Wilf Slack © Getty Images
Wilf Slack © Getty Images

The Middlesex mainstay Wilf Slack was born on December 12, 1954. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a cricketer’s life that was nipped in the bud due to medical negligence.

In the topsy-turvy days when England cricket went through the ups of winning the Ashes and the downs of being whitewashed by West Indies, there was in Middlesex a batsman from St. Vincent who had earned a name for being the epitome of serenity and composure, of unflinching courage and unwavering concentration.

Simon Hughes wrote of him in A Lot of Hard Yakka: “Wilf Slack, a reserved Windward Islander who never betrayed any nerves despite the daily task of standing up to some of the fastest bowlers in the world, rarely said anything when he came back into the dressing-room. He’d sit down, quietly unbuckle his pads, and carefully lay them to rest in his case, then stare glumly into space for a while. He was deeply religious, which was possibly an explanation for such contemplation.”

In the all-conquering Middlesex dressing-room that had the short-tempered Mike Gatting, the ever-apologetic Paul Downton and John Emburey, the complaining Graham Barlow, and the eccentric Phil Edmonds, Wilfred Norris Slack brought a sense of calm and sanity, especially in the post-Mike Brearley era.

Slack was one of the best catchers of the era in the bat-pad region. Unlike most men who have made the least-wanted spot in the ground memorable, Slack seldom backed away or shied away even if the ball was hit hard; he was brave, had excellent reflexes, and was an asset to the Middlesex side whether it was a speedster like Wayne Daniel bowling or a spinner in the form of Edmonds or Emburey.

A composed left-handed batsman at the top of the order, Slack was more solid than graceful; with Barlow he formed one of the best opening pairs in the County Championship circuit during the era. He was a shade below his best at the highest level, but for Middlesex he was indispensable once he gained in stature.

Brian Carpenter wrote in Cricket Lore: “To those who watched him play for Middlesex as the eighties unfolded, he became the byword for a particular brand of batting as Brearley and later Barlow faded from the scene.  Calm, classy, unruffled, and invariably prolific; the sort of player you didn’t always notice when he was there but missed badly when he wasn’t.”

From 237 First-Class matches Slack scored 13,950 runs at 38.96 with 25 hundreds. More impressively, he held 174 catches at a very high catches-per-match ratio. An enthusiastic (but not very efficient) military-medium pacer, Slack also picked up 21 wickets at 32.76. He also played 3 Tests and 2 ODIs but without any success to speak of.

Early days

Slack was born in Troumaca, St. Vincent. He grew up among his relatives till he joined his parents in the United Kingdom at the age of 12. The family settled down in High Wycombe, and Slack soon earned a name in school cricket, gradually making it to village cricket for Frieth.

Slack soon earned a contract with High Wycombe Cricket Club [HYCC] and became one of the stars of the side. His HYCC colleague John Rolfe later told me: “It is easy to think in terms of modern club cricket when describing Wilf’s move from Frieth to High HWCC when mentioning that he was offered a contract at HWCC. In fact in those days there were few contracts if any around in club cricket in the south and in Wilf’s case he simply joined the club on the same terms as anyone else: he paid an annual subscription and match fees.”

It was during this phase Slack was spotted by Middlesex coach Don Bennett. What Slack did afterwards is hard to believe for a cricketer of the 2000s. He played for Middlesex as well as for HWCC (every weekend, paying match fees), much to the bewilderment of the his Middlesex Second XI colleagues — for whom this was an alien concept.

In the match against Guildford, he was up against a certain David Frith in 1976. Frith later wrote in Caught England, Bowled Australia: “I got a finger to a sizzling return early on, but two hours later he was 150-odd not out, cool and calm, and pleasant, modest company at the bar that evening.”

Slack got a call-up for Buckinghamshire that season and became a regular for Middlesex Second XI and Middlesex Under-25s. He made his First-Class debut next season against Cambridge University at Fenner’s, scoring 17 and 4 in a low-scoring match.

With Brearley and Barlow forming a solid opening stand at top of the order, Slack was not a regular in the side, more so for his indifferent form. He played 29 matches in his first four seasons, crossing the fifty-mark only twice. In the winter of 1981, he was a part of Middlesex’s touring side to Zimbabwe, where he scored 60 in the first match and 94 in the third.

 The career-defining summer

The Ashes of 1981 (the season when Slack won the Middlesex cap) saw England performing terribly under Ian Botham and the mid-series appointment of Brearley as the replacement captain. Everyone knows the rest — the way Brearley mastered his troops and the amazing resurgence of Botham in the second half of the series.

