Ventnor and Isle of Wight cricket legend John Hilsum died last weekend after a long illness. Mike Vimpany reflects on the invaluable contribution ‘a remarkable man’ made to cricket on the island and to the legacy he has left behind.
Local recreational cricket is preparing to say its farewell to John Hilsum, whose contribution to cricket on the Isle of Wight (and beyond) was colossal and the legacy he left behind enormous.
The long innings of Ventnor’s former chairman ended last weekend, aged 72, after a lengthy and brave battle against cancer.
Several hundred of the regions cricketing fraternity are expected to attend a Celebration of his Life, many crossing from the mainland, where he was well known and equally respected.
The service is at St Catherine's Church, Ventnor on Thursday 1 September 2016 (1pm), with the wake at Ventnor CC.
Tributes poured in from far and wide when news of John’s passing broke shortly before Ventnor set sail for their Premier League trip to Burridge on Saturday.
A hard hitting top order batsman and seam all-rounder in his playing days, Mr Hilsum moved to the island from Leicestershire in 1972 – he played on the mainland for Petersfield and Preshaw & Holt (Flamingo’s old ground) near Bishops Waltham for a short while – and soon became a force for opposition bowlers to reckon with at Steephill, where he scored runs galore.
John joined Ventnor with the club at a low ebb and very much in the shadow of local rivals Shanklin.
A shortage of players, a non-existent youth set up and a lack of competitive cricket was hardly the most attractive of prospects for a man looking to further his club cricket ambitions.
But John Hilsum was to be so much more than just an addition to the playing ranks of a struggling club.
It was not long before he became club captain, playing a key role in moving island the club forward on the field, guiding Ventnor to their first trophy in many years, a Whitbread Cup final success in 1979.
John developed a real affinity for the club, valuing its history but recognising the importance of progression off the pitch as well as on it.
In 1979, with the club struggling to produce grass pitches, he played the lead role in a successful bid for funding for a Nottinghamshire non-turf pitch in the Steephill bowl, a venture which was to play a significant part in the transformation of the club.
Not only did the artificial pitch suit Hilsum, a fine back foot player, it paved the way for the club to introduce and nurture young playing talent, providing opportunities to learn the game on a true surface under his guidance. John’s influence also attracted new senior players to the club.
John’s ability as a player (he scored many thousands of runs and took hundreds of wickets as a nagging, accurate seam bowler), coach and a tactically astute captain – he had a reputation for the giving the opposition absolutely nothing - was rightly acknowledged as the club went from strength to strength under his leadership, dominating league and cup cricket on the Island in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
His man management skills also brought the best from a number of diverse characters!
In 1992, John was behind a successful proposal to join the Hampshire League, a move which represented a major change of direction for the club and the start of a time of great progress on the field.
With his playing career drawing to a close (he was part of the team in the first couple of years in the new adventure), he selflessly turned his efforts to developing the club further off the field.
He became a visionary in an ambitious plan to build a three-lane Isle of Wight cricket school and academy at Steephill.
As club chairman and undeterred by a failed first application for lottery funding, John’s drive, vision and determination eventually won the day as his tremendous efforts were rewarded by a successful second bid.
In 2003, John’s dream of a Cricket Academy was finally realised, a wonderful facility geared towards the development of young players on the Island.
The Academy was opened by Lord McLaurin, with John the notable absentee as the tributes to him flowed. He was conveniently abroad on business, avoiding the limelight in his typically modest way.
The project, which also incorporated a superb new clubhouse and changing rooms with a balcony, would never have happened without John’s bid writing and organisational ability, contacts and a determination not to be beaten.
Looking to take the club to another level, John then turned his attentions to achieving another long held club ambition under his leadership - a place amongst the elite of club cricket on the south coast.
Frustrated as everyone at Ventnor was by the refusal of the Southern Premier League to recognise Steephill as a Premier Division ground – the club won five successive Division 2 titles and six in eight years - John pursued another avenue in 2007.
Working with the club’s late President Brian Gardener (whose dream was to create a cricket ground of First Class standard near his Island home), the pair led a project to transform farm land off Blackwater Road, south of Newport, into one of finest cricket venues outside of the professional game.
In 2010, Ventnor made their debut at Newclose in the Premier Division of the ECB accredited Southern League, a proud moment for Ventnor and Hilsum himself.
The production line of talented young Ventnor players has been extraordinary and John played a significant role in that success for more than 20 years, both in his role as a coach, club ambassador and supporter as their careers have blossomed.
Hilsum’s passion and affection for Ventnor Cricket Club was unrivalled, yet so much of his exceptional work has benefitted the wider Island cricket scene, particularly in relation to the development of young players.
He was instrumental in the development of island cricket, coaching numerous aspiring young cricketers towards a niche in the professional game.
No-one has taken greater pleasure in the achievements of Danny Briggs (who went on to play for England), Chris Russell (Worcestershire) and Steve Snell, formerly of Gloucestershire and now a coach at Somerset, where Adam Hose has subsequently broken into the county game.
Mark Garaway, another Hilsum ‘graduate,’ became England’s analyst (during the Duncan Fletcher Ashes-winning management reign) and is now coaching at Millfield.
John’s own son, Ian was on the Hampshire Academy and captained Ventnor to their successes in Premier League cricket and was a prominent batsman/leg spinner for the island club.
John was the lifeblood of the club, spending many a happy, sunny afternoon on his favourite bar stool at Steephill with Mal Sketchley, until the sad death of his old team-mate three years ago.
Hugh Griffiths, secretary to the trustees of Newclose County Cricket Ground, was among those who paid tribute.
He said: "Throughout all of his achievements in cricket, John remained an extremely modest man.
"He never wanted any praise for what he had done. He just did it because he loved the Island, loved the community and loved cricket."
Mr Hilsum's work within the Island's cricket community as a player, coach and founder member of the Isle of Wight Cricket Coaching Association was recognised by a Sky Sports award several years ago and, more recently, when he received a British Empire Medal (BEM) in the 2016 New Year's Honours list.
There can be few volunteers in local sport who have given so much of their time over so many years for the benefit of others.
John Hilsum was a remarkable man who gave so much to so many.
His memory will live on for decades to come.
Burridge and Ventnor cricketers observe a minute's silence before last Saturday's match.