Brian Booth was born on October 19, 1933. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the parson who went on to lead his country in cricket and play hockey in the Olympics.
“Brian Booth, that model of a man and of a batsman who tends to be underrated and forgotten because both he and his cricket were so blamelessly self-effacing.” — EW Swanton, Swanton in Australia with MCC 1946-75
Brian Charles Booth was not the personality that immediately comes to your mind when you think of the usual aggressive Australian: in fact he was so polite and humble in his conduct he made people quite aware of themselves — lest their normal everyday behaviour turn out to be rude in comparison.
His nature, however, did not mean that Booth was not fiercely competitive; he played with as much passion as anyone, and his pride of representing his country was second to none. His discipline, his strict regimen of physical exercise, and the hunger to push his side beyond their usual limits made him stand out among many: on overseas voyages he conducted regular fitness sessions for the team on the vessels.
Booth was an amazingly talented batsman, often playing with soft hands but still making sure that the ball reached its desired destination; his cover-drive and late-cut were a treat to watch for sore eyes, but perhaps his greatest strength was to hit the ball really hard without any flourishing swing of the bat.
Ray Robinson later suggested in On Top Down Under: Australia’s Cricket Captains that the secret behind Booth’s ability to play the above-mentioned stroke with unusual power came from his strong forearms and wrists — which were possibly an outcome of his playing hockey (where one is not allowed to lift the stick above the shoulders).
Standing a shade under six feet, gifted with a lean frame and a very erect stance, Booth had the ability to unsettle quality spinners by stepping out of the crease. In fact, so good was his footwork that he got out stumped only twice in 48 innings. As Bobby Simpson wrote in his column in Sportstar, “[Brian] Booth’s dazzling footwork made him one of Australia’s most consistent batsmen and a magnificent player of spin bowling.”
His other remarkable quality was to accelerate at will; in fact, so elegant and casual he looked in his approach that by the time anyone could fathom he had raced to 70 or so and the damage had already been done.
He was also asked to bowl his mixed-bag at times; he could bowl medium-pace, but depending on the conditions he often switched to off-breaks or leg-breaks. His hockey background came in handy yet again, making him a quick and efficient outfielder.
The most significant aspect of Booth’s attitude towards the sport was his sense of righteousness — something that is usually beyond the grasp of most modern cricketers. He always walked when he knew there was an edge and discouraged his team from appealing unnecessarily.
Robinson was all in praise of him: “If a prize were offered for fairplaymanship among Australia’s post-war cricketers Booth ought to win it hands down.” His attitude towards the sport made him immensely popular — but his greatest achievement was to win accolades from even Bill Lawry for his gentlemanly attitude.
Booth was a devout Christian and an Anglican lay-preacher, which was possibly the biggest reason for his sportsmanship. However, what made him stand out among staunch religious men was the fact that he never wanted to impose his views on others and never scorned if he did not approve of their behaviour.
He got back the respect he gave to his teammates. He was respected widely despite his lack of active participation in usual evening team drinks. “The boys just accepted me for what I was. If they didn’t share the strength of my convictions, they were quite happy for me to hold them,” he said.
His strong religious views meant that he did not smoke, drink, or gamble. He did not participate when Keith Miller arranged a Melbourne Cup gambling sweep in Booth’s early days; Miller was not to accept ‘defeat’ so easily: he assigned Booth the responsibility of looking after the cash (after all, where would he find someone as trustworthy?).
It was Miller’s idea of making Booth feel at home with the side. As Booth later said, “That was typical of Keith [Miller]. That he was able to turn something that might have been a problem into something positive, giving me a responsibility, making me feel part of the team.”
He also had an impeccable sense of humour. Alan Davidson narrates an incident in Fifteen Paces: “In Sydney’s third Test  I beat David [Sheppard] with three consecutive out-swingers. I scratched my head and walked past Brian Booth on my way to my bowling mark.”
Davidson: Didn’t you say a prayer for me last night?
Booth: You’ve got to do a bit yourself, you know.
“I put up my hands and offered a silent prayer,” Davidson wrote. “The next ball Sheppard snicked and was caught at the wicket. Booth laughed and said, ‘See, it pays off if you do it yourself. I hope that convinces all you other blokes, too.”
Coming to his performance with the bat, Booth had scored 1,773 runs from 29 Tests at a decent 42.21 with five hundreds; his First-Class numbers were slightly better: he scored 11,265 runs at 45.42 with 26 hundreds from 183 matches.
