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30 July 2021

Why there will never be another cricket writer like John Woodcock

The late Times journalist enhanced the sport with writing of such grace and honesty that even grizzled professionals stood to attention when he was on parade.

By Michael Henderson

Nobody, said the composer Sibelius, ever raised a statue to a critic. But when the cricket writer John Woodcock died on 18 July in the Hampshire village of Longparish, where his father had been the rector, and where “the Sage” had lived throughout his 94 years, the monument of words reached the top tier of the Lord’s pavilion. A fine innings had closed, and so too had a beautiful chapter in the history of cricket, a game he enhanced with writing of such grace and honesty that even grizzled professionals, suspicious of those untouched by the heat of conflict, stood to attention when he was on parade.

For “Wooders” was the last remaining member of the quartet of voices who established the tradition of writing and reporting on cricket, from WG Grace to the Hundred – the new competition aimed at younger spectators that the England and Wales Cricket Board began three days after his death. As one of his oldest friends said, it was as if he had slipped away in his sleep to avoid the indignity of witnessing its arrival. The Hundred, an ahistorical barrel of tripe, dreamt up by marketing men, represented everything Woodcock was not. A world in which batsmen become “batters” was never one he would live in happily.

Educated in Oxford, at the Dragon school, “Teddy’s”, and Trinity College, Woodcock revered the three men whose words carried the summer game far and wide. Neville Cardus was the aesthete, whose rhapsodic essays in the Manchester Guardian seemed to be composed up among the stars so high. EW “Jim” Swanton of the Daily Telegraph appointed himself cricket’s one-man Court of Appeal. Arlott, the Hampshire countryman, brought a touch of poetry and melancholy to the glory days of Test Match Special.

Those were mighty boots to fill, yet fill them he did. For three decades, between 1954 and 1987, readers of the Times savoured match reporting of unsurpassed clarity and unadvertised elegance. His prose, supple and uncluttered, never added unearned weight. Like Brian Glanville, the football writer who turns 90 in September, “Wooders” was acknowledged by his peers to be the most reliable witness to the sport he loved.

“The great thing about Johnny,” said Alan Lee, who succeeded him as Times cricket correspondent, “was that he never learned how to write an intro!” It was meant as high praise. Woodcock’s pieces emerged, as rivers do, like springs, gathering water as they meander through the meadows. By the time readers had finished his report of a day’s play, however, they knew everything worth knowing about the performance. As the cricket commentator Henry Blofeld noted, he would also have spotted a couple of things others had missed.

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A self-contained man, who considered emotional excess to be unmanly, Woodcock was never a dry stick. Towards the end of his time as the Times’s essayist emeritus, he told readers that if the England players who had thrown jelly beans on to the pitch at Trent Bridge in 2007 to distract the Indian batsmen insisted on behaving like infants, they should play the next Test match in short pants. Why, he wondered on another occasion, did an England bowler wear a wrist watch? The Grand Stand clock told the time all day long. In his final days he could never understand why Jofra Archer, the current England fast bowler, wore enough gold round his neck to service the economy of a Caribbean island.

One day at Lord’s, David Green, an expansive opening batsman for Lancashire and Gloucestershire who had joined the ranks of reporters, wheezed into the press box after a night of continuous libation to see that Middlesex required two wickets for victory. “Knock his poles out,” he panted in the direction of the bowling team, “so we can all fuck off home”. “Ah yes,” said Wooders, “as dear old Jim used to say!”

Woodcock liked Green, and not only because “Greeny” was an Oxford man. He was tolerant of human frailty, and disposed to forgiveness, as the Gospels encourage us all to be. Those he cared little for, he would “let go outside off stump”. An absolute rotter might be called “only quite a nice chap”. Gentle in manner, he was modest in speech. Humankind has not yet reached such a state of perfection that we can afford to ignore such qualities.

There will never be another cricket writer like Wooders. The all-seeing eye of television has transformed coverage of all sports. Then there is the distorting mirror of social media, which insists that all must have voices, no matter how shrill, and all voices are equal. The authority of the single voice, which draws its strength from long observation, and therefore acquires a sense of perspective, is valued less highly. The restraint which coloured Woodcock’s writing is now held to be a form of snobbery, which, in a defiantly demotic world, is the greatest sin of all.

He saw all the greats of the postwar era, and befriended many in his salad days. They played by Chatham House rules, and Johnny takes a few secrets with him. He had a particular regard for the three knights, Alec Bedser, Leonard Hutton and Colin Cowdrey, and maintained a boyish devotion to the dashing batsmanship of Denis Compton. 

Woodcock’s was a life of modesty, dignity, and faith. He would recognise the benediction of another Oxonian, Cardinal Newman, who adapted the old prayer in The Dream of Gerontius: “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul.”