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Doug Insole: Defying expectations with unorthodoxy – Almanack

by E. Eden 6 minute read

Doug Insole was a bold and innovative captain of Essex and a successful – if unorthodox – batsman. His feats in the summer of 1955 earned him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year award.

With amateur county cricketers nowadays something of a rarity, it was the more refreshing to find one of them, Douglas John Insole, of Essex, not only the first to reach the milestones of 1,000 and 2,000 runs last season, but the most prolific run-getter in the country. With 2,427 runs, including nine centuries – two of them in the match with Kent at Gillingham – he averaged 42.57.

Born at Clapton, Middlesex, on April 18, 1926, Insole has spent most of his life in the county he now represents, for he moved to Highams Park when four. His early cricket was of the type by which the average small boy learns the rudiments of the game – on the lawn at home with his father, a keen sports enthusiast. By the time he was eight he engaged in games of a more mature nature at Selwyn Avenue Elementary School where he stayed till 11. From there he went to the Sir George Monoux Grammar School, Walthamstow, making such progress that when 13 he appeared for both London Schoolboys and Essex Schoolboys.

Four years of wartime evacuation with the school to Leominster, Herefordshire, from 1939, interfered somewhat with his advance as a player, for what games were possible took place in rather unconventional circumstances. The effect of this did not prove lastingly detrimental and when the school returned to London he turned out for Chingford in club matches in 1943 and 1944, hitting what he terms the very occasional century. All this he accomplished with the wholehearted encouragement of his headmaster, Mr J.F. Elam, himself a cricket devotee, but without any coaching of a serious character.

This did not necessarily tell against him, for Insole considers that had the basic strokes been instilled into him, he might not have been so successful as the essentially on-side batsman which he eventually became. How coaches, themselves possibly slaves to orthodoxy, may be wrong in their judgment of a player’s capabilities was illustrated when, after two years’ Army service, Insole went up to Cambridge in 1946.

Before the start of the 1947 season the University coaches watched him in the nets at Fenner’s and informed G.L. Willatt, the University captain, that in their opinion Insole would not make a run because he hit across the ball. He confounded his critics by making many runs in the trial games and for the Crusaders and on the occasion of his first-class debut, he hit 44 from the Yorkshire bowling at Fenner’s before being run out.

Doug Insole batting for Essex in June 1954

Even so he might have not gained a Blue that year but for the repeated failure of batsmen with more established reputations. In the match with Oxford he scored 38 and 44 and he wound up the season fourth in the University averages, with 161 not out against Hampshire at Portsmouth his highest innings. That summer he began his career with Essex, to whom he had been introduced by his fellow Blue, Trevor Bailey, and he hit 109 not out from the Lancashire bowling at Clacton.

On one occasion when all recognised wicketkeepers at Cambridge were engaged upon examinations, Insole was pressed into service. He acquitted himself so well that next year, with few accredited stumpers available and those unable to make runs, he was given the position behind the stumps for almost the entire season, including the big game at Lord’s.

Doug Insole (left) walks out to bat with Colin Cowdrey during the Cape Town Test against South Africa in 1957

In 1949, his last year at the University, he led Cambridge to a great triumph by seven wickets over Oxford, a performance all against expectations, for the Light Blues fared moderately in the preliminary fixtures whereas their opponents had beaten both Yorkshire and Middlesex, the eventual joint County champions, and were the only side to lower the colours of W.A. Hadlee’s New Zealand touring team.

Coming down from Cambridge, Insole continued with Essex. His first innings for them that season was not encouraging, for he was out for a single against Leicestershire. Against Yorkshire in the following engagement, however, he hit 219 not out, which remains the highest. True, fortune favoured him, for he was missed four times, but this innings not only won for him his Essex cap, but placed him firmly upon his feet in county cricket. Actually he headed the Essex averages with 65.38. In 1950, when joint captain with T.N. Pearce, he scored more runs, 1,592, than any other member of the eleven and was chosen for England in the third Test match with West Indies.

Joe Root hands a cap to Doug Insole, the oldest living England men’s international at the time, at the England players’ dinner in February 2017

The following summer Insole took over the sole captaincy and has led Essex ever since, scoring over 1,000 runs each year. Last season he played for England in the fourth Test against South Africa and captained Gentlemen v Players at Lord’s and The Rest against the Champion County. His feat of scoring two separate centuries in a match was one he might well have achieved in 1954 against Northamptonshire at Romford where, having hit 156 not out in the first innings and 92 not out in the second, he declared in the interests of the side.

As it happened, the sacrifice was in vain, for Northamptonshire won in the last over by three wickets. Insole occasionally puts in a useful spell of medium-pace bowling. Employing the seam skillfully, he specially distinguished himself against Surrey at Ilford last May when he dismissed five of the champion county’s batsmen in seven overs for 22 runs.

Though Denis Compton was his cricketing hero in his schoolboy days, Insole did not attempt to copy his style. He attributes his success rather to a good eye and some natural aptitude for ball games. A fine fieldsman, especially at slip, Insole has definite ideas on tactics. He stands firmly against the idea that it is better to play for a draw than bring about a result by a declaration on the last day, for he feels that players and crowd usually enjoy a finish.

Aside from his cricketing ability, Insole is also an Association footballer of class. For two years before going up to the University he played for Walthamstow Avenue at inside-right, in which position he represented Cambridge against Oxford in 1946, 1947 and 1948, being captain in the last season when he featured as a reserve in an England International Trial.

A founder-member of the famous Pegasus FC, he was the first player to captain them. For the last two winters he has played at outside-right for Corinthian-Casuals. Sporting talent is not a family attribute, but Insole’s younger brother captained London Boys at both Association football and cricket at the age of 13 and looked to have a highly promising future. Unhappily, he developed tuberculosis a year later and died last year aged 23.

Douglas Insole is married and has two daughters.

Doug Insole’s Test career never took off – he played just nine matches – but he was vice-captain on England’s 1956-57 tour of South Africa and scored a hundred in the third Test at Durban. He played for Essex until 1963 and then became one of the game’s leading administrators.

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