Booth was born in Perthville near Bathurst, New South Wales [NSW]. His father ‘Snowy’ Booth was a competent Country cricketer and a market gardener. As Gideon Haigh wrote in The Summer Game: Australia in Test Cricket 1949 -71, Booth Senior had put up pictures of Don Bradman and Stan McCabe in his son’s room. “These are the two greatest living cricketers,” he used to say.
Booth went on to play for Bathurst High School at the age of 13 and for New South Wales (NSW) Youth Country Team at 14; he also played Grade Cricket in Bathurst at 15. By the time he was 19 he had moved to St George to play on a weekly basis; had made it to the First Grade Team; had started playing hockey for St George; and had taken up a four-year course at Sydney Teachers College.
He was selected unexpectedly to play Queensland at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) in 1954-55 when the Test cricketers of his state were playing in the home Ashes. It was a disappointing debut: though NSW won the match Booth scored a duck and 19. He was thus dropped once the big guns came back.
There came a sudden opportunity next month when NSW decided to rest some of her key players in the tour match against MCC. The attack, consisting of Alec Bedser, Frank Tyson, Johnny Wardle, and Peter Loader was a formidable one, and NSW were reeling at 26 for five when Booth walked out.
Booth showed tremendous guts and application, adding 83 with Peter Philpott and then shepherding the tail till he ran out of partners; he remained unbeaten on 74 as NSW were bowled out for 172. The innings turned out to be extremely crucial as Miller’s NSW pulled off an upset against Len Hutton’s MCC; Booth also had Colin Cowdrey caught-behind in the second innings.
NSW clinched their second consecutive title that season. In fact, this was the second in NSW’s famous run of nine consecutive Sheffield Shield victories; Booth played the next season as well, but pulled off in the one after that: he had to represent his country, you see.
The Melbourne Olympics
Booth had already played hockey for NSW and had toured New Zealand in 1956. His performances earned him a place in the hockey squad for the upcoming Melbourne Olympics. As Booth himself later wrote, there were issues as the media claimed that Booth had received out-of-pocket expenses for playing cricket, which had possibly made him a professional. This would also have meant that he would have been ineligible for the Olympics.
However, after a lot of speculations Ian Dick and Maurice Foley (both Western Australian batsmen) were cleared to participate in the Olympics along with Booth. Though they won their Group B matches against Kenya (2-0) and Malaysia (3-2) they ended up losing their final league match against Great Britain 1-2.
In the qualifying match for the semifinal Australia were defeated by Great Britain (again) 0-1 and were knocked out of the tournament. They finished fifth in the tournament (the gold was won by India for a sixth consecutive time); the inside-left Booth did not play a single match.
It was some time in the 1950s that Booth turned passionately religious following his friendship with Pastor Roy Gray. Booth and Gray were classmates at Sydney Teachers College and also played together at District Cricket. Booth underwent a change in faith. As he later admitted, “Until that point, sport had really been my God.”
Even during his playing days he was a speaker at multiple religious functions along with other Christian cricketers, the chief among whom were Sheppard and Conrad Hunte. In 1998 he wrote Sport and Sportsmanship: a Christian Perspective Towards 2000, and co-authored Cricket and Christianity with Paul White.
Back to cricket
He came back strongly the next season, scoring his maiden First-Class hundred against Victoria at home. He added a massive 325 with Norman O’Neill for the fifth wicket in less than four hours. It still remains the highest fourth-wicket partnership for NSW. NSW went on to win the match by ten wickets. He finished the season with 503 runs at 50.30 from seven matches.
Booth finally grabbed attention in 1959-60; he scored 168 against Queensland at The Gabba and bettered it with 177 against South Australia at Adelaide. NSW won both the matches by an innings. Booth scored 718 runs at 65.27 with two hundreds. He was picked for a tour of New Zealand.
He began the tour on a high note, scoring 105 against Auckland at Eden Park; he followed this with 174 runs at 29.00 with two fifties in the four unofficial ‘Tests’. Back home, he scored 981 in the home series at 65.40 with three hundreds, playing a key role in NSW’s eighth consecutive title; he was selected on the subsequent Ashes tour.
Booth scored 113 against Cambridge University at Fenner’s Ground; his first innings against a County side came at Taunton, when he took on Somerset to score 127 not out. In the next match against Lancashire at Old Trafford he scored 99 when he was caught behind by their leg-spinner who was also called Brian Booth (thankfully, he had the middle name Joseph).
With Colin McDonald injured Booth eventually got his Test cap in the historic fourth Test at Old Trafford with the series levelled 1-1. He later called it “the ultimate Ashes moment” for him. Booth came to bat at 106 for four after Trueman and Brian Statham removed the top four wickets for 106; that man Lawry, however, was standing there in the middle.
