Robin Marlar: Exit the enduring iconoclast, playing his shots to all parts

MCC's passionate president goes as he came, speaking out fearlessly on women and chucking. Stephen Brenkley talks to him
Click to follow

The outgoing president of MCC has been in China this week helping to spread the gospel. It is absolutely certain that Robin Marlar will have been a charming guest, but he will also have given his hosts the benefit of his wisdom on all things cricket and what they might do to advance the great game in their enormous country.

If he thinks they ought to knock down the Great Wall to lay down a few cricket pitches, he will have said so. Marlar has plenty of opinions and is utterly fearless in expressing them. This put him into deep trouble at the start of his year in office, when his views on the role of women in cricket raised eyebrows to the sky. At one fell swoop, he appeared to have undermined all the good work that MCC had done in destroying the image of gin-soaked old buffers that once (rightly) beleaguered them.

He officially hands on the presidency today, and it is entirely fitting that his stance has not changed. Marlar is both bewildered and unrepentant, and has a plethora of other views on cricketing matters embracing throwing, noise on the field, the importance of encouraging Test teams representing the United States, China and Europe, coaching, technology, the nature of bats, the state of what used to be called Varsity cricket, the difficulties of captaincy, the need to foster the game in Afghan-istan, and the outrage of players at all levels who confirm that they can play and then withdraw from a team.

The 169th MCC president since records began, Marlar, more than any predecessor, combines almost effortlessly the improbable functions of traditionalist and iconoclast. He will, however, always be dogged by the women issue. "I was absolutely staggered at the reaction," he said, "but it's an issue that remains and hasn't been addressed.

"The issue could get completely out of hand unless there is a policy from the England and Wales Cricket Board. My personal cut-off point for mixed cricket would be 13 or 14, but I'm very willing not to stand on that ground. Most of the arguments concern slow bowlers who can hold their own, but most of them are batting down the order and I don't like the idea of a bowler running in and legitimately saying, 'I'm going to knock your block off'."

But what if, say, England turned up Shania Warne? "I wouldn't have her in men's cricket because she's still got to bat and she will still invite what I consider improper emotions in an aggressive fast bowler."

Once Marlar has taken hold of the bone he does not easily let it go. His main concern in talking as he was about to leave office was not that anybody might take exception to his views, but rather that they might upset MCC and impinge on his successor, Doug Insole. "I would be upset if my stance reflected badly on MCC, but it would be wrong if it did. We are setting a lead in that MCC, a club for adult cricketers, does sexually stream, and I've recruited a lot of women cricketers. I'm passionate about women playing."

He is passionate on most cricketing subjects (and almost certainly on most non-cricketing ones as well). That has been the case since he performed with some distinction for Sussex in the Fifties. As an amateur he was their captain for five years and was a skilful, improvising off-spinner who took 970 first-class wickets. He remains dedicated to the county.

In 1956, when he was 25, he wrote his first essay on the blight of throwing. Later he became a singular cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times, which he combined with a job as a City headhunter. He has always been an individualist. Playing once for the Rest of England against Surrey, the champion county, he hit a six off his first ball and was stumped off the second.

He is said to have to have told his captain: "I told you I wasn't a nightwatchman." Since his captain was Insole, he has repaid the debt by handing on the presidency. Insole, one of the most influential backroom figures in English cricket for many years, had turned it down many times. He will not be as publicly quotable as Marlar but he will be similarly restless.

Marlar was happy, nay eager, to ramble round the subjects that he tried to tackle in his year of office. If it is true that MCC president is mostly a ceremonial office, it also imparts a rare influence. Marlar went into it determined to make a difference.

"There were certain things on the Laws I wanted to get sorted out," he said. "I was desperate to deal with the throwing issue, which has been the bane of my entire life. I have always been convinced the people drafting the law on unfair delivery have had it all wrong for years. They have written it round the behaviour of the human arm, which is infinite and whose quirkiness is unlegislatable. We're just muddling along. The ball is the one constant, and insofar as we have all this wonderful technical equipment I want the flight of the ball prior to and after release to be monitored."

