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BROWN, WILLIAM ALFRED, OAM, died on March 16, 2008, aged 95. Bill Brown was Australia's oldest Test cricketer, and when he died his contribution to the country's cricket was immediately eulogised in the Australian parliament by the leaders of both main parties.
The journalist Ray Robinson called Brown "the most serene batsman I ever saw play for Australia". His approach was not one of extravagance or power, but based on an immaculate defence, out of which grew the ability to cut precisely and unfurl the occasional restrained drive. Above all, though, there was his predilection for the on side, crowned by the delicacy of his grass-hugging leg-glance. Brown was never regarded as a crowd-pleaser, though his highest first-class score of 265 not out, against Derbyshire in 1938, came at almost a run a minute. Perhaps Australian spectators never quite realised his quality: injury decreed that only five of his 22 Tests were at home, while his greatest deeds were performed in far corners of foreign fields.
Brown's dairy-farmer father moved the family from rural Queensland to Sydney in 1914; by the time he was 20, the son was playing for his adopted state, making 69 against the Bodyline attack in his first season. Controversially selected, aged 21, ahead of Jack Fingleton for the 1934 Ashes tour, Brown adapted well to English conditions, passing 70 in each of the first three Tests, including 105 in the defeat at Lord's. "The boy Brown" was lauded by Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian, for playing "with a bat as straight as a tall hat, immaculate and calm and ever so old-headed." Cardus added: "He is a young man who, I imagine, never gets into a state about anything." Brown was even more prolific in South Africa in 1935-36, when he and Fingleton put together three century Test opening stands (and two more in the nineties), their best effort coming at Cape Town where they each made hundreds in a partnership of 233. He also joined Fingleton in the menacing squad of short legs for the bowling of Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett. An injured thumb kept Brown out of the start of the 1936-37 Ashes series but, back in England in 1938, he made centuries in the first two Tests, his 206 at Lord's being the first double by a batsman carrying his bat in a Test. "I have seldom seen a young man play the veteran's part as easefully as Brown did today," wrote Cardus this time. England seemed to face the prospect of bowling at him for years.
In 1936-37 Brown had returned to Brisbane, attracted by the offer of secure employment as a car salesman. His presence provided much-needed stiffening to a vulnerable Queensland side; a year later he became captain and in 1938-39 he hit 990 runs in six Sheffield Shield matches at an average of 110. But Brown had other enemies to face now besides England: he joined the Royal Australian Air Force, serving as a pilot of transport and supply planes in the Pacific and achieving the rank of flight-lieutenant.
Having captained the Australian side to New Zealand in 1945-46, where the single representative match was accorded Test status retrospectively, Brown missed all of the following season's Ashes series because of a broken thumb. During the inaugural visit of the Indians to Australia in 1947-48, he gained notoriety because of his carelessness in being twice run out at Sydney by Vinoo Mankad for backing up too far, initially in the Australian XI game in which Don Bradman scored his 100th hundred, and then again in the second Test. Fifty years later, Brown was characteristically insisting that the incidents were his own fault and that the bowler had warned him on each occasion. On top of that, he was run out in the fifth Test on 99 (his only home Test fifty) by a smart return to the keeper from Mankad. Running out the non-striker while he is backing up is still known as "Mankading" in Australia.
Brown was part of Bradman's great 1948 team in England, but the successful opening partnership of Sid Barnes and Arthur Morris meant that he was moved to the middle order and then dropped after two quiet Tests, even though he averaged 57.92 for the tour overall, with eight centuries. He retired in 1950, having already opened a sports store in Brisbane, which was an immediate success. He was a state selector throughout the 1950s and a national selector in 1952-53. Brown grew old gracefully, attending the Brisbane and Sydney Tests annually with dignity and wry self-deprecation. "He was the most reticent cricketer I've ever known," said the writer David Frith. "Not just modest, but intensely modest. Even when he came to the press box at Lord's, he wouldn't talk about his batting there. He wanted to talk about the other people. It was sad in a way." Brown, the last surviving pre-war Wisden Cricketer of the Year, was much admired by the modernday Australian team, and Steve Waugh would get him to present the baggy green cap to Test debutants.