Ray Illingworth was one of England's most successful captains, as well as being a top-quality off-spinner with batting good enough to be considered an all-rounder. Bowling from a modest angled run, Illingworth approached the crease at a flat-footed trot, bowling with an upright action from close to the stumps. He varied pace and flight well, and his arm-ball was particularly effective, gaining him many wickets to slip catches as the batsman played for spin that was not there. With the bat he was unspectacular, and certainly not stylish, but was very effective. Many of his best innings were played when his team was struggling, where his determination not to throw his wicket away made him a tough opponent. A tough, uncompromising man, he thought deeply about the game, and translated his insight into imaginative and successful captaincy.
Born in that cradle of Yorkshire cricket, Pudsey, his talent as an off-spinner was recognised early and he made his debut for his native county when under 20. He was capped in 1955, and continued success at the county level earned him a Test debut in 1958. He played all five Tests on his first tour, to the West Indies in 1959/60, but struggled, taking only five wickets. After failing to impress in four Tests against South Africa at home, he was in and out of the team for a number of years, contending for a place with several other useful off-spinners. A fine series against India in 1967 finally established him in the team, but at the age of 35 his long-term career prospects looked poor. 1969 marked a renaissance - frustrated at his home club, he took up the offer of the Leicestershire captaincy, and when Cowdrey was injured he took over as England captain. He had immediate success in both positions, leading England to a series wins over West Indies and New Zealand. His batting seemed to be transformed by the captaincy, and he became a very capable number seven. There was no tour that winter and in 1970, Illingworth led England against a Rest of the World side after the cancellation of the South Africa tour. In 1970/71 he recorded his greatest triumph, leading England to Ashes victory, making useful runs, taking wickets, and above all captaining superbly. He developed an intense loyalty from his players, and supported them to the hilt, even to the extent of incurring the wrath of spectators and umpires alike by leading them off the field after spectator trouble in Sydney. More success followed, with series wins over New Zealand and Pakistan, and retaining the Ashes at home in 1972. A loss against India in 1971 was tempered by his second Test century and bowling success. Age was beginning to tell however, and, after England were comprehensively beaten by the West Indies in 1973, he stepped down as England captain. He was still bowling as well as ever, and Leicestershire benefited from his return, winning the Championship in 1975.
He retired in 1978 and returned to Yorkshire as team manager. He became much involved in the internal feuding that split the club for years, his relationship with Boycott being particularly difficult. In 1982 he returned to captain Yorkshire at the age of 50, and despite finishing last in the Championship that year he stayed on to lead them to the Sunday League title the next season before finally retiring. He remained at Yorkshire as manager until 1984, and later took on a similar position for England. His reign as England chairman of selectors and manager was stormy, and not marked by success, his relationships with players being strained at times. He stepped down after three difficult years in 1997.
He was awarded the CBE for services to cricket, and was also made an honorary member of the MCC.
(Article: Copyright © 2003 Dave Liverman)