Ray of little saunshine

Getting beaten is scarcely a new experience for England's cricket team. But a constant barrage of public criticism from its own manager is something of a novelty. That's what happened when things went awry in South African this winter. Next week the team set off for the Indian subcontinent and the World Cup. And whatever happens, remember, being Illingworth means never having to say you're sorry. Robert Winder reports
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When England's luckless cricket team flew in from South Africa to Heathrow early last Tuesday morning, the container holding the players' baggage - nearly three tons of the stuff - was sent to the wrong terminal, and everyone had to twiddle their thumbs for a couple of hours while it was rerouted. It was the final, tedious detail of an overseas tour that had, like so many before, ended in tears. But one man could have been excused for feeling a bit chuffed. When Raymond Illingworth was first offered the post as England's manager back in 1986, he turned it down flat when he learned that he would be expected to muck in and "help out" with the luggage. He was also sniffy about the idea of being paid less than the players. He wasn't going to be anybody's servant. He wanted to be the boss.

When he was offered the job again, two years ago, he drafted his own job description. He succeeded in obtaining powers that none of his predecessors had enjoyed. He would be a manager in the football style, with sole responsibility for the team's composition, performance and discipline. Not everyone was thrilled. Ian Botham, notably, commented that it was foolish to employ an out-of-touch 60-year-old when there were plenty of dynamic young moustached former all-rounders willing to have a go at it. But elsewhere Illingworth's appointment was welcomed. He had what the papers liked to call "a shrewd cricket brain". He "lived, breathed and ate cricket". He was a no-nonsense, back-to-basics Yorkshireman with clear convictions and a brilliant record as both player and leader. Best of all, after the mumbling Dexter years, he had a good line in the kind of put-down the tabloids love.

Until the last few weeks the team has performed well and Illingworth has enjoyed a mostly favourable press. Indeed he has, in some ways, got away with murder. Flying into Australia last winter, he told reporters at the airport that he'd been watching on television and noticed that the English players didn't seem to be talking to themselves enough. "We used to do it," he said. This was the kind of remark that would have landed dear old Ted Dexter with Looney Lord headlines. No one seemed to mind Illingworth coming up with this stuff.

But his performance on the South African tour - his cheerful willingness to dress down his own players in public - has provoked even his supporters to anger. No one minds a manager who speaks his mind - or throws mugs - in private. But newspapers are not usually the place for dressing-room retorts. When Gary Lineker, the nicest man in English sport, writes in a column that Illingworth has succeeded where the hatchet men of football failed, in making him fly off the handle with rage, then we know there's trouble.

In fact, Botham called it years ago, when Illingworth was first offered the job. Perhaps as part of his application, Illingworth wrote a Mirror column saying that Botham was an old fatso who didn't look as if he cared any more. Botham responded in kind: "If a former England captain," he wrote, heaving himself on to a rather high horse in the Sun, "lowers himself to slagging off our Test players for money, then he should not be involved in running the game at any level." Well, Illy didn't take the job then - luckily for Botham, whom Illingworth had promised to "handle". But now he's slagging off players for free. Although it wasn't Illingworth who called Devon Malcolm a "nonentity", but his bowling coach, Peter Lever, it was the manager himself followed through in an interview published on 24 December. "Devon hasn't got a cricketing brain," he said. "That's the problem." Happy Christmas, Dev.

Not that Malcolm was alone in getting it in the neck. Illingworth was swiping away right, left and centre. Peter Such, he said, might well be the best off-spinner in England, but he was "very soft" as a person. What can you do with someone like Ramprakash, he continued. "I've done all I can to help him. I've tried to talk to him in the dressing room, but he just sits there staring." Illingworth concluded the tour by throwing his hands up in exasperation. "I've talked to the players," he said, "but they keep on making the same mistakes." He added, in a remark that sent a snort round domestic cricket, that it was up to the counties to produce better players.

The response has been fast and furious. Malcolm himself broke cover - and his contract - by accusing Illingworth of humiliating him on tour. He even suggested that maybe it was because he was black. This was an unwise suggestion, and Malcolm will certainly be fined for advancing it. But he does not lack supporters. Colin Cowdrey has called for an MCC vote of no confidence in Illingworth, and the Players' Association has made a formal protest about the sharpness of the manager's tongue. Malcolm's county, Derbyshire, is treading cautiously. "We'll look forward to talking to Ray," says Reg Taylor, secretary general and manager of Derbyshire County Council. "We've heard Devon's side of it, but we don't want to rush into anything until we've had the full report. There just may be extenuating circumstances. Ray's a forthright man, and his management style is, well, old-fashioned, I think you'd call it. Often his approach is refreshing, but it can be caustic too. So we'd like to see this whole Devon thing calmed down. But we do also want to know why these things were said."

The racial note in Malcolm's complaint, however thoughtless and throwaway, is bound to keep the controversy warm. No one thinks that Illingworth is racist, though like all men from the West Riding, he assumes that anyone born outside Yorkshire is a twit and a pansy. As it happens, in 1983 Hull University awarded him an honorary degree for "contributions to racial harmony". And his daughter Diana was so fond of Dad's friend Basil D'Oliveira that she named her goldfish Dolly. But in his newspaper column Illingworth was capable of being, well, prone to generalisation. After the Shakoor Rana-Mike Gatting showdown in Pakistan in 1987, when a spectacular finger-jabbing match ended with Gatting stalking off in disgust, Illingworth wrote: "Cricketwise, Pakistan has always been iffy, and Pakistanis, in the main, difficult. Now they're becoming downright bolshie." As it happens, many cricketers loved Illy for saying these unsayable things.

