Astute, abrasive and admired – Ray Illingworth merits the engrossing biography ‘Yorkshire Grit’

The first biography of Ray Illingworth for nearly 50 years explores a capacity for seeking out trouble with his blunt nature but winning over doubters with his batting, bowling and leadership skills. The story of one of England’s most successful captains is reviewed by Eric Brown…


It was often said about Ray Illingworth that he could turn up for a match, glance at the pitch and say something like: “It will start to turn after tea on day two.” He was invariably correct.

He could read players as comfortably as he read pitches and that made him an ideal leader of cricket teams.

Illingworth’s main achievement must be as the first England skipper to regain the Ashes in Australia since Douglas Jardine nearly 40 years earlier. Then he retained the urn in England.

However, he remained a deeply controversial figure during a lifetime in cricket which encompassed county championships with Yorkshire and Leicestershire as well as the England captaincy and later controversial appointments as England team manager and chairman of selectors.

Matters rarely ran smoothly for long with Illingworth. His brusque attitude and reluctance to pull punches often rubbed players and officials up the wrong way.

He said what he thought and didn’t care much about the consequences. Illingworth demanded his own way and fought hard to get it.

For these reasons, he was never as popular as his record suggested he should be. During his career, off-spinner Illingworth claimed over 2,000 wickets and hit 25,000 runs. Only nine others have performed that feat. He recorded the first-class double of 100 or more wickets and 1,000 runs in a season five times.

Yet his abrasive nature made enemies on the pitch and in committee rooms. He had rows with Geoff Boycott, Ian Botham and John Snow and could not get on with representatives of the old-guard England amateurs like Colin Cowdrey.

Most of these disagreements were soon smoothed over but a serious dispute with Devon Malcolm ended up in the courts.

Yet no one questioned his all-round abilities. Illingworth started in club cricket as a solid, hard-hitting batsman and seam-up mediocre medium pacer. He discovered his aptitude for spin almost by accident and never looked back.

Ray Illingworth chats through his career with Richie Benaud

Astute and clever, Illingworth took to captaincy like a duck to water. Post-war, only perhaps Mike Brearley could rival him for out-thinking opponents as England’s captain and he had the benefit of facing Australian teams weakened by the Packer circus.

Basil D’Oliveira spoke for many when he said: “Illy was the best skipper I ever had. He was always concerned about the welfare of his players. No skipper ever got more from his players than Ray.”

Kent and England wicketkeeper Alan Knott was not a great Illy fan, yet admitted: “Ray gave me the feeling we could beat any opposition no matter the position of the match. He was always prepared to fight on.”

His England career might never have got off the ground. Yorkshire colleague Mike Padgett was driving Illingworth’s Triumph Herald back from a match one day when they stopped at a red light and another vehicle rammed them from behind. The collision was serious enough to shunt both men onto the floor but they escaped injury.

Bred in the tough and unforgiving world of Yorkshire League cricket, Illingworth used his background to good effect by arguing opponents into submission on the field and in committee rooms.

He demanded autonomy and got it, picking the England side led by Mike Atherton with whom he established an uneasy truce.

Love him or hate him, and there were many in both camps, Illingworth’s record in county and International cricket – especially as a leader – can hardly be rivalled. He remains even now the only England captain never to lose a Test in Australia in a five-Test series.

Nothing demonstrates his love of cricket more accurately than his final jobs in the game. Eager to give something back to the sport he once dominated, he returned in his seventies to first club Farsley where he rose at 7am to lovingly water and mow the square before rolling it for junior and senior matches.

Mark Peel’s engrossing Illingworth biography – the first for nearly 50 years – delves deep into Illingworth’s many verbal jousts with team colleagues and officials, discusses his tactical skills, his abrasive character and achievements in a remarkable all-round cricket career spanning more than 50 years.

Yorkshire Grit, The Life of Ray Illingworth by Mark Peel is published by Pitch Publishing price £25.

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