One of the best captain international cricket has known, 1983

Success through perceptiveness

Alan Lee

Comfortably before lunch on Tuesday, September 14, 1982, at Worcester, Mike Brearley made the final run in Middlesex's ten-wicket win over Worcestershire. He had been applauded on to the field at the start of the match; and he was applauded off it, into the retirement he had planned and announced. He walked into the pavilion for the fourth, and last, time as captain of the county champions.

There is little doubt that he was one of the best - certainly the most sustainedly successful - captain international cricket has known. A shrewd and experienced North country professional and Test selector summed it up in the words: This man is as good a captain on the field as Illingworth; off it, he must be far and away the best we have had. He added: "If only he could get some more runs there could never be any question about him." Runs, though, are not a yardstick of captaincy, only a reinforcement of selection.

Mike Brearley's record as a Test captain is excelled only by Sir Donald Bradman who, it will be conceded, had - by comparison with his opponents - stronger sides under his command. In short, Brearley captained England in 31 Test matches, of which they won eighteen and lost four; while, of nine series, seven were won, one drawn and one lost. In his eleven years as captain of Middlesex they won the County Championship three times and shared it once, against five and one shared in their previous 89 years in the competition. They were twice winners and once losing finalists in the Gillette Cup; once Benson and Hedges Cup finalists; once runners-up and twice third in the John Player League.

His achievement that will live in the imagination of all those who lived through it - or who read of it in the future - is the taking over of the 1981 England team, one down to Australia, which had all the look of a beaten side, and transforming it, almost incredibly, into the winner of the rubber by three to one. Much credit, of course, must go to Ian Botham for his amazing all-round cricket. Yet Botham had been in the losing team Brearley took over. After that Brearley stepped down from the England captaincy, as he did from that of his county a year later, on a note of triumph.

The simple explanation for his success was expressed by the Australian fast bowler, Rodney Hogg, not generally known for his perspicacity, when he said "I reckon Brearley has got a degree in people." The salient points of his make-up are intellectual quality, clarity of mind and common sense - which are by no means the same thing, nor always found in the same person - and human perception. He would not claim the finest brain cricket has known. Indeed, he has argued that Edward Craig, his contemporary at Cambridge, was superior both mentally and as a batsman. It is, though, as certain as may be that his was the most effective intellect ever closely applied to the game. His clarity of mind enabled him to pierce the woolly romanticism and anachronistic feudalism which for so long obscured the truth of cricket. His common sense was reflected in his recognition of the need for Kerry Packer to be accepted into the body of cricket; and that, if players were not better treated financially, the available talent would ebb even further away.

His understanding - both intuitive and tutored - of human beings proved a major asset in his captaincy. He was able to reach, sympathise with and - in the current term - motivate cricketers as few, if any, others have done. If that capacity proved helpful, it also led to some of his major griefs, for his depth of understanding made his failures in human relationships the more agonising.

His career is absorbing to follow, if only for its many-sidedness. Invariably cricketers who achieve so much have been single-minded about the game. Mike Brearley has never seen it as an exclusive interest so much as the finest of games, set in a world of more important matters. That has enabled him to detach himself mentally from a match in which he was deeply involved and to assess it objectively.

Yet he could not be so detached about his own performance. Throughout his career as captain of England he was deeply - often inhibitingly - concerned about his batting form in Test matches. Clear-mindedly recognising his own potential, he was idealist enough to appreciate how far he often fell short of it. Had he played under a captain as sympathetic as himself, the problem might have been solved. In the event, although he often batted freely and fluently in county cricket, when he played for England anxiety drove him constantly into over-care. This frequently cost him his wicket. In short he was, like all good batsmen, basically an instinctive player: not even he could quite impose thought on the high-speed reactions of batting against pace. Thus his best Test innings were defensive: salvage operations conducted with an eye to survival. History, surely, will say that his captaincy and fine slip-catching compensated for the deficiency.

He was born in Harrow on April 28, 1942. His father, Horace Brearley, who came from Yorkshire, was a good enough batsman to play as an amateur for that county once and, after he moved south, twice for Middlesex. He employed encouragement to help his son towards a success in cricket which was soon evident. At fourteen he won a place in the first XI of City of London School, and held it for five years.

