F. R. Brown: leader of men

1952

F. R. Brown: leader of men

Frederick Richard Brown will be remembered in days to come as a great England cricket captain. Even a journalist, shy to a painful degree of the pitfalls of prophecy, can assert as much. It will not be so much for what he and his team accomplished on the 1950-51 tour to Australia--they lost the series, four games to one--but because of what he personally all but inspired them to accomplish, e'en in the cannon's mouth as it were; also because of the place he won in the affections of the Australian public, whose memories in the cricket sense, are long indeed.

Greatness, we are told, is achieved in one of three ways--by birth, effort, or passive acquiescence in outward circumstance. In this case a combination of all three applies. Brown had the opportunity for greatness thrust upon him, against his better judgment, it was said, after two younger and more fancied candidates in N. W. D. Yardley and F. G. Mann had been obliged to turn it down; he achieved it by a combination of nigh-heroic personal effort and the native qualities for which only his forbears can claim credit.

Rarely has a captain set sail with a sparser degree of public support. Too old was the cry on all sides, even though he had not reached his 40th birthday. Yet Hammond, four years previously, had been 43. When the young and largely untried M.C.C. team touched the depths of indifferent performance in the earlier part of the tour, the gloomiest forebodings of the critics looked like being realised. Then came that glorious, uplifting day at Brisbane, when Australia, opening the batting on the first day of the first Test, on a pitch that was a batsman's paradise, were dismissed by close of play for no more than 228 runs--ignominious failure, compared with the five, six and seven hundred, nay, thousands in some quarters, that had been freely forecast.

If ever I saw resolution writ on a man's face it was on Brown's that morning as he led his team on to the field after losing the toss. That he should win it had been held to be England's only chance--and that a remote one--of offering even token opposition to their hosts. Brown's determination was reflected in the faces of the men under him--Alec Bedser, twirling the ball avidly in his huge hands, Godfrey Evans, all pads and gauntlets and black forearm, and Reg Simpson, slight, but thin-lipped and no less ready to do or die.

I mention these three, and could add Trevor Bailey, for the heroes' parts they played--Bedser, for his great-hearted and unyielding attack throughout the day, Evans, for a superhuman wicket-keeping display--what verve, what acrobatics!--and Simpson, who ran himself to an Olympic athlete's degree of exhaustion on the boundary, and caught two great catches to boot. Cricket memories that can never fade, and all through was Brown, encouraging or reprimanding, not obviously, so that all could see, but with a nod here, a frown or a smile there, or a word dropped casually as the players crossed between the overs.

It was captaincy supreme, and I like to think that here was one instance, at least, where professionals managed to put off the lure of averages, and Press report and transient personal glory. They were playing for England, and their skipper Freddie Brown, and nothing else. To say that we who watched were exhilarated is the palest of understatements.

Rather we were transported to some ecstatic hell of suppressed excitement, where the heart beat louder and louder with increasing hammer-blows as wicket after wicket fell. When Australia were all out by the day's end it was almost too much. We fell back limp and exhausted, and tried to compose out thoughts for the business of letting the folks at home know all about it. The miracle had happened. England had a chance after all. How rain came to make a farce of the match, and how England, foiled by a Brisbane gluepot, lost after all, is now painful history. Australia's 228 had become a winning, not a losing total. But hope against hope had turned to hope well-founded.

In the end Australia won the series all right, but there was no more complacency. Hassett, as true a sportsman as ever lived, and the fine team he commanded, buckled down to it. In the second Test, at Melbourne, they again emerged victorious, this time by only 28 runs. Soul-rending, but inescapable.

It was here that Brown's stature as a player, quite from his captaincy, really began to emerge. In England's first innings, after six wickets had gone for a beggarly 61, he produced a fighting knock of 62 which brought him the most thunderous acclaim I have ever heard when he returned to the dressing rooms. The Australian public by now had detected the man behind the player. They rose to him, over 60,000 of them and the reception out-Bradmanned, I am told, even those of Bradman, in the Australian's robot prime.

At Sydney, in the third Test, it was much the same. Brown's 79, after Hutton and Compton had both been swept away in one nerve-shattering over from Keith Miller, brought him the ultimate tribute, the approval of the men on the Hill, the hardest cricket crowd in the world to please. Brownie became their new god, ruling in a twin firmament with Keith Miller, till then their totem king-of-all. Previously they had seen the England captain bowl himself almost into the ground, for the best part of two days, after injuries had laid Bailey and Wright low.

