Cricketing Role Model

27th December 2021

Ray Illingworth, who died last Friday at the age of 89, was my most significant cricketing role model. Here, I draw on a couple of short passages from An Ordinary Spectator to describe the impact that he had on this impressionable young cricketer in his early teens.

At the time of the 1968 Headingley Roses match, I was thirteen:

“The match… followed a similar pattern to the corresponding game of two years earlier. Yorkshire bowled Lancashire out cheaply and then built up a big first innings lead, this time to win by an innings. For me, the striking thing about the Yorkshire innings was how, after a couple of the front-line batsmen had made big scores… the middle order also weighed in with some heavy scoring.

Ray Illingworth was a key figure here: the test match off spinner who could come in at number eight, as he did on this occasion, and play shots like a number three or four. I had the same impressed reaction to his dual skills, with bat and ball, as I had had with Ken Taylor’s ability to play more than one sport at a high level.

Illingworth’s case was closer to home, however: my position in the [school] under 13s team was as an off-spinning batsman who also captained the side. I was not to know at that time – although, like everybody else, I did not have long to wait – that Illingworth’s prowess as a captain would also be revealed”.

Illingworth’s departure from Yorkshire to Leicestershire later that summer was given due prominence in the Yorkshire Post, which was apparently content to give near-equal weight to world geopolitics and the machinations of the county cricket club in presenting the main news stories. The front page headlines for the 21st August edition were “4.00am: Russians invade Czechoslovakia” and “Illingworth can go, says Mr Sellers”. (The timing of the pronouncement by the chairman of the Yorkshire CCC selection committee was not given).

In August of the following summer, the 37 year-old Illingworth captained his new county against Yorkshire in a John Player Sunday League match at Scarborough.

“I watched Illingworth closely. He batted at number 7 and made a quickfire 30. He bowled when he thought it was the right time and the Yorkshire batsmen would not score heavily off him. He positioned himself in the field so that he was not called on to do any acrobatic fielding. He switched his other bowlers cleverly and moved his fielders around so that the favoured scoring shots of the Yorkshire batsmen were cut off.

Through his leadership, Leicestershire were always in control of the match and they won without being seriously threatened. Illingworth was the epitome of a professional cricketer, schooled in the Bradford League and the hard Yorkshire changing room of the 1950s, and, to me looking on from the stand, it showed”.

Elsewhere in An Ordinary Spectator, when I report on my recollections of watching Bobby Moore play an immaculate game for West Ham United against Leeds United in a League Cup tie at Elland Road in October 1971, I note the parallel characteristics of the contemporary leaders in England’s premier sports:

“…both captains of their country; both with a mastery of their respective sport’s essential skills; both in full control on the field of play…”

Ray Illingworth and Bobby Moore. Did we realise at the time how lucky we were?

Raymond Illingworth 1932-2021. RIP

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