Cricket has too many metaphors for the end. Like the song says, when an old cricketer leaves the crease it's sad enough, and when it's someone not yet old it's sadder, and crueller, than that. Lots of people in the game have spoken warmly of Graham Dilley, who died today. To those of us a little further on the outside, whose memory of the man was suspended in about 1986 when he was still an affable and diffident giant, part Viking, part REO Speedwagon bassist, his passing seems even more abrupt. Not him, surely, and not now.
Of course he had coached, with great success, and had lived his life in the game, but in his diffident way, he was out of the spotlight and so, perversely, he remained trapped by his brief moments in it. He only played in two Test match victories [despite appearing in 41 games - how very English that is] but the first of those is probably the most famous win of all, at Headingley in 1981, and even then he is famous within it for an innings and a catch, rather than for his bowling. Indeed, so far had he fallen at that point, he found himself, a week later, playing for Kent seconds against the Army.
His other win came on that happy tour of 1986-7, when he was part of the team that couldn't bat, couldn't bowl and couldn't field and that beat Australia 2-1. It was the tour on which the famous wicket, Lillee ct Willey b Dilley, was willed into existence. According to the testaments, he was the kind of man you needed to know before his true personality came out; Pat Murphy, the BBC radio journalist who wrote a book about a season at Worcester with Dilley and Graeme Hick, recalled late nights putting the world to rights over a few beers and a packet of fags - the book's title, Hick And Dilley's Circus, was surely cooked up then.
Two more diffident - that word again - destroyers you could not find. If ever you wanted to study savage talent wrapped in a pacifist's temperament, look at Hick and Dilley. Like Hick, Dilley had all of the physical gifts. He approached the crease on the angle from a run that sometimes seemed to take about five minutes, so long and curved was it, and yet the delivery stride was a thing of beauty, the front leg extended high while the whole body appeared balanced on the one dragging toe of his back foot, the javelin sweep of the arm delayed until the final second when it unfolded in a whir of long levers. Dilley was quick, sometimes brutally so, and that action let him swing the ball away very late, the batsman's nightmare. Had he possessed Botham's uncomplicated ego, he might have had another 150 Test wickets. As it was, he was way too good for most county players, as 648 first-class notches at 26.84 suggests.
It's strange how many of those Headingley men were on a last chance. Botham of course had been removed as captain, and was selected at Brearley's insistence. Willis, in his own mind at least, was bowling for his career, and Dilley was dropped after the game. How unjust that was; he had shown as much of the right stuff as anyone. His death somehow sends that match further into an ephemeral past.
Dilley may have prospered more in the scientific now, like his contemporary equivalent Chris Tremlett, another unassuming big fella. Instead he played through tumultuous times yet remained a gentle presence in them. It serves his memory well.
NB: thanks to Tony for pointing out the error above - Lillee ct Willey b Dilley came in '81 not '86. In the mind's eye, Willey was at either third slip or gully, but I could be wrong about that too...
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