Yorkshire cricket has lost one of its most devoted and popular former players with the death in York Hospital on Saturday of Don Wilson at the age of 74.
Don was among the proudest of the Yorkshire team who famously regained the County Championship title in 1959 and clinched it again six times over the next nine years.
The left-arm spinner and big-hitting batsman played in six Test matches for England between 1964 and 1971, and he went on to become a distinguished head coach at Lord’s once his playing days were over. But it was as a loyal Yorkshire cricketer and a tremendous teammate with an unflagging enthusiasm for the game that he will always be remembered.
The formation of the Yorkshire Players’ Association in 2005 was warmly welcomed by Don, who loved the reunions with all who had represented the White Rose. He was moved almost to tears when he was elected President of the Association for 2008-2009, and he carried out his duties with dignity and charm. Don managed to combine friendliness with greatness – and statistics show that he was among the elite of Yorkshire’s bowlers.
Born and bred in Settle, he played in 392 First Class matches for Yorkshire, taking 1,104 wickets at 20.49 runs apiece. Only 11 bowlers have claimed more wickets for the county than that, and only three have done so since the Second World War – Fred Trueman 1,745; Johnny Wardle, who was Don’s left-arm predecessor in the side, 1,539, and Raymond Illingworth 1,431.
Don captured 1,189 wickets in all First Class matches, each costing him exactly 21 runs. His best analysis for Yorkshire was against MCC at Scarborough in 1969, when he took 7-19. Ironically, his career-best batting and bowling figures were both for MCC: 8-36 v. Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, at Colombo Oval in 1970 to give a match return of 14-71, and 112 v. South Zone, Hyderabad, in 1964, when he added 102 for the fourth wicket with Ken Barrington.
Don was one of the greatest of fielders, stalking the mid-wicket area like few before him or since, and he held on to 250 catches, 235 of them for Yorkshire.
He was the old-fashioned batsman the crowds loved to see, and he could hit the ball great distances - in 1967 receiving The People’s silver trophy from Trueman for striking the most sixes. He made 5,788 runs for Yorkshire at 13.88, with a top score of 83 against Surrey at Bramall Lane in 1960.
Don was appointed Yorkshire Vice-Captain when Geoff Boycott took over the reins from Brian Close in 1971. It was an uneasy relationship, and with his form and confidence on the wane Don retired at the end of the 1974 season when his great friend and colleague, Philip Sharpe, left for Derbyshire, and another close ally and teammate, Richard Hutton, did not have his contract renewed.
Richard’s father, the incomparable Sir Leonard Hutton, was among those who strongly recommended Don to Yorkshire – and he had good cause to do so. When Don was 15 Yorkshire took a star-studded side to play a benefit match at Settle and, to his amazement, he was included in the local team.
In his autobiography, Mad Jack, written with cricket journalist Stephen Thorpe, Don recalled: “The big day dawned, and farmers, sightseers and locals alike, including my mother and father, travelled from far and near for the auspicious occasion. It was not the first time my parents had seen me play, but it was certainly their first attendance together.
“Yorkshire batted, as is always the case in these affairs, and made a steady start before I was called on to bowl. The great Len Hutton was facing. I paced out my run, but counted the steps wrongly; I was so nervous. My palms were sweating so much that I could barely hold the ball. The first two deliveries were pushed quietly into the covers, and the third…went straight on, and he missed it. I’d bowled out Len Hutton.”
In 1965 Don accepted the position of coach during the winter months at a Roman Catholic school in Johannesburg, and five years later he became coach to the Wanderers’ Club. In1975 he was a member of the first mixed-race team ever to leave South Africa when the party went on a two-week tour of Rhodesia – the squad also including fellow left-armer Phil Carrick, who went on to captain Yorkshire.
Don played Minor Counties cricket for Lincolnshire after leaving Yorkshire, and he enjoyed spells with Holmfirth in the Huddersfield League and Manningham Mills in the Bradford League, where he teamed up with Sharpe. While still playing for Manningham Mills he became head coach to MCC at Lord’s towards the end of 1977, staying there until 1990 when he enjoyed the fresh challenge of coaching at Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire.
Former Yorkshire and England off-spinner Geoff Cope, now secretary of Yorkshire Players’ Association, was to learn a lot from Don after making his debut in 1966 and going on to take 630 First Class wickets for the county himself: “Don was a marvellous colleague and friend,” Geoff said, “and I always called him ‘Wilfred’ for obvious reasons. His haul of 1,104 wickets at 20 is a fabulous career record and testimony to what a splendid bowler he was.
“Don always enjoyed a laugh, and he joked a lot about that famous occasion as a teenager when he bowled Len Hutton. He said that he bowled him through the gate, but if the gate had been closed he would have been bowling at him ever since! He also said he got a lot of booing from his schoolmates, who said they had come to see Hutton bat and not Wilson bowl.
“I have never found anyone with so much enthusiasm for the game. The White Rose meant so much to him it was untrue. He always remained tremendously proud that he had played for Yorkshire. The work he did in South Africa was incredible. He got cricket going in the schools, and he is still very well thought of in that country.
“They also thought the world of him at Lord’s, when he became head coach at the indoor cricket school. He used to say that he had a house in the ground, that his address was Lord’s Cricket Ground, St. John’s Wood, and that he had a magnificent lawn which somebody came to cut every day.
“Don became the senior bowler when Raymond Illingworth left Yorkshire, and he told me all about bowling in pairs and bowling for each other. It was always ‘we’ and never ‘I’. He was a great man.”
Don was a member of Illingworth’s great squad which so triumphantly regained the Ashes on England’s 1970-1971 tour of Australia and New Zealand. He did not play in any of the Test matches, but he was a popular member of the party.
Raymond said: “Nobody had a greater love of the game or was more enthusiastic than Don, and you cannot say more than that. His enthusiasm was never greater than when he went to Lord’s and was working with the kids. He got them really interested in what they were doing.
“From a Yorkshire point of view he became the latest in the long line of the county’s great left-armers, and not many have achieved as much as that. He was also a wonderful fielder at mid-wicket, and with his left-arm stretched out he was responsible for quite a few run-outs. When batting he was not the best against the quicks, but he liked to give the ball a good whack and he scored a lot of useful runs.
“Don had not been well for some time, but his passing is still very sad.He will be much missed.”
There will be private cremation, but all Yorkshire members and supporters are invited to a memorial service at St Chad’s Church, Far Headingley, Leeds, on Wednesday, September 19, at 12.30pm, followed by refreshments in Headingley Carnegie Cricket Ground. The service will be conducted by the Chaplain to Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Canon Max Wigley, and addresses will be given by some of Don’s former teammates.
Words: DAVID WARNER and JAMES BUTTLER
Pictures: the YORKSHIRE POST, DAVID WARNER
and RON DEATON