Robin Marlar died on September 30, 2022, aged 91. He claimed 970 wickets in 289 first-class matches, mostly for Sussex, and went on to become a cricket journalist and administrator. He was remembered in the 2023 Wisden Almanack.

Read Robin Marlar’s pieces here.

MARLAR, ROBIN GEOFFREY, died on September 30, aged 91. In the late afternoon of Saturday, August 14, 1982, the Sunday Times’s sports editor, David Robson, received a phone call from his cricket correspondent at Lord’s. “I think you had better have a lawyer in attendance,” Robin Marlar told him, outlining the piece he intended to write on the third day of the second Test against Pakistan. It was vintage Marlar: a sustained but thoughtfully argued attack on the umpiring of Dickie Bird and David Constant, detailing what he saw as their numerous failings. “These incidents, taken together with many others, comprise such a controversial dossier that it has now become essential the TCCB stage a full inquiry into the state of English umpiring,” Marlar thundered. And by taking the side of Pakistan, the article was typical in another way: he did not always toe the expected or Establishment line. “Anyone in a position of authority was liable to find themselves in his cross hairs,” wrote his Sunday Times successor, Simon Wilde.

From 1970, Marlar was cricket correspondent of the paper for 26 years, and became so associated with the role that it was easy to forget he had taken 970 first-class wickets with his off-breaks, and captained Cambridge University and Sussex. He was later president of MCC, chairman of Sussex, and a passionate advocate of emerging nations such as Bangladesh and Afghanistan. He still found time to launch a successful recruitment business, run alongside his newspaper job. During England’s tour of the West Indies in 1985/86, he commuted between London and the Caribbean. On another occasion, he briefly left a trip to the subcontinent to attend a business meeting in California. None of this compromised his professionalism. “He was always where he should have been when you needed him to be,” said Robson.

Marlar was born in Eastbourne, but went to King Edward VI School in Lichfield, where his father, later the headmaster of Whitgift School in Surrey, was a teacher. He won an exhibition to Harrow, and took 17 wickets in three matches against Eton. Another exhibition took him to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read history. He made his first-class debut against Lancashire in May 1951, and in the Varsity Match took 5-41 in Oxford’s first innings, though a star-studded Cambridge team lost by 21 runs. He claimed 74 wickets at 30 that summer, and was selected for the Gentlemen against the Players at Lord’s, where he dismissed Tom Graveney twice. His Sussex debut came in July.

He enjoyed another successful summer in 1952 with 105 wickets at 21, including a first-innings 7-104 against Oxford at Lord’s, and 34 in Sussex’s final three Championship matches. Marlar became Cambridge captain in 1953, guiding a team shorn of big names, and often hit by injuries, to victories over Middlesex and Kent. Against Oxford, his match analysis was 12-143, paving the way for a Cambridge win. “Marlar was bowling not from the off-spinner’s end but from the Nursery,” wrote EW Swanton in The Daily Telegraph. “For someone who spins the ball as much as Marlar and can turn up the hill, there are considerable advantages in using the slope to help the ball that goes away towards the slips.” Even so, there were question marks about his captaincy. Chasing 238 in five hours and 20 minutes, Cambridge dawdled on the last afternoon. Marlar was jeered when he strolled out at 186-8. Apparently disregarding instructions to play for a draw, opener Dennis Silk went on the attack, and Cambridge got home with three minutes to spare; Marlar was still there on nine.

He ended the 1953 season with 136 wickets at 25. At Lord’s in July, he had bowled the Gentlemen to their first victory over the Players since the war, with 7-79. For Cambridge and for the Gentlemen of England, he collected two five-fors against the Australians. He was, said Wisden, the “outstanding amateur slow bowler of the year”. Plum Warner, an influential selector, lobbied Len Hutton to take him to the West Indies, but the off-spinning duties went to Jim Laker. Marlar did not grumble: “Any spin bowler trying to get into the England team when Laker was at his peak could have no argument with the selectors.”

