July 30, 2014

Cook's Brearley lesson

Mike Brearley managed to remain an outstanding captain despite his consistent failures with the bat. Is there a lesson in there for England's current skipper?

In almost half of his Test innings Mike Brearley was out for less than 20 © Getty Images

Mike Brearley once gave a lovely description of the feeling of being out of form: "We try to focus on all sorts of things that should be unconscious," he said. "Like the centipede, who, trying to think about each leg before it moves, ends up on its back in a ditch."

Alastair Cook's first-innings 95 at the Ageas Bowl has probably rehabilitated his self-image enough for him to enjoy Brearley's analogy. It is, after all, impeccably sourced. Cook may be 28 innings from his last Test match century, but he has 25 in the bank, which is 25 more than England's shrewdest, most erudite and flat-out most lovable captain ever scored.

In a life of outstanding and understated achievement, batting for England was the one arena in which Brearley encountered monotonous failure: 33 matches, 66 innings, 1442 runs at an average of 22.88, nine fifties, and a strike rate of 29.79. In almost half of those innings he was out for less than 20; he never made back-to-back half-centuries. To paraphrase the old song, if it wasn't for bad form, he'd have had no form at all.

It's one of the more remarkable aspects of his captaincy, and one of the least discussed. Even with his great rationality, his natural understanding of where cricket fit into a rounded life, it must have been sobering to know that his batting was falling short, to accept that, however brilliantly he enabled others, a more personal triumph would never be his. I don't pretend to understand him, but I would guess that it was only Brearley's deep sense of perspective that kept the hurt at bay.

His early career suggested something else. Initially a wicketkeeper-batsman, he made both a triple and a double-hundred on the MCC Under-25 tour to Pakistan in 1966-67. By then he was living the kind of life that has vanished forever: for seven years, as undergraduate and post-graduate, he played for Oxford University, joining Middlesex once summer term was over.

He wasn't selected for England until he was 34 years old, and it added to his mystery. When he became captain soon afterwards, he looked like some kind of sage, already greying, but nobly so; a jaunty, bright-eyed figure who was constantly surprising, whether emerging to bat with a pink skullcap beneath his England one (its strange ear-pieces adding an eccentric, home-made air to the innovation), or by placing every fielder, including the wicketkeeper, on the boundary for the final ball of a limited-overs game in Australia.

He had already retired once when 1981 and the Test matches that would ensure his legend came along. His reappointment felt like balm on burned skin. It was not just the logical course of action, it was the only thing that would work. His form was irrelevant.

It is a long time ago now, and aside from the myriad changes of an evolving culture, Brearley would be a less mysterious figure now. We would know more about him, and perhaps that scrutiny would have undermined his authority in the public arena. That is where England captains first lose their grip, as Cook is discovering.

In an era that is performance-driven and so completely analysed, it is harder to weigh less quantifiable contributions like Mike Brearley's (beyond, of course, the ultimate measure - the team kept winning).

He made people believe that they would succeed by making clear his belief in them. He didn't pretend to know the answer to everything, because cricket's challenge is not binary. One of his most-heard phrases was, "Well you never know, the alternative may have been worse." Brearley was about understanding the shades of the colours of the spectrum.

No captain is universally loved. At Middlesex the iconoclast spinner Phil Edmonds was said to walk backwards to his mark in case Brearley changed the field while he wasn't looking (but then anyone who remembers the brevity of the Edmonds approach to the crease might find this story somewhat unlikely), and in his autobiography Fred Titmus was similarly enraged with Brearley's, "daft and arrogant ideas that made him something of a joke".

Titmus concluded his rebuke by noting that Brearley's Test match batting average was much the same as his own. That is the obvious argument of the dressing-room pragmatist. The greatness of Brearley's captaincy was that it never really became an issue beyond the personal. Alastair Cook, for all of his runs, may ponder what form such magic takes.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on August 3, 2014, 15:49 GMT

    I will take the other side of the argument here. Brearley had an enormous advantage for most of his career insofar that 23 of his 31 Tests as captain were through the Packer years and he played against weakened or fragmented teams (such as Australia). When he faced a full-strength team in the post-Packer series of 1979/80 he was thumped 3-0. The 1981 series in England was won off Botham's arm and bat, and Willis' bowling at Headingley. Australia were minus Greg Chappell and the Australian team was in disarray under Hughes' leadership. Australia lost that series, Brearley did not win it. Statistics are contextual.

  • Andrew on August 3, 2014, 15:15 GMT

    Jon, Mike Brearley went to Cambridge, not Oxford...

  • Channan on August 1, 2014, 16:55 GMT

    Cook's flaw in captaincy should not show that much against India and his batting should be back up there thanks to terrible and lazy fielding by India and of course some mediocre bowling.

  • Harsh on July 31, 2014, 11:42 GMT

    Brearley posessed the grace of Frank Worrel on the field combined with the attacking instincts of Ian Chapell or Imran Khan.I would have loved see Brearley lead England against the West Indies where his great tactical prowess would have been tested completely.Few captains understood or motivated men better.I feel Mike Brearley leading Pakistan in the 1982 series in England may well l have won the series for them.

    One of the best brains to have stood on a cricket field.Overall a better tactician than even Imran Khan.I think both Imran Khan and Ian Chapell do not give Mike his due in their comments.I rank Brearley with Ian Chappell,Frank Worrell and Mark Taylor as the best captains ever.

  • Harsh on July 31, 2014, 11:35 GMT

    To me Mike Brearley ranks amongst the top 3 post war captains and the best post-war English skipper of all.Brearley posessed the tactical genius of a great military commander with his great ability to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition as well as his own team and to analyze the situation of a game..He was a psychologist on the cricket field being able to perfectly analyze the mental state of his players and to motivate them to their highest performance level.

    .It is difficult imagining any skipper getting as much out of Ian Botham as Brearley did to turn the complexion of the 1981 Ashes 180 degrees.Brearley made a mastery tactical move at Edgbaston when sending Chris Old to get quick runs when England were sinking at 112 for 6,juts 46 runs ahead.In the previous game at Leeds with Australia chasing a target of a mere 130 he changed the end Bob Willis was bowling at which rewarded him to take 8-43 and win the game for England.

    Above all a gentleman.

  • Dummy4 on July 30, 2014, 21:25 GMT

    Great piece, but one question remains: he never captained against the West Indies, so we can never know his true worth.

  • Dummy4 on July 30, 2014, 14:45 GMT

    Brearley went to CAMBRIDGE, not that second rate other place.

  • xxxxx on July 30, 2014, 10:28 GMT

    The Fred Titmus critcism of Brearley's "daft and arrogant ideas" has been applied to every new and different idea in the history of man (from automobiles. to penicillin, to DRS, ...) until, of course, they are found to succeed.

    In an age where a lot of our thinking is done for us by computers and pervasive psuedo-nannying ("mind the gap", "mind the closing doors", "don't forget to breathe") perhaps there is a greater need for Brearleys, Michael Vaughans and Michael Clarkes who have retained both the ability and joy of being able to think for themselves and lead.

    What has surprised me about the Cook captaincy chronicles is the widely held assumption that there is no-one else. Compare this with the teams that simply pick the captain from the 11 best cricketers in the country on the assumption that the leadership, naturally, is there in bucketfuls.