Wisden Obituary - Dennis Silk

Dennis Silk

SILK, DENNIS RAOUL WHITEHALL, CBE, JP, who died on June 19, aged 87, announced himself by hitting hundreds in successive Varsity Matches. In 1953, he guided Cambridge to an against-the-clock victory with a thrilling assault on Oxford's bowling; a less eye-catching innings the following year was more true to type. "He was stubborn," said his opening partner Mike Bushby. "He sold his wicket dearly."

Silk went into teaching, but played for Somerset in the holidays. Had he been available full-time, he would almost certainly have become captain. "He was a man of gentle voice, charm and authority," wrote the Somerset historian David Foot. In 1968, Silk became warden (headmaster) of Radley College in Oxfordshire. It was at a low ebb, but he transformed it into one of the leading private schools in the country: John Rae, his counterpart at Westminster, said Radley became "after Eton, the most sought-after school in England".

Silk maintained his links with cricket and, a prominent MCC committee member, supported ties with South Africa; he later became the first president to serve for two years, in a short-lived experiment. In the mid-1990s, he was chairman of the Test and County Cricket Board (the predecessor of the ECB) at a time when England were in perpetual crisis.

He was born in Eureka, California, where his father was working as a medical missionary to the Hupa Indians. His Spanish mother died when he was a small boy, and he was brought up by his grandmother in north London. Silk was educated at Christ's Hospital, West Sussex, where he was head boy and a talented sportsman. He first opened the batting with Bushby in two schools matches at Lord's in August 1949. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

At Cambridge, where he studied history at Sidney Sussex College, Silk won a Blue at rugby and a half-Blue at fives - John Pretlove, later of Kent, was a regular doubles partner-and made his first-class debut against Free Foresters in 1952, his only appearance that summer. The following year, he made centuries against Free Foresters and MCC (a career-best 126). But it was his performance in the Varsity Match that made headlines.

On the last day, he batted five and a quarter hours for an unbeaten 116, but Cambridge's apparent reluctance to chase 238 produced slow handclaps. With eight wickets down - and his captain Robin Marlar, fresh to the crease, telling him to play for a draw - he went on the attack. "Silk, all at once emerging from his protective shell, now pressed Cambridge past the post in a furious assault of driving completely out of context with all that had gone before," wrote Geoffrey Green in The Times. Cambridge won with three minutes to spare.

In 1954, he made a hundred against the county champions, Surrey, and hit his second Varsity Match century in a draw dominated by M. J. K. Smith's unbeaten 201. Silk was captain of Cambridge in 1955, leading them to wins over Sussex, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. For a time he lived with an aunt in Somerset, which enabled him to qualify for the county. He made his debut in 1956, and instantly felt at home. "He loved playing for Somerset," said Bushby. "He loved the humour and banter of the professionals."

In later life, Silk's after-dinner speeches frequently included stories about colourful team-mates such as Bill Alley or Maurice Tremlett. "He mixed well with the rest of us and, unlike most amateurs, he was worth his place," said off-spinner Brian Langford. "The greatest compliment I can pay Dennis is that the rest of the team treated him like a professional." Silk advised the Somerset committee that Tremlett should be appointed captain in 1956, rather than the amateur Alan Shirreff.

He led MCC tours to North America in 1959 and New Zealand in 1960-61, displaying his easy talent for bringing people together. "He was popular, and also liked by the opposition because they all enjoyed his speeches," said Bob Barber, who went on both tours. Silk was a dogged, front-foot player, but became more expansive. "He was very determined - and he carried that into every aspect of his life," said Barber. He played for Somerset until 1960, making just one hundred, against Glamorgan at Cardiff Arms Park in 1956. In his last first-class match in England, he scored 119 for the Gentlemen against the Players at Scarborough.

While at Cambridge, Silk was introduced to the poet Siegfried Sassoon, and the friendship blossomed after he took up his first teaching post at Marlborough College. Sassoon developed Silk's love of English literature, and he passed it on to his pupils. He once asked for an example of alliteration: a young Christopher Martin-Jenkins proffered "Stupendous Statham skittles Springboks", from that morning's Daily Express. Silk confessed he was hoping for something more literary. He began to reshape Radley on arrival, impressing the staff at first meeting because he had memorised their names and duties. Against some opposition, he approved a fly-on-the-wall BBC documentary - possibly remembering a short promotional film during his time at Marlborough, when he banged a gong at the start, in the manner of the Rank films, clad only in his jockstrap.

He joined the MCC committee in 1966, and defended the club when the D'Oliveira Affair erupted four years later. At short notice, he was asked to speak at the special general meeting called by a group of rebel members, led by David Sheppard, one of his closest friends at university. "We do not stand as the social conscience of Great Britain any more than our government stands as the social conscience of the world," said Silk. In The Guardian, John Arlott wrote: "Dennis Silk introduced a note of personal acrimony towards David Sheppard, which if one sensed the feeling of the meeting aright, did the committee's case very little good with the audience in the hall." MCC won all three votes that night; the rift between the two men was healed soon afterwards.

Silk became TCCB chairman in October 1994, months after Ray Illingworth had been made chairman of selectors. He was a supporter of Illingworth's attempt to expand his influence, which meant the sacking of England manager Keith Fletcher after the 3-1 Ashes defeat in 1994-95. "I was disappointed about the lack of progress some of our players were making, and felt you were sometimes too kind to them," he wrote to Fletcher. But Silk stood down after two years because he lacked support for a national academy. "Surely the best of the elite can be developed so much better at a centre," he said. "South Africa, New Zealand and Sri Lanka all have them. Areas like technique, fitness, nutrition could be explored. It seems self-evident."

His departure came months after England's abysmal performance at the 1996 World Cup. "If our team keeps going the way it has been, then our game will die," he said. "All you will have left behind will be village and club cricket." But he did not lose his love for the sport, or his popularity. Bushby said it became impossible for him and Silk to chat during a day at a match. "Everybody wanted a bit of him - everywhere you went, he knew people."

© John Wisden & Co.