‘The respect of everyone’: how Ray Illingworth won the Ashes

‘The respect of everyone’: how Ray Illingworth won the Ashes

As Joe Root has discovered, an Ashes tour to Australia can unspool as precipitously as a ball of wool bounding down a fire escape. Five England teams have won since Bodyline: Andrew Strauss’s sprinkler squad in 2010-11, Mike Gatting’s 1986-87 “can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” crew, Mike Brearley’s 1978-79 outfit who beat a Packer-weakened Australia, Len Hutton’s 1954-55 side spearheaded by Frank Tyson and the team led by Ray Illingworth, who regained the Ashes in 1970-71.

Illingworth, who died on Christmas Eve at the age of 89, was one of England’s shrewdest leaders, tactically brilliant and able to coax brilliance from tricky customers such as Geoff Boycott and John Snow.

Ian Chappell, who watched him at work during that series and took over the Australian captaincy in the crucial seventh Test, considers him the best England captain he played against. “I learned a lot from his captaincy,” he says. “Mostly by observation. He handled Snow better than anyone else and, not that Dennis [Lillee] was John Snow, seeing Ray work with John helped me with Dennis.

“There is a lot of bullshit talked about giving players pep talks and so on, but I could see Ray and John had an understanding. When it really mattered, and the battle was elevated, John would perform.

“I learned you always had to keep attacking and even when you knew you had to pull back a bit, you still had to let the batsman know you were on him. Ray always had someone in an attacking position and you’d think, what’s going on, I’m doing all right here? That’s not easy to do as captain.”

England did not travel without baggage. Illingworth was knocking on the door of 40 and his squad’s average age was 30, dubbed Dad’s Army and the worst side to land on Australian shores before the plane touched down.

The side was beset by injuries and there was a divide between the sharp-eyed Illingworth and the tour manager, David Clark, a former Kent amateur captain, a farmer and a supporter of Colin Cowdrey, who had been passed over for the captaincy after injury and never really came to terms with his demotion.

Ken Shuttleworth was on his first tour. The Lancashire fast bowler took five for 47 on Test debut at Brisbane and played in the second Test before tearing an adductor in his thigh during an up-country game in Wagga Wagga. He remembers the tension well.

“We had a problem with the manager, Ray was at loggerheads with him all the time. It was a split tour really, between north and south. I think Ray was quoted at the time that he thought Clark was more on Australia’s side than ours.

“However, it was a happy touring party. People got on with each other, everyone performed and everyone pulled together, Ray had the respect of everyone. He had a tremendous cricket brain and he always backed his players – whatever he said went.”

Shuttleworth roomed with Snow, who was outstanding, finishing with 31 wickets – more than double that of the leading Australian, John Gleeson. “We talked a lot together, he played a lot of Neil Diamond all the time on a little tape recorder – it drove me daft. He had his differences with the manager and it was always John who finished the team meeting off with an awkward question.”

It was an exhausting tour for England, with long months away from home – Shuttleworth can still remember the fatigue that came with bowling eight-ball overs in the 100F heat of Perth – and they did not win an lbw decision in the series. They played four-day state games as well as travelling out to the sticks on promotional duties.

England pulled ahead with victory in the fourth Test after a series of draws, only to find the organisers had tacked a seventh Test on to the end of the tour to make up for the abandoned Test in Melbourne (which gave way to the first one-day international). This gave Australia a chance to pull even in the contest, as well as the promise of a full match fee, while England’s players were instructed to do it for love.

Illingworth was not happy and sent away Clark away “with a flea in his ear” while eventually squeezing a £25 fee per player out of the MCC assistant secretary, Donald Carr. The Test was marred when Terry Jenner ducked into a bouncer from Snow and Illingworth took his players from the field after a section of the crowd started chucking bottles.

On the last morning Australia needed another 100 to win with five wickets in hand and Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh at the crease, but they collapsed, giving England a 62-run victory. Illingworth was carried from the field by his delighted team.

Chappell remembers a typical Yorkshireman who did not waste words, but whose company he enjoyed over a few beers. “The best way to describe him is as an honest cricketer. He made you fight for his wicket, usually at No 8, and you especially felt that when there was a match on the line.

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“He wasn’t an outstanding bowler but you always knew you were in a battle. He had a lot of pride in his own and his team’s performances – one of the things that is most galling about the current England team is that you wonder how much pride there is. There was a lot of fire in Ray’s side – that is what I came to think of as Test cricket.”