Farewell to the sporting great and good

All sports have been touched by the loss of legendary characters this year, some in tragic circumstances. Paul Newman raids the archives to reveal fascinating facts behind some of our leading and lesser lights
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Sir Alec Bedser, who died this year at 91, would have relished the current battle for the Ashes. The former England fast bowler, one of cricket's most robust and reliable players, loved a challenge. In the summer of 1953, as England won back the urn for the first time since the Bodyline series of 1932-33, his 39 wickets proved crucial.

Bedser's strength and stamina were legendary. It was said that the only time he ever left the pitch in a Test was during a heatwave in Adelaide, when he stepped over the boundary to vomit – and promptly returned to carry on bowling.

In taking 236 Test wickets, Bedser bowled, on average, 52 overs per match. Of the 12 other England bowlers to have taken 200 Test wickets, the next in line in terms of work rate are Derek Underwood and John Snow, who averaged 42 and 41 overs respectively. Sir Donald Bradman described the leg-cutter with which Bedser dismissed him in Adelaide in 1946 as the best ball he ever faced.

Betty Wilson, meanwhile, was dubbed "the female Bradman". The all-rounder, who died in January, was the first Australian woman to score a Test century against England, the first woman to take a Test hat-trick and the first player of either sex to make a Test hundred and take 10 wickets in the same game.

While Bedser and Wilson lorded it over the cricket pitch, Ronnie Clayton was leading football by example. Even at his peak, when he was captain of England, Clayton could be found on the day of a Blackburn Rovers home match walking the streets delivering newspapers. A byword for dedication and sportsmanship, he played for Blackburn for 20 years from 1949 without winning a major trophy.

Gil Merrick, a contemporary, was one of England's finest goalkeepers, yet his reputation was unfairly tarnished by two matches. Merrick, who played for Birmingham, conceded 15 goals in his first 13 internationals, but Hungary's "Magnificent Magyars" beat him 13 times in two matches, winning 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest six months later.

Eddie Baily and Bobby Smith were key members of two of Tottenham Hotspur's finest teams. Baily, an inside-forward, epitomised the slick style of Arthur Rowe's push-and-run side who won the Second and First Division titles in successive seasons in 1950 and 1951. Smith was a fearless centre-forward for Bill Nicholson's Double-winners of 1961. Ralph Coates, a Tottenham player from a later era, was once compared to Bobby Charlton, who also came from the North-east, although that was probably largely down to their "comb-over" hairstyles. Coates was sold by Burnley in 1971 for £190,000, then a British record, but never quite lived up to expectations at Tottenham.

Charlie Crowe played for Newcastle United during their FA Cup glory years. In 1951 he asked to borrow the FA Cup, which the club had just won, to show to fans. Newcastle assumed the trophy would be quickly returned, but Crowe took it on a two-week tour of Tyneside's pubs and clubs.

Dick Francis earned more acclaim as a writer than as a jockey after penning 38 novels and selling 60 million books. He became champion jockey in 1954, though his riding career is recalled more for the 1956 Grand National. Francis was within 40 yards of victory when Devon Loch, the Queen Mother's horse, inexplicably lost his footing, enabling ESB to steal the race.

Greville Starkey rode 1,989 winners in Britain but was another jockey destined to be remembered for a second-place finish. Dancing Brave, one of the all-time greats, lost the 1986 Derby by half a length to Shahrastani despite a remarkable late surge. Starkey later became so embittered by criticism of his ride that he refused to discuss it.

The parents of Moss Keane might have guessed at their son's future when he weighed 14lb at birth. Starting out as a Gaelic footballer, Keane described his first experience of rugby union as "like watching a porn movie – very frustrating for those watching and enjoyable for those participating". He played 51 times for Ireland.

Andy Ripley first earned fame as a rampaging No 8 in the England rugby team. He became an accomplished oarsman and athlete before turning to the City. Ripley ran a company that trained accountants and became deputy general manager of the United Bank of Kuwait.

Rugby league was shocked by two untimely deaths. Garry Purdham, a 31-year-old former Whitehaven player, was shot during the serial killer Derrick Bird's rampage through Cumbria, while Terry Newton, a former Great Britain scrum-half, hanged himself in the wake of his two-year ban for taking human growth hormone.

Andy Holmes, who died from Weil's disease, a water-borne infection, was central to the 1980s renaissance of British rowing. In 1984 he won gold in a coxed four with Steve Redgrave, Richard Budgett and Martin Cross. Four years later, Redgrave and Holmes won the coxless pairs in Seoul.