Came the final scene of all, when victory, long awaited, broke at last. No sooner had Len Hutton--and who more justly?--pushed the winning single in the final Test, at Melbourne, than the crowd flooded over the barriers in a black torrent towards the dressing-rooms. "We want Brown" went up the cry, and, after what seemed an age, there was England's skipper, high up on a balcony, waving acknowledgement to the very same people who not many weeks before had melted silently away, shunning the obsequies, from an Australian victory on the same ground. That had been a peculiar phenomenon, unique, perhaps, in the history of Anglo-Australian Tests, and, as Brown himself admits, the crowning reward for what had been a singularly amiable series. Feeling between players on either side had been of the friendliest, for which Hassett, no less than Brown, earns credit. The Australian public genuinely wanted England to win at least one Test. Whether that would have applied if it had been equal 2-2 coming to the last one is another matter, but it would have been a poor Australian who wanted to see his own team beaten in that event.

As it was, Brown's personality cast its spell over the whole series. His very appearance was what an Australian expects an Englishman's to be. His pipe and ruddy complexion, blond hair and ample frame, even the comic little hat he wore off duty were all as manna to the hungry caricaturists. They depicted him as John Bull, or Farmer Giles, complete with leggings and gaiters and a straw stuck in his mouth; they might have added Friar Tuck or Little John as well. In the words of the film publicists, he was a smash hit. Added to which the public was well aware that here was a man, not as young as he used to be, who had last appeared among them 20 years since as a member of D. R. Jardine's team in the early 'thirties, and who had only come again because he conceived it his duty to England cricket to do so. His war experiences as a P.O.W. drew sympathy in a country where so many others had known the same rigours. Lest it be thought that I err on the side of over-enthusiasm, let me quote what some of Australia's own writers said about him.

Herewith J. H. Fingleton, opening bat for Australia in the 1931-32 bodyline series, in an article in a Melbourne paper: This Brown, the most popular English captain with Australian crowds I can remember, is giving us unbelievable stuff. Here he is, at 40 years of age, mark you, calling the tune in innings after innings against the Australians.

Or an extract from an Australian weekly magazine, naming Brown as the Cricketer of the Year, with a full front-cover picture: When he was first chosen to lead England, all of Australia wondered why. Since then he has inspired his team by his own refusal ever to give up a losing fight. That, for our money, is what makes a real cricketer.

Finally Ray Robinson, one of the shrewdest Australian critics, in a review of the tour for our own Cricketer magazine: By determination and deeds for a losing side, Brown soon established himself as the hero of the season, ranking with those fine pre-war captains and popular men, Chapman and Allen, in the estimation of the Australian cricket followers. On top of that, the crowd's admiration for the way he uplifted his side and for his resolute play was heightened by their sympathy for the under-dog, England... In the second and third Tests Brown proved that the ball could be hit hard to the boundary by front-of-the-wicket strokes with a frequency and reasonable safety we had almost forgotten. His drives seemed to be full of red corpuscles, like the ruddy face above the kerchief knotted at his neck.

In a success story of this kind, it is appropriate, perhaps, to recall some of Brown's earlier history leading up to the final triumph. Born at Lima, Peru, on December 16, 1910--his father being engaged in an import and export agency business there--he came of cricketing stock. Not many people may be aware that Brown senior, a talented all-round games player, was a good enough cricketer to take five wickets for 60 against Sir Pelham Warner's M.C.C. team out there in 1927. In Liverpool in earlier days he had played Lancashire League cricket in the company of such as Harry Makepeace. So that cricket was in the blood.

One oddity was that as a boy Brown Junior was left-handed in everything; batting, bowling, even throwing. His brother, Alec, and sister, Aline (who upheld the family name by appearing for the England Women's XI against Australia), are left-handed to this day. It was Brown senior who made this one son, destined to become England's captain, change to right hand, with the results we now know. That was one strange phase in our hero's development. Another was the process by which he became a leg-break and googly bowler, switching back again to medium-pace swingers in Australia with such marked success that in the five Tests he took 18 wickets for 21.81 runs apiece.

At prep. school at St. Pirans, Maidenhead, where he came under the sway of that magnificent coach, the late Aubrey Faulkner--"the best I've ever known," says Brown--it was as a straight-forward opening seam bowler and batsman that he flourished. When at The Leys School, Cambridge, he continued in the same vein, but learned to bowl the googly and leg-break as a sideline. N. J. Holloway, his cricket master there, an old Cambridge Blue and Sussex fast bowler, used to throw in a slow tweaker at times for the sake of surprise and variety. Brown, as boys will, copied his mentor.

