Ted Dexter, born May 15, 1935, was one of the most fascinating characters of English cricket with fearless stroke-play, dashing image and debonair attitude. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was at his very best against high quality fast bowling, and was further characterised by his love for life, specifically golf, racehorses and bikes.
The inimitable Lord Ted
Few cricketers have tickled the fantasy of onlookers with their absolute nonchalance against fast bowling as did Ted Dexter. The balls came at him at furious speed — hurled by Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, propelled across by Alan Davidson and Graham McKenzie. And Dexter stood tall, with feline grace and raw power, and drove them back, treating the bowling with a disdain it seldom deserved.
Who can forget the Lord’s Test of 1963 — one of the greatest ever played. With Hall and Griffith charging in, England lost John Edrich for a duck, without a run on the board. Captain Dexter walked out to face the world’s most feared pair of bowlers bowling at their fastest. And he proceeded to hook, cut and essay those thundering drives, in a scintillating display of audacity. When Garry Sobers trapped him leg before, Dexter had raced to 70 from 75 balls, out of a total of 102.
Dexter often batted like the cavalier amateur of the old school, delighting the spectators and often bruising the hands of the fielders with his enormously powerful drives and cuts. And like the true romantic among batsmen he could often succumb to the bowling due to his absolute refusal to treat even the best with any semblance of respect. It was breath-taking, brilliant and could be frustrating.
When he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1961, the Almanack noted: “Few batsmen announce themselves as Dexter did when batting for Sussex against Surrey at The Oval last summer. His first ball, from the pavilion end, was slightly over-pitched on middle and leg. Feet moved fractionally, head hardly at all, but the bat swung the ball for six over long-leg and they fetched it back from the seats under the gasholder.”
However, he was no mere dasher. Five of his nine hundreds in Test cricket turned out to be over 150. The Australians, following their perennial penchant for mockery, did not take him too seriously before he batted almost six hours at Birmingham to save the Test with an impeccable innings of 180. Later, as captain, he took 93 and 52 off them at Melbourne in the course of a memorable Test victory, which he recounted later as his most satisfying knocks. Dexter could be superb against spin as well. He was perhaps the only English batsman to have mastered Derek Underwood, scoring heavily against the left arm spinner when Sussex played Kent.
He was a thinker too. Fred Trueman recalled that Dexter as captain had more theories than Charles Darwin. As captain of Sussex, he adapted to the novelty of the one-day game with remarkable ease, establishing fielding positions that were original and effective. Perhaps Dexter had the biggest influence in the development of the modern game.
Yet, when things did not happen on the field, and one or two striking moves did not pay off, Dexter was known to get bored. He switched off, standing in the field, practicing his golf swings. Yes, he was a scratch golfer, and went on to write books about golfing techniques. During the 1962-63 tour of Australia, he played a foursome with Norman Von Nida, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, while Colin Cowdrey acted as his caddy. The professionals were impressed enough to offer a trip to America to become a tournament golfer. Besides, he had a passion for speed — with motor bikes, jaguars, greyhounds and race horses. He used to carry a portable television, then a rare commodity in those days, to watch races in dressing rooms. Once he declared a Sussex innings from the Brighton Racecourse.
Perhaps it was his impatience and lack of focus, that strain of the amateur that kept him from becoming one of the best captains of England.
But, whenever one saw him in the field, batting with his sublime mix of grace and strength, bowling the often effective medium-paced swing, cutting off strokes at cover-point or merely standing there in his flannels, with his blue cap perched on his head, on the green field under the English sun, one could not help being charmed by the aristocratic bearing. No wonder he was named ‘Lord Ted’.
From Milan to Malay to Paris to Melbourne
Edward Ralph Dexter was born in Milan, Italy, where his father was a businessman. He was merely three, when, along with his many siblings, he was taken to England as the Second World War was about to break out. His parents returned to Milan to close shop, and just about managed to squeeze out on the last boat, with one suitcase between them which they had to leave in Nice, to collect at the end of the War.
His father, Major RM Dexter, had served in the First World War and was too old to join action in the second worldwide mayhem. However, being fluent in Italian, he was drafted as an intelligence officer. He worked in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and little Dexter hopped from school to school before settling down in Radley.
Initially a wicket-keeper and later captain of the first eleven, Dexter was drafted for National Service as second lieutenant and served during the Malayan Emergency in 1956-57. He later recalled those days with a sense of nostalgia, tinged with a flavour of adventure and free spirit, the period when he overcame his constant attacks of hay-fever.
Returning to England, he enrolled in Jesus College, Cambridge. He earned his Blues in cricket, developed lifelong passion for golf and also played a lot of rugby, but, in the end, he failed to obtain a degree. Yet, he looked back at the period as days well spent, since it was cricket and golf which took him places and helped him earn a living.