Booth and Lawry added a cautious 45 before the Victorian was claimed by Statham. Booth hung on grimly and was eventually seventh out, caught by Brian Close off Statham. Australia collapsed from 185 for six to 190. He scored only nine in the second innings before Richie Benaud spun Australia to one of the most famous Test victories ever.
The Ashes had been retained, but Benaud was still keen on winning the rubber. After Davidson routed England for 256 Booth walked out and scored 71 with 12 boundaries and added 185 in 199 minutes with Peter Burge. Trailing by 238 England were in no chance of winning the Test, and it was a 72-run seventh-wicket partnership between John Murray and David Allen that eventually saved the Test.
Booth had missed out on a Test hundred at The Oval, but was not likely to miss out on one in the home Ashes against Ted Dexter’s side. Some early jolts reduced Australia to 101 for four at The Gabba; Booth then walked out and played an exquisite innings, scoring 112 in 215 minutes with 14 fours.
“[Brian] Booth played a lovely fluent innings, full of neat drives, cuts and glides,” wrote Wisden. His innings was elegant and efficient, and the entire stadium was at its feet when he reached his hundred without any fuss. Haigh mentions an interview with the media following his maiden hundred where the religious Booth was asked whether he felt that God was with him. When he said yes, the headline England Can’t Win, God is on Brian Booth’s Side appeared as a headline the next day.
The Test was drawn, but England went 1-0 up when won the next Test at MCG. In a match that can easily be called ‘The Battle of the Parsons’ Booth scored a patient 274-ball 103 with only five fours (Lawry, with 57, was the only other one who had crossed 14). Australia had sniffed a chance when Geoff Pullar left early, but the other parson, Sheppard, scored a calm 113 and led England to an easy seven-wicket victory.
Australia squared the series in the next Test at SCG. He scored 34 at Adelaide before top-scoring in the second innings with 77. The last two Tests were drawn and Australia retained the Ashes. Booth scored 404 in the series at 50.50; it turned out to be the top score for Australia in the rubber.
He began the home series the next season in equally dominant manner; coming out to bat at 88 for three at The Gabba he added 120 with O’Neill and 102 more with Benaud; he eventually scored his second hundred in as many matches at the ground, scoring a 330-minute 169 with 19 fours against Peter Pollock (who greeted Booth with a severe bouncer barrage as soon as he appeared), Eddie Barlow, and Trevor Goddard. It remained Booth’s highest Test score.
The innings won him high accolades for both its effectiveness and elegance. Goddard himself said “We didn’t mind the leather chasing when he [Booth] played so charmingly.” “It was a tailored innings, fit to be put on display in a showcase, and unrumpled by a single chance,” wrote Robinson. And as Roland Perry mentioned in Captain Australia: A History of the Celebrated Captains of Australian Test Cricket, a newspaper mentioned that Booth had “more grace than the Princess of Monaco”.
Despite Booth’s majestic performance the Test is usually remembered for Ian Meckiff being called for chucking by Col Egar four times in a single over. It turned out to be his only over in the Test, and the Test turned out to be Meckiff’s last.
After missing the second Test at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) because of an injury Booth batted well in the next two Tests, scoring 75, 16, 58, and 24. The big performance, however, came in the last Test at SCG. Coming out at 103 for three Booth batted through, scoring 102 not out as Australia were bowled out for 314 by Joe Partridge.
South Africa, however, acquired a 97-run lead and removed Lawry early, which meant that Booth had to play the rescuer again. He added 83 with Burge, and grinded the South African attack for 294 minutes before falling to Kelly Seymour for 87 — marginally missing out on the opportunity to score twin tons in his home ground.
The Test (and the series) ended in a draw. Despite playing a Test less Booth top-scored for Australia for the second series running and finished with 531 runs at 88.50. At this stage Booth’s career numbers read 1,061 runs from 11 Tests at 62.41 with four hundreds; the last 18 would fetch him 712 runs at 28.48 with a single century.
Deputy to Simpson
With Benaud retiring after the South Africa series the Australian captain’s mantle passed on to Simpson, and with his serene, composed nature Booth was a natural choice as the vice-captain. He began the subsequent Ashes tour on a low key, never crossing 14 in his first six innings (though he remained unbeaten in three of them).
With Australia 1-0 up in the series Simpson pressed for a draw and scored 311 himself in the fourth Test at Old Trafford. Booth missed out on his first overseas hundred when he hit one back to John Price for 98. A 74 in the final Test at The Oval confirmed his return to form.
