The tragedy of Wilf Slack, one of cricket’s true gents

St Vincent sits just over the water from St Lucia, the scene of England’s third Test triumph last week.
It was there, in this little corner of paradise, that a former England opener first picked up a bat and felt the thrill
of leather on willow.

He would eventually move to High Wycombe at the age of 12 before returning to the Caribbean to enjoy his finest moment as a cricketer during an otherwise dismal tour of the West Indies in early 1986.

The left-handed Wilf Slack was a reassuring presence at the top of the Middlesex order for the best part of a decade between his debut in 1977 and his final match in 1988. For much of that period, he was undoubtedly one of the best opening batsman in the country.

But those two Tests against the West Indies – as well as a solitary match against India at Headingley that summer – represented the height of a career that would be tragically cut short fewer than three years later, on a cricket pitch in the Gambia, where Slack was touring with the Cavaliers in January 1989.

He was 35 not out when he collapsed. He would not play another shot or draw breath again.

Angus Fraser, Slack’s former Middlesex team-mate, was in Australia when he heard the news, relayed not by Twitter or WhatsApp, but in a local newspaper some days later.

“I was staying in Sydney and was sleeping on a mattress on the floor because the bed was a rickety old thing,” he tells The Cricket Paper.

“I remember lying in bed reading the newspaper one morning and just saying, ‘oh no’. My girlfriend asked me what happened, I told her that Wilf had died. Even though he had had his health problems, the news still came as a massive shock.

“He had had some issues the previous summer – he had kept collapsing and people were struggling to get to the bottom of it.

“It was terrible, terrible news because he genuinely was one of the nicest men you could wish to meet.”

Perhaps modern screening techniques would have identified the nature of Slack’s health issues but back in the late Eighties, there was little idea of what was causing his blackouts despite exhaustive investigations.

Fraser recalls that Slack would be back in the Middlesex team relatively soon after each episode and that life would carry on as usual, despite what was clearly a developing and concerning issue.

“Wilf would get these flu-like symptoms where he would get very, very chesty and really wouldn’t be very well,” he says.

“It was like he had a bad cold – then he would collapse and by the time he came round, the problem had gone.

“It was very strange.

“Wilf was such a quiet and dignified man that he never dramatised his problems. He just got on with it, that was the nature of him really. He was the English gent in many ways, he didn’t want to be the centre of attention, he just wanted to get back out there playing cricket.

“Back then, he would be out there playing a couple of weeks after each episode. He would say he was fine and he would just get on with it. I’m not sure anyone really appreciated the seriousness of it.

“Now we’re much more aware, we know so much more. In those days, it was horrible to see but you just assumed he was going to be okay. Obviously, on that final occasion he wasn’t.”

The exact cause of Slack’s death remain unclear, although a heart attack is often put forward as the most likely explanation. Whatever the reason, his passing was greeted with an outpouring of emotion, not just at Lord’s but across the cricket world – from New Zealand, where he had coached for five winters to his home island in the Caribbean.

St Vincent’s Arnos Vale ground is now home to the Wilf Slack Nets, while there have been intermittent campaigns for a more permanent memorial to a cricketer who enjoyed two winters playing for the Windward Islands in 1982 and 1983.

It was his performances closer to home, though, that have ensured he remains part of the fabric of Middlesex. As the funeral cortege drove past Lord’s all those years ago, the Grace Gates carried a sign reading: Farewell Wilf.

Slack was buried in his England blazer with a bat at his side. Middlesex members who were there will also recall how his last innings for the county was a typically gritty 80 against Chris Cowdrey’s Kent in September 1988, shortly after the county had lifted the NatWest Trophy.

No-one knew it at the time but as he walked off the field waving his bat to the members huddled in the Lord’s pavilion on that autumn day, he wasn’t simply acknowledging their applause. He was saying goodbye.


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