Brian Booth

'I was fortunate to be able to play two sports'

Brian Booth talks about playing cricket and hockey at the top level, facing Charlie Griffith, and the time Richie Benaud bowled Peter May around his legs

Interview by Ken Piesse  |  

"You can't beat on-the-spot coaching when batting" © Getty Images

The ultimate Ashes moment for me was walking out to bat at Old Trafford in 1961 and asking for guard. I thought it may be my only Test match and l might get out first ball, but at least I could say I'd played in a Test against England.

Keeping memorabilia was never big in my day. One of my four daughters has my first baggy green cap. I have given a number away. I have a few stumps but I have no idea which Tests they're from. Think I have only two cricket blazers now, one Test one - my first - and one NSW one, plus my Olympic hockey blazer.

We lived in Perthville, a small country village 10km south of Bathurst. Every village, no matter the size, would have a sporting team in those days, whether it be cricket, tennis or both. While at primary school I'd get a field and an occasional bat with my father's Perthville team - if one of the farmers didn't turn up.

My most productive ground was Brisbane. I got two of my Test centuries at the Gabba, including my 169 [against South Africa in 1963-64]. People remember that game for Ian Meckiff being no-balled [for throwing]. I felt extremely sad for him. We all did.

New South Wales used to play the first Sheffield Shield match of the season in Brisbane. You're keen and can't wait for the season to start. The pitch we played on in those days was somewhat similar to my home pitch at Hurstville Oval.

I was one of the fortunate ones to be able to play two sports, cricket in summer and hockey in winter. It was clear-cut, with not much overlap between the two seasons. I actually played hockey for St George before I represented the club at cricket.

Making money from cricket was never a consideration. I feel very privileged to have been able to play the standard of cricket that I have played and at the time we did. It was a different age.

Charlie Griffith and Wes Hall were the fastest pair I faced. They were always pretty fiery and they let us have it in '65 in the West Indies. We'd played against them in the first Test on a lightning fast pitch at Sabina Park. The Port-of-Spain pitch was somewhat slower than the one in Jamaica. To make a hundred against West Indies gave me immense satisfaction. It wasn't my best innings technically, but it was valuable as far as the team was concerned.

Captaining Australia was a privilege. It happened at the start of the 1965-66 summer in Brisbane. Bobby Simpson was the regular captain and broke his arm just prior to the first Test. He came back for the second Test in Melbourne and on the eve of the third, in Sydney, Sir Donald Bradman approached me at practice and said, "Bob has chicken pox, Brian. You're captaining tomorrow." We had a meritorious draw in Brisbane and forced England to follow-on. In Sydney, Bob Barber played a sensational innings and we were bowled out twice. It was my last Test.

I can count my Test hundreds on one hand. Two came in Brisbane, one in Sydney, one in Melbourne, and one in Trinidad.

Hockey was a very amateur game in those days, even more so than cricket. Australia didn't play a great deal of internationals back then, but I was in the squad for the '56 Olympics in Melbourne, which was a great thrill. It was the first time Australia had a men's team in the Olympics. We finished fifth in that tournament, and while I didn't have any medal match-time, I did play in two of the classification matches at the end, which were important for grading for the following Olympics.

Sir Donald was kind enough to write me a letter saying how sorry he and the other two selectors were to drop me. I don't think he'd ever done that before. I understood why. My scores were not good enough. I'd get to double figures in most innings only to get out. At some stage I knew I'd be passed over for someone performing better. Ian Chappell and Keith Stackpole came into the side and were to have great careers. That's how the Australian cricket team evolved and developed in those days.

I found the light nice and clear in Brisbane. It suited my eyes.

"I have a few stumps but I have no idea which Tests they're from. Think I have only two cricket blazers now"

My first regular competitive cricket matches were for Bathurst High School when I was 12.

Australia can win the Ashes this year, despite what happened in India where the conditions were so foreign to what was a very young and inexperienced team. When we toured England in 1961 and again in 1964 we were labelled as being among the worst Australian cricket teams to ever go to England - yet we managed to win both series. You can have a very good side [on paper] but you have to play up to that standard. We have some new players coming along. Some of the pace bowlers are very impressive. Maybe England has passed its peak.

The delivery that remains in my memory is when Richie Benaud bowled Peter May around his legs at Old Trafford in '61. I was at wide mid-on and had a good view. It spun in behind his feet. It was a magnificent delivery. England collapsed that day from 1 for 150, chasing just over 250, to be all out for 201. The scores are entrenched in my memory as it was such an important game. Richie got 6 for 70, most from around the wicket - something Shane Warne was to emulate years later.

My dad and I would play regularly on our gravel granite pitch in the backyard and outside on the main street. The neighbours would join in and we'd play until it was too dark to see the ball anymore. Dad would have put in a big day at the market garden but he'd bowl to us for hours on end. I was better on the off side than the on, probably because the house was on the on side and Mum didn't like us hitting the side wall of the house, as it was made of fibro-cement.

Garry Sobers was the best all-round cricketer of all. He could do anything and everything. Like Keith Miller, he had to have his mind set to do it. Sometimes he'd bat himself at No. 6 and run out of partners. He was also an incredible fieldsman.

