OBITUARY: Bob Wyatt

Bob Wyatt was, at the time of his death, England's oldest former cricket captain. He led England in 16 Test matches during the 1930s, winning three of them and losing five. He was widely considered to be an unlucky cricketer; and a courageous one, forever defying broken bones; and of all the England captains - the odd bigot, snob and drunkard among them - one of the most admirable in character.

Officially, he was an amateur, and as such he scored more first-class centuries - 85 - than any other except W.G. Grace. But he was never affluent, or even well-to-do, and his attitude stood out as classless in the socially divided game of his time. Perhaps his main qualification for the status of ``amateur'' was that, in the literal sense, he was enamoured of his sport.

``No cricketer I have known had a greater love of cricket or was more knowledgeable about this complex game than R.E.S. Wyatt,'' Len Hutton wrote. ``We in Yorkshire had enormous respect for Bob, as he was always known by the fine Yorkshire team of the Thirties . . . It was earned by his ability, his attitude to the game, and the number of runs he made against Yorkshire.''

Wyatt's background was not a privileged one, although he did come from a family which had been prominent in architecture and a cousin of his was Woodrow Wyatt (Lord Wyatt of Weeford, chairman of the Tote). His father was a prep schoolmaster, and impractical; he had also captained the Oxford University Shooting VIII, and was a cricketer - for Worcestershire Gentlemen - as his wife was too in her youth. When Bob left King Henry VIII School in Coventry, he joined the Rover Car Company as a trainee in the repair shops. In a characteristic episode, he was initially resented by the workers, for when young he could be brusque with strangers; but by the time he left to play for Warwickshire in the 1923 season, they were so converted that they sent him a fountain-pen on his making his first half-century.

After the First World War, Warwickshire were so short of bowling that Wyatt had to develop his medium-paced outswing, and he was to take 901 wickets at an average of 32. But his batting was not to be denied, although he was not an abundantly gifted player. He was technically correct, thick- set and combative, strong on the cut, pull-drive and hook. If his Test aggregate of 1,839 in 40 Tests, at an average of 31, was nothing special, his runs were usually made when needed and not superfluously. In all he scored 39,405 runs at 40, playing county cricket - for Worcestershire after the Second World War - until he was 50, and his last first-class match at the age of 56.

After two tours overseas, he made his home Test dbut against South Africa in 1929 and scored the first of his two Test centuries (it was the first by an England amateur since the war). In 1930, amid tremendous controversy, he was appointed captain for the final Test against Australia, the series standing at one-all. Percy Chapman had become the darling of the nation after winning back the Ashes in 1926 and retaining them in 1928-29, but now he was confronted with the phenomenon of Don Bradman. Wyatt, batting at No 7, made a critical 64 and England totalled 405, but Bradman hit 232 off his own bat to win the game and the series. Wyatt was unlucky: George Duckworth had a spectacular off-day behind the wicket, dropping Bradman and Ponsford twice each.

For the next encounter with Australia, England chose Douglas Jardine as leader and Wyatt as his vice-captain. Never prone to exaggeration, let alone self-praise, Wyatt always maintained that ``bodyline'' was not scientifically planned in advance, as some historians and the Australian television film series Bodyline would have it. Fast and short-pitched Leg Theory came into being by spontaneous combustion, not least when Wyatt led MCC against Victoria while Jardine went off fishing, and was not a conspiracy hatched beforehand in London clubs.

After Jardine's abrupt exit from Test cricket, Wyatt was the man to heal relations in 1934. However, a broken thumb prevented him playing in the first Test, which England lost 10 minutes from time. So although England won at Lord's in ``Verity's Match'', Australia regained the Ashes with their 562-run victory at the Oval (Ponsford 266, Bradman 244).

In 1934-35 Wyatt became the first England captain to lose a series against West Indies, 2-1, and in 1935 the first to lose a home series against South Africa, 1-0. But he was unlucky. England were in transition, following Hobbs, Sutcliffe and Larwood, and before Hutton and Compton; and Wyatt had his jaw broken in four places by a ball from the West Indian fast bowler Manny Martindale. (Wyatt rewrote England's batting order before going to hospital, and from there sent a letter to Martindale saying that it was not the bowler's fault.)

On the credit side, Wyatt became the first - and still the only - visiting captain, from any country, to win a Test match in Barbados until England's victory there under Mike Atherton's captaincy in April last year. On a rain-damaged pitch he boldly declared England's first innings at 81 for 7, then reversed his batting order when England were set 73 to win, just winning the game by four wickets as the pitch dried out. Half a century and more later he was still able to recall every salient detail.

Wyatt's Test career finished after the 1936-37 tour of Australia (this time he had an arm broken while hooking). However he was asked about his availability in 1938, and in 1939-40 was chosen for the cancelled tour of India. He was an inveterate tourist, visiting all the Test-playing countries of his time, partly out of enthusiasm and partly because he had no regular winter employment after leaving Rover. He did have a spell as Warwickshire's assistant secretary, but did not get on with Rowland Ryder, the secretary, who disliked Wyatt for fraternising with the professionals.

In 1950, when captain of Worcestershire, he was made chairman of selectors, but it was an unfortunate moment, for another England team in transition was confronted with the West Indian spinners Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine; for the next four years he was an ordinary selector. Thereafter he dropped out of cricket, living on the Cornish coast near Helston, until he was enabled by two benefactors - John Paul Getty II and Tim Rice - to keep more in touch with the scene. Wyatt's views remained straightforward and clear, such as that England had been bowling too short for 30 years; and they were usually right.

Robert Elliott Storey Wyatt, cricketer: born Milford, Surrey 2 May 1901; played 404 times for Warwickshire 1923-39, Captain 1930-37, 86 times for Worcestershire 1946-51, Captain 1950-51; played 40 Test matches for England 1927-37 (16 as captain); England Test selector 1949-54, Chairman of Selectors 1950; married 1942 Mollie Wilkes (one son); died Treliske, Cornwall 20 April 1995.

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