When Botham and Graham Dilley (on July 20) made one of the most amazing fightbacks and Bob Willis (on July 21) was scripting a miracle at Headingley, another rearguard action was taking place several miles away at Lord’s. Things had looked gloomy for Middlesex in the absence of Brearley: after being shot out for 108 by Hartley Alleyne, the hosts had conceded a lead of 237 to Worcestershire. When Alleyne consumed Barlow and Clive Radley without a run on the board things looked particularly gloomy for Middlesex.

There was no counter-attack. Slack grafted and grafted and grafted; there were fifties from Roland Butcher and Keith Tomlins, and a cameo from Edmonds, the stand-in skipper. But it was Slack who survived the initial burst from Alleyne and then blunted Dipak Patel and Norman Gifford. He eventually scored 248 not out as Edmonds declared on 444 for 7, and it took a partnership between Phil Neale and Glenn Turner to see the tourists to safety. It remained Slack’s highest First-Class score.

The ascent had started in the previous match against Kent, also at home. Middlesex were bowled out for 167 (Slack top-scored with 56) and conceded a 117-run lead when Barlow and Slack walked out to bat on the second afternoon. Edmonds declared the innings 87 overs later.

Both Slack (181) and Barlow (174) remained unbeaten, adding 367 between them against Derek Underwood, John Shepherd, and Kevin Jarvis. This remained the highest opening partnership for Middlesex till the unlikely pair of Gatting and Justin Langer added 372 against Essex in 1998.

As England won the most astonishing of contests at the biggest of stages, Slack cemented his place at the top of the Middlesex batting line-up. He soon had a run where he crossed 60 six times in a row including a 130. He finished the season with 1,372 runs at 47.31, which was beyond anything expected of him.

At the request of Bill Findlay, Slack played for Windward Islands for whom he qualified by birth that winter. He had four quiet matches, where his best performance came against a strong Barbados line-up at Kensington Oval: set to chase 241 in the fourth innings against Wayne Daniel, Ezra Moseley, and Albert Padmore, Slack top-scored with 68 not out, and with a 48-run partnership with Lockhart Sebastien and 113 more with Norbert Phillip, he saw the tourists home.

With Brearley’s retirement, Slack found a permanent spot at the top of the order. He kept on crossing the 1,000 run-mark with an average over 40 season after season, and was a part of the Championship-winning Middlesex side of 1982 and 1985 (he was also there when Middlesex had shared the title with Kent in 1977).

Slack’s insatiable appetite for runs became famous in this phase. Watching him bat in the nets was an experience. Hughes wrote that he “took time to settle before each ball and asked the bowlers to set imaginary fields, then claimed runs if he felt he’d worked the ball between the men.”

He became a part of the famous “Jackson Five” in the Middlesex camp. Hughes recalled: “Mistaken identity was something Roland Butcher, Wayne Daniel, and Wilf Slack, all of whom were black, had to put up with all the time. They were joined in the staff by two other players born in the West Indies — Norman Cowans and Neil Williams — and the whole lot of them always sat together in the dressing-room. We called them the Jackson Five. They spent an inordinate amount of time preening themselves after training, dousing their bodies in creams and lotions.”

The next stage

In the Championship-winning season of 1985 saw Slack take batsmanship to the next level: he scored 1,900 runs at 54.28 with 4 hundreds, but it was the match against the touring Australians that really grabbed the attention of the selectors. Australia fielded a full-fledged attack, complete with Jeff Thomson, Terry Alderman, Geoff Lawson, and Bob Holland: opening the batting, Slack scored 201 not out, before Gatting declared the innings closed at 397 for 4.

Earlier that season, Slack had carried his bat against Worcestershire at home, scoring 72 not out in a total of 195. With 210 to chase, he scored 40 more in the second innings, adding 81 for the first wicket with Downton, thus paving the path for a successful chase.

His excellent form (and perhaps Middlesex’s success) helped him earn a spot in England’s tour of West Indies in 1985-86. His chance came when Malcolm Marshall had Slack’s Middlesex mate Gatting’s nose rearranged with a vicious perfume ball in the first Test at Sabina Park.

International career

Slack played the second ODI of the series at Queen’s Park Oval in the absence of Gatting. After the hosts piled up 229 for 3 in 37 overs, England lost Botham early, but Slack provided Graham Gooch with the support he needed. He eventually fell for a 54-ball 34 with 3 fours and a six, adding 89 for the second stand. It turned out to be the second-highest score as Gooch, with his 129 not out, helped chase the target in the final ball.

Shortly afterwards, Slack made his Test debut at the same ground. He did not last long, scoring a 16-ball 2 before a snorter from Marshall found his edge. He was even more unfortunate in the second innings when Gooch sent him back to leave him stranded: he scored a duck.

Slack played another ODI, this time at Kensington Oval, struggling for a 31-ball 9 before Marshall had him caught-behind yet again. Meanwhile, having lost his spot for the next two Tests, he was recalled for the final Test at St. John’s.

