‘Ray Illingworth was arguably England’s finest captain and true cricket royalty’

Ray Illingworth was arguably the greatest England captain of them all.

Half a century ago, he regained the Ashes in Australia despite home umpires not upholding a single lbw decision in the England bowlers' favour in the entire series.

To the very end, he refused to call them cheats. But he rightly regarded that raiding party on the old penal colony as his greatest achievement.

Illingworth, whose death at the age of 89 was announced on Christmas Day, was cricket royalty – a dogged batsman and resourceful, off-spinner but above all a master tactician.

It remains a mystery, and a stain on the honours system, that he was never knighted for his services to English cricket.

Chaired off by jubilant team-mates, who trusted him like a general, at the Sydney Cricket Ground when the urn had been repatriated in 1970-71, he was bold enough to take his players off the pitch when they were pelted with bottles.

Fast bowler John Snow had been warned for intimidatory bowling after he struck Aussie tail-ender Terry Jenner, and when England's spearhead was accosted by an aggressive spectator, leaning over he picket fence on the boundary, Illingworth led his team off.

As if to underscore the home-town favouritism, umpire Lou Rowan threatened to abandon the match and award Australia victory by forfeit if England did not resume promptly – which would have handed the home side the Ashes.

“I said we would only go back if the outfield was cleared and we were able to play the game unhindered,” said Illingworth. “Our tour manager, David Clark, wasn’t happy with us and leaned on us to get back on the field, but what I did was right. I asked him whose side he was on.

“In the second innings, Snowy broke his hand trying to take a catch on the boundary, but we still managed to win the Test by 62 runs and take the series 2-0.


“I never saw Boycs (Sir Geoffrey Boycott) bat better than he did on that tour – and I never saw Snowy bowl faster. That was the only home series of five matches or more where the Aussies had never won a single match. We should make that kind of history more often.”

That was also the tour on which the first-ever one-day international was played – to make up for a Test match being wiped out by incessant rain in Melbourne.

Many years later, when Lord's procured replica shirts for former players with the numbers in serial order, Illingworth and Boycott argued who should have No.001 in the sequence like two Yorkshiremen squabbling over a parking space.

“As captain in our inaugural limited-overs international, I argued I should be No.001 in one-day cricket, but Boycs was adamant. 'No, no, I opened the batting, I faced the first ball, I should have No.1,' he insisted.

“Then I realised I went in at fifth wicket down, which would make me No.007. I don't know if Sean Connery or Daniel Craig would agree, but it's not a bad way to be remembered.”

The last time I saw Illy was when I called round to his home in Farsley to discuss England's prospects of glory in the 2019 World Cup. He was proudly modelling his 007 shirt.

Raymond Illingworth won three consecutive county championship titles with Yorkshire in the 1960s and quit the Tykes when the bickering became too much.

He returned to lead them to the Sunday League title in 1983, at the age of 51. One of their games was a 10-wicket romp against Northamptonshire in my home town, and I told him I was there.

Illy reeled off the names of the batsmen he dismissed and his bowling figures as if it had happened yesterday.

He had a photographic memory – he never forgot anything. And we should never forget Raymond Illingworth's contribution to English cricket.

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