Vic Marks on Brian Close

Learning at Close quarters

Brian Close
He didn't always remember Vic Marks' name but that didn't stop Brian Close earning a lasting place in the Somerset spinner's affections

Brain Close ducks a bouncer in his 22nd and last Test © The Cricketer
Two of my favourite cricketers have passed away this spring: Tom Cartwright and Arthur Milton, supreme craftsmen and supreme gentlemen, who played in an era when you could be a great cricketer without playing much for England.

Both were brave enough to try to coach me in my youth without the benefit of the ECB's Level 4 coaching certificate. They were the most influential coaches I came across - even though Arthur would only venture an opinion if you really pressed him; Tom was a little less reticent.

Both were very familiar with my favourite surviving cricketer, DB Close. In the 1950s Arthur briefly zipped down the wing for Arsenal and crossed the ball towards the Close forehead. Arthur used to delight in telling us how Close kept missing chances with headers because the ball was forever going over the bar. In training at Highbury they kept cajoling him to head the ball down, a skill he practised assiduously all of one week. Saturday came and Arthur crossed; Close soared, headed the ball down as prescribed with surprising power - it hit the turf and bounced over the bar.

As ever Closey had done everything perfectly and yet was still denied the success he deserved. In his darker moments, and I hope there haven't been too many of those, he reckoned that this was the story of his life.

Close was my first county captain. He had an immediate impact upon me; it took a little longer for me to impact upon him. For a while I might be addressed as "Pete lad" (Roebuck), "Phil lad" (Slocombe) or just occasionally "Vic lad", though never "Ian lad" - even Closey spotted the difference there.

He once asked me to sandpaper his bat as part of my 12th man duties (there were others: making him endless pots of tea and popping down to the bookies). Close's bat was one of many Stuart Surridges in our dressing room. I completed the task lovingly, leaving only the "DB" carefully inked on the shoulder. Close was unimpressed. It was Dennis Breakwell's bat.

We lost him for a while in 1976. At the age of 45, 27 years after his Test debut, he was chosen for three Tests against the ferocious pace attack of the West Indies. This, we learnt, was the first year in over two decades that Close had failed to put the Test match dates in his diary. He performed heroically against Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel and was upset to be dropped. He suspected that Tony Greig left him out since he was worried that he might be superseded as captain - by Close, of course. "Players kept looking at me when I was at short leg, so I put 'em in right place," he would tell us upon his return from the Tests.

Ray Illingworth once told me that Close was a bit of a hypochondriac in his youth, always off the field for something - until they made him captain at Yorkshire. By the time I came across him stories of his bravery were legendary; they were also true

In his last - and 22nd - Test he was battered at Old Trafford on an uneven pitch against West Indian pacemen in the most ruthless frame of mind, disinclined to grovel. He returned immediately to the Somerset side for a Gillette Cup match at Edgbaston. A fiery young Bob Willis hit him in the chest; his legs buckled like a beleaguered boxer's and he hit the floor. He got up to top score in the Somerset innings.

Ray Illingworth once told me that Close was a bit of a hypochondriac in his youth, always off the field for something - until they made him captain at Yorkshire. By the time I came across him stories of his bravery were legendary; they were also true.

Close was never arrogant, but I've never encountered a man with such a deep reservoir of self-confidence. He was never out through his own fault. It might be because the 12th man had brought the wrong-flavoured chewing gum or poor advice from the preceding batsman. "You told me it was swinging; you didn't tell me it was seaming as well," he once chastised a colleague after becoming the third victim of a hat-trick at Trent Bridge.

Unlike Cartwright, with whom he combined to turn Somerset into a good team, he was not a natural coach, even though he had an instinctive feel of how to win cricket matches. Peter Roebuck, in one of his first games for the county, once wandered down the pitch to Close between overs in search of some guidance. "I can play him all right - but you might struggle" was not quite what Peter was looking for.

Of course Close was a remarkable, intuitive captain, who led England seven times, winning six matches and drawing one. England won his first Test in charge in 1966 at The Oval when he memorably caught Garry Sobers first ball at short leg after a plan, hatched with John Snow, had come to fruition. A long England career beckoned again but somehow it all went wrong.

A few years later Sobers came out to bat for Nottinghamshire at Taunton when Close was captaining Somerset. Close had been fielding at short leg, of course, and Cartwright was bowling. Between them in their contrasting ways they knew all there was to know about the game.

The crowd shuffled to the edge of their seats. The world's greatest allrounder pitched against the ultimate English medium-pacer and this inspirational, unconventional leader. Here was a moment to savour. They watched Close move slowly towards the end of Cartwright's run-up as Sobers took guard. An important conversation was about to take place. What cunning plan would be hatched, what unorthodox field placement? What would Close's fertile brain come up with this time? "Right, Tom lad," said Close. "This lad's a left-hander."

Whereupon he turned and walked all the way back to his post, perilously close to Sobers, at forward short leg.

Vic Marks, who played for Somerset and England, is cricket correspondent of The Observer and a summariser for BBC Radio's Test Match Special

This article was first published in the July issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
Click here for further details.