On going up to Cambridge, Faulkner advised him to abandon his first love and concentrate exclusively on spinners--"seamers will be two-a-penny up there," he told him; "if you want to get a Blue, go in for the slow stuff." Thus it was that Brown's propensity for medium pace accuracy lay hid for years behind a hard-won reputation as a slow bowler who on his day could baffle the best. Events in Australia brought his former talent to light again, but his success was not as surprising as might at first sight have appeared.

Brown soon discovered that accuracy, above all, is the recipe for wicket-taking on Australian pitches, and "no more tweakers for me" was a remark soon on his lips. Thus the wheel came full circle, and his peak effort, five wickets for 49, in Australia's first innings in the fifth Test, at Melbourne, provided the final justification. In that match he caught and bowled the menacing Keith Miller in both innings, for 7 and 0. It is hard to conceive two better blows struck for England at any time or in any circumstances; and this, of course, was the match which ended the run of Australian post-war successes.

Brown's feats in his earlier career have been fully recorded in the 1933 issue of Wisden, when he was one of the Five Cricketers of the Year. His best innings up to then he reckons was his 168 for Surrey against Kent, at Blackheath. Although this was his first encounter with the great Tich Freeman, he hit four 6's and twenty-one 4's in an amazing knock which lasted only two hours ten minutes. Other innings in that year--1932--were 212 (seven 6's fifteen 4's) in three hours twenty minutes at The Oval, and 135 in two hours at Lord's, both against Middlesex. Formidable, as the Frenchmen say.

Between 1939 and 1948 Brown, reduced from 14½ st. to 10 st. by his prison camp experiences, was not seen in first-class cricket. He played once for Surrey in 1948, which gave little hint of the full re-emergence which was to follow. That came in 1949 when, taking a business appointment in Northampton, he descended in the role of deus ex machina to take over the fortunes of the county side and lead it out of the wilderness. Previously the Omega Minus of the county championship and almost invariably at the bottom of the table, they developed in one season into a more than respectable Beta Plus, sixth from the top, and since then have been regarded with new-found respect by their opponents. Brown's part in this was decisive, leading to the final nod of approval from Lord's when he was chosen as England's captain against New Zealand in the same year of 1949.

Even then few people could have considered him a possible for the leadership in Australia, in spite of the crop of wise-after-the-event asseverations which have since appeared.

What clinched matters, when the question mark had swollen beyond the limits of human focus, was a truly patrician innings by Brown in 1950 for the Gentlemen against the Players at Lord's. Girding on a metaphorical sword and buckler he thrashed the opposing bowling to the tune of 122 out of 131 in only 110 minutes. This was after his team had been put in to bat, and not content with sixteen 4's, he reached his century with the final flourish of a hit into the pavilion for 6. That, in the words of finality, settled it. Brown was in, as captain, and it is as well to remember that his doughty batting feats in Australia were not without precedent, even though, as he himself was heard to aver, he may at times have been playing from memory.

His experiences in Australia under D. R. Jardine, when the all-speed attack policy of Larwood, Voce, Allen and Bowes meant his exclusion from all Tests, might have daunted one whose love for the game was less abiding. But even in the prison camps during the war, when he won an M.B.E. for his work in the evacuation of Crete as an R.A.S.C. officer attached to the Guards Brigade, he managed to fit in some cricket.

One story he tells, illustrating his inborn sense of fun--not the least of his attractions--is bound up with another great figure in England cricket of recent years, Bill Bowes, the Yorkshire speed merchant. At one time they were in the same P.O.W. camp together, at Chieti, in Italy. It was only natural that they should start a game of cricket, even though the pads were made of cardboard from Red Cross parcels stuffed with paper, and the pitch the road which went through the middle of the camp. It appears that the Italian guards thought there was something highly suspicious about these unfamiliar proceedings, with possibly an escape tunnel via the batsman's blockhole in contemplation.

When Bowes was half-way through an over, they marched firmly down the road to a position mid-way between the wickets. Bowes, about to commence his run, hesitated. Said Brown, at mid-off: "Well, what are you waiting for, Bill? Why not let one go?" To which Bowes, with the twinkling eye that belies his otherwise inscrutable appearance, replied in the accent of his native Yorkshire: "Ah would, but tha never knows, ah might kill b----." Perhaps it was just as well that discretion prevailed, and that Brown's injunction went unheeded!

All of which may help to explain the character of the man who, for a spell, at least, brought England cricket out of the post-war slough into which it had sunk, and which impelled the famous remark of the quay-side vendor in Sydney. Anxious to promote a quicker sale of his wares, he produced his last trump--"Lovely lettuces," he cried, "only a shilling and 'earts as big as Freddie Brown's."

It was worth the journey just to be able to transmit that particular remark to England.

© John Wisden & Co