Ted Dexter was the aristocrat adventurer who helped modernise English cricket

Back in 1997, Ted Dexter was at the Hay Literary Festival to promote the latest of the dozen or so books that would appear under his name. At the last moment the scheduled interviewer had to pull out; nearby alternatives proving elusive, the organisers ordered a taxi to bring the cricket writer Rob Steen from London to the Welsh Marches sharpish.

Aside from the cricketing connection, the two could hardly have had less in common. Dexter was tall, Tory, aristocratic in his bearing, seemingly aloof, quietly devout in his Christianity; Steen – not tall, leftie, down-to-earth, chatty, Jewish. Afterwards, having already stretched Hay’s budget, Rob blagged a lift back from Ted in his cream Rolls-Royce convertible.

He sat behind Ted and his model wife Susan, who stoically bore their cricket talk. Rob was enthralled by it all, most especially the sheer originality of Dexter’s thoughts on the game. “The best journey of my life,” he calls it.

Dexter, who died on Wednesday aged 86, was many of the things his image suggested. The title “Lord Edward” stuck to him from schooldays. He was an adventurer in the Battle-of-Britain mould: brave, extravagantly gifted, a risk-taker. He brought the air of a boulevardier to the cricket field and to pre-swinging London, where he turned up in white tie and tails with Susan to the pioneering discotheque run by Hélène Cordet and they looked so magnificent she refused to charge them.

Ted was perhaps the most cosmopolitan of all England captains. He was born in Milan where his father worked until Anglo-Italian relations were rudely interrupted four years later. His final and fascinating autobiography (85 Not Out), which appeared last year, begins: “I’d always liked Nice”.

He then told the story of the penultimate phase of his life when he moved to France in 2003. Somehow with Ted there was usually grit in the oyster. Their southbound sleeper compartment was burgled and they lost almost everything; two days later Susan got mugged and a brigand stole what little was left. But they picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and stayed for 12 years.

His life always had a theatrical vulnerability. This was a man who had his leg broken by his own Jaguar, an injury that marked the beginning of the end of his too-brief on-field career. He was often seen as brusque, which those who knew him understood as shyness. His younger brother David was a Down’s baby; he devoted much energy to his care which helped ensure that empathy lurked below the forbidding exterior. In the press box, reporting for the Sunday Mirror, he was charming.

After cricket, his life was picaresque. He was just too good at too many things: in 1978 he was a lipped-out putt short of qualifying for the Open golf. And he was always bored by mundane cricket. Above all he was an ideas man, and that would be his greatest contribution to the game, even above his scorching off-drive.

He began in the twilight of the amateur player and indeed was presented as the embodiment of the debonair amateur (in practice often paid more than any professional). When the distinction was abolished before the 1963 season, he cheered. That same summer he embraced the Gillette Cup, the first and brilliantly successful incarnation of one-day cricket, mastering the new strategies and leading Sussex to victory in the first two finals.

He set up his own PR company and became entranced by data. Annoyed by the BBC’s clunky on-screen cricket graphics he persuaded reluctant executives to partner Honeywell into doing them better. Fascinated by golf rankings and aware of the deficiency of cricket averages as a benchmark, he was taken by an article in the Cricketer by a young mathematician from Deloitte, Rob Eastaway, suggesting a simulation that was light years ahead of Owzat – and diffidently asked him to lunch. “He just made one of those Ted-like connections,” said Eastaway. And thus began the first sophisticated player rankings, with Deloitte as the sponsor.

In politics, he failed and got mashed by the incoming chancellor Jim Callaghan in the 1964 general election; Callaghan thought him a rum choice for a rugged Cardiff inner-city seat. He was also perceived as a failure when he spent five years as chairman of England selectors from 1998. Most of the press monstered him for his so-called gaffes and missed his quiet work modernising the system: central contracts, A-team matches, four-day county cricket – though he partially regretted that one and later suggested a mix of three and four.

In 1970, he flew his own little plane to Australia to cover the Ashes tour for the Sunday Mirror, family in tow (24 stops). It was hairy at times but he knew what he was doing. He served in the Malayan jungle. He rode motorbikes and punted like mad (until he weaned himself off). Aged 85, he beat his age round Sunningdale. He was still handsome, looking a touch like Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.

And mark this. Society weddings between celebrity sportsmen and top models are not normally strong foundations for lasting marriages. Ted and Susan were a devoted couple for 62 years, parted only by death. What a cricketer, what a man, what a life.

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