FORMER England captain Mike Denness led the tributes yesterday to Irvin Iffla, one of Scottish cricket’s most influential imports, after his death at the age of 88.
The spin-bowling all-rounder, who left his native Jamaica in 1951, played most of his cricket in Scotland for Stirling County but it was during a two-year spell as a professional at Ayrshire that he took a teenage Denness “under his wing”, as the former batsman recalls.
Denness, the second Scot to captain England after Douglas Jardine, played 28 Tests but could not state with any conviction yesterday that he would have played any without the schooling of the West Indian who ran net practice at Cambusdoon during his crucial development years.
“Anything that comes from a man with the knowledge and expertise he had and looked after youngsters the way he did, you would have to say without question it was because of that input that you were able to go on and become the player that you were,” said Denness.
The Bellshill native, 72, believes Iffla would have enjoyed a Test career in the 1950s and 1960s had he not been in direct competition with two of West Indies’ most revered spinners, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine. He never played first-class cricket but he did enjoy the distinction of being the youngest man ever to represent Jamaica – in 1947, at 17, he turned out in a match against the touring MCC and dismissed the legendary Len Hutton.
After being recommended to Stirling by compatriot Aston Powe, Iffla initially joined the County Championships side for one year on a basic wage of £3 a week, which required him to play on a Saturday, coach juniors and seniors during the week and tend to the pitch at Williamfield.
The set-up suited him so well that he stayed in Scotland for the rest of his life, having three more children with wife Lucille, who had already borne him two in Kingston, eschewing the temptation to return home and challenge for the fame and fortune that came with representing the famous Windies.
“He was a very unfortunate cricketer himself, because if it hadn’t been for Ramadine and Valentine, he might well have taken one of their places in the West Indies team and been a formidable player,” said Denness.
“As a youngster he looked after so many people but he probably took me under his wing, and I learned so much just from watching the man, let alone listening to what he was saying. His encouragement was fabulous, as well.
“He was a very gifted all-round player who could do so much with the bat or the ball. He could even keep wicket. All you had to do as a youngster was sit on the boundary and watch this man perform. When he had the ball in his hand, you wouldn’t go and make a cup of tea, put it that way. It was a great time to be involved, because he was a man of character and all the other young lads who were at Ayr CC at the same time as me would say the same. Whenever he said ‘this is how I suggest you play a shot’, you knew it was the right way to do it.”
Iffla was, predictably, far too good for anyone else playing club cricket in Scotland at the time. He has the unique distinction among professionals of having won the old County Championship, the Western Union and the East League with Stirling, Ayrshire and Stenhousemuir respectively. He scored more than 13,000 runs and took more than 1,600 wickets during his club career, which extended deep into his 60s as an amateur after he returned from his glorious odyssey.
At his peak with title-chasing Stirling, he single-handedly drew crowds as big as 2,000 to Williamfield. “He changed everything, frankly,” said Raymond Bond, the wicketkeeper who tried for many years to pick Iffla’s well-disguised arsenal of off breaks, leg breaks and “zippers”.
“When he arrived in the early 50s, he transformed the whole club and the whole of Scottish cricket. He was a magician with the ball and brilliant with the bat and people came flocking to Williamfield to see him every Saturday he was playing.”
In his latter years, Iffla worked for a number of factories in the Stirlingshire area and played as an amateur for St Modan’s, Gargunnock and Paton & Baldwin’s.
Three years ago, he was granted the Freedom of Stirling and the flag on the roof of the city’s council chambers will fly at half-mast until his funeral on Friday.
Cricket Scotland’s operations manager, Euan McIntyre, said: “Irvin Iffla was an inspiration to many young cricketers and the work he did in both attracting them to the game and then nurturing their talent can not be overemphasised.
“As a player, he was extremely successful at the clubs with whom he was associated and his passing is a sad day for Scottish cricket.”