Wilf Slack: The Best Loved Cricketer

I doubt if Wilf Slack’s name means very much to many people these days apart from those old enough and sensible enough to have followed one of the best English county sides of the last thirty years, of which he was a vital component.

Such is the passage of time.

Slack, though, was a superb batsman and a profoundly modest and popular man.  In 1998, almost ten years after he died, I paid tribute to a player who meant a lot to me and many other followers of the county game.

The title of the piece is a nod in the direction of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book The Best Loved Game.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I saw Wilf Slack play in his final first-class match.  As Middlesex met Kent at Lord’s in September 1988, with Chris Cowdrey’s side unexpectedly involved in the title’s decisive days, Middlesex, recent winners of the NatWest Trophy, anticipated the season’s end.  The 1989 Wisden reveals that Slack made 80 in what was to prove his final first-class innings; I only saw him field, with his customary quiet efficiency, as Kent built a substantial lead on the second day.  Although the Middlesex faithful, of whom I was one, and many other concerned cricket-lovers, were aware that he had been suffering from some undiagnosed health problems which had resulted in his collapsing on the field on three occasions during that season, all would have been shocked to know that a man so outwardly healthy and skilled in his chosen profession would be dead before the commencement of the following English season.

On a cold, dark morning in January 1989, I was at my parents’ home in west London when an idle glance at breakfast television informed me that Slack, then thirty-four, had collapsed and died while playing cricket in The Gambia.  My father and I exchanged shocked words about the news before I left for work.  I caught my train, took my familiar place among the commuters and my mind inevitably drifted to times I’d watched Wilf play and admired the class and composure of his batting.  It was soon clear that I was not alone.  An appreciation edited by Bridgette Lawrence appeared soon after his death and contained heartfelt words from a wide range of people – players, journalists, players’ partners and others – who had known Slack.  His obituary, published in the 1990 Wisden, was a model of sensitivity and appreciation, and, more recently, Simon Hughes, in A Lot of Hard Yakka, has written with great feeling of the shock and devastation that affected all those within the game who had been associated with him.

I can’t claim to have known him personally – the nearest I ever got was approaching him for an autograph in the Lord’s Banqueting Suite after the 1988 NatWest Final – but I knew his batting well and have often reflected on his many qualities in recent years.  However, as time has passed one has become aware that he is not a man who is well remembered by the casual cricket follower.  To an extent this is understandable, for Slack never established himself in international cricket and was always an underrated performer.  For me, though, he always held a strong attraction, chiefly, I suspect, because he was a particular type of batsman: a left-handed opener, with sound judgement, an equable temperament and a broad range of smoothly executed strokes.  Perhaps it’s because one of my clearest memories from my formative years is of watching the veteran John Edrich repelling everything that Australia could throw at him in 1975, but I’ve always liked that type of batsman.  In more recent times I have been able to see much of Edrich’s cool expertise in the batting of Mark Taylor, Gary Kirsten, and, this past summer, of Mark Butcher, but Slack, because he was a Middlesex player and was one of this breed, will always hold a special place in my affections.

Born in Troumaca, St.Vincent, in late 1954, Wilfred Norris Slack came to Britain when he was twelve, joining his parents, who had come to the UK several years earlier in order to seek work.  Settling with his family in High Wycombe, he was soon involved in local schools’ cricket, displaying in vastly different conditions the prowess which he had already developed on the hard wickets of his native island.  With encouragement from a schoolteacher mentor he progressed to the incestuous world of local village cricket, gradually developing the ability to bat for long periods and accumulating 427 runs at 71 as Frieth reached the last sixteen of the National Village Championship in 1974.  Next came the more prestigious High Wycombe club, for whom he rapidly became a mainstay, travelling with the club throughout the Home Counties and to Kenya, and impressing such opponents as Guildford’s David Frith, who, in Caught England, Bowled Australia, fondly recalls coming across Slack in 1976:

‘I got a finger to a sizzling return early on, but two hours later he was 150-odd not out, cool and calm, and pleasant, modest company at the bar that evening’.

