'I have no idea where the courage came from'

In unpublished interviews conducted before his death, Brian Close remembered the blows he took from the cricket ball, and captaining Trueman, Boycott, Viv and Botham

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi |

Yorkshire gents: (From left) Close, Ray Illingworth, Geoff Boycott and Fred Trueman at Headingley in 2002

Yorkshire gents: (From left) Close, Ray Illingworth, Geoff Boycott and Fred Trueman at Headingley in 2002 © PA Photos

Brian Close fiddled with a cigarette both times we met. The first time was in London and then at his golf club in his native Guiseley. He would tap it on the back of his hand or on a folded newspaper, eager to stand up and have a smoke. But he resisted the urge for close to an hour, talking about his life and times in cricket. Engrossing, personal, self-deprecatory, direct, sharp, knowledgeable - Close made these conversations exciting and stimulating.

I was motoring down to London for a BBC Sportsman of the Year evening. The publisher had sent me the manuscript for my book. During the drive I thought of I Took The Blows as an ideal title, because I was hit all over my place, and then England sacked me, followed by my issues with Yorkshire. So I rang up the publisher and suggested it. He told me it was impossible as they had the book cover printed already with I Don't Bruise Easily. I told him I would not pick that because I bruised the same way as anybody else. The only trouble is I do not worry about it.

I have no idea where the courage came from. Whenever I walked onto a pitch - whether it was playing football, cricket or whatever - the game came first. Not me.

I played against fully grown-ups when I was 11 years old. By the end of the season I was playing in the senior team for Airedale and Wharfedale Senior League against Menston. That was 1942. I can remember that as if it was yesterday.

Even though I played for Yorkshire before I made my Test debut, I got my England cap before my Yorkshire cap. A cap is more or less an acknowledgement that you are a regular player. Playing for a county you've got to deserve it. It takes time. You have got to have a fair amount of success.

"I was very unfortunate in certain respects because for some reason I was picked mostly against West Indies with all their bloody fast bowlers around"

I certainly never said being England's youngest Test player was an albatross round my neck. It was written by the writer of my book. As a 19-year-old when I went to Australia I had not played first-class cricket because I was in the army for the preceding two years. I was ill-prepared. From playing for Northern Command, Royal Signals, I went to play against the great Australian bowling attack, comprising Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall, Bill Johnston.

I don't think I ever played under a great captain.

I played as an amateur for the Leeds United junior team as a 14-year-old. It was absolutely perfect to play football in the winter and cricket in the summer. I also signed up as a professional for Leeds United, but a new manager came along and I wasn't suited.

Fred Trueman and myself had a lot of arguments. Because I was his captain I got my way. Freddie had seen me get hit with the ball all over the body and never turn a hair. So if ever it got to a fight he knew he would come off worse.

There were plenty of bad captains around during my time. But the best captain I played under was Norman Yardley, the Yorkshire captain. Because he was a good cricketer and he understood his players. But he was a bit soft with the senior players and wouldn't reprimand them for doing things wrong.

Close bats against Michael Holding at Old Trafford, 1976

Close bats against Michael Holding at Old Trafford, 1976 © PA Photos

They wouldn't let me play against the softer ones. I was very unfortunate in certain respects because for some reason I was picked mostly against West Indies with all their bloody fast bowlers around.

Playing cricket for Yorkshire and playing football for Leeds United, you have to wait for them to invite you. You could never guarantee they would do that. So you had to think of a career elsewhere. After my school, the headmaster wanted me to go to Cambridge and study maths, because I could do maths falling over backwards in those days. I wanted to study medicine.

Against West Indies, at Lord's in 1963 was my best performance with the bat. Lord's was the fastest pitch in the world - almost like a piece of concrete. There was this ridge at the far end - if you were bowling from the Pavilion end and pitched just short of length, it lifted unusually, and if you pitched over it, it would keep low. So to face Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith was some task. Wes, in fact, I remember reading in some paper, had been timed at 104mph. He was a magnificent physical specimen. And, of course, there was the back-foot no-ball rule in those days, so a fast bowler would almost release the ball a yard and a half in front of the crease.

After I had taken over from Vic Wilson as Yorkshire captain in 1963 I made Geoffrey Boycott into an opening batsman. He didn't want to do it. I said you are going to do it otherwise you are out of the team. The first time he opened, I think, Geoff Arnold bowled him for a duck against Surrey at Bramall Lane. He came in and sulked. I said stop feeling sorry for yourself. He was a bit of a selfish man in some respects. But not long after that he was opening for England and became a great opening batsman and went on to serve Yorkshire cricket for many years.