He began his 21-year career in first-class cricket for Cambridge University against Surrey, at Fenner's, on April 29, 1961, as wicket-keeper and No. 8 batsman. His 76 was the highest score of the match for Cambridge. Within three weeks he had gained the respect of some stern critics with 73 and 89, by far the highest Cambridge scores, against Benaud's Australians. By the time of the University match he had made his first and second centuries and been top scorer in ten Cambridge innings. Against Oxford his 27, which held the unsteady Cambridge innings together, was bettered only by Jefferson's lusty 54 at No. 9. With 1,158 runs at 44.53 he was second to Craig (1,342 at 47.92) in the University averages. Selection for the Gentlemen against the Players at Lord's put an unusual seal of achievement on his first season; but brought him only two - relatively unsuccessful - matches for Middlesex.

Next year he was less successful for Cambridge until his century against Oxford; and he scored 143 for once out for Middlesex. He was praised for his captaincy of the University at Lord's in 1963, when he made 790 runs at 30.38. Then, in 1964, came his best season. The first man since F. S. Jackson in 1892 and 1893 to captain Cambridge in consecutive seasons, he made his second century against Oxford and finished top of the University averages, 25 ahead of the next man, with 1,313 at 57.08. And he set a new Cambridge record individual aggregate of 4,068. He was chosen to captain the President of MCC's XI against the Australians and, with a top score of 67 out of 179 for seven, saved the match. Over the entire season only Tom Graveney and Eric Russell made more than his 2,179 runs. The Cricket Writers' Club elected him Young Cricketer of 1964 and he was, almost inevitably, chosen for the winter's tour of South Africa.

That would have been a considerable series of performances for an undergraduate in the days when they could devote their time to cricket without fear of the examiners. Brearley, however, not only kept wicket through two of those four seasons but, changing academic horses in mid-stream, he achieved a first in Classics and a two-one in Moral Sciences. In addition he was joint-top in the Civil Service examination.

In South Africa the competition of more experienced players kept him out of the Test team, but he contrived to see those facets of that country and its people which are not usually shown to visiting cricketers. Back in England, he played regularly for Middlesex and, like many before him, found a first full county season as an opening batsman a trying experience. He was, though, not afraid to graft, and in that summer he probably learnt more about going in first against the new ball than in any other phase of his career.

It is possible that, in 1966, Mike Brearley might have advanced from a highly talented and promising batsman to a great one. That was the next logical step in his progress. But he became, once again, preoccupied with studies, and took a post-graduate course in philosophy at Cambridge. He found time to play a few matches for Cambridgeshire, where he was intrigued by keeping wicket to Johnny Wardle's left-arm mixture of finger spin, the Chinaman, and its complementary googly. He turned out twice, too, for the University, for whom he scored a century against a powerful Yorkshire bowling side. Although that was no the hardening process old pros would have prescribed for an aspiring 24-year-old batsman, the selectors were happy to send him as captain of the MCC Under-25 team to Pakistan. There his batting was remarkable. His 312 not out against Northern Zone was one of the rare instances of a triple-century being made in a day; and he scored 223 against Pakistan in the second representative match. He averaged 132 for the tour; more than twice as many as any other member of a side which included Dennis Amiss, Keith Fletcher and Alan Ormrod.

Whatever conclusion may be drawn about his absence from the first-class scene in 1966, it must be virtually certain that the development of his batting lost crucial momentum when research at Cambridge and teaching in the Universities of California and Newcastle kept him out of first-class cricket in 1967, and restricted him to the latter part of the 1968, 1969 and 1970 seasons. That may appear contradictory when the best part of his career lay ahead. He had yet to become the outstanding captain of his, or perhaps any other age, but he was never again such an outstanding batsman among his contemporaries as he had been when he returned from Pakistan.

In 1971 he gave up university teaching in order to take up the Middlesex captaincy. Outside cricket in the following years he developed his long-standing interest in psychotherapy. He set about not merely captaining but rebuilding a Middlesex side which had not had major success since the Championship title of 1949. In 1975, though eleventh in the table, Middlesex performed the then unique feat of reaching both finals - of the Gillette and Benson and Hedges - only to lose both. Brearley's own performance and confidence steadily improved, his average rising through 33, 30, 34 and 44, until, in 1975, he was top of the county's batting figures, in aggregate and average, and sixth in the national averages.

In 1976, in a characteristically perceptive move, he recruited Alan Jones, the former Sussex and Somerset bowler, who provided the extra edge of penetration to give Middlesex their first county title for 29 years. In the same season Brearley was chosen for England - as a batsman, it should be noted. Opening the innings in the first two Tests against West Indies he scored 0, 17, 40 and 13. He was picked for the tour to India, Sri Lanka and the Centenary Test of 1977 in Australia, as vice-captain to Tony Greig. First in aggregate and second in average for the entire Indian tour, he made only 215 at 26.87 in the Tests. Still, he made top score in both the third and fifth Test matches and, most valuably, steadied the English second innings in the anniversary game at Melbourne.

