Ted Dexter, the last great amateur cricketer to play for England, has died, aged 86. An embodiment of a passing age, Dexter's majestic batting thrilled crowds, and his aristocratic manner captivated the media as well as providing a touch of glamour for a country that was uncertain of its place in the world. Debonair, majestic against fast bowling, particularly when making full use of his tall, athletic frame to drive commandingly off the back foot, and rich enough to live life pretty much as he pleased, his career spanned a changing world.
As the 1950s ended, Britain was on the cusp of change as conservatism and tradition came under challenge. In the same year that Dexter made his Test debut, 1958, attempts to end the distinction between amateur and professional failed, but shortly after he captained England for the first time, three years later, it passed into history.
Dexter played 62 Tests for England between 1958 and 1968, the last two - entirely unexpectedly - coming after a three-year absence because of a serious leg injury suffered in a bizarre car accident. His average of 47.89 was exceeded, at the time of his passing, by only 12 England batters. He led England in more than half of his Tests, and Richie Benaud, an Australian adversary as captain, was just one prominent player to regard him as a "great".
But cricket was not enough to detain a man who, for all his detached air, possessed an agile mind. Dexter was too successful at his chosen sport - and possessed too many theories about its technique and its need for modernisation - to be fairly described a cricketing dilettante. But he revelled in many other pursuits, all of them rivals for his attention even with the cricket season at its height.
He was a fine amateur golfer and would once have qualified for the Open Championship had a six-foot putt on the final hole of his last qualifying round dropped in. He flew a private jet and his love for gambling - for a time at least more accurately described as an addiction - led him into ownership of racehorses and greyhounds. He even stood for parliament for the Conservatives, for an unwinnable seat in Cardiff South East in 1964, finishing second to James Callaghan, who was to become a Labour prime minister. In one speech, Dexter allegedly suggested that Labour-voting households could be identified by their "grubby lace curtains and unwashed milk bottles on the doorstep". Having sampled a very different world, he immediately announced his political retirement.
To depict Dexter as a man out of his time is accurate, but not merely in the way one might assume. A throwback to an amateur age, he might increasingly have seemed, but his analysis of cricket's place in the world was often decades ahead. Dexter had championed one-day cricket before the arrival of the Gillette Cup (initially introduced as a 65-over competition in 1963), he argued for a one-day league, for England central contracts, and his advocacy of four-day Championship cricket began more than two decades before county cricket took the plunge.
Dexter was born in Milan, Italy, where his father, Ralph, had set up an underwriting agency. He was one of three brothers and had three half-sisters from a previous marriage of his mother, Elise. His education was a privileged one: three prep schools, one each in Scotland, Wales and England; Radley College, where he was head boy and where Ivor Gilliat, the cricket master, first conferred on him the nickname of "Lord Edward" in reference to a certain hauteur; and Jesus College, Cambridge, where he began two degrees but finished neither, being too consumed with sport and other leisure pursuits to give much attention to his studies. "I was to distinguish myself by failing to attend one lecture all the time I was there," he was to observe later. There were also two years of National Service, including a posting to what was then Malaya as a second lieutenant, which he found largely boring.
The most significant game in his first season at Cambridge came against Sussex when he deposited Robin Marlar, Sussex's amateur captain, who was later to become a trenchant cricket correspondent, for a mighty straight six. Marlar arranged for him to play a few games for Sussex once term ended but Dexter pulled out - a long-term relationship had recently ended, and as he put it years later, he had become obsessed by a girl in Copenhagen. But his Cambridge batting exploits soon attracted England's attention. They tried to pick him in 1957 but he was injured. The following season, he made a half-century on debut in an England innings win against New Zealand at Old Trafford, but shortly before he went out to bat, he had learned of his omission from the Ashes party in favour of Raman Subba Row.
An injury crisis soon led to an SOS for Dexter, who was found in temporary employment in Paris, and felt obliged to announce his engagement to Susan Longfield, a fashion model, before making the journey. There began a debilitating five-day journey, affected by fog, technical trouble for a plane in Bahrain, and his own throat infection. Unsurprisingly, he began his first tour as 12th man, a job for which he was entirely unsuited; in the lunch interval, he preferred joining oyster parties rather than attending to his team-mates' needs. He failed in both his Tests as England lost 4-0 but responded with 141 against New Zealand in Christchurch. Largely ignored by England the following summer, and with his wife's career forging ahead, his gambling ran out of control. "I started on the road to near ruin," he recalled in Alan Lee's biography Lord Ted: The Dexter Enigma.
