THE PARADOX OF MIKE BREARLEY
Was he really our greatest captain?
Mike Brearley turns 75 on the 28th. To some, he remains one of England’s greatest-ever captains; to others – such as Ray Illingworth – one of the luckiest.
Brearley captained against Test teams often decimated by Packer defections. A rare time when he took on a side outside of the Packer era was for a three-test series in Australia in 1979/80. He lost it 3-0. One more match, when Ian Botham scored a century and took 13 wickets in England’s, and Brearley’s, first victory for seven Tests, and Brearley was gone.
Botham was left to lead England against the formidable West Indies in back-to-back series.
The timing of the captaincy handover, to his own favoured successor, was explained as Brearley not being available to tour the following winter, as he would be devoting his winters to his career in psychoanalysis. But that need not have stopped him skippering England that summer, just as it didn’t the following season.
But by spring 1980 recent performances had taken the shine off Brearley’s captaincy. He wrote of that time that: “I still entertained the sneaking hope that I might be re-appointed for the first two or three Tests”, but losing the captaincy was “neither unexpected nor entirely unwelcome”.
The following summer he took over an England side 1-0 down in an Ashes series, and led them to a 3-1 victory.Yet in the Headingley Test that turned the tide England were 500-1 against winning at one point, which does suggest everything was not quite going to plan.
That they did win relied on a preposterous innings from Botham, and an inspired spell from Bob Willis, who had not been given the new ball, and originally had been given the end which required him to run in uphill.
Only five of Brearley’s 31 Tests in charge were without Botham in the team (only one of these five was won). The 1981 Ashes was the end of Botham as a great Test bowler. In that series he took 34 wickets at 21; after that only twice did he return series bowling averages under 30 – in 1982 against Pakistan (18 wickets at 27) and in 1985 against Australia (31 at 28).
Brearley captained Botham 26 times, winning 17 of these matches. Excluding the 1978/9 Ashes, won 5-1, all bar one of his other victories involved either Botham taking five wickets in an innings or a century – and sometimes both.
With the exception of a match against New Zealand in 1978 and that 1978/9
Ashes, there is not a Test between Botham making his debut in 1977 and the end of 1981 which England won without him either scoring a century or taking five wickets in an innings.
During this time, England were captained by Brearley, Boycott (4 times) and Botham (12). Boycott’s one win, at Christchurch, was when Botham made 108 and took 5-73 in the first innings. Botham the captain never won but he also neither made a century or recorded a five-for during this time.
Brearley was a good first-class batsman who failed to make the step up. His top score in 39 Tests was 91 and his average 23. But in 455 first-class games he averaged 38 and made 45 centuries – only slightly inferior to David Gower’s first-class batting record and far superior to Botham’s.
He had been picked, aged 22, for the South Africa tour in 1964/65 but failed to get into the side for any of the five Tests. He captained the U25 side to Pakistan in 1966/67, and made 312 not out against North Zone.
Dr Brearley’s early first-class cricket was mainly for Cambridge University, who he represented between 1961 and 1968 (captaining them from 1964), as a batsman-keeper. He played occasionally for Middlesex in the Sixties, his appearances restricted by academia – after leaving Cambridge he was a lecturer at Newcastle University. It was only after the offer of the Middlesex captaincy, in 1971, that he devoted his summers to cricket full-time.
He was to be Middlesex captain for 12 years. In the early period, with an average side, nothing was won. But the quality of player improved – in 1981 Middlesex became the first county to field an XI entirely of Test players – and with Middlesex having a bowling attack the envy of the county circuit, Middlesex won four Championships and two Gillette Cups under him.
When Tony Greig was sacked for his Packer involvement, vice-captain Brearley inherited the England captaincy and a side with an excellent team spirit. This had been the strength of Greig’s captaincy, rather than his tactics.
Wisden wrote: “Brearley, a totally different animal from the volatile Greig, led his men with quiet efficiency. He handled his bowlers skilfully and was clearly ahead of Greig in field placing.”
Yet it is as a man-manager rather than tactician where Brearley’s reputation principally lies – in Rodney Hogg’s famous phrase he had a “degree in people”.
Brearley had some singular men to skipper. One of them was Geoff Boycott, and their failure to establish a rapport as captain and vice-captain was part of the reason Bob Willis replaced Boycott in this role.Yet the Yorkshireman considers this son of a Yorkshireman “the best captain I played under. Mike’s reputation for man-management is no myth. There was a naturalness about his approach which made co-operation logical. His praise was never fulsome and his criticism never mean. His attitude was balanced and honest and I don’t think you can ask for more.”
Willis – who took 112 Test wickets at 24 for Brearley’s England sides – is a little more restrained in his praise, describing Brearley as “one of the best captains that I played under, but he did have at his command an extremely capable bowling attack”.
Brearley has written of the events of 1981 that: “I was the luckiest man that summer.” But luck should not be spurned in a captain. Another celebrated international captain, Richie Benaud, opined of captaincy that it was “90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill – but don’t try it without that 10 per cent”.
Brearley had that 10 per cent all right – but he also received a heck of a lot of that 90 per cent as well.
It is as a man-manager where Brearley’s reputation principally lies – in Rodney Hogg’s words, he had ‘a degree in people’
Standing tall: Mike Brearley is still recognised as England’s greatest Test skipper
Characters: Mike Brearley, right, with Ian Botham, left, and Bob Willis
Strong leader: Tony Greig