Wednesday 29 February 2012

The Life Of Brian

BBC4's screening of Fire In Babylon once again offered the chance to see Brian Close batting for England against the West Indies in 1976. He was 45 years old. Never has an innings of 20 been as brave. And for all Close's courage, there was great humour too: his Yorkshire intransigence was passing into legend. Soon afterwards, Eric Morecambe came up with his famous joke: 'you know the cricket season has arrived when you hear the sound of leather on Brian Close'.

By coincidence, Close is the subject of an entertaining interview in the new Cricketer, in which the great sweep of his career is again worth a moment's thought - England's youngest player, and almost its oldest too. Certainly no-one since, or ever again, will represent the country at 45. The piece finds Closey in vintage form. Asked about the self-inflicted danger of his fielding at short leg, he says: 'The only places I could get hit was my shoulders, below the knees or my head...' Today's bowlers? 'They bowl a few at 90mph and think they're fast'; Nutritionists and analysts? 'I'd sack 'em'; Best advice given by a coach: 'We never had a bloody coach'.

Magnificent. It brought to mind a show I once attended with my dad called 'The King And I', a winter theatre tour by Ian Botham and Viv Richards, compered by David English. It was a riot. Botham told a brilliant shaggy dog story about Close from his early years at Somerset, when Close was the grizzled, autodidact skipper.

Somerset took the field, and in need of a wicket just before lunch, Close bought himself on to bowl. The batsman knocked up a dolly of a catch, which a youthful Brian Rose somehow contrived to spill. 'Bloody hell Rosie,' yelled Close. 'I could have caught that one in the cheeks of my arse...'

The reprieved batter stayed in for the rest of the day. At tea, Close had changed into his plimsolls, but, enraged by Botham's lack of a breakthrough with the ball, decided to bowl the last over of the day himself.

By now Botham had the theatre in silence, everyone wondering where the story was headed. Close ran in but as he hit his delivery stride the tread on his plimsolls gave out. He sprawled head-first down the wicket just as the batsman got a leading edge. The ball lobbed gently towards the prone Yorkshire legend and landed in the small of his back. Close quickly trapped it with his hand and claimed the catch.

'There you go Rosie,' he shouted triumphantly. 'Told you...'

Closey is 81 now, the iniquity of the years etched deep into his face. The same issue of The Cricketer has a tribute to King Viv, who is 60 soon. Time passes too quickly. What men they were, and are.


John Halliwell said...

When I think of Close the first thing that comes to mind is that infamous late Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford in ‘76 and our hero opening with Edrich against Holding, Roberts and Daniel - that unyielding ‘fuck off’ attitude, the refusal to concede anything in the ‘hurt’ stakes, the unflinching technique against the fastest new ball bowling imaginable, the later press photo of the violently bruised upper body. Was he the most courageous of all Test batsman or simply the maddest?

My second outstanding memory of a remarkable cricketer is again set at Old Trafford, this time the 1961 Ashes battle when England was chasing 256 in 230 minutes to win. It looked a doddle while Dexter was there - a truly great 76, but suddenly gone to Benaud, then, almost immediately, May to Benaud - 150 for 1 had become 150 for 3; enter D B Close. Surely, victory still within easy reach - cool heads and all that. Here is Jim Laker’s description of the next few minutes:

‘Unfortunately Brian Close played the most extraordinary innings I can ever recall from an accredited batsman in a Test match. To the first ball he received he played a dreadful cow-shot and was fortunate to see it hit the edge and pass harmlessly over keeper Grout’s head for 2 runs. After two more abortive sweeps he dashed down the wicket and hit Benaud over long-on for six, only to revert again to the idea of hoisting every ball - I repeat every ball - in the direction of square-leg. After four more attempts he succeeded and O’Neill gratefully took the catch - 158 for four. It was quite impossible to understand what was passing through Close’s mind.’

The Australians won by 54 runs with twenty minutes to spare. I have rarely, if ever, felt such a sense of disappointment over a result. Close was as big a villain that day as he would be a hero fifteen years later.

diogenes said...

he was the unluckiest of cricketers. At Lords in that 1976 series, I think he opened the batting and had cruised to a serene 60 and thereupon swatted a high full toss from the token left-arm spinner Jumadeen through midwicket. It hit the fielder's shin and rebounded for a catch. Until then, the fast-bowling strategy oif the WIndies had started to look threadbare.

Mark said...

John - read Close's account of the 1961 innings before being too judgmental.

His line is that there was no direction whatsoever from the England captain or management in terms of what to do. Dexter's innings meant a chase was on but at the other end Raman Subba Row was almost strokeless and Peter May (the skipper) had just been bowled round his legs.

Close calculated that the sweep was the best shot to play to try and upset Benaud. There's a long explanation for this - well worth reading.

Note also that O'Neill was about 20 yards out of position when he made the catch.

John Halliwell said...

Thanks, Mark. It has been remiss of me to fail to seek out Close’s account of that innings and I will attempt to rectify the omission. If I have a defence, however flimsy, it is the still acute memory of the day when simple common sense seemed to say ‘at least play yourself in before attempting to counter Benaud’; an approach completely at variance with what actually happened. Benaud, in his book: ‘Over But Not Out’ doesn’t pass judgement on the Close innings but does refer to the O’Neill catch:

‘Mackay pulled a hamstring whilst turning quickly, possibly when he whipped around to see where Dexter had hit him into the stand at the Warwick Road End. He told me about it between overs after Dexter’s and May’s dismissals and, with Brian Close trying to sweep almost everything, it seemed a good idea not to have Mackay fielding near the square-leg umpire. He certainly wouldn’t be be moving fluently. I quietly swapped him with Norman O’Neill, who was fielding at cover, and it was O’Neill who caught Close, although Brian has sworn on ten stacks of Bibles for the past forty-nine years that from the moment he walked on to the Old Trafford ground that afternoon, O’Neill was always the fieldsman near the umpire.’

As the OB states at the end of his post in referring to Close and Richards: ‘Time passes too quickly. What men they were, and are.’ Having sat at Old Trafford on that late Saturday afternoon in ‘76 with a increasing sense of anxiety for the well-being of a remarkable 45 year old Yorkshireman, I can only say Amen to that.

Graeme said...

re the 1961 innings, I can recall a TV interview with Benaud where he admitted that he was worried by Closes's use of the sweep because he knew just how effective he was with that shot. The BBC commentator - Rex Alston? - obviously did not approve of the shot and made approving comments about the drive for 6. yet, with the ampount of turn that Benaud was getting from Flavell's footmarks - somehow Trueman got the blame for them! - the drive was a very risky proposition unless Close got right to the pitch. He was doomed to fail.

Skybet said...

It was very interesting reading that Brian Close was 45 years old and still playing for England.We must of been short on young talent in those days.

Pay per head services said...

I totally and completely agree with you buddy, Brian Closed played the most extraordinary innings I have seen in my life and I think I will not see anything like it ever again

Freyalyn said...

Fascinating post and comments. I'm just so sorry that the only test match I remember him is the '76 Old Trafford one. My brother and I were taken there just so we could say we'd seen Dad playing for England.

The Old Batsman said...

Thanks Freyalyn, I'm sure you're very proud of your dad. We won't see another like him, not least because it was the era before helmets and the limits on the number of short-pitched balls. I think even the Windies realise now that they overdid it. It remains one of the supreme acts of courage in sporting terms.