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…and Woodcock quietly moves on to 90

Sometime at the turn of the century, when Wisden asked him to, John Woodcock calculated he had watched over 400 Test matches. “There was a time,” he told the Almanack of which he had once been editor, “when I had watched half the Test matches ever played. It came and went very quickly, I don’t remember when.”

The Sage of Longparish turned 90 this week, a cause for celebration in the cricketing world. Longparish is in Hampshire, and Woodcock has lived there all his life. He has been both the cricketer’s writer as well as the cricket writer’s writer, a unique combination.

It was Woodcock who first called the 19-year-old Sachin Tendulkar the world’s best batsmen, an assessment eagerly seized upon by Indian writers who lacked his insight or his authority. He counted Bradman among his friends as well as Cardus, and virtually all the players and writers of note since.

Compact and empathetic

His writing is much like the man himself — compact, authoritative, empathetic. No Cardusian flourishes, no pop psychology of the sort favoured by a later generation. He was there, he watched keenly, and he called it as he saw it. And if he felt the game was being pulled in the wrong direction, he let his readers know, both at the Times (where he was cricket writer for 34 years) and in his editor’s notes for Wisden.

At the wedding reception of commentator Brian Johnston’s daughter, Woodcock found himself chatting to the managing editor of the publishers of Wisden. The editor Norman Preston had recently died, and Woodcock’s party chatter consisted of telling the managing editor that somebody should offer him the editor’s job at Wisden. That casual remark went up the ladder, and Woodcock was offered the job.

There’s a lovely description of the working methods of Woodcock and his team at Wisden in Robert Winder’s history of the Almanack. “(Graeme) Wright and (Christine) Forrest would drive down the M3 from London to Hampshire to meet at Woodcock’s idyllic thatched cottage near Andove, with its trout stream babbling across the meadow…Woodcock’s long dining room table became the editorial headquarters of what was, quite literally, a cottage industry.”

I first met Woodcock in Chennai over three decades ago when David Gower’s Englishmen came calling. The dinner was at Rajan Bala’s house in T. Nagar, and the only other guest was Dicky Rutnagur. Somehow (these things happen), we got onto the topic of the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (‘Vizzy’). Such a lovely soul, said Woodcock. Such a ****, said Rutnagur, getting anatomical. But Vizzy was captain in the first Test Woodcock watched, in 1936, and clearly the relationship was different.

An Indophile

Woodcock remains an Indophile. He once wrote to me saying, “My father was born at Ahmednagar where his father was a judge, so I have great affection for the country…” Then continued as an afterthought, “..if not for the IPL.”

He sent me a card with a photograph of a player, Harry Baldwin (taken in 1899). Playing for Hampshire against Joe Darling’s Australians, Baldwin returned figures of 7-6-1-1. “His son, also Harry, umpired Bradman’s last Test match at the Oval wearing a long white coat which almost covered his ankles,” Woodcock wrote.

Somehow the letter captured Woodcock. Precise, warm (he referred to that dinner all those years ago), informative and sensitive to patterns. He had contributed an essay for my book on Tiger Pataudi. He compared Tiger and his father (who had played for England), and observed that it was fortunate (“if that is the right word”) that it was his right eye that took the impact of the car accident and not the left, “the left being the master eye of a right handed batsman.”

During a tour of England, when the old press box at Lord’s was still in use, I misjudged the weather and landed up one morning without an overcoat. It was probably youthful arrogance, or simply youthful forgetfulness. As I sat shivering, a kindly gentleman came up behind and placed an overcoat on my shoulders. It was Woodcock, the doyen of cricket writers and the head of my profession. It was also one of the kindest gestures in a press box.

In paying a tribute to one of his friends and heroes Alec Bedser, Woodcock once wrote: “There was a native dignity about Alec, besides a becoming unselfconsciousness and gentle homespun humour, a candour, an incumbent melancholy and a liking for the old ways.”

He might have been writing about himself.

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