Booth eventually finished with 1,551 runs at 55.39 with three hundreds on that tour. The highlight of the series came against Yorkshire at Bradford, where Booth scored a regal 193 not out before Simpson declared the innings closed at 315 for seven and ended up winning it.
India, Pakistan, West Indies…
Touring the subcontinent for the first time Booth had a poor Test at Madras but came to his elements in the next one at Bombay. Australia were reduced to ten men as O’Neill went down with a stomach bug just after the toss and took no further part in the match.
Booth was bowled by Bhagwat Chandrasekhar for one in the first innings but scored a brilliant 74 with eight boundaries in the second, adding 125 with Bob Cowper, after Australia trailed by 21. A heroic last-day chase, however, helped India level the series.
In the third Test at Calcutta Booth became one of Durani’s three wickets in the same over; the over was a part of a famous six for 73 that helped India bowl out Australia for 174 after Simpson and Lawry had added 97. Rain prevented the last two days of play, but not before Booth took the first two wickets of his Test career: he had Dilip Sardesai caught and KS Indrajitsinhji stumped.
In the drawn one-off Test at Karachi, too, he accounted for the wicket of Hanif Mohammad. Back home for the one-off Test against the same opposition at MCG he scored 57.
West Indies won the home series that followed by a 2-1 margin (Australia won only the dead rubber Test at Queen’s Park Oval). Booth was troubled persistently by the pace of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith; at Sabina Park Griffith hit him on the nose and yorked him the next ball.
In the second Test, also at Queen’s Park Oval, Booth scored 117; it remained his only overseas Test hundred. He went on to call it “the most satisfying” of his hundreds. He was battered and bruised all over on — as Haigh said — “a ground with no sightscreen” before reaching the mark. In the same Test he also ran out Garry Sobers and Basil Butcher with extremely strong throws from the outfield.
Captaincy and the unceremonious exit
When Booth scored a solid 80 against the touring MCC all seemed to be back to normal. Before the first Test at The Gabba, Simpson reported unfit with a broken wrist, leaving Booth to lead Australia for the first time. The Test was drawn after rain washed off the second day.
Simpson returned to the helm at MCG and Australia managed to save the Test thanks to a 198-run partnership between Burge and young Doug Walters. However, there was more news for Booth just before the third Test at SCG. Bradman approached him at the nets with the words “Bob [Simpson] has chickenpox, Brian. You’re captaining tomorrow.” It turned out to be a disaster as Australia ended up losing by an innings.
The selectors acted somewhat harshly this time. Booth had not been in form for some time, and the fact that he had not crossed 30 even once in the five innings that series did not do him any good. The innings defeat triggered a mass axing: Booth, Cowper, Graham McKenzie, Philpott, and David Sincock were all dropped.
The new-look Australian side won by an innings at Adelaide. Booth never played another Test. Bradman, then acting as a member of the Selection Panel, made an exception and wrote to Booth: “Never before have I written to a player to express my regret at his omission from the Australian XI. In your case I am making an exception because I want you to know how much my colleagues and I disliked having to make this move. Captain one match and out of the side the next looks like ingratitude, but you understand the circumstances and will be the first to admit that your form has not been good.”
Booth played domestic cricket for NSW till 1968-69. He toured New Zealand in 1966-67 as the vice-captain on yet another unofficial tour and scored 214 not out against Central District at Palmerston North. It remained his highest First-Class score. He also scored 179 in an unofficial ‘Test’ against New Zealand at Eden Park.
Booth worked full-time as a teacher in Sydney after his retirement. He taught for 12 years in the Government Secondary Schools of NSW before he became a Physical Education Instructor at Sydney Teachers College in 1967. In the same year he was appointed the Founding Chairman of the Youth Advisory Council.
Booth was made a Life Member of NSWCA in 1974 and served as the Vice-President for four subsequent years. He was also awarded Life Membership of MCC, and was awarded an MBE in 1982 for his “services to the community and sport”. He also served as Head of the Health and Human Movement Studies Department at the Sydney Institute of Education from 1984 to 1989.
Booth had married Judith Williams in 1951; they have two daughters and six grandchildren. Booth’s niece Brooke Krueger-Billett won a gold medal in hammer-throwing in the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
He is currently a patron and the Coach at St George Cricket Club — where he had been also served as President. He is also a patron of St George Randwick Men’s Hockey Club and the St George Women’s Hockey Club. He has written two books – one on each sport he played — Booth to Bat and Hockey Fundamentals.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)