Ted Dexter, the former England cricket captain and chairman of selectors, is still bursting with wit, wisdom and insight about the game he loves. He spoke to Jack Watkins.
There’s a copy of the Andrew Festing painting Conversation Piece in one of Ted Dexter’s upstairs rooms. The work depicts great English post-Second World War cricketers, including Denis Compton and Alec Bedser, in the Lord’s Long Room.
Sadly, Mr Dexter is the last one of the halcyon ensemble still alive.
‘I was from a slightly younger generation than the others,’ he says, reflecting on the sitting.
‘I was only asked when someone dropped out at the last minute. I said: “But I don’t have an MCC blazer.” They told me: “Don’t worry. Just get down here”.’
Dexter is pictured in a light blazer, second from the right – and the handsome, hawk-like profile is unmistakeable. In the 1960s, often branded cricket’s grey decade, Milan-born Mr Dexter brought a dash of glamour. He was an attacking all-rounder who captained England 30 times and led Sussex to success in the first limited-overs county competitions in 1963 and 1964. He was last man to captain the Gentlemen against the Players before amateur status was officially abolished in 1963.
‘He has been one of the game’s great thinkers, comparable to the renaissance man of cricket, C. B. Fry’
His appeal transcended cricket boundaries. Married to the model Susan Longfield, daughter of a Kent cricketer, even the French master-photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson took his picture, at Hove. ‘He spent three days with us, sitting on the floor of the flat, this tiny little man with his Leica. The only thing he said to me when I drove him to an away game was “Do you always drive so fast?”’
Once nicknamed Lord Ted, he’s been described as an aloof figure, although one suspects this is partly to do with the way strong characters who don’t trade in false modesty or knee-jerk bonhomie, put brains into gear before opening their mouths and retain a streak of individuality are often pigeonholed. Everyone agrees, however, that he has been one of the game’s great thinkers, comparable to that earlier renaissance man of cricket C. B. Fry.
He and Susan have spent much of this century living in Nice, before returning to England 18 months ago to be nearer their grandchildren, as well as a handy two minutes from the local cricket and golf clubs, in Wolverhampton. Time spent abroad clearly hasn’t blunted the acuteness of his observations on batting or tactics.
In his trenchantly entertaining blog, he reasserts the adage that batting is a sideways game. ‘I tried to remind Joe Root of it the other day,’ he smiles. ‘I play golf with Mark Nicholas [the cricket commentator] and I said to him: “I’ve got to send Joe a note, he’s getting squarer and squarer in his stance.” I emailed him, but never had a reply.
‘It’s counter-intuitive. People think if you get behind the ball more, you cover the movement and are less likely to nick it, but you’re bringing the bat across the line. Staying side on opens up a range of offside shots and it’s so much easier to let the ball go.’
As an upholder of classical principles, I suggest that Twenty20, which has made gods of cross-batted swatters and reduced bowlers to cannon fodder, must make him wince, but he seems serene about it, although admitting it holds little interest. ‘I admire the ingenuity and power of the players. Some of the strokeplay now is superb. My worry is that schools will note that Twenty20 can be all over, bang, bang bang, in a couple of hours, saving the schoolmaster’s time.’
He adds: ‘It takes away the business of learning how to go out to bat and stay there, building an innings as the bowler thinks about how to get you out. As Len Hutton used to say about limited-overs matches, it doesn’t seem to matter if you get out any more.’
The novelty of the big six has gone, too, I suggest, now everyone looks to clear the ropes. ‘Yes, and they’ve made the boundaries smaller,’ he agrees, ‘but I liked to hit bowlers for six, too.
‘One time in Melbourne, I hit the off-spinner Tom Veivers for six with my little light bat and one fellow said he’d never seen anybody hit the ball so far.’ In fact, the cricket writer John Woodcock reported in The Times that Mr Dexter’s hit cleared the sight screen at the famously huge MCG by 20 yards.
He was a fearless player of fast bowling in the days when an express bowler running in to bowl at a batsman in a cap rather than a helmet was an awesome spectacle, something entirely lost now.
‘Flying planes, playing golf, owning greyhounds, journalism and running a sports PR company, but cricket has been a continuous thread’
It’s a thrill to have him demonstrate techniques of swaying out of the line of a bouncer and hear him reminisce about an infuriated Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson running down the hill at Scarborough and knocking wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans off his feet with a ball ‘that came through like an absolute shell’.
Speaking of shells, about the only time he allows a note of sentiment to creep into our chat is in talking about his father, to whom he was devoted, and his love of horses.
‘He won his Military Cross on the first day of the Somme,’ Mr Dexter explains, showing me a painting of First World War horses in a paddock that he bought his father in a sale. ‘He was delighted. He said it was just as he remembered them and he gave them all names.
‘Because he could speak Italian, he also got called up in 1939, and we spent the war following him around on his postings in Europe, so if I sometimes seem a bit all over the place, it’s not surprising.’
‘All over the place’ means flying planes, playing golf, owning greyhounds, journalism and running a sports PR company, but cricket has been a continuous thread. Not only was he an innovative, if sometimes controversial, chairman of selectors, the ICC Player Rankings we now pore over were his brainchild.
Sixty years after he made his Test debut, he’s been at Lord’s for the latest Test against India, and hasn’t missed a moment of the other matches. ‘I’ll watch every ball of the rest of the series on TV. [Virat] Kohli [India captain] is brilliant, but I’d definitely get the ball up at chest level to him. He doesn’t hook.’ Perhaps Mr Root should give Mr Dexter a call.
Ted Dexter blogs on www.teddexter.com
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