Obituary: Billy Sutcliffe

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The Independent Culture
BILLY SUTCLIFFE was a right-hand batsman of considerable hitting power who captained Yorkshire for two years in 1956-57 and whose misfortune it was to carry the excess weight and expectation conferred by an internationally famous name. It also fell to him to take over the leadership at a turning- point in the history of what had been the most successful county cricket club.

Herbert Sutcliffe had, with Jack Hobbs, formed the most renowned opening partnership in the game and Billy, born, like Len Hutton, in Pudsey, was named and groomed to succeed. Herbert, an ultra-professional, carried himself like an amateur and was offered the Yorkshire captaincy in 1928, shrewdly declining, probably sensing that the time of the professional captain had not yet arrived.

Billy however was raised as an amateur, schooled at Rydal but brought up in the demanding cricket of the Yorkshire leagues. He first appeared for Yorkshire in 1948 and for some years it was expected that either he or Geoffrey Keighley would succeed Norman Yardley, all amateurs, in the captaincy.

Keighley left to farm in Australia so Sutcliffe, as the leading amateur, seemed the obvious candidate although we now know that Hutton, soon to be knighted after serving as a professional captain of England, would have liked to have been asked.

Billy Sutcliffe, it was said afterwards, was too close and too popular in the dressing room to deal with a team of strong, bellicose characters that included Trueman, Wardle, Appleyard, Close and Illingworth. Yardley, Hutton and other moderating influences such as Willie Watson and Ted Lester had either gone or were going. Yorkshire needed a Lord Hawke or a Brian Sellers to control and motivate such a fractious bunch.

There were outside pressures, too, for Surrey won a fifth successive championship in 1956, a feat difficult to swallow in the Ridings. Sutcliffe could have claimed, literally, "it never rains but it pours" for, in addition to a sad crop of injuries, 11 full days were lost to the weather.

He soldiered on through another summer, saw Yorkshire restored to contention, in third place, and then wisely took himself off to business in the family sportswear company. Brian Close summed him up as "a super lad who made himself into a county cricketer because it was expected of him and because he believed in Yorkshire cricket and its right to pre-eminence. He was happier having a pint and a natter than he was in cracking the whip on the field."

Don Wilson, later to bowl for England and coach MCC, said of Sutcliffe: "It was unfair to suggest he was only in the job because of his name. He was a great league player and had proved himself a knowledgeable captain for Leeds. It was the senior players who were at the root of this malediction."

Like preceding captains, Billy Sutcliffe was expected to serve on the committee, which he did faithfully, little knowing that the 21-year-old he welcomed, when captain of the Leeds club in 1961, would bring him later grief. As Geoffrey Boycott's fame and records grew Sutcliffe was part of the committee that tried to maintain that the Club and the Team were greater than the Man, a battle he lost when he was swept from office by Boycott's supporters in 1984.

Like Fred Trueman, Sutcliffe never sought office again, accepting a vice- presidency and serving the cause quietly. He had a considerable knowledge of Yorkshire's history and personalities and was always excellent company. He scored six centuries for Yorkshire, his best year being 1955,when he averaged 33, reached 7,530 career runs at an average of 26 and toured India with the Commonwealth side in 1950-51 and Pakistan with MCC in 1956- 57. He last played, for MCC, in 1959.

William Herbert Hobbs Sutcliffe, cricketer: born Pudsey, West Yorkshire 10 October 1926; married (two daughters); died Collingham, West Yorkshire 16 September 1998.