It’s a familiar story; cricket people still regularly talk and write of the pleasantness and lack of conceit which Slack always displayed.  Such qualities were especially impressive since it was apparent by now that he had much to be conceited about.

The inevitable call from Buckinghamshire came in 1976, and he accepted the chance with alacrity, making more than 700 runs at a shade over 30 in his debut season.  In addition, he regularly represented Middlesex Under-25s, for whom he made a rapid 62 in a losing cause in the final of the Warwick Pool competition against Yorkshire.

Even though he had not played any senior second team cricket for the county, Slack was offered a full-time contract with Middlesex for 1977.  Further progress came slowly though. Middlesex, with the unsurpassed captaincy skills of Brearley allied to the burgeoning talents of Emburey, Edmonds, Barlow and Gatting and the experience of Titmus, Radley and Smith, had become champions in 1976 for the first time since the forties and were to retain the title – shared with Kent – in Slack’s first season on the staff.  The Gillette Cup was also won, meaning that Slack’s opportunities were necessarily limited, in spite of regular runs in the seconds.  He did, though, make his first-class debut against Essex at Lord’s, batting at nine, and opened for the first time with Mike Smith at Hove.  Although still a comparative innocent in the ways of the professional cricketer, he was on his way.

The remaining seasons of the seventies were to prove a disappointment.  The steep upward curve in Middlesex’s fortunes began to flatten out in 1978 and 79, and Slack, despite regular chances when Brearley was away captaining England, failed to take full advantage of the opportunities on offer, making just 216 championship runs at 15 in 78 and 236 at a shade under 20 in 79.  However, he did manage to ease his way to his first championship half-century at a late-season Trent Bridge, although everything else was overshadowed by Derek Randall’s 209 and 146.  Runs continued to come in the Second Eleven Championship, however, and there does not appear to have been any suggestion the Middlesex club had lost confidence in Slack’s ability to eventually translate obvious potential into clear achievement at first-class level.

1980 saw the county back to winning ways, with another championship and the final Gillette Cup in the bag, but still Slack struggled.  It is probable that, after a successful New Zealand winter, he approached the 1981 season – to prove so momentous for others – with an appreciable mixture of anticipation and apprehension.  He was not to disappoint.

Unsurprisingly, given the relative uncertainty of his progress in first-class cricket, Slack did not begin the season as an established member of the Middlesex team.  First choice at the head of the order was likely to be a combination of the cerebral Brearley, often a dominant figure for his county, and the punchy, confident left-hander widely known for his outstanding fielding, Graham Barlow.  Slack was granted a few early-season outings but, as was becoming familiar, his achievements usually failed to match his potential, whether slotted into the middle-order or given the opening opportunity he craved.

These must have been dark days for him.  The lasting suspicion is that, beneath his diffidence, he must have had a large amount of inner confidence in his ability to succeed, but this must have been shaken by his repeated failure to translate what was widely perceived as uncommon ability into hard numerical results.  Time was running out, and, if Slack failed to produce something concrete and consistent before the season was out it seemed likely that he would be forever destined to remain on the sidelines.

The major turning point of his career and life came when Brearley agreed to return to captain England against Australia after the peremptory dismissal of Botham.  An opener was required, Slack was the obvious choice, and Kent were the opponents.  From these three days at Lord’s – as the eyes of the nation turned to one of the greatest Tests of all time at Leeds – to the times, six or seven years later, when his embryonic international career failed to get off the ground and his health began to fail in mysterious fashion, he never really took a backward glance.  The catalyst for it all was an unbroken partnership of 367 (a county first-wicket record which was destined to stand until 1998) which Slack and Barlow constructed as their team went in a second time trailing Kent by more than a hundred.  Barlow stood undefeated on 174, Slack on 181, a massive and unarguable way to leave his days of hesitancy and underachievement behind.  With hindsight, though, it seems probable that Slack’s first-innings top-score of 56 in a paltry Middlesex total of 167 may have had at least as much influence on his future as the score he compiled in the second.  With the pressure building, a first-innings failure could have had terminal consequences, but a modest half-century laid the foundations for a coruscating display which predictably led to observers wondering what had taken him so long.  With what followed, the fact that he’d weathered times of severe hardship on the way to his days in the sun was rapidly forgotten, but undoubtedly remained relevant to the rest of his career.

