket has lost a great.”