1976 September 19, 2015

Facing Holding with a little thin towel

Brian Close and John Edrich won plenty of admirers - and took as many hits - on a brutal evening in Manchester in 1976

In the line of fire: Brian Close takes evasive action against Michael Holding © PA Photos

The death earlier this week of Brian Close brought out many reminiscences - few were better than David Hopps' personal tribute or Nagraj Gollapudi's interview. Close's bravery was a constant theme, and his refusal to be bowed in the face of a hostile onslaught in his final Test at Old Trafford in 1976 has gone down in cricket folklore.

That summer was the hottest of the century in Britain, one that started with England captain Tony Grieg's infamous "grovel" interview on the BBC and ended with Michael Holding's epic 14-wicket haul on an Oval featherbed as West Indies completed a resounding 3-0 win over a shattered England side.

The threat of West Indies' pace attack had scared the England selectors in a tour match at Lord's when Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Vanburn Holder had blasted through a strong MCC side. "There and then, it seems, panic had ripped through the England camp," John Woodcock wrote in the Times after the side for the first Test was announced. The feeling was that batsmen of grit and resolve were needed, and none fitted that criteria more than Close who, in a game in Taunton, played as the selectors sat down to discuss the team, unflinchingly stood firm for Somerset against the West Indies quicks.

At 45, Close was the 11th oldest man to have played for England and the oldest bar one since the war - 47-year-old Gubby Allen had led England to the Caribbean in 1947-48. Close's last Test had been nine years earlier. In terms of age, he was in good company. John Edrich (38) retained his place from the previous summer (there had been no winter tour) at the top of the order alongside Mike Brearley, being given a late debut at 34. David Steele (34) was at No. 3 with Close at No. 4. When first told he might be in the squad Close was said to have replied it was not so much a case of Dad's Army as Grandad's Army.

"A 45-year-old man up against a lithe, magnificent young fast bowler, bowling at his very fastest. No helmet, no chest pad, no arm guard and he had a little thin towel tucked over his right thigh to try to prevent the bruising"
Jonathan Agnew

The plan worked, with some help from the weather, in the first two Tests, which were both drawn. Edrich scored a fifty at Trent Bridge while Close did the same at Lord's. With Brearley failing to inspire as an opener, the selectors asked Close to move up the order to take his place at Old Trafford.

Close recalled that Grieg sat him down to break the news. "I said, 'You must be bloody crackers. I haven't opened the innings in a first-class match for several years'. I asked him what was the matter with Bob Woolmer, who was the regular opener. 'We don't want him killed off. There is a lot of Test cricket left in him, Greigy said. I told him anything could happen with the new ball against West Indies and I had pulled the team out of trouble in the first two Tests at Trent Bridge and Lord's. I told him it was stupid asking me to open the innings."

Nonetheless, he did open, alongside the fit-again Edrich. After bowling West Indies out for 211, England were skittled for 71. Edrich made a dour 8 in almost two hours, Close 2 in half an hour. West Indies then made 411 for 5 before declaring soon after tea on the third day - the Saturday - to give their quick bowlers 80 minutes before the close. With Sunday a rest day, they would be able to rest before resuming their assault on Monday. That England needed 552 was an irrelevance.

What followed has been discussed and debated ever since. Depending on your view, either West Indies' fast bowlers crossed a line and sought to hurt the batsmen rather than get them out, or it was a burst of breathtaking and hostile quick bowling. What is not in doubt was the courage of the veteran openers on a pitch not fit for purpose.

"That was the worst Test wicket, Old Trafford, at the time we played on," Close said. "It was very dry. The groundsmen weren't allowed to use water while preparing wickets. Therefore the faster you bowled, the ball went through the top surface and lifted and did all kinds of things. I remember one Roberts ball pitched short of a length and nearly rolled along the floor."

Close was finally bowled by Andy Roberts after battling for more than two and a half hours © PA Photos

As the bowling became more aggressive, Edrich took evasive action, but Close had to face almost everything Holding could throw at him and he was not about to take a step back. When faced with Wes Hall and Charlie Griffth at Lord's in 1963, he had famously let the ball hit him rather than fend it away and risk giving a catch. Thirteen years on he did the same thing.

With no limit on bouncers, they were fired in repeatedly, so much so that it was calculated in the Daily Telegraph that only ten of the 73 deliveries sent down by Holding, Roberts and Wayne Daniel would have hit the stumps. All of Holding's seven overs - the majority to Close - were maidens. Only when he peppered Close with three in a row did Bill Alley, the umpire, belatedly warn the bowler with a wagged finger. It made no difference, although it did annoy Close, who reasoned balls pitched halfway down the pitch could not get him out.