Gooch and Slack provided England with a solid start after West Indies piled up 474. Both scored fifties, and the pair added 127 (the highest opening stand for England in the series) in 238 minutes against a fearsome bowling attack. Wisden wrote that Slack “produced an innings of the type which should have seen him included in the original sixteen.”

Slack eventually edged one to the slips off Patrick Patterson for a dogged 143-ball 52 with 6 boundaries. It remained the only fifty of his career. The Test was lit up by Viv Richards lighting up his home ground with what still remains the fastest Test hundred; England crashed to a 240-run defeat and surrendered the series 0-5. Slack was bowled by Joel Garner for 8.

With England losing to India at Lord’s in the summer, Slack replaced Tim Robinson in the second Test at Headingley. Fielding at forward short-leg he pulled off an excellent catch to dismiss Roger Binny off Emburey. He failed with the bat, being bowled by Madan Lal for a second-ball duck.

In the second innings, too, he held an outstanding catch at backward square-leg, this time off Derek Pringle to get rid of Kiran More. He did marginally better with the bat, getting a 51-ball 19 before Binny had him caught in the slips. With Dilip Vengsarkar (61 and 102*) scoring the only two scores over 40 in the Test, England lost the Test and the series. Slack never played another international match.

A composed left-handed batsman at the top of the order, Wilf Slack (above) was more solid than graceful. Along with Graham Barlow he formed one of the best opening pairs in the County Championship circuit during the era © Getty Images

Back to domestic cricket

Despite the failure in the Tests, Slack did a good job with the bat in the Championship. He still scored 1,224 runs in the season at 38.25 with 3 hundreds, the finest among which came against Yorkshire at Headingley. As Simon Dennis and Stuart Fletcher took 5 wickets apiece to bowl the tourists for 252, Slack carried his bat again with a determined 105.

Somewhat surprisingly Slack was selected for the Ashes tour that winter. He struggled (barring a match-winning 89 against Tasmania at Hobart) and was not selected for any of the Tests. Back to familiar territory, Slack scored 1,636 runs at 38.95 with 3 hundreds in 1987.

1988 saw another resurgence. He reached his epoch against Glamorgan at Lord’s, scoring 163 not out and 105 not out before the tourists hung on grimly to another draw. With a tally of 1,228 runs at 45.48 with 3 hundreds Slack’s career seemed to be back on track.

Slack scored 5 and 80 in the last match of the season against Kent at home. Little did he, or anyone, guess that it would be his last First-Class match.

The tragedy

It had started rather innocuously. In the previous two seasons Slack had blacked out four times on the ground; every time he was rushed to the hospital, but the cause of the blackout remained elusive. “He was invariably stretchered away for tests, given some time to convalesce and perhaps a week or two later given the all-clear to resume playing. Crucially, no proper diagnosis was ever achieved,” wrote Hughes.

Micky Stewart was taken aback when he saw him collapse for the first time in the nets at Hobart [during the Ashes tour mentioned above]: “One minute I looked and he was fine the next minute he had passed out and we had to rush him to hospital. There was no indication that what he was suffering from was life-threatening.”

Slack went on a tour to The Gambia for a Cavaliers XI in 1988-89 [following tours to Israel and Barbados] for a friendly tour. In a match at Banjul on January 15, 1989, Slack suddenly collapsed while batting. He was rushed to the hospital. He never recovered. He was only 34 years old.

Post-mortem reports eventually revealed a damaged artery — something that had gone unnoticed over the years. With heart screening still in its nascent stage Slack’s problem was never diagnosed. “If someone had been able to detect his fading pulse, a diagnosis would have ensued, a pacemaker fitted and he would still be alive today to tell the tale,” Hughes later wrote in The Cricketer.

Stewart was both shocked at the incident and aghast at the negligence: “He was such a popular person and when he died his death hit everyone very hard. There was no indication that what he was suffering from was life-threatening. I am appalled that there are no checks on those involved in arduous sport to confirm the cardiac health of the athlete. Cardiac screening should be introduced in cricket as part of the general health inspection process.” It took Middlesex seven years to make a pre-season ECG test compulsory.

For The Guardian Mike Selvey wrote that Slack had breathed his last in perhaps the best possible way for a cricketer and the way Slack would have preferred to have died — “with The Sun on his back and runs under his belt”. He was buried in his much-treasured England blazer with his bat beside him.

As the funeral procession went past Lord’s, they saw the Grace Gates bearing the sign Farewell Wilf in memory of their beloved “Slacky”. He was also mourned in New Zealand, where he had coached during five English winters. In 1995 the Barnett Council Ground in Finchley — where Middlesex Second XI matches are played — was renamed to Wilf Slack Ground.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)