The sudden death of Graham Dilley, in October 2011, came as a real shock. He clearly hadn’t been ill for long, and he was only fifty-two.
For all his bowling for England – which was often excellent, with sharp pace, outswing and a kick like a mule – he is, and always will be, best remembered for his contribution to what Mike Selvey correctly referred to in his obituary of Dilley for The Guardian as ‘one of the most celebrated passages in the history of British sport’.
On the evening of the day he died, I wrote this.
Cricket is a game of pauses. Although there is always activity, there is the sense of a pause between each and every delivery. The bowler walks back to his mark, the batsman regroups and prepares for the next ball. Fielders pause too, their thoughts momentarily elsewhere.
The most noticeable, most pregnant pause of all, is the pause between a skied catch leaving the bat and it falling into the hands of a fielder who may or may not hang on to it. For those moments, everything is uncertain. Sessions, innings, games, entire series have been turned by dropped catches. The batsman knows it, the bowler knows it, the crowd know it and the fielder sure as hell knows it.
And when old cricketers die, people who saw them play – and especially so if they did so in childhood or adolescence, or they were part of a team who did something truly special – pause to remember them.
Graham Dilley was never famed as a fielder. Like many a quick bowler from the days before diving, and sliding, and all-round fitness became compulsory, and before the magnificent Jimmy Anderson showed what was possible, he just did his bit.
What he did best, and really well when everything clicked, was bowl. With his mood right and his fragile confidence bolstered, often by some powerful runs, he could be distinctly quick, with swing and sharp bounce as additional and potent extras. Like many an England player from the bad old days he never came close to fulfilling his potential, but he was admired at Canterbury, and at Worcester, and remembered with affection by all who lived through and witnessed the 1981 Headingley Test. Botham and Willis took the glory but neither of them could have done what they did without the help of Graham Roy Dilley.
A thirty year-old memory has the young Dilley, with a visorless helmet perched unsteadily on top of his blond mane, creaming Lillee and Alderman and Lawson through the covers on a grey Leeds afternoon and sharing a joke with Botham as Australia wilted and the course of history changed.
For me, though, the strongest image of all sees him the following day, steadying himself on the long-leg boundary as Rod Marsh’s uncontrolled hook shot to a Willis bouncer directs the ball his way. A brief glance to check his distance from the rope, hands cupped upward, body braced to absorb the ball’s impact.
Then he catches it.
He staggers back, but manages to steady himself. Marsh is out, Australia are 74 for 7 and defeat is on the cards.
He leans back and throws the ball high, high into the Yorkshire air.
Different Shades of Green, 5th October 2011