Harry Carpenter and Bill McLaren illuminated a golden era of BBC sports coverage. McLaren, a decent player until tuberculosis struck, commentated on rugby for 50 years. Carpenter was best known as the BBC's boxing correspondent and achieved celebrity through his friendship with Frank Bruno, who coined catchphrases like "Know what I mean, 'Arry?"

We will also remember Francisco Varallo, 100, the last surviving participant in the inaugural 1930 World Cup final. His Argentina team were beaten 4-2 by Uruguay; Enzo Bearzot, who coached the Italy team which won the 1982 World Cup; Keith Alexander, of Macclesfield Town, one of only two black managers in League football at the time of his death from a brain haemorrhage (the other was Paul Ince at MK Dons); Besian Idrizaj, a 22-year-old Swansea City striker with a history of heart trouble who died in his sleep; Brian Clark headed the goal that gave Cardiff City a 1-0 victory at home to Real Madrid in the first leg of their European Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-final in 1970-71; Markus Liebherr, a German-born industrialist, saved Southampton from financial ruin in 2009; Jim Greenwood, a Scotland international, became one of rugby union's most influential coaches; Carl Dooler won the Lance Todd Trophy in rugby league's Challenge Cup final as Featherstone beat Barrow 17-12 in 1967; Juan Antonio Samaranch was president of the International Olympic Committee; Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old luger from Georgia, died during a training run at the Winter Olympics; Reg White won a sailing gold medal at the 1976 Olympics; Antonio Pettigrew was stripped of his sprint relay gold medal at the 2000 Olympics after admitting drug use; Charlie Francis coached Ben Johnson, who tested positive for drugs after winning the 100m at the 1988 Olympics; Wilf Paish coached athletes Tessa Sanderson, Peter Elliott and Mick Hill; Alan Rudkin lost three fights for the bantamweight world title in the 1960s; Carl Smith won eight rowing World Championship medals; Tom Walkinshaw helped lure Michael Schumacher to Benetton in 1991 and led Jaguar's 1980s renaissance. He became chairman of Gloucester Rugby Club; Paddy Mullins trained Dawn Run to win Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle in 1984 and the Gold Cup two years later; Priscilla Hastings, a trainer, was one of the first three women elected members of the Jockey Club in 1977; George Steinbrenner owned baseball's New York Yankees; Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run in baseball – "the shot heard around the world" – to give the New York Giants victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1951 World Series; and George Blanda was the oldest man (48) to play in the National Football League.

Alex Higgins: 'Hurricane' blows out with a whimper

The most famous snooker player in history but, after squandering his £1m career earnings on gambling, drugs and drink, 'The Hurricane' died virtually penniless in sheltered accommodation in his home city of Belfast. The public loved the 1972 and 1982 world champion for his speed around the table and his natural gift for the game, as well as his colourful lifestyle.

'The People's Champion' was forever getting into scrapes with the game's authorities - on one occasion he headbutted a tournament director who had asked him to take a compulsory drugs test - but the brilliance of his play nearly always saw him bounce back. Higgins, who won his last tournament in 1989, earned £480 for his first world title in 1972, when he beat John Spencer in the final, and £25,000 for his second 10 years later after beating Ray Reardon. Neil Robertson, this year's world champion, took home £250,000.

Malcolm Allison: 'Big Mal' was the Maine man

'Big Mal' was known to the wider world for his champagne lifestyle but beneath the surface was the mind of one of the most innovative coaches English football has produced.

After tuberculosis cut short his playing career, Allison enjoyed his greatest success as assistant to Joe Mercer at Manchester City, who won the Second and First Division titles, FA Cup, League Cup and European Cup-Winners' Cup.

Allison left for Crystal Palace, where he gave Terry Venables his first taste of coaching. Over the next 15 years Allison took 15 jobs in five different countries, but never came close to emulating his Maine Road success.

Laurent Fignon: Great for whom eight must always grate

Eight seconds. Mention the words in the context of the Tour de France and they can refer to only one thing: Greg LeMond's 1989 victory over Frenchman Fignon by the closest margin in the race's history. Fignon had triumphed in 1983 and 1984 but then had two Achilles tendon operations.

However, in 1989, he headed for the final stage, a time trial in Paris, with a lead of almost a minute. LeMond, using extended handlebars which rivals claimed were illegal, recorded a staggeringly fast time, after which Fignon fell agonisingly short.

He retired four years later but continued to make his mark in cycling as a television commentator and promoter. He died of cancer at the age of 50.