Goodbye Ted Dexter, free spirit, cricket thinker, renaissance man

August 29, 2021

The England and Sussex captain had aura, flair, majestic batting, and impossible glamour - and that was just on the field

Goodbye Ted Dexter, free spirit, cricket thinker, renaissance man

I don’t know when the Ted Dexter affectation started but I can guess. The last thing my father did with me before he died so young was to take me to see the 1968 Gillette Cup final at Lord’s. This was during Ted’s short comeback and when the great man strode to the wicket, I leapt about in excitement, cheering his name for all I was worth. He didn’t get many but no matter, I had seen him live. That evening Dad bowled to me in the garden as I imitated every Dexter mannerism and stroke I had seen just a few hours before.“There is about Dexter, when he chooses to face fast bowling with determination, a sort of air of command that lifts him above ordinary players. He seems to find time to play the fastest bowling and still retain dignity, something near majesty, as he does it.”

- John Arlott

I fell for the aura, and for the flair in those back-foot assaults on fast bowlers. Not for a minute do I think I saw the 70 in 75 balls against Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith at Lord’s in 1963 but I feel as if I did - the power, the poise, the sheer gall of it. Nothing, not even the Beatles, could drag me from the television screen when he walked to the wicket, seemingly changing the picture from black-and-white to glorious technicolor as he took guard. Frankly, much of the Test cricket of the time was pretty dull but there was a frisson, an expectation, with Ted, just as there is when Ben Stokes is on his way today. It was all too brief, he had retired for good before I started proper school.

The West Indians of the day - Conrad Hunte, Garry Sobers, Wes Hall - thought that innings the best played against them by anybody, though Dexter himself would modestly say it was just one of those days where everything came together and the bat swung freely in just about the right arc. He was well miffed to be given out lbw, however, insisting later that the DRS would have saved him. Who knows how many careers might have been changed by the sliding doors of the DRS.

The word majesty sits well with Dexter’s batting, primarily because of the way in which he attacked through the off side off his back foot. This is a stroke so difficult to master that more prosaic batters choose to ignore it. It is no great surprise that Dexter thought Gordon Greenidge and Martin Crowe the two most technically correct right-hand players that he saw, citing their ability to stay sideways-on and to play the ball alongside their body as the prime reason for the accolade.

He was a huge fan of Joe Root and became near apoplectic during the England captain’s relatively lean spell a while ago, when he became square-on to the bowler and was playing in front of his body. This niggled so much that he wrote to Root without mincing his words. Though at first put out, Root soon saw the kindness in a man of Dexter’s age and knowledge who bothered to write, and therefore returned an email of thanks with the observation that he took the point. Who knows to what degree? It is enough to say that this year Root has batted about as well as any man could have done, and no one has enjoyed each of these innings in Sri Lanka, India, and now at home as much as Dexter.

For the best part of a year now, Ted has been banging on about Dawid Malan: simply couldn’t understand why England didn’t pick him to bat at three. He cited the hundred in Perth in 2017 and this year’s big scores for Yorkshire before predicting near-certain success with the method that brought those runs. It is sad, indeed, that he didn’t live to see the fulfillment of his prophecy in Malan’s fine innings yesterday. He liked the look of James Vince and Zak Crawley too, cricketers who stand tall and play with freedom. He got a lot right, this man of Radley, Cambridge, Sussex and England.

Tall himself, strong, handsome and impossibly glamorous, Edward Ralph Dexter caught everyone’s eye. With the golden Susan Longfield on his arm, they cut quite a dash and cared little for the sniping that came from those less blessed. The enigma in him - and how! - was often confused with indifference, and though cricket has remained his other great love, it was never the be-all and end-all for him - a fact that made his appearances all the more cherished and his company all the more engaging. It is remarkable to think that he first retired as far back as 1965, before returning briefly in 1968 to make a double-hundred at Hastings against Kent and be immediately recalled to the England team for the Ashes. In the brilliant photograph (above) of the moment when Derek Underwood claims the final wicket at The Oval, Ted is caught spinning to appeal for lbw with a face that smacks of a lifelong instinct for competition and achievement.

“Ted was a man of moods, often caught up in theories, keen when the action was hot, seemingly uninterested when the game was dull... a big-time player, one who responded to atmosphere, liked action and enjoyed the chase and gamble. Maybe this was the reason he was drawn to horse racing so that a dull day stalking the covers might be enlivened for him by thoughts of how his money was faring on the 3:15 at Ascot or Goodwood.”

- John Snow

And Snow would know for he was not the type to rise above those grey days of county cricket when the stakes were so low. Snow and Dexter, my first heroes, along with Jimmy Greaves and George Best, Muhammad Ali, the Beatles and the Stones - all of them important figures at 29 Queensdale Road, where the young Nicholas grew up with vinyl records and cared-for willow, narrow-grained and well-oiled for the garden Test matches that England forever won.