Dexter made his First-Class debut for Cambridge University, playing against a Surrey attack of Peter Loader, Jim Laker, Tony Lock and Eric Bedser. His second match was against Yorkshire and he ended up facing Fred Trueman, Johnny Wardle and Bob Appleyard. And in his third game, he was pitted against the bowling of Brian Statham and Roy Tattersall of Lancashire. County cricket was a tough affair in those days.
He spent his holidays playing golf in Italy, and for a while it did look as if the drives would continue to rain on the stationary ball, but finally cricket won through. Born in Italy, Dexter could play for any county, and ultimately it was Sussex who successfully wooed him. The wicket at Hove suited his medium pace, and on occasions it was good enough to post good scores.
Dexter made his Test debut against New Zealand at Manchester in 1958, and launched a fierce counter-attack alongside skipper Peter May. He struck six fours and two sixes in his quick 52, and added 82 with May as England cruised to an innings win. Unfortunately, the selectors had already decided on the team to travel to Australia that winter, and Dexter was not in it. EW Swanton, rooting for his selection, disclosed that Dexter’s omission had prompted a correspondent to write to him calling the selectors, “Blind fools, triple bandaged moles.”
While at Cambridge, Dexter had come across Susan Georgina Longfield in a University party. Susan’s father was Tom Longfield, a Kent cricketer who had turned out for Bengal in seven Ranji Trophy matches between 1937-39. Much more importantly for Dexter, Susan was a stunner who later worked as a model. Dexter decided to marry her on sight.
In late 1958 he was in Paris where his wife was working as a model when Peter May’s injury hit side required his services. Dexter was flown in but was a failure. It was his Parisian clothes rather than his bat that made a stir in the country. However, he did make his first Test hundred in the New Zealand leg of the tour.
The good years
Returning to England, Dexter was stricken by jaundice and it was mainly Gubby Allen’s overwhelming support that got him picked for the tour of West Indies. He was slowly eased into the matches as his body recovered. Dexter hit an unbeaten 136 at Barbados and followed it up with 77 at Trinidad and 110 at Guyana. He was established as a top class player of genuine pace bowling and never looked back.
In the next summer, he was appointed captain of Sussex. It was the 1961 summer that saw Dexter burst forth as superstar. At Edgbaston, with England needing 321 runs to avoid innings defeat against Australia, Dexter cracked 31 boundaries to score 180 — securing a draw. It was his last ditch effort to get a double ton that got him stumped off Bobby Simpson in the final minutes. Ray Robinson wrote: “Few hundreds have filled such a yawning gap… Dexter so dominated a stand with (Ken) Barrington that more than two-thirds of the 161 runs came from his masterful bat before he was stumped trying to lift Simpson’s leg-break on to some distant fairway.”
In the famous Fourth Test at Old Trafford Dexter scored 76 in 84 minutes with 14 fours and a six before snicking Richie Benaud to Wally Grout. He left the crease with England needing 106 to win with eight wickets in hand. Two balls later Peter May was bowled round the legs, and England lost by 54 runs.
Dexter became the captain of England when both May and Cowdrey made themselves unavailable for the tour to the subcontinent. England won in Pakistan, but lost the five match series in India by 2-0. Dexter ended the tour with a career-best 205 in Karachi.
Back in England, there was a curious manoeuvre by the selectors after the retirement of Peter May. Dexter led in two Tests against Pakistan, Cowdrey in the third, before Dexter again led in the final two matches. It did not matter in the long run, though, with England winning the series 4-0 and Dexter amassing 446 runs at 89.20
When England travelled to Australia in 1962-63, Dexter was appointed the full-time captain.The series ended in a draw, but Dexter demonstrated some wonderful form, equalling Patsy Hendren’s English record of six consecutive half centuries, and amassing 481 runs at 48.10. This included the match winning effort at Melbourne, and by the end of the tour Tom Goodman wrote, “After his thunderous Melbourne display Dexter was a magnet; the first thing people wanted to know about a team selection was: ‘Is Dexter playing?’…Batting against South Australia, he lifted the ball onto the high roof of the members stand – a tremendous hit. Some of his drives along the ground just could not be stopped, even when they went straight to a fieldsman.”
In the tour match between the MCC and an Australian XI, Dexter hit 102 in 110 minutes, with two sixes and 13 fours. John Woodcock of The Times wrote “I doubt if it is possible to hit a cricket ball any harder than Dexter did today. Melbourne is a huge ground and no one who hits a six here is likely to forget it. Against Veivers, an off-spinner, Dexter twice cleared the sight screen, once by a good 20 yards.” In the Test at Adelaide, Dexter hit “a six from a gigantic hit onto the roof of the stand – one of the biggest hits ever seen at the ground.”
The name ‘Dexter’ made heads turn during the trip in other ways as well. Fred Trueman recalled, “Ted Dexter’s wife arrived in Australia. Ted’s wife was a looker and a model. She is a very lovely lady, but on hearing of her arrival, when Ted faced the press, the majority of questions posed were about his wife…during an England cricket team press conference!”