"Leading the country was easy. Leading the county was difficult"

Freddie used to turn up when he wanted. Vic Wilson dropped Freddie at Taunton for turning up too late. Normally on the first day you have to be at the ground an hour before the start, but Fred turned up with about 20 minutes to go. I won't tell you the reason why he was late. And he was made the 12th man. Vic was right. As it happens, a bloke called Peter Wight, who wasn't a bad player, but who was frightened of Fred and got out few times cheaply, made a double-century.

Sir Len Hutton wrote a letter after that Lord's innings, calling it the greatest innings he had seen. I bloody don't remember where that letter is now. I was at the other end in my first year and it was a lesson in itself to watch Hutton bat against different types of bowlers. And if you were sensible you learn from it.

The very next day after the Lord's Test I drove up to Sheffield to play for Yorkshire against Glamorgan. I bowled 24 overs on the first day and every step I took to return to bowl and going through the motions was rather painful due to the different bruises I had suffered the previous day. The conditions suited seam bowling and the ball was swinging and I took quite a few wickets.

You learn by watching a player, how he plays and what he does.

In August 1967, I was accused of time-wasting during a Warwickshire v Yorkshire match at Edgbaston. We actually broke a rule that quickened the game up. We played for about 30-40 minutes in a very light drizzle, which wet the grass and the ball. The previous season, certain counties had been caught fiddling about with the seam. And so a new rule came into effect stating if the ball was wet and needed drying with a cloth, you had to borrow it from the umpire and do it in front of his eyes. Our bowlers just took the cloth back and put it in the pocket to quicken the game. If we had done it in front of the umpire each time we would have bowled less overs. Warwickshire thought they were going to win and made a bit of a noise and eventually we drew the match. But the papers accused Yorkshire of wasting time. The MCC used that as a lever to get me out of the England team.

"Cricket taught me to accept happenings. Things happen. But you just try your best not only for you, but for the other lads, the club, the team" Nagraj Gollapudi / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

I did go to the Caribbean, but as a reporter for a Sunday paper. Incidentally Garry Sobers got angry during the fourth Test in Port-of-Spain as England were bowling slowly. In bright sunshine they were bowling only 11 overs an hour. I was on the radio with Sir Learie Constantine doing a local broadcast when Garry declared. I said that was silly on air as we will win this easily. One of his fast bowlers had got injured. But Sir Learie said no, no. England got the runs without breaking into a sweat.

Leading the country was easy. Leading the county was difficult.

At Somerset I brought Vivian Richards up. I brought Ian Botham up. How did I manage those two? I had a lot of experience, don't forget. It is your thinking that will help you develop.

About a week before that time-wasting incident, the Daily Express reporter Crawford White rang me and said, "For heavens' sake, Brian, watch your step because the MCC are going to do what they can to get their little man in [Colin Cowdrey], a so-called amateur." Doug Insole, the selection committee chairman, told me they had picked me to lead the team, but the MCC had overruled it and put their own man in. England sacked me as the MCC ran the game then. It couldn't happen today.

Cricket is a thinking game. You have moments between balls when you are batting, when you are in the field, when your mind is going around, looking at the situation, what can you do to improve it. Does the bowler look as if he is going to take a wicket? If he is not, who else can we use? If you are a reasonable captain you can help players, and particularly young players.

"The most imaginative captain that I ever played against was Richie Benaud"

If I was running the game now I would go back to three-day cricket instead of four. In our days we used to bowl 120-125 overs a day. Nowadays they bowl about 90-odd. I am not sure about the results, as that depends on the class of bowling. But in three days you can have two Championship matches in a week. And international players don't play first-class cricket even if they are getting paid a fortune.

Ray Illingworth and Ian [Botham] were the top allrounders for England.

Bouncers never worried me. The one thing about it is that if bowlers bowl bouncers they can't bowl you out, because they are flying past your head. Provided you keep your eyes focused on the ball then you can move faster. But these days a batsman lunges forward and they have all got helmets on. I could never have played with a helmet on.

Viv's natural attitude to the game was impressive. He never seemed to be getting worried about anything. He took everything in his stride. He was so relaxed and friendly. I could never ever remember him losing his temper. What a hell of a bloody batsman he was.

I was appointed captain of England in 1966. It did not matter if it came early or long. I made certain when I went into selection meetings that I got the players that I wanted.