His worth remained under question when he toured the West Indies in 1960, before an unbeaten 136 in the first Test in Barbados stilled the argument. But it was the next Test, in Port-of-Spain, that lives in cricket history. The grandeur of Dexter's strokeplay in making 77 and defying the pace of Wes Hall was regarded by many as one of his finest Test innings. When Dexter ran out Charran Singh on the third afternoon, simmering racial tension erupted and tear gas was employed. He had a fine tour and Wisden was somewhat desirous of naming him a Cricketer of the Year. "No cricketer since the war has so captured the imagination," Marlar said of his county colleague.
As Sussex captain, a role he fulfilled until 1965, Dexter was initially ambitious to put his ideas into practice, and consecutive Gillette Cup wins in the competition's first two years had much to do with his innovative leadership. He proved himself an independent thinker and a good listener but a poor communicator, which his friends put down to shyness. He was more self-critical than they were, accepting that "aloof" might be a fair description. Team-mates often suspected he devised a theory in the field for no better reason than boredom. If there was not a theory to explore, he would often just practice his golf swing in the outfield. He was not a captain to let a game drift, and the less important the game, the more his experimentation was liable to become self-indulgent. On Derby day one year, a radio was brought out onto the field and a delayed start contributed to what went down into folklore as one of the longest tea breaks in county cricket history.
Dexter played in four Test series against Australia and failed to win one, but if his manner was viewed suspiciously in that country, his talent gained considerable respect from the moment he made 180 in the first Test at Edgbaston in 1961.
After the Ashes were lost and the captain, Peter May, had retired, Dexter took over the captaincy of a weakened tour party for a near five-month tour to India (where England lost a Test series for the first time), Pakistan and Sri Lanka, registering his sole Test double-hundred in Karachi late in the tour, by which time the wish to return home had permeated the entire party. He retained the captaincy role for an even longer tour in Australia in 1962-63 - proud of a victory in Melbourne, he rated his 52 as England pulled off a run chase on the final day as the finest innings of his career, a typically idiosyncratic choice. Others preferred to present his 70 from 75 balls against West Indies in the 1963 Lord's Test as his finest moment, when he dismissed Hall and Griffith from his presence. Hall was a fast bowler at the peak of his powers, and Dexter had condemned Charlie Griffith as a chucker: it was potent stuff. A famous Test was saved with England nine down and Colin Cowdrey batting with his broken left arm in a sling.
But his remoteness aggravated social tensions. "I liked the man a lot and he could bat beautifully, but he was no captain of England - he had more theories than Darwin," Fred Trueman chuntered during the 1962-63 Ashes defeat. Predictably, they were to clash again in Dexter's last series as captain - the 1964 Ashes series - when he refused to give Trueman the field he wanted to bounce out Peter Burge and Trueman bowled short all the same. England lost the series 1-0, and Dexter's final Test as captain coincided with Trueman getting to the 300-Test-wicket mark.
Calamity then struck midway through the summer of 1965. Then 30, Dexter had spent the day at Newbury races, but his car ran out of petrol on a roundabout below Chiswick flyover in London. Trying to push the car off the road, he lost control and his leg was badly broken. Thanks to a boy passing on a bicycle, an ambulance was called and he underwent an operation later that night. That seemed that, but three years later he came out of retirement for Sussex and - perhaps the last throw of the dice for the amateur cricketer - England unsuccessfully recalled him for two Ashes Tests.
After his retirement Dexter dabbled in public relations (lacking an ability or even desire to engage in mass communication, he hardly seemed the sort for it), as a newspaper cricket pundit, and spent 1978 on the European amateur golf circuit - the year he missed the cut for the Open by the lip of the 18th hole. That he would also serve as president of MCC was almost a given, but he showed independent thought there too, championing women's equality.
There were five years, too, in cricket administration when he became chairman of selectors with England's fortunes at a low ebb in 1988. He often turned up to selection meetings in motorbike leathers. He again ached to modernise thinking, introducing specialist coaches, overseas tours for England A and Under-19s, and demanding that players reported two days before a game. But impatience with England's failings was widespread, and although Dexter proved more engaging than some who had gone before, his attempts to deal with the media could seem both vague and insouciant, and as such, were doomed to failure. Whether it was explaining away a defeat by suggesting, in mock astrologer's terminology, that "Venus was in juxtaposition to somewhere else", announcing a study into Kolkata's smog levels, or revealing, straight-faced, that there would be an enquiry into facial hair, his mild eccentricities were easily lampooned and did him no favours. He retired again, hurt rather than resentful, a little unfulfilled and not entirely understood.
Published: August 26, 2021
David Hopps remembers the late, great England cricketer, who died aged 86 this week - produced with permission from ESPNcricinfo
TED DEXTER: 1935-2021