Episode 87: Wisden’s obituary section, a tapestry of cricket, by their master weaver Steven Lynch

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Year after year the obituary section of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack is one of its most admired features. Its tributes to people who have contributed to cricket mean a great deal to their families, friends and followers. But they also form a tapestry of cricket itself. They capture its varied settings and moods: they reveal why millions of people in all walks of life across the world have been drawn to the game. Even the briefest typically contain the germ of a novel. Their long-serving compiler is Wisden’s international editor, Steven Lynch, who discusses the 2022 edition as the guest in the latest cricket-themed podcast by Peter Oborne and Richard Heller.

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Steven explains how he and his team capture the great variety of cricketing lives in the section. Former first-class and Test cricketers are included automatically and are derived from Cricinfo and other websites, but others, especially those of cricket-lovers famous in other fields, are spotted from many other sources including social media or volunteered by families and friends.

Steven explains his own challenge in writing the obituary of Prince Philip  (or Edinburgh, The Prince Philip, Duke of, KG, KT, OM, OBE, AC, QSO, PC, placed in the democracy of death between Mr Dutta of India and Mr Fernando of Sri Lanka). Assuming that readers would know who he was, Steven picked out his long service to cricket: “a useful off-spinner and attacking batsman” at school… recruiting famous players into his own special teams… two Presidencies of the MCC… his eloquent Wisden tribute to ‘The Pleasures of Cricket’ … frequent visits to Lord’s, once slipping in anonymously at the North Gate to avoid protocol and flummery… in great age opening the new Warner Stand with the proud boast “You are watching the world’s most experienced plaque unveiler.”

Conversely, Matthew Engel’s brilliant tribute to the great cricket writer, David Foot, had mentioned many non-cricketing aspects of his career, including ghosting the memoirs of a lavatory attendant in Bristol’s twilight zone.

Steven reviews the overall number of deaths, slightly reduced from last year, although the section itself, swelled by tributes to three great cricketers, Ted Dexter, Ray Illingworth and Alan Davidson, is longer. Six were attributed to Covid, compared to fifteen the previous year. Three died from violence, including a young Afghan cricketer in a bomb attack near Kabul airport, two from suicide, one, an umpire, in a shocking on-field accident. In line with obituaries elsewhere, Steven said that Wisden’s had become more forthcoming about personal problems in subject’s lives, citing especially the New Zealand all-rounder Bruce Taylor, which mentions gambling addiction, a jail sentence for embezzlement, divorce and estrangement from his children. After rebuilding his life, he lost a leg to gangrene.

Steven explains that the section continued to try to redress past neglect of women’s contributions to cricket. It therefore carried an obituary of Countess Baldwin, who died in 1945. Her husband Stanley, a future Prime Minister, fell in love watching her score a fifty.  Years later, when he was coping with the General Strike, she organized a meeting of the celebrated women’s White Heather Club at 10 Downing Street. Other women in the section include Jim Laker’s widow, who died last year aged 102, an Austrian lady to whom cricket was often a mystery, Chandra, daughter of the great C K Nayudu and the first woman to commentate on Indian cricket, and Eileen Ash, who died aged 110 after playing Tests before the Second World War. Probably the only MI6 operative to have played top-flight cricket, Eileen’s obituary records a remarkable list of achievements after her hundredth birthday.

There are several male centenarians in the section, including the cricket-loving Captain Tom Moore, but also a number of cricketers who died tragically young with their promise unfulfilled. Steven explains how they came to the attention of his team, along with stalwarts of their local clubs and others lesser known, such as the late Mr Cassiem, who, starting at the age of 12 in apartheid conditions, had been a popular ice cream salesman at Newlands cricket club for 55 years.

Stephen discusses the obituaries of Ray Illingworth (by Richard Whitehead, former Times obituary editor) and Ted Dexter, by himself. Dexter wrote two autobiographies: Steven believes that the gap between them might be the longest in literary history. He was particularly proud of his achievements after retirement as a player and those outside cricket, as Dexter himself had confirmed as a guest of the podcast in one of his final interviews. https://chiswickcalendar.co.uk/episode-32-the-thrill-returns-of-ted-dexter-at-the-crease/

Illingworth’s achievements as England captain were highlighted by a striking statistic: he went longer without defeat than any other new appointee.

A particularly moving entry among former Test cricketers was that of Alan Igglesden, victim of a brain tumour, who raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for other victims.

This year’s obituary section appears to contain a higher number than before of writers, commentators and photographers: Steven says that this was not deliberate and that some years seem to produce a cluster of people in different categories. Apart from the penetrating tributes to John Woodcock (another by Richard Whitehead, who had known him well), Martin Johnson and David Foot, Steven noted Ken Lawrence (a newspaper man altogether too candid as PRO for the Test and County Cricket Board) and a much troubled life of Steve Whiting of The Sun.

Finally Steven explains the selection of those famous for reasons other than cricket, including Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Greaves, Charlie Watts, Bunny Wailer and A Q Khan. In former times, Wisden obituaries of such people used to concentrate on cricket and mention their main achievements as an afterthought (as for Samuel Beckett). Now, in line with obituaries elsewhere, they give a balanced summary while explaining the subjects’ connexion with cricket. Steven explains how difficult it was to stand up the story of Tutu being refused admission to Lord’s for not wearing a tie, and the grudging admission of his dog collar. More seriously, the tribute highlights his Spirit of Cricket lecture, the only one delivered by a non-cricketer until that of Stephen Fry last year.

You can purchase Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2022 here: wisden.com/shop/wisden-cricketers-almanack-2022-hardback

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Previous Episode – Episode 86: Wisden 2022, the global publishing event of the year, and its editor Lawrence Booth

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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