Brian Close, who died on September 14, at the age of 84, was one of England's most remarkable cricketers. He was England's youngest ever Test cricketer, making his debut against New Zealand at Old Trafford in 1949, aged 18 years and 149 days. He also became their 11th oldest player, and their oldest since World War II, when he appeared against the West Indies at Old Trafford in 1976, aged 45 years and 140 days.
Between those two Tests, 27 years apart, Close played in only 20 others. He didn't make a Test century, his highest score was 70 against West Indies at Lord's in 1963. He never took five wickets in an innings, he bowled right-arm medium or offbreaks as the mood took him, his best was 4 for 35 against India at Headingley in 1959. But although his first-class numbers - almost 35,000 runs, 1171 wickets and 813 catches in 786 matches - give more than a hint of Close's quality as a player, it was never the statistics that counted.
As a player it was his batting that Close will be remembered for. Tall, left-handed and extremely strong, he could defend with immense determination and a sound technique when the situation demanded but he was also capable of displays of startling, deranged-like aggression. In his younger days his judgement occasionally let him down. In the famous game at Old Trafford between England and Australia in 1961, Close was the subject of fierce criticism for his tactics which essentially involved trying to sweep every ball. As it turned out, with England seemingly bound to win, Richie Benaud bowled Australia to victory on a dramatic final day. Benaud said that Close was the one England batsman, apart from Ted Dexter, that he was really worried about because if his tactics had come off he could have turned the course of the match in a few moments. But it gave Close a reputation for unreliability at the top level.
Two years later, he played his most influential Test innings, that 70 against West Indies at Lord's. This was another dramatic final day, which ended with Colin Cowdrey walking to the non-striker's end with six runs to win off two balls and West Indies needing one wicket. The match ended in a draw but Close had played a pivotal role in setting up this climactic denouement. Coming in at 72 for 3, he presented grim defiance initially against the extreme pace of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. He took many blows on his upper body. But he gradually became more expansive, often sweeping and pulling. By the end he was advancing down the track to Hall and Griffith as they ran in. He batted for three hours and fifty minutes and almost won it for England. Almost, but not quite - England still needed 15 runs when he was the eighth man to fall.
That was the only five-match series in which Close played every game. Upon its conclusion, he was discarded until, in 1966, he was recalled to play the West Indies once again, this time as captain. Garry Sobers' side had been far too strong for England, winning three of the first four Tests, with Sobers himself making three centuries and taking 17 wickets. Mike Smith and then Cowdrey had led England but neither could turn the tide.
England looked a different side at The Oval, beating West Indies by an innings and 34 runs, with Tom Graveney and wicketkeeper John Murray making centuries, John Snow and Ken Higgs adding 128 for the last wicket and Snow dismissing Sobers off the first ball he faced in West Indies' second innings. Captaining England seemed a bit of a diddle.
By this time Close had emerged as an outstanding captain. Appointed to lead Yorkshire in 1963, they won the County Championship that year and were to do so again three years running from 1966. Close was tactically astute and instinctively aggressive. He had a great side but having personalities as powerful and diverse as Fred Trueman, Ray Illingworth and Geoffrey Boycott in the team would have been a challenge. No one ever doubted who was in charge.
Close continued to captain England in the 1967 season when England beat India 3-0 and Pakistan 2-0 in three-match series. Close seemed set to lead the MCC side to West Indies that winter but after he was accused of time-wasting during a county match between Yorkshire and Warwickshire, the selectors turned to Cowdrey to lead the side.
Close must have thought his international career was over but in 1972 he was brought back to lead England in the first ODI series, against Australia where England won 2-1.
By this time Close had left his beloved Yorkshire - sacked as captain after the 1970 season - and was enjoying a somewhat improbable career in bucolic Somerset. He scored plenty of runs and as captain exerted a real and lasting influence on a group of young players, including Ian Botham, Viv Richards, Peter Roebuck and Vic Marks, who were to lead the county to unprecedented success in the late '70s and early '80s.
Meanwhile, what do the England selectors do if the national side is facing a difficult time against West Indies? Send for Close, of course. This is what happened in the hot, dry summer of 1976 when Clive Lloyd's side arrived, still in shock from their drubbing at the hands of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee in Australia. Lloyd unleashed Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel on the English batting line-up. Close was called up for the first Test and by the third he was opening the batting with 39-year-old John Edrich.
On the third evening, England were beginning their second innings in an utterly hopeless position, having been set 552 to win. Close and Erdrich faced an unedifying barrage from West Indies' quicks, which was described as "disquieting cricket" by Wisden. Neither batsman played for England again.
It did demonstrate, though, the characteristic which everyone agrees was Close's predominant trait - his courage. Like Peter Willey, he was an exceptionally tough man.
Close's physical bravery was demonstrated in his fielding as much as in his batting. He loved standing very, almost absurdly, close at short leg. No helmet in those days of course, just " the old bald blighter", as Alan Gibson memorably dubbed him, staring at the batsman.
Mike Brearley, among others, tells the story of the batsman who thumped a ball straight into Close's forehead whence it bounced off to be caught at slip. "My God," one of his teammates said, " what would have happened if it had hit you a couple of inches lower?"
"'He'd have been caught at gully," came Close's reply.