Marlar’s ability was obvious, though his style of appealing led to some calling him “Snarler Marlar”. David Sheppard, a Cambridge and Sussex team-mate, said: “He was an excellent bowler, varying flight and pace, bowling a swinger as well as his heavily spun off-breaks. He was always setting batsmen problems.” But Sheppard believed he often bowled better in unhelpful conditions, and could appear bored when the pitch was turning, and the challenge diminished. “There seemed to be days when he was experimenting too much, and he never quite had the mechanical accuracy of Laker or Titmus.”

After a year teaching at Eton, Marlar was appointed the Duke of Norfolk’s librarian at Arundel Castle, which allowed him to continue playing as an amateur. He became Sussex captain in 1955, and enjoyed his most productive year with the ball: 139 wickets at 21, including a career-best 9-46 (and 15-119 in the match) against Lancashire at Hove. Sussex rose to fourth in the Championship. He was an innovative, eccentric leader: Gloucestershire’s Bomber Wells said the Sussex players followed him on to the field only out of curiosity. “I respected Robin’s somewhat capricious captaincy,” wrote Ted Dexter. “He wasn’t nicknamed Mad Marlar for nothing.”

He rarely contributed with the bat, though his second and final half-century was a hard-hitting 64, including five sixes, against the 1956 Australians at Hove. In the previous season’s Champion County against The Rest fixture at The Oval, Doug Insole, captaining The Rest, asked him to pad up as nightwatchman. Marlar protested – in some versions, he was already dressed for dinner – but was soon needed. He was out second ball, stumped for six. “As I was saying, I’m not a nightwatchman,” he told Insole. After 1960, he played a handful of games, the last in 1968.

He had first tried his hand at journalism in the 1950s, writing reports for the Telegraph, often on games in which he was playing. During the 1960s, he worked for the currency printers De La Rue, and joined the recruitment company Spencer Stuart. But he found his métier at The Sunday Times. In an era when Sunday papers had a dedicated staff, he usually wrote just once a week. The former Wisden editor and Guardian correspondent Matthew Engel said: “He was the absolute epitome of the old-fashioned Sunday journalist who needed to say something the daily papers had not already said. He did that superbly: he was entertaining, stylish and contrarian. You had to read Robin, even when he was wildly wrong.” Robson recalled: “He was brilliant at the high-octane piece that would grab the audience and maintain a level of intensity. He achieved a level of strong comment that was quite rare in quality newspapers in those days. He was unique.”’

Marlar trained his sights on a wide range of targets. When Clive Lloyd made his final big-match appearance, for Lancashire in the 1986 NatWest Trophy final, he attacked his leadership of West Indies. “Lloyd presided over the introduction of a new violence into cricket,” Marlar wrote. Commenting on the injury problems of England seamer Neil Foster, he said he needed a psychiatrist rather than a physiotherapist. Marlar was also involved in a TV confrontation with Kerry Packer at the height of the World Series Cricket crisis, but lost his cool – and the argument.

But he was a perceptive observer. Writing two days after Shane Warne had bowled Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993, he coined “Ball of the Century”, adding presciently: “Television repeats are bound to be frequent. The ball will become a myth.”

He was president of MCC in 2006, making headlines in his first 24 hours by saying it was “absolutely outrageous” that girls should play alongside boys in the First XI at Brighton College. He was concerned for their safety against fast bowling – no matter that Holly Colvin had already played for England, and Sarah Taylor would later do so. He served as chairman of Sussex in 1996 and 1997, introducing reforms that helped pave the way for later successes, and was president from 2005 to 2007. Shortly before his death, he attended a memorial event for Ted Dexter at Lord’s, where he attacked Andrew Strauss for his proposed reforms of county cricket. Marlar’s crowded CV included three unsuccessful attempts to enter parliament, twice for the Conservatives, once for the Referendum Party.

Before the start of the 1982/83 Ashes, Marlar found himself in a witness box in Sydney. His Sunday Times piece claiming it would be “an obscenity” if Ian Chappell was selected for the 1980 Centenary Test at Lord’s had been syndicated in The Australian, and Chappell took legal action. “Do you regard yourself as an impartial commentator on cricket?” asked Chappell’s lawyer. “I like to think so, yes,” Marlar replied. “Well, then how do you explain your series preview, when you say: ‘May the best team win, as long as it’s England?’”