"It was one of the most raw pieces of cricket you could watch," said BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew. "A 45-year-old man up against a lithe, magnificent young fast bowler, bowling at his very fastest. No helmet, no chest pad, no arm guard and he had a towel, a little thin towel tucked inside his trousers over his right thigh to try to prevent the bruising. He had a bat, a pair of pads and a pair of old fashioned gloves and that was it. He had in terms of bravery and determination more than you can ever have seen on the cricket field before."

Close was struck several times, but only twice did he show any pain, once when struck on the hip and once when hit on the chest, his knees buckling, albeit briefly. He never rubbed where he had been hit nor called for any treatment. Perhaps the closest he came to seriously injury was when he flicked his head out of the way of a brute of a delivery from Holding, so late that for all the world it appeared to be about to hit him. Had it then it would have caused serious damage as it would have struck him on the temple.

"Everybody, myself included, used to regard him as a bit of a joke, a caricature. He was mad, I don't mean in a derogatory way. But what we saw was an extremely brave man"
Mike Selvey

Viv Richards was in the slip cordon throughout and was concerned about his county captain. Vic Marks, who also played for Somerset, said: "Out of the corner of his mouth - since Richards could not betray to his West Indian colleagues that he had any sympathy for the opposition - he whispered, "Are you all right, cappy? Are you all right?" Close told him where to go in no uncertain terms and battled on."

England spinner Pat Pocock said that Close no longer had the technique to play Test cricket. "He just had the most guts of anyone who walked onto a cricket field." Mike Selvey, called in for his debut after a string of injuries to England's seamers, said Close' innings was remarkable. "I can't speak too highly of Closely that night. Everybody, myself included, used to regard him as a bit of a joke, a caricature. He was mad, I don't mean in a derogatory way. But what we saw was an extremely brave man. He went up massively in my esteem, as did Edrich."

On the England balcony, Woolmer was padded up waiting to go in place of Steele, who had a migraine. Steele told him that he would repay the favour one day. "I hope I live to see that day," replied Woolmer.

England reached stumps on 21 for 0, and Close and Edrich returned to a silent dressing room and slumped down. Edrich looked out the window at the scoreboard and burst out laughing. "Closey, do you know what your score is," he said. "One. Was it worth it?" There had been four scoring shots - Close's single and two fours and a two to Edrich.

Close painfully removed his shirt to reveal some growing bruises and cuts where he had been hit. "He stood there, no teeth, no hair and a big grin," Steele said. "He loved it. He bloody loved it." As his team-mates looked on in disbelief, he added: "You should see the state of the ball… there's no shine on it. It's all on me."

England's physiotherapist took one look at Close and suggested he go to hospital. "I'll be all right, lad," he replied. "Just give me a Scotch."

The British newspapers let rip. Alex Bannister, writing in the Daily Mail, said it was the type of bowling "that should be outlawed before a victim is killed or maimed for life", while the Sun headlined: "Cricket, ugly cricket".

West Indies captain Clive Lloyd was singled out for doing nothing to rein in his bowlers. After the match he admitted: "Our fellows got carried away. They knew they had only 80 minutes that night to make an impression and they went flat out, sacrificing accuracy for speed. They knew afterwards they had bowled badly." Interviewed by David Tossell in Grovel years later, Lloyd said: "Close and Edrich were just past it and couldn't get out of the way of the ball. They were just paralysed."

Grieg said he did not only blame the bowlers. "Two of the bravest English batsmen of my time were reduced to wrecks by a short-pitched assault unparalleled in its danger, in my experience. Maybe the bowlers were allowed too many bouncers, but on a respectable wicket the threat would have been halved."

When play resumed on the Monday the bowlers pitched the ball up. Close and Edrich survived an hour, taking the score to 54, before Edrich was bowled by Daniel for 24. Six runs later Roberts bowled Close and dismissed Woolmer next ball, and England fell away with little fight, losing by 425 runs. The Test just limped into a fifth day, but only because of rain.

What happened next

  • West Indies won the fourth and fifth Tests to take the series 3-0
  • Close and Edrich were both dropped and never played for England again. Of those who played two or more Tests in the series, Edrich topped the England averages with Close second
  • Close, badly bruised and with limited movement from his injuries, top-scored for Somerset in a limited-overs match the day after the Test. "At no time in the past 20 years has he batted any better," noted the Times. It was made all the more impressive as early in his innings Bob Willis struck Close right on one of his wounds. On that occasion, Close did make clear it hurt
  • Close made his final first-class appearance in 1986, by which time he was 55
  • The ICC met shortly afterwards for its annual meeting and expressed concerns at the increase in "dangerous and intimidatory bowling" and urged umpires to enforce rules more rigorously
  • In 1977 the first helmets appeared in cricket

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