In Middlesex’s very next match – against Worcestershire at Lord’s – Slack compiled a monumental unbeaten 248.  Once again, he helped his side escape with a draw from a rocky first-innings position, hitting thirty-two fours and a five in the highest score at Lord’s for thirty-three years, and establishing himself at the head of the Middlesex order for good.

This innings was followed by a further, slower tempo hundred against Warwickshire (a match in which he compiled two hundred stands with the returning Brearley, opening with whom he had previously felt inhibited and uncertain), leading to a seasonal total of 1303 runs at a shade over 48.  The shackles had been lifted for all time.

The following winter Slack returned to the Caribbean at the behest of Michael Findlay, the former West Indian wicket-keeper to whom he was distantly related, to represent the Windward Islands in their first independent foray into the Shell Shield.  He was moderately but consistently successful and returned to London with a raft of ideas to improve the facilities available to young cricketers in his part of the islands.  This appears to have been characteristic of Slack – a man who knew and cared about what lay beyond the immediate horizons of his life and a player who could see beyond his last performance and his batting average.  And, to those who watched him play for Middlesex as the eighties unfolded, he became the byword for a particular brand of batting as Brearley and later Barlow faded from the scene.  Calm, classy, unruffled and invariably prolific; the sort of player you didn’t always notice when he was there but missed badly when he wasn’t.

This was the underlying story of Slack’s career with his adopted county.  As Brearley gave way to Gatting at the helm and Middlesex consolidated their position at the head of the English game with trophies in each year between 1982 and 1986, Slack established and maintained a rock-solid opening partnership with the contrasting Barlow.  In a dressing-room in which the rampant egos and wildly varying personalities so vividly described by Hughes created a pulsating creative tension, Slack stood out for the understated generosity of his character and the versatility of his abilities.  As Hughes noted, he could make you a hundred against the most hostile bowling around and then repair the dressing room TV.

In 1985, Slack scored more than 1600 runs at around 50, with a memorable double century against the Australians, successes which saw him selected for the England B tour to Sri Lanka. Although obviously welcome, this, his first major representative selection at the age of thirty-one, led to some disappointment, as he had hoped to return to the West Indies that winter as a member of the main England party.  However, after some typically smooth and solid runs in the East he was called to the Caribbean to replace Gatting, whose nose had been rearranged by a Marshall bouncer in Kingston.  England lost all five Tests by convincing margins, and the highest score by an English player in the series was 90.  Slack played in two Tests, reaching 52 out of an opening partnership of 127 with Gooch in the fifth match, at St.John’s.  In international terms he had finally arrived – if somewhat by default – but thoughts of a long international career were, given his age, unrealistic.  Indeed, in the early weeks of the following English season he struggled with his technique, yet was selected for the second Test against India.  Predictably, in the midst of form and fitness worries, he failed, as, in fact, did the rest of his side.  England failed to reach 130 in either innings and lost the match by 279 runs.  Yet Slack recovered sufficiently by the end of the summer to earn an unexpected place in Gatting’s Australian tour party, but, despite contributing notably to the cause behind the scenes, he was not selected for any of the Tests or one-day internationals.  He would never again have the chance to pit his talents against the best in Test cricket.