Then came the Packer defections, which Brearley probably understood as clearly as and with less bias than anyone else in cricket, though he refused to take part in the operation. Because of his share in it, Greig was dropped from the captaincy, playing under Brearley, who inherited it, in the 1977 home series against Australia, who employed all their Packer men. Brearley played two useful innings; but that mattered little beside the fact that Australia were beaten by three-nothing.

In addition, Middlesex finished equal first in the Championship with Kent and won the Gillette Cup. Brearley, despite his absences at Tests, was top of their averages with a figure of 68.33. After captaining England in the first two - drawn - Tests in Pakistan, Brearley had his arm broken by a ball from Sikander Bakht, who was not more than fast-medium, and returned home without going on to New Zealand.

The injury seemed subsequently to unsettle him and he had an abject batting year. But again results gave his reply: Middlesex finished third in the Championship; England beat Pakistan two-nothing, New Zealand three-nothing, and Australia, on their own pitches but without their Packer players, five-one. In 1979, India were beaten three-one but, although Brearley's batting revived, Middlesex, an unhappy fourteenth, experienced their worst season under his captaincy.

In 1979-80 Australia, at full Packer-reinforced strength, were waiting to take revenge for, above all, the humiliation of a year before. They did so most effectively from a playing point of view. Despite Botham's spirited resistance, the bowling of Dennis Lillee and Geoff Dymock, and the batting of Greg and Ian Chappell and Allan Border, were too much for England. Australia won all three matches of the series. Brearley batted resolutely enough to average 34.20; better than his figures against some substantially less hostile attacks. This was his one real defeat.

Unfortunately Lillee chose to bait Brearley in an offensive and childish manner; while a section of the crowd at Melbourne treated him in a fashion which the Australian manager, in an official statement, said made him "ashamed to be an Australian". This was England's first experience of the new, Packer-inspired commercialisation of Australian cricket. Brearley was pressured to accept playing conditions already rejected by the TCCB, and the Australian authorities behaved less than honestly in portraying him, through the media, as a whingeing Pom. Brearley never behaved better nor with more dignity.

The Golden Jubilee Test at Bombay, played on the way home from Australia and lifted to considerable heights by Botham's splendid all-round cricket, did something to wash away the unpleasant taste. More happily, Brearley led Middlesex to yet another Championship and the Gillette Cup; and then decided to allow himself another couple of seasons before he retired. Nevertheless, he decided that his studies in psychoanalysis would prevent him from touring in the following winter. The selectors needed to blood his successor; and Botham inherited, with unhappy results for his own playing performances over more than a year. Subsequently, in 1981, after an English defeat at Trent Bridge and an unhappy draw at Lord's, Botham resigned his office and the selectors recalled Brearley. He can hardly have contemplated the task with pleasure, but under his calm tactically skilful, and friendly leadership, and through the amazing all-round performances of the revived Botham, England won the third, fourth and fifth Tests; at Headingley, Edgbaston and Old Trafford respectively.

So to 1982; another Championship and retirement. He has gone with regret but not bitterness. He realises that he will miss the companionship, the humour and the excitement of the first-class game but he is clear on what he wants to do. He hopes still to play some cricket, preferably of a competitive kind, and he will, surely, contribute much on the cricket committee of the TCCB. For the two years until he completes his studies and qualifies as a psychoanalyst, he will practise as a psychotherapist. He has already worked in a clinic for disturbed adolescents and is convinced of his destiny in this field.

It would be foolish to pretend that Mike Brearley is the usual type of county cricketer. He is a serious man; an idealist in matters of morals, but also a realist. Happy to accept, and content that he had earned, a benefit of £31,000 in 1978, he had always believed that cricketers in general were underpaid in view of the risks their career implies. He has campaigned along those lines; not merely for himself. He was an early, active, and wise member of the Cricketers' Association which is, in effect, the players' trade union.

Much of his influence over his players stemmed from his friendly approach. Physically lean and wiry, even at 40, his hair greying, there is an engagingly boyish quality about his easy smile and a frankness about his expression confirmed by honesty. He remains a most interesting character who has displayed so many facets that one waits, intrigued, for the next.

© John Wisden & Co