I spend most of my summer Saturdays watching cricket. It's just seven minutes by car from my home to Hurstville and 20 minutes to Harold Fraser and Cahill Park where the thirds, fourths and fifth XIs play. I'll get up to Hurstville before lunch and watch for a few hours. If it's a tight game I'll stay. If it's not, I'll go down and see the lower grades. Seeing the younger players come through is always rewarding. This last summer I also saw all four days of the [Sydney] Test against Sri Lanka. Arthur Morris was at the Test. He's 91 now. Neil Harvey was also there. He's in his 80s. We never lose our love of the game or our love for each other.

Charlie Griffith would bowl from wide out on the crease and slant it in. Invariably he'd operate from the pavilion end at Trinidad, where there was no sight board. No wonder he was hard to pick up! We didn't have any excuse, though, at Sabina Park in Jamaica, where there was a large, wide light green wall which was used as the sightscreen. I didn't see three of his deliveries there. Two knocked my stumps over and one grazed my chin. Grahame Thomas said Charlie had the best change of pace of anyone. Charlie was dangerous.

Players are a bit more innovative these days with shots like the ramp shot and the reverse sweep. I still like to see the classic off drives or cover drives, like Virat Kohli played in the recent series against the Australians. He's marvellous to watch.

At St George, one of the senior players, Ross Longbottom, told me when I went out to bat never to engage myself in any conversation with the fieldsmen. You're out there to bat - not to talk.

In Brisbane early one Sheffield Shield season, NSW had dismissed Queensland early and we had to bat in the final half hour. We lost a wicket and I was in at No. 3. Wally Walmsley was bowling. He was a wily leggie. I hit one very hard to short cover and it hit the fielder on his shoulder before flying to mid-off and I was out caught. In the rooms, our captain Sid Carroll said to me how in those situations he always found as an opener it was better to let the ball come to him rather than you attacking the ball. Had I let this one come, I could well have been there the following day.

I probably tried to force the scoring too many times when batting. I was often batting with 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 batsmen. I didn't have as much confidence in those lower batsmen as I should have had. Against South Africa one day I was trying to protect Wally Grout, who was batting at No. 11. I was last out and Wally said to me, "I'm sorry you did that, Brian. I would have liked to have had a bit of a hit too." I thought about it and apologised to him later. Next time, in Sydney, we put on 46 and he got 29 or 30 of them. I said, "Well batted", and he said, "Thanks for letting me have a bat."

Neil Harvey was always so positive. Once, against England in Adelaide, he was dropped two or three times - all before he'd made 20. Up he marched to me with a big grin on his face. "It looks like the Poms don't want to get me out, Boothy… I'd better get some runs." And he peeled off a beautiful century. If it had been me I would have been worried about having allowed myself to give three chances. Not Neil - he reckoned it was his lucky day and it was.

I coached the St George's cricket club's Green Shield [Under-16] team for 15 years. We got through to the finals but never actually won one. It didn't worry me. I just wanted the young players to learn to play and enjoy the game. A number of them played first grade, several went onto Sheffield Shield, and one, Moises Henriques, to Test cricket. I also had a bit to do with Trent Copeland as he was coming through. Like me, he's from Bathurst. I'd played cricket and hockey against his uncles and grandfather.

I've made so many good friends in cricket: Bobby Simpson, Peter Philpott, Frank Misson, Ian Craig, Gordon Rorke, Barry Rothwell, Neil Marks, Doug Ford. Then there are people like Warren Saunders, Ray Tozer and John Jobson. We're all very good mates. Peter Burge was also a good friend. He was always encouraging me. We had a lot in common. He could really bat too. Some of those sweeps he used to play would scream off the bat.

Neil Harvey and Norman O'Neill were the finest fieldsmen of my time. Normie and Neil used their baseball throws from cover to considerable advantage. Neil would take amazing catches and make them look so easy. He was always so well balanced.

Brian and Judy Booth:

Brian and Judy Booth: "Making money from cricket was never a consideration"

My last game with NSW was in 1968-69 in Adelaide. Sunday Sheffield Shield cricket was being played in all states except for South Australia that season, so that was the only game for which I was available.

I didn't play a Test until I was 27. I was a little like Mike Hussey, Rick McCosker and Darren Lehmann. They all came in at a relatively later age too. In '61 I replaced Colin McDonald, who had a wrist injury. It's just the way it happens sometimes. All players eventually run their course, some longer or shorter than others.

Wally was a very fine wicketkeeper but few of us knew that he had serious health issues. Going over on the boat to England in '64, he didn't participate fully in our PE exercises. When playing at one of the Universities he was quite sick. He was only 41 when he died. He packed a lot into those 41 years.

The very best lesson came when batting one day with Neil Harvey against South Australia. David Sincock and Garry Sobers were bowling their left-arm tweakers and I was all at sea. "How are you going, son?" said Neil in between overs. "I can't pick their wrong'un." Neil told me that he didn't worry about which direction they were turning. "If it's up, I play forward and if it's short, I play back." I started to do that and ended up with a hundred. Bobby Simpson was another who always said judging the length of the ball was what was really important. You can't beat on-the-spot coaching when batting.

Richie was also a great captain. He read the game so well. He always knew the right things to say and seemed to know what you were thinking.

Giving my life to Jesus Christ, as I did from the age of 20, remains the most important event of my life. Sunday was a day that enabled me to be involved in the church fellowship, my own family, and to have a rest from my teaching and sport. It provided a better balance to my life.

Cricket writer and commentator Ken Piesse runs a new and second-hand cricket books website