Lt-Col John Stephenson
Former Secretary of the MCC
Friday 06 June 2003
John Robin Stephenson, soldier and cricket administrator: born Hove, Sussex 25 February 1931; OBE 1976, CBE 1994; Assistant Secretary (Cricket), Marylebone Cricket Club 1979-86, Secretary 1987-93; Secretary, International Cricket Council (formerly International Cricket Conference) 1987-93; President, Forty Club 1994-96; President, Stragglers of Asia CC 1994-2003; married 1962 Karen Koppang (one son, two daughters); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 2 June 2003.
Among the pleasures of arriving early for a big match at Lord's in the late Eighties and early Nineties was watching "the Colonel", the Marylebone Cricket Club Secretary John Stephenson, doing his morning rounds.
Immaculately turned out, he had a cheery word and a broad smile for everyone, be it the MCC Young Cricketer setting up a programme stall, a cantankerous member, an invasive journalist or a lordly committee man. At a time when MCC was still viewed with hostility in many quarters, and Lord's parodied as the preserve of a blimpish élite, Stephenson was the club's welcoming public face. Brian Johnston brought him to national notice with affectionate references on Test Match Special to "the Colonel and his MCC umbrella" every time the Secretary strode to the middle when rain stopped play, as if his presence alone guaranteed play's resumption.
John Stephenson enjoyed a lifelong love affair with cricket, and his success at Lord's derived from the real joy he took from working there. He gave his all to MCC and its contemporaneous responsibility, the International Cricket Council (ICC). In truth, his years there were MCC and cricket's good fortune, which the club's committee recognised by asking him to remain in office for two years beyond the retirement age of 60.
He had gone to Lord's in 1979 as Assistant Secretary (Cricket) after a solid military career and could not have expected further advancement. The current Secretary Jack Bailey, Stephenson's contemporary in the Christ's Hospital XI in the late 1940s - as was the future Somerset and MCC captain Dennis Silk - was only eight months older. But these were turbulent years in the wake of the Packer revolution that shook cricket's establishment. The complacent co-existence that had existed between MCC and the professional counties, as represented by the Test and County Cricket Board, was disintegrating. Bailey, fighting to uphold MCC's rights and privileges, fell victim to the internecine warfare and resigned in 1987.
This was MCC's bicentenary year and had been billed as a showpiece. It could have been a disaster. The members, many outraged at Bailey's departure, refused to accept the club's accounts at the AGM and there were calls for the President, Colin Cowdrey, to resign. Cowdrey was later forced to miss the bicentenary celebrations following a heart bypass operation and, as if to over-egg the pudding, the marquee for the bicentenary ball was brought down by a gale. Stephenson took it all in his military stride and MCC triumphed.
His years as an essentially peacetime army officer had left him well versed in the role of peacemaker, and he provided natural charm, diplomacy and tact when Lord's needed them most. He was no martinet, but he was a stickler for protocol when he believed it mattered. At the same time he could be highly amused when his backpacking soldier son appeared in the ground on the morning of a Test match, having talked his way past the generally impenetrable Lord's gatemen.
You instinctively felt that John Stephenson's values were the right ones. After a Newsnight appearance to discuss the Mike Gatting/ Shakoor Rana spat in 1987, I was gratified the following evening at Lord's to feel his hand on my shoulder and hear a softly spoken "Well said". We were both relatively "new boys" in our respective roles (I had been appointed Editor of Wisden the year before) and he understood what a few words of encouragement meant.
Man management was his strong point, first in the Army and later at Lord's. The ground has a large staff and gaining their affection was no mean feat. It probably helped that he still looked like the rugby forward he had been in younger days. You wouldn't want to mess with him, and one felt almost a degree of sympathy for the Nairobi customs official who tried in vain to extract a bribe before allowing the players' baggage on a plane during an MCC tour Stephenson was managing.
From Christ's Hospital, Horsham, he had entered the RMA at Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1951, going on to serve in Egypt, Korea, Gibraltar, Libya, Germany and Northern Ireland. He was an instructor at Mons Officer Cadet School from 1958 to 1960, an Infantry Representative at the School of Signals from 1968 to 1970, and from 1973 to 1975 commanded the 5th Battalion the Queen's Regiment. He was appointed military OBE in 1976.
John Stephenson was especially blessed in his marriage in 1962 to Karen Koppang, whose Norwegian good sense made sure there was never any side to him. An invitation to the Secretary's box, always an honour, was a special treat when Karen and John ran it, particularly if the Stephenson daughters added their particular charms. Retirement did not come easily to a man of action like John but he gave his time in an honorary capacity to a number of grateful organisations before succumbing to a rare virus that attacked his spine.
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