With Middlesex though, everything was normal.  Plenty of good runs in 1987 in the company of two newish young partners, Andrew Miller and John Carr, were followed in the winter of 87-88 by what turned out to be his final trip to Auckland, where he had been travelling to coach and play intermittently since the early eighties.  Returning to the English first-class circuit in the spring of 1988 he began to suffer the inexplicable fainting episodes which were to plague him to the end.  Nevertheless, he coped well enough with the physical and psychological concerns that inevitably followed to finish the season with 1200 runs and share in the NatWest triumph.  His signature on my NatWest Final scorecard is large, positive and confident.

As the English winter drew on Slack was abroad again, travelling to The Gambia as a member of a Cavaliers side after other post-season ventures to Israel and Barbados.  Here, the unexplained collapses caught up with him and he died on the field.  34 years old and 35 not out.

The immediate reaction to his death was one of awestruck shock in more than one part of the cricket world. Simon Hughes recalls how, after receiving the news in New Zealand from an Independent sub-editor he spread the word in the members’ bar at Eden Park, reducing it to ‘aghast silence’.  Mike Selvey, another erstwhile colleague, wrote in The Guardian that he had gone in just the way he would have wished – ‘with the sun on his back and runs under his belt’. The Reverend Andrew Wingfield Digby, who had been in The Gambia, chose to concentrate on the depth and devotion of his Christian faith, and Norman de Mesquita, in Wisden Cricket Monthly, dwelt on the themes that have always emerged most strongly from any recollections of the man – the sensitivity and sincerity of his character, the silky solidity of his batting and the extent of his professionalism.  In case anyone had doubted it at the time, his pride at representing England was epitomised by the fact that he was buried in his England blazer; just, surely, as he would have wished.

Although I continued to follow Middlesex closely for another few years, a move to the West Country in 1991 inevitably meant that my memories of the players who wore the three seaxes with such distinction in the eighties began to diminish.  Of course, many were still around the cricket scene in one position or another – Selvey and Hughes writing, Radley coaching, Emburey and Gatting still playing – even sometimes for England – until the latter years of the decade.  Wilf, though, belonged to that caste of player who had faded more deeply from view. Edmonds? Well, he was making money somewhereBarlow?  Last heard of living in South Africa and suffering incessant pain from his old cricket injuries.  Brearley?  Practising as a psychotherapist in north LondonBut what of Daniel?  Butcher?  Even my old favourite Norman Cowans, whose consistently and unfairly underestimated qualities I had once championed in print?  All were virtually forgotten and the same was true of Slack. Until, in early 1997, I went to make a will.  Being single, and liking the idea of making a few bequests to worthy causes, I hit upon the idea of a donation to a youth cricket charity.  I thought about it.  Wasn’t a trust set up in Wilf’s name after his death?  A bit of research and a phone call to the Charity Commission confirmed things and, as a result, the Wilf Slack Memorial Trust became one of my chosen beneficiaries and many lost memories returned to flood my mind.

I thought of the time Wilf’s career really took off – the partnership with Graham Barlow – and, in 1998, I found myself hoping that Mike Gatting spared a thought for his late colleague when he and Justin Langer surpassed it at Southgate.  And I particularly remembered the time in his last season when Wilf went out with John Carr to face the closing overs on a gloomy Lord’s evening.  Gloucestershire’s David Lawrence, bowling the fastest and most hostile short spell I’ve ever seen, blew Carr away and forced Slack into retreat with the elemental venom of his bowling.  But, as usual Wilf gritted his teeth, got in behind it and survived until stumps, returning when the game resumed to complete an assured half-century.  His partner, after Carr’s departure, was Simon Hughes, whose unease in the role of nightwatchman that day can easily be imagined.  But Wilf brought him through, and it was doubtless moments of that sort which prompted Hughes to write, in response to Slack’s death, ‘Alas, poor Wilf, I knew him well’.

I didn’t, but I wish I had.

Cricket Lore, Volume 3, Issue 8, January 1999