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March 18, 2008
Bill Brown first returned my call during Steve Waugh's last day as a Test captain and the noise at the SCG made it almost impossible to hear his gentle speech. He was talking about Stan McCabe's 232 at Trent Bridge in 1938. "I can't describe how good Stan's innings was," he said. "It was the best I'd seen."
Brown had watched triple-centuries from the sirs, Bradman and Hutton, but McCabe was his favourite and almost 70 years later he carried the excitement of a young boy who had been at the match, not a batsman who scored a century in it. "McCabe played three great innings and I was lucky enough to see every one of them," Brown said. "For sheer strokeplay Nottingham was the best."
A visit to his home in Brisbane was like entering a museum, except the gatekeepers were the most friendly in the world. Bill and his wife Barbara, who would prod her husband into stories, were the most wonderful hosts to strangers who quickly felt comfortable. Three hours in their company - far too long, but far too short - were as unforgettable to me as a McCabe innings was to Brown.
A framed photo of him walking out with Jack Fingleton, his favourite batting mate, was on the wall along with a picture of Brown tossing a coin with Walter Hadlee. It was in Wellington in 1946 and was his only Test as captain, although he had to wait a couple of years until the match was judged that way. He never led Australia on the field again, but after playing developed into the most wonderful role model.
Brown studied Bradman as a boy and saw McCabe's 187 against Larwood and Co as a spectator before joining the men in the Test team in 1934. Born in Queensland, his family moved to Sydney when Brown was two. Runs for the Marrickville club earned him a start for New South Wales and he was run-out without facing a ball. "That's it," he thought, "I'm finished." It was just the start.
Getting Brown to talk about his own play was tough, but he chatted happily about his team-mates, particularly Bradman and McCabe. "You couldn't keep up with Bradman, the master of fours and things likes like that," he said. "The only man I saw that could maybe outpace him was Stan McCabe. For us, who were the rank and file, we ran for him but you could never keep up with him. He'd be hitting balls for fours that you'd be fighting to play at."
He was interested in other people and asked if I played. Truthfully, I said I was a stodgy top-order batsman who could leg-glance. "It's amazing how far that shot can take you," he replied self-depreciatingly. He was still fine-tuning his trademark shot when he turned out as a guest player in his 60s. Deflecting fast balls - and controversial issues - was always much more graceful.
At after-dinner functions Brown was always the star. Small and stately, his presence initially ensured silence. His timing was as magical as his perfectly worked jokes and the diners quickly knew not to have a mouthful of wine at the punchline. To everyone in the room he was royalty.
"I've been to things where they say 'you're Bill Brown, a member of the Invincibles', as if that makes any difference. It's very highly regarded in cricket circles and it's very flattering to be a member, even though I didn't do much in the Tests."
The last time I saw Brown was at the Bradman Oration in 2006 when he was undoubtedly the best speaker. Slightly ruffled at having to wear black tie, the standard attire on his tours to England in '34 and '38, but not in '48 when rationing had taken over, he and Barbara were immaculately dressed. It had been a long time since the six-week voyages to the United Kingdom when the many deck activities included quoits, tennis, singing with Bill O'Reilly ("The songs weren't the type you could do up the other end of the boat"), training and lots of dancing in the moonlight. That night in Brisbane he was strong, purposeful and hilarious, but at 94 he was slowing down.
He joked he was always getting calls for interviews about WG Grace. Of course he wasn't that old, but he was the only link to the pre-War game. Generous of his time and with stories, his only request was to have short breaks from discussing his playing days. He had a holiday house on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, played the piano before he married Barbara and loved his children and grandchildren.
At the time he was Australian cricket's greatest living treasure. Only a small part of the tribute has changed after his death on Sunday in a Brisbane RSL home aged 95. The country has had a Bradman, Trumper, McCabe, Warne and a couple of Chappells. Brown was not in their company as a player, but he shone as a gentleman. My memories of Bill Brown, a batsman I have never seen footage of, will remain stronger than any cricketer I ever watch.
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