Richard Whitehead pays tribute to the former cricket correspondent of The Times, who sadly passed away on July 18 at the age of 94

John Woodcock was a revered former cricket correspondent at The Times

Instead, he was revered by his readers and hugely respected by his colleagues, past and present, as the tweets that followed his death by Mike Selvey, Simon Wilde and Derek Pringle among others testified. “Some of the cricket correspondents of his generation were more celebrated but he was the best,” Simon wrote.

John was appointed cricket correspondent of The Times in 1954, just in time to board the SS Orsova for what became one of the most fabled of all Ashes tours. It was not, however, his first trip to Australia. Four years earlier he had toured as EW Swanton’s secretary – John thought the term “dogsbody” more suitable – with the task of shooting footage for the BBC. Although some of the film was lost much of it ended up in the wonderful film Elusive Victory.

It remained his favourite tour, and in 2015 after the death of Tom Graveney left him as the sole survivor of the players, officials and journalists he wrote a wonderfully evocative piece about it for The Times.

From that point he spent most winters overseas, travelling by ship until air travel became the norm in the mid-1960s. By modern standards it was an extraordinarily leisurely life, especially for the broadsheet writers. On an Ashes trip he would file one brief piece from the stopover in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and another when the ship docked in Fremantle, Western Australia. Only a West Indies tour offered a challenging deadline; on other trips he would usually return to his hotel room before filing.

Nor were there any news stories, colour pieces, or player interviews. John’s job was to report the play – and it’s probable no one in the history of cricket has done it better.

He continued in his role until the end of 1987 when he was succeeded by Alan Lee, but stayed on the staff and now he was able to write colour pieces and travel overseas to Tests not involving England. Those years produced a string of superb pieces.

Published: July 19, 2021

In one of the last conversations I had with John Woodcock we came round to discussing the dominance of Indian cricket in the modern game. “I remember CB Fry telling me it was inevitable it would happen,” he said. CB Fry! One of the many great things about talking to John was that he provided a direct connection to a long vanished cricket world. Suddenly, Bradman, Hutton, Bedser or Compton did not just exist in newsreels or in the pages of old Wisdens – they were real people he had known as friends. It was one of the things that made every chat to him fascinating.

But the most important thing to understand about John was that his eminence was not just a product of his age or his closeness to events and people in the sport. He was one of the greatest cricket writers there has been, with a beautiful turn of phrase, an unmatched appreciation of the game’s heritage, an eagle eye for a nuance of a day’s play that others might have missed and a willingness to express opinion in an entirely non-trenchant manner.

If he did not quite achieve the fame of some of his contemporaries and successors it was because he did not do television or radio, wrote no books (a great sadness) and he was several years into his reign as Times cricket correspondent before his byline appeared at the top of his pieces.

John passed away at the age of 94

He was also editor of Wisden for six editions between 1981 and 1986, receiving a congratulatory letter from Bradman when the appointment was announced. As Matthew Engel wrote in his Guardian obituary: “He immediately increased the status and literary quality of an institution that was starting to ossify.”

John went on contributing occasional articles into his nineties. In 2019 he paid glowing tribute to Ben Stokes’s Headingley epic and last year wrote a lovely appreciation of Everton Weekes. Requests from the sportsdesk for pieces were often turned down at first – “I’m far too old,” – but the refusals were usually followed by a calls saying he had changed his mind. “Well, I suppose I could do something.”

John Woodcock belonged to a lost world of cricket and journalism – it’s a cliché but in his case entirely true, we will never see his like again.