Brian Close, who died on 14 September at the age of 84, was one of the most remarkable of English cricketers.
He was England’s youngest ever Test cricketer, making his debut against New Zealand at Old Trafford in 1949 aged 18 years 149 days. He also became their tenth oldest player , and by some margin their oldest since World War Two , when he appeared against the West Indies , also at Old Trafford, in 1976, aged 45 years and 140 days. (Of his opponents in that game, only five had been born when he had made his Test debut.)
Between those two Tests, twenty seven years apart, Close played in only twenty others. He never made a Test century; his highest score was 70 against West Indies at Lord’s in 1963. He never took five wickets in a Test innings (he bowled right-arm medium or off breaks, as the mood took him); his best was four for 35 against India at Headingley in 1959. But although his first-class figures, of 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 wasn’t the numbers that counted.
As a player it was for his batting that Close will be remembered. Tall, left-handed and very strong, he could defend with immense determination and a sound technique when the situation demanded and the mood took him but he was also capable of displays of startling, almost deranged, aggression. In his younger days his judgement sometimes let him down. In the famous game at Old Trafford between England and Australia in 1961, when, with England seemingly bound to win Richie Benaud bowled Australia to victory on a dramatic final day, Close was the subject of fierce criticism for his tactics, which essentially involved trying, on the whole unsuccessfully, to sweep every ball. 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: that was his only Ashes Test in England.
Two years later he played his most influential Test innings, that 70 against the West Indies at Lord’s. This was another dramatic final day, which ended with Colin Cowdrey walking out (to the non-striker’s end) with two balls left, West Indies needing one wicket and England six runs. (it was a draw.) Close had played a pivotal role in setting up this climactic denouement. Coming in at 72 for three, at first he was all grim defiance 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 wicket 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 – when he was out they were eight down with fifteen runs needed.
That series was the only five match series in which Close played every game. After it was over he was discarded until, in 1966, he was recalled to play the West Indies once again, this time as captain. Gary Sobers’ tourists had been far too strong for England, winning three of the first four Tests, with Sobers himself making three centuries and taking seventeen wickets. Mike Smith and then Cowdrey had led England but neither could turn the tide.
By this time Close had emerged as an outstanding captain. Appointed to skipper 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 it must have been a challenge having personalities as powerful and diverse as Fred Trueman, Ray Illingworth and Geoffrey Boycott in the team. No one ever doubted who was in charge.
England looked a different side at The Oval , beating the visitors by an innings , with Tom Graveney and wicket keeper J T Murray making centuries, John Snow and Ken Higgs adding 128 for the last wicket and Snow getting Sobers first ball in West Indies’ second innings. Captaining England seemed a bit of a doddle.
Close kept the job for the 1967 season when England played India and Pakistan in three – match series. They beat India three-nil and Pakistan two-nil. Close seemed set to lead the MCC side to the Caribeean that winter but after a county match between Yorkshire and Warwickshire Close was accused of time- wasting. It was, one suspects, with some relief that the selectors turned to the establishment man, Cowdrey, to lead the side to the West Indies.
Close must have thought his international career was over but in 1972 he was brought back to lead England in the first-ever one day international series, against Australia (the two sides had played a one-off match in Melbourne in 1970-71). England won two-one.
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 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 the West Indies? Send for Closey 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 of the match 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 the West Indian quicks : according to Wisden it was “disquieting cricket”. 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. (Willey, another West Indies specialist, made his debut in the Test after Close’s last.)
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 to be caught at slip. “My God, ” one of his team- mates said, “what would have happened if it had hit you a couple of inches lower?”
“‘E’d have been caught at gully” came Close’s reply.
Bill Ricquier, 16/9/2015
This article was featured in ESPN Cricinfo: http://www.espncricinfo.com/blogs/content/story/921099.html
Feature Image of Brian Close and Azeem Rafiq. By Mdcollins1984 (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
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