Much of the 1960s were about rebellion, revolution even, in response to the age of austerity. After the long and mainly drab post-war years, the young simply broke free and changed pretty much anything they could get their hands on. Music and fashion led the way, leaving sport’s establishment to stutter in their wake. Only a few precious players could transcend the inertia, using both their talent and expression to delight the crowds and influence the young. Cricket was my thing, Dexter and Snow were the wind beneath my wings.

In Snow there truly was rebellion, against authority and the system it supported. This was not so in Dexter’s case, though his free spirit and somewhat cavalier approach to responsibility gave the impression of one determined to ruffle feathers. From the outset he adored sport, worked harder than some might think at his books, and embraced diversions with the enthusiasm of a man who had more to do than could ever be done.

In many ways Ted was a contradiction: at once a conformist, as shaped by the early years of his life by home and school, and a modernist, whose lateral thinking did much to reform the structure of English cricket during his time as chairman of selectors. Richie Benaud observed that Ted’s imagination and drive “will be of great benefit to English cricket in years to come. Equally, I’m in no doubt that others will take the credit for it.” The rebellion in Ted was hardly radicalised but he loved to challenge conservative thinking, to take risks and to invest in his life as an adventure. Both on and off the field, this made for a terrific watch.

He thought the Hundred a good wheeze and admitted he would rather like to have played it himself. He was, of course, the original thinker about one-day cricket, supporting its conception as early as the late 1950s and then leading Sussex to the first two 60-over titles at Lord’s in the Gillette Cup. He paid close attention to the tactics and convinced his men that following them to the letter would do the trick. Which it did. He pushed for four-day county matches 27 years before they were incorporated and he founded the idea of central contracts for England players long before other teams caught the bug.

He was proud of his part in the development of the spirit of cricket, applying golf’s moral high ground to the game that made his name. Through his own PR agency, he became a pioneer in cricket’s digital-technology revolution by inventing the system of Test match rankings that first announced itself under the banner of Deloitte and is now the ICC international rankings.

On a Zoom call a couple of months back, with tongue firmly in cheek, he said, “Having a rather high opinion of myself, I can safely say that had the rankings been in place sometime around the mid part of the 1963 summer, I would have been the No. 1-rated batsman in the world.” We had special guests on these calls - Mike Atherton, Michael Vaughan, Ed Smith, Robin Marlar, Sir Tim Rice and more - all keen to share a drink, chew the cud and have a laugh with the game’s most original and forward-thinking mind.

We cannot jump past golf without mentioning the game at the Australian Golf Championship in Sydney when Ted partnered Norman Von Nida against Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. So enamoured of Ted’s golf were they that Nicklaus suggested Ted follow him back to the USA for a crack at the tour. Player has long said that Ted was the best amateur ball-striker he ever saw and Von Nida just thanked him for securing the one-up triumph that day. Eighteen months ago Player told me that in their one head to head with each other, Ted beat him up the last at Sunningdale, receiving only four shots. “Little so-and-so,” said Ted, “we played level!” They were due for a game last summer but Covid stood firmly between them. The last time I played with Ted, two summers ago now, he beat his age, shooting 83 round the Old Course at Sunningdale without breaking a sweat.

This was a man of Jaguar cars, Norton motorbikes, greyhounds, race horses and an Aztec light airplane that, in 1970, he piloted to Australia with his young family beside him, to cover the Ashes as a journalist. They flew 12,000 miles and made about two dozen stops at British military bases along the way.

Ted married the very beautiful Susan soon after returning from Australia and New Zealand in the spring of 1959. How she is hurting today. So too Genevieve, Tom and the grandchildren.

There was an eccentricity in him that was occasionally misunderstood but otherwise immensely appealing and it is with that in mind, that I turn to the man himself for the final word. It comes from his blog, which is a splendid read and will remain a platform for the family to share their thoughts about this husband, father and grandfather who brought us so much joy.

It was in my last term at Radley College when I had a hard game of rackets in the morning, scored 3 tries with two conversions for the 1st XV in the afternoon, was heard listening to operatic voices in the early evening, before repairing to the Grand Piano in the Mansion and knocking off a couple of Chopin preludes. “Quite the Renaissance man it seems” said my Social Tutor and I admit I liked the sound of it, if not quite knowing what it meant.

The Encyclopaedia Brittanica description of Renaissance man (or polymath) is as follows: one who seeks to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development and social accomplishment and in the arts. A point is made that you do not need to excel at any one activity. It is enough to tackle it seriously and see how far you get. I like the physical development bit obviously and I feel the social accomplishment bit is covered by my willingness to take on responsibilities all my life. Perhaps the arts bit is a bit shaky but a love for music, and particularly opera, and love of language - being fairly fluent in French, Italian, rudimentary German and Spanish - may be some modest qualifications.”

Some different cat, huh. What a man. What a cricketer. Goodbye Ted, and thank you. —Cricinfo

Goodbye Ted Dexter, free spirit, cricket thinker, renaissance man