Close fields at backward short leg to Hanif Mohammad at Lord's, 1967

Close fields at backward short leg to Hanif Mohammad at Lord's, 1967 © PA Photos

Freddie and I were born in same month of the same year - February 1931. We first met when we were 15, when we were called up to the Yorkshire Cricket Federation Under-18 side. We were colleagues, pals, friends, the lot, all the way through. It was cricket's loss, Fred passing away, because he was a wonderful teller of tales. He had a wonderful memory. And he was one of the greatest fast bowlers.

At Old Trafford in 1976, Greigy [Tony Greig] said the selectors and him wanted me to open the innings. I said, "You must be bloody crackers. I haven't opened the innings in a first-class match for several years." I asked him what was the matter with Bob Woolmer, who was the regular opener. "We don't want him killed off. There is a lot of Test cricket left in him," Greigy said. I told him anything could happen with the new ball against West Indies and I had pulled the team out of trouble in the first two Tests at Trent Bridge and Lord's. I told him it was stupid asking me to open the innings.

As it turned out I had to open with John Edrich at Old Trafford. That was the worst Test wicket, Old Trafford, at the time we played on. It was a very dry summer in 1976. The pitch was very dry. The groundsmen weren't allowed to use water while preparing wickets. Therefore the faster you bowled, the ball went through the top surface and lifted and did all kinds of things. I remember one Andy Roberts ball pitched short of a length and nearly rolled along the floor. John and I were the only opening pair that England had that season that put on 50 for the opening partnership. And they sacked us both.

I was never ever scared of a cricket ball. I was just doing a job. Your job was to get behind the ball. I got hit a lot on my body while fielding close-in.

I captained England seven times and we won six of those Tests. In the other one Basil D'Oliveira was bowling from the Nursery End to Hanif Mohammad, who was on 51. Hanif hit it behind square, where Colin Milburn dropped a dolly. Hanif went on to make a big century. We mostly would have made them follow on. I ended up declaring quickly in our second innings and in doing that I gave Pakistan more chance of winning than ourselves.

Somerset failed to make the Gillette Cup final in my final season. That is the story of my life. A complete farce, I remember saying at the time. I was annoyed at myself. It was meant to be a 60-over job, but because of rain we ended playing a ten-over match.

"On the way back after being sacked I had to stop the car. I was sick and threw up"

I met Vivienne [my wife] for the first time at the Breakers' Beach Club in Bermuda. We were being entertained by the governor general that evening, so I asked her if she would like to come around. She did. I realised she was something very special. The second time we went around for an evening meal at the beach, I said, "I'm sorry, Vivienne. I'm going to marry you." She said don't be daft.

November 25, 1970 was the worst day of my life. Yorkshire told me that either I was going to be sacked or that I had to resign. It shook me rigid. I was asked by Yorkshire secretary John Nash to come into Headingley to meet the chairman, Brian Sellers. I thought it was to talk about the following season, players and the team. When I went in, Sellers asked me to sit down and he says, "You've had a good innings. But we have got two letters here - either you resign or you get sacked." I didn't know what the hell to do. I resigned because I thought there would be less trouble with the media, who were always after me.

When we were young: Illingworth, Trueman and Close talk to the Duchess of Kent in Canterbury, 1968

When we were young: Illingworth, Trueman and Close talk to the Duchess of Kent in Canterbury, 1968 © PA Photos

On the way back after being sacked I had to stop the car. I was sick and threw up. Vivienne asked me to consult our solicitors. I rang them and they told me they had to sack you. So I rang the Yorkshire back and told Nash they had to sack me.

I was 22 years with Yorkshire and captain for eight of those. We won Championships and Gillette Cups. I brought along a load of young players and they accused me of not helping young players. I finished up going to Somerset. What did I do there? I ended up developing youngsters like Viv Richards and Ian Botham and such.

In my first Test as captain, against West Indies, I asked John Snow to bowl a bouncer at Garry. He was a good hooker of the ball. He couldn't resist it, I suppose. I said to Snowy quietly, "Let him have one, first ball." As it turned we got him out. Garry was a great player. To get him out you had to use your brain a bit. Surprise him. Once we got him, bloody hell, he was a great player.

When we were in the field and trying to bowl the opposition we were continually changing the question. It is the fielding side that asks the questions. It is the batsmen who have to find the answers. And if you keep changing the questions with different bowlers, different field placements, it makes the batsmen think. And if he gets his thinking wrong you have a chance of getting him out.

Where did I learn aggressive leadership? Don't forget I played a lot of bloody cricket.

The most imaginative captain that I ever played against was Richie Benaud.

Cricket taught me to accept happenings. Things happen. Sometimes they are not good. Sometimes they are good. But you just try your best not only for you, but for the other lads, the club, the team. We found it an enjoyable way of living. Cricket taught me fair play.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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