'What did you do at Lord's, Grandpa?'
David Frith talks to Bill Brown. This article appeared in Wisden Cricket Monthly in 1987
Such is the headlong urgency of modern sport that the grandchildren of W. A. Brown, classy Australian Test batsman 1934-48, are probably not alone in being completely unfamiliar with his considerable achievements. He made his runs quietly but with great elegance (film survives), and his type could never have been spawned by limited-overs cricket - which, incidentally, he ranks alongside vaudeville. He and Jack Fingleton formed one of the best opening pairs in the game's history, setting Australia up with partnerships - particularly in South Africa in 1935-36- which sustained Test cricket's reputation as the ultimate platform.
Bill Brown would say barely anything about his performances, which reticence must encourage those grandchildren still further to regard grandad as no more than a retired sports-store proprietor.
He is a trim 74 now, living in a magnificent house outside Brisbane with his elegant wife Barbara. He had just returned from the doctor, and with less than one eye on a televised World Series Cup match, he asked after English friends and enquired about the MCC Bicentenary, which may yet provide him with an excuse for revisiting England. It is now 53 years since - preferred to Fingleton- the 21-year-old set out on his first trip. He scored 105 (in only 199 minutes) in his first Lord's Test innings, in Verity's match, when weekend rain and the Yorkshire left-armer combined to overthrow Australia for a rare England victory on the hallowed ground. Brown made four other centuries, against Cambridge, Lancashire, Northants and Notts. He also scored 22 and 73 at Trent Bridge in his maiden Test. It's all in Wisden, if only he could get hold of the 1935 edition.
He has his cuttings books, of course, which he produced after prompting. In those days each member of the team was given one at the end of the tour - for a fee - by a cuttings agency. The one for the 1938 tour contains more good deeds. That notably straight bat and his ability to play the rearing ball saw him in good stead in the opening Test, at Trent Bridge, where his 133 in 5¼ hours saved the match alongside Bradman's dour century, and at Lord's, where he entered the chambers of glory by carrying his bat for 206 not out in just over six hours, ensuring ultimate retention of the Ashes. Bill being Bill, he would recall only that Bill O'Reilly (42) made sure of saving the follow-on. They added 85 for the eighth wicket in only 46 minutes. `It was a nice day, and a nice wicket. O'Reilly came in, and I told him I'd take the quicks - Wellard and Farnes- and Tiger took Verity. ` Brown's double-century was the 100th three-figure innings for Australia against England.
Then up to Chesterfield they went, and in this very next match Bill Brown took 265 not out off a strong Derbyshire attack: Copson, both Popes, Mitchell, Townsend and Rhodes. It was his career-highest score. `I was cruising along. Went to pull Pope. Pulled a leg muscle. So I had a dip, especially at the outswingers. Everything went right. When Stan McCabe closed the innings. He apologised. He said, Sorry. You could have got 300.'
Enjoying this 1938 tour even more than the earlier one, he could even afford a little grin at the memory of England's 903 for 7 at The Oval - where his 69 was top score in Australia's tired reply. `We got up each morning, shaved and showered, and went out to field for the day.' There is a well-known photo of Bill shaking Len Hutton's hand immediately after he had passed Bradman's 334.
The young Yorkshireman's 364 was the 100th century for England against Australia. What might The Don have scored in reply had he not been injured? There's no knowing. Bradman was never one to knock back a challenge. (Pause.) He would have scored faster than Len! But that was a great feat of endurance and concentration.' He had not forgotten, or was likely to forget, Hammond's great 240 in the Lord's Test either: `a most magnificent innings, front and back foot.' Brown himself made most runs for Australia (512) in that series, and finished second to Bradman on the tour with 1854 runs (57.94), with five centuries.
Bill Brown captained Australia in one Test match, the solitary Australia v New Zealand Test played before 1973-74. It was at Wellington in March 1946 (he top-scored with 67 in a match all over in two days) and, of course, he hands the credit to someone else. O'Reilly and Toshack demolished the Kiwis in the first innings for 42, but when there was a chink of resistance in the second, Lindsay Hassett suggested giving the raw newcomer Keith Miller a bowl, and he got rid of Walter Hadlee and Verdun Scott immediately. Brown remembers being moved to enquire why the umpires were refusing so many of O'Reilly's lbw appeals, and remains impressed by their explanatory diagrams. A few degrees of deviation can take a cricket ball a long way from its original target.
`Arthur Morris was one of the great opening batsmen, and Sid Barnes, a tremendous player, was Bradman's choice as opener. He was so good on the back foot.'`Bagga' Barnes was also Bill's room-mate, and his affection for his late lamented pal, a lovable rogue, was obvious. He recalled the furore over Barnes's provocative field positioning, extremely close at silly mid-on, and how criticism of his foot being too close to the mown pitch prompted him to plonk his boot a couple of feet into the forbidden territory - and a couple of feet more when the English crowd roared at him.
Brown might have regained his Test placed at Leeds in 1948, but teenaged Neil Harvey came in for his maiden Ashes Test and scored a brilliant 112. `So that was a pretty good selection, wasn't it?' says Bill generously.
It was thought in afteryears that if only the 20-year-old Billy Brown had managed to muster a few more runs during 1932-33, he, with his cool and sound technique, might have been successful against England's Bodyline attack. It might also have ensured him of a higher and more dramatic niche - even if this seems to be the very last thing he cares about in his quiet and comfortable retirement.
He had just finished reading a biography of Jardine. `I thought he was wrong. Initially we were more shocked that anyone would want to do this to cricket.' By now we were munching lunch, and the nutrition seemed to spur his feelings. `But when you met him, you know, he was quite affable. Deep down, Australians had a grudging admiration for him which later became full-scale. You have to admire someone who sets out to do something and lets nothing stand in his path.'
The World Series match continued to sparkle colourfully on the distant TV set, sound turned down to spare us the asinine commentary. This man who had seen so much and graced the greatest of sports smiled shyly, as if to say, `Anyone else you'd like to talk about - because I'm not talking about me!' I asked him about Eddie Gilbert, the little Aboriginal pace bowler. Bill said that as his captain in Brisbane grade cricket he had insisted he bowled at the stumps. He obeyed his skipper - something about WAB deters argument - and had no trouble getting wickets. `Nice fella,' reflected Bill.
So, what should I tell our readers about this dapper NSW, Queensland and Australian batsman as he is today? `Let it be known that I devote my full time to keeping my wife happy!' And what about those 14,000 or so runs and 39 centuries (five doubles) and creditable career average of 51.44? `You'd be doing me a favour if you could see what you can do about those Wisdens!'