With the death of John Woodcock, at the age of 94, the world of cricket has lost not just one of its greatest writers, but one of its best-loved characters.
Woodcock was the cricket correspondent of the Times from 1954, when Len Hutton’s England team went to Australia and won the Ashes, to 1987, when Mike Gatting called a Pakistani umpire names that the Times could not bring itself to print. Woodcock’s fellow correspondents, past and present, can usually be relied upon to have a lively debate about everything from Joe Root’s captaincy to the case for the Hundred, but on hearing of his death they all tweeted with one voice.
“The finest of all cricket writers,” said Mike Selvey, the former England seamer whose stint as the Guardian’s cricket correspondent (1987-2016) was almost as long as Woodcock’s at the Times. “The Doyen. The Godfather. You wanted context, he could provide it because he’d seen so much.”
“One of cricket’s greatest friends and writers,” said Derek Pringle, who was an England swing bowler before becoming the cricket correspondent of the Independent and then the Daily Telegraph. “John Woodcock was the kind of scribe we’d all like to be – elegant, informative and generous with a beautiful turn of phrase.”
“One of the finest of cricket writers,” said Mike Atherton, the former England batsman and captain who has filled Woodcock’s old shoes at the Times since 2008. “And wonderful company.” When Woodcock turned 90, in 2016, Atherton interviewed him for their paper and called him “the most illustrious cricket correspondent of the Times”.
“Beautiful writer, lovely man,” said John Etheridge, the long-serving cricket correspondent of the Sun. “Lived in same house in Longparish all his life and, because his family had children late, his grandfather [is] believed to have been born during Battle of Waterloo!”
“The very best of all cricket writers,” said Stephen Brenkley, former cricket correspondent of the Independent on Sunday. “His economy, clarity and observation were peerless. Top raconteur too and wonderfully generous to me when I started on cricket in 1979.”
“He was a great writer,” said Simon Wilde, the current cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times. “Simple style, utterly authoritative. Did not really do ‘news’, but his pieces contained all you needed to know. Some other cricket correspondents of his generation were more celebrated but he was the best.”
“One of the greatest cricket writers,” said Peter Baxter, the producer of the BBC’s Test Match Special from 1973 to 2007. “The most delightful and witty companion.” It’s one thing to be an idol to your fellow writers, and another to impress the colleagues in the office who handle your copy, but Woodcock did that too.
“He was the poet laureate of cricket writers and a cherished figure on the Times sports desk that I was part of in the 1980s,” said Simon O’Hagan, who was the deputy sports editor there before becoming sports editor of the Independent on Sunday. “His mastery of rhythm and structure was such that one sub-editor said of him, ‘He puts all the commas in first’.”
If Woodcock had a fault in the eyes of his fellow pros, it was that he was too self-effacing. Had he been here to read all this acclaim, he would have been looking mildly embarrassed and murmuring: “What nonsense!”