In this regard, his enduring legacy as MCC president may be the research facility the club have agreed to fund at Imperial College. It has already detected a possible reason for white cricket balls scuffing more quickly than red ones, which is connected with the treatment of the stitching in the seam. Shortly, Marlar hopes they will tackle throwing.

"It may be I'm barking up the wrong tree, but my hypothesis is that we must frame the law about the passage of the ball. If a wording comes up that legalises Muralitharan - and on that one I'm in the school of Bishen Bedi, who when asked if he had ever seen Murali bowl said: 'No, never' - then I'm prepared to accept it. I want the law torn apart and it hasn't been torn apart. I believe it's measurable but I'm a long way from getting there."

He so obviously believes in MCC as a force for good, which patently they have been in the past decade, and he stresses that they must be international in all they do. But he is worried about the relationship with the ICC, who publicly back MCC as guardian of the Laws but according to Marlar have said privately that they will have to rewrite them one day.

If he is proud of one single achievement it is MCC's encouragement of Afghanistan this year. Famously, Afghanistan beat MCC by 179 runs in a pioneering match in Bombay last March. Of Mohammad Nabi, the batsman who made 116 not out that day, Marlar said: "He should be playing Test cricket now." No half-measures with this man.

This led him on to the need to keep spreading the gospel, and MCC's key role in doing so. "We need to take all possible steps to obviate the cry that the subcontinent is controlling cricket. But it is undoubtedly true is that cricket isn't a world game, it's a Commonwealth game, and we've got to turn it into a world game. We've got to have Europe and America as Test-playing nations."

In no particular order, Marlar has many other bees in a bonnet that will never be big enough to contain them all. On the topic of noise from fielders - whether sledging or encouragement - he is intolerant. "We've got to do something about it." Not so long ago, he went on to the field at The Parks and told the Oxford captain to quieten down his team.

This is not without a certain irony since Marlar is also, until next spring, president of Sussex, who are hardly renowned for their Pinteresque silences. And his nickname is Snarler, bestowed more than 50 years ago by Freddie Brown, because of the nature of his appeal.

He thinks noise undermines a captain and this has persuaded him to write, probably this winter, a captaincy manual "on how to be a captain and what being a captain means".

He wants MCC to look at bats. "We've got to recognise that whatever we say about bats being made of wood, blah, blah, bloody blah, the fact of the matter is that a top-grade bat costs £300 and you can't expect the average parent, particularly of the socio-economic classes we want to pitch to now, to afford that. We've got to be thinking there's a different way of doing things, and I hope Imperial College can get involved in that."

His opinions on coaching ("if you have not performed at preferably the highest level you have no qualifications at all for being a coach"), what used to be Varsity cricket ("I was sickened by the Cambridge University admissions policy, which was to suppress sporting prowess"), and withdrawal from teams ("turning down a confirmed place in a cricket team is unacceptable behaviour and it's getting worse and worse") were almost throwaway lines.

It is all because he cares. "There are a lot of things wrong at Lord's, but by God there are a lot of things right. It's the job of the president to make sure they are pro-active." Nobody could have persuaded Marlar on a different course. Not for all the tea in China.

Life & Times: Runs, wickets, words and more

NAME: Robin Geoffrey Marlar.

BORN: 2 January 1931, Eastbourne.

POSITION: President MCC 2005-6.

PLAYING CAREER: 1951-1968 (Cambridge University, Sussex, Players, Rest of England). 289 matches, 970 wickets at 25.22 runs each. Best bowling 9 for 46. Captain, Sussex 1955-59, described by Wisden as "shrewd and skilful".

OFF-FIELD CAREER: City headhunter, cricket correspondent Sunday Times until 1975, member MCC cricket committee since 1998. President Sussex CCC.

AND ALSO: As a Tory candidate he came third in the Leicester North-East by-election in 1962.