Yet, the tour also generated some harsh criticism of his captaincy. Australia came back from a 0-1 deficit by winning in Sydney, and it was Dexter’s obstinacy in persisting with a pace attack that proved the undoing of the English side. Trueman even volunteered to step down in favour of an extra spinner, but Dexter refused. In the end, Fred Titmus took seven wickets in the first innings, with Dexter having to turn to Barrington as a second spinner. If David Allen or Ray Illingworth had played, it might have been a different story. The match ended on the fourth day, in the midst of rain. Had Dexter not put himself on and conceded 27 runs in 26 balls, the game could have been pushed into the morrow—and it rained all through the scheduled fifth day. While Benaud was determined to hold on to the Ashes, it seemed Dexter was content with squaring the series.
Dexter was back at his charismatic best as captain, leading from the front in that famous 1963 series against Frank Worrell’s West Indians. England lost the series, but the captain won and fluttered a lot of hearts with courageous batting and exciting cricket. In 1963 and 1964, he led Sussex to wins in the newly established Gillette Cup One Day tournament – the first two trophies in the long history of the county.
However, soon he was criticised again — during the 1964 Ashes series. With Fred Titmus running through the side, and Australia reduced to 178 for seven, Dexter took off his spinner, put Trueman on and handed him the new ball. The fast bowler kept bowling short and Peter Burge hooked his way to 160. Australia took a big lead and won the Test, the only result in the five match series. Dexter did score 174 in the next Test at Old Trafford, but the Ashes was lost.
End of career
Dexter’s multiple interests got better of his cricket when in 1964-65 he stood down from the tour of South Africa.He was contestingfuture Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s Cardiff South East seat in the 1964 General Election.His campaign ended in a dismal defeat, and it left him free to go for the cricket tour. He ultimately travelled as the deputy of Mike Smith. He scored heavily on the trip, including 172 at Johannesburg, his ninth and final Test hundred, but he never led England again.
Dexter was crushed out of serious cricket by his other pet passion — his Jaguar. Having run out of petrol in West London, he was pushing it along when he got pinned by it to a warehouse door. His leg was broken and that virtually ended his career.
He tried a brief comeback, but failure in the 1968 Ashes series prompted him to give up international cricket.
Dexter called it a day with 4502 runs in 62 Tests, at an average of 47.89. With his medium-pace, he also captured 66 wickets at 34.93 apiece.
The many faces of Dexter
After retirement, Dexter worked as a journalist and formed his own Public Relations firm. He spent time with his Jaguars, racy motorbikes, greyhounds and race horses. In 1970, he flew his own Aztec BPA-23 Pommies Progress to Australia to cover the Ashes series as a journalist.
In 1976, when West Indies toured England, Dexter launched ‘Testkill’ an eminently forgettable crime novel co-authored with Clifford Makins, in which an Australian bowler is murdered during a Test match against England at Lord’s.
In 1987, along with statisticians Gordon Vince and Rob Eastaway, Dexter was instrumental in developing a ranking system for Test cricketers. It was launched as the Deloittes Ratings, and has now gained lasting prominence as the International Cricket Council (ICC) player rankings. In an article in The Cricketer, Dexter observed: “The rankings idea was my biggest contribution to cricket. Much better than being known for hitting a couple of extra-cover drives.”
Dexter served as the Chairman of Selectors for England from 1989, and under his reign some curious decisions were taken. He championed the use of four fast bowlers and no spinner at Headingley, and advocated putting Australia in, which saw the visitorspile up over 600. For the next Test he wrote an inspirational hymn forthe England cricketers to sing, and called it “Onward Gower’s Soldiers”. He even appointed a team chaplain. He himself, however, remained aloof from the players and seldom visited the dressing room. At the end of the summer he joked that the Ashes defeat was because “lines of Venus were in the wrong juxtaposition”.
Gower was eventually removed and Graham Gooch was made captain.Things had come a full circle for Dexter. When the Essex batsman had been appointed captain previously, Dexter had had remarked that the decision was like “being hit in the face by a dead fish”. However, the two forged a working relationship. England did have some success in the next few years, and it included reaching the final at the World Cup. But, his stint ended with a 3-0 brownwash in India, perhaps rekindling memories of his first trip as captain.
In 2001, Dexter was appointed president of the MCC, and served as chairman of the establishment’s cricket committee until 2003. Forever known as Lord Ted, he was awarded the CBE in the 2001 New Year Honours.
In his late seventies, Dexter remains as full of life and speed as ever, riding fast bikes to this day and maintaining a low golf handicap. His attitude towards life is perhaps apparent from a simple facet of his website. His biography on the page comes in two versions — the short and the long. While the long one categorically states his honours and achievements, the shorter version simply reads “International Sportsman and jolly good egg.”
That is how the most charismatic of all cricketers would like to be remembered.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)