Still, it is starting to look like a trend, this habit of seeking someone else to blame. In a way it tallies with the stereotype, which Illingworth himself does nothing to subvert, of a typical bloody-minded Yorkie, a graduate of the university of hard knocks who doesn't suffer fools gladly, and I tell thee, lad, in my day there were nowt like this modern nonsense, we wouldn't have stood for it. Illingworth seems like what he is: Pudsey man, born and bred on the Leeds to Bradford main road in the historic birthplace of Sutcliffe and Hutton. In fact, Illingworth doesn't come from Pudsey at all; he comes from neighbouring Farsley. But he doesn't seem to mind the association with Pudsey's great cricketing children.

It seems now that he was famous, as a player, mainly for his hard-working, no-nonsense approach. This reputation obscures his genuine brilliance. He attended a secondary modern school and then wowed the Bradford league by opening the batting for Farsley (his average midway through the 1952 season: 203). When he was 21 he scored 146 not out for Yorkshire against Essex, and followed it up with 8 for 69 against Surrey. These are not the feats of a grinder. He was a superb player - he did the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets six times - who has chosen, for some reason, to emphasise the sense in which he was a self-made man who never had it easy, by gum, and you young fellas don't know how lucky you are.

Back then, he always had an excuse when he was out. He once stomped into the dressing room after being bowled, claiming that the umpire had given him the wrong guard. Another time, in the West Indies, when he was out immediately after lunch, he insisted that something - "a plantain" - had sprouted on the pitch during the lunch break. This is a common reflex among the best players: part of the invincible self-regard necessary to succeed. But it is a slightly dodgy quality in a manager. After the disastrous test match at Edgbaston last summer, when England were thumped by the West Indies in less than three days, Illingworth was asked why he had picked the team before looking at the pitch. he replied that he'd trusted Fred Titmus to look at the pitch for him and he hadn't done a proper job. "Fred is not one to make positive statements," he said. "He waffles."

Fred Titmus was an old friend. The two men had met in the RAF as teenagers, and competed for the spinner's slot in England's Test side for nearly two decades. It may be a sign that Illingworth is incorruptible, that he loftily refuses to favour anyone. But it may also be a sign of someone who is positively proud of his reputation as a straight talker, and anxious to maintain it. Either way, it was an odd remark, which looked even odder when EW Swanton was asked by Titmus to "correct the memory" of the manager in a letter to the Daily Telegraph. Titmus claimed to have been "very precise" in his warnings about the pitch.

But it is nothing new. When Illingworth was brought in as the man to save Yorkshire in 1979, events followed a similar course. He was not slow to criticise the system, the players, the whole set up - what was a guy supposed to do? "They have had their chances," he said, "and some haven't taken them. Now they are all on trial." Some of the players, he said, needed "a kick up the backside", a phrase he uses often. "Our bowling is at its lowest ebb for 30 years," he sighed. The episode ended badly: after a two-year feud with Geoffrey Boycott, Illingworth was sacked. In a parting shot Illingworth mentioned that the captain, Chris Old, lacked bottle. "He hasn't the heart to bowl quick if he has even the slightest muscle trouble," he said. "I don't think Chitly has ever been prepared in his life to grit his teeth."

The odd thing is, when Illingworth was a player he was a fierce defender of his colleagues against the depredations of the ruling caste. He was once fined pounds 50 - the entire win bonus - for speaking out of turn at a team meeting on a tour of Australia and upsetting the then team manager, the Duke of Norfolk. And returning from his triumphant Ashes tour down under in 1972, he wrote a passionate defence of his fast bowler, John Snow, denying that he was a troublemaker and claiming that he needed sensitive handling. "He is not one to be driven," he declared, "because he is not built like Fred Trueman. He needs to be nursed a bit. It's a question of saying something like, 'Do you think we can do it this way?' or 'Can we have a bit more?' Never 'I want it done like this' and 'Come on take your finger out.'" Devon Malcolm would have a fit if he heard the present-day Raymond talking like that.

No one doubts the clarity of Illingworth's thinking about the game. Fifteen years ago he came up with an idea for the transformation of county cricket which still sounds radical: he called for a two-league structure with promotion and relegation, and said that county matches should not be held during Test matches, in front of tiny crowds all listening to England on the radio. In 1980 he wrote, "the type of cricket we play isn't conducive to producing bowlers," and he's plainly right. But the combination of someone who thinks the system's all wrong, and has acquired the habit of trashing players in public, is starting to wear thin even with his admirers.

Certainly, on the tour of South Africa, he cut an anachronistic figure. With his floppy hair and well-padded midriff, he didn't look too good in an England jogging top and shorts. "You can get a bit lonely," he told one interviewer, "when you're much older than the players." And that's how he looked, slumped in a chair on the dressing room balcony watching the wickets fall. Ironically, in his days as captain of Leicestershire he set a strict sartorial standard: no jeans, no T-shirts. But those battles are long lost. These days the players pad around five- star hotels in team tracksuits, trying to look inconspicuous. Illingworth seems a little Canute-ish. On the recent tour he made quite a contrast with Bob Woolmer, the South Africa coach, who had a midriff to match but also sported a movie-star tan, a baseball mitt and a portable computer. Times have changed. Illingworth, perhaps, has not