Brian Close — controversial, curious composite of unfulfilled promises
Brian Close, who you could trust to stand tall, even when the coldest of blizzards hit his face © Getty Images
Brian Close, born February 24, 1931, had a Test career spanning 27 years, although the number of Tests he played were just 22.That did not prevent him from becoming a legend because of his success in the county circuit and his aggressive and intelligent captaincy for Yorkshire and England. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was an enigma — composed of unfulfilled promises and controversies.
The old warrior
Brian Close remains the man we remember as the bald, middle-aged, left-handed soldier; pushing the frontiers of bravery till it encroached into the realm of recklessness. We remember him for going in to open the innings for England against a fiery Michael Holding at Old Trafford, his battle scarred 45-year-old body increasingly battered by the bouncers. As the thunderbolts struck him, his knees seemed to buckle. But, the man refused to even rub his chest when the balls exploded off the turf and thudded into him. At the other end, Andy Roberts ran in with his expressionless face, as quick and as lethal. And as he had done all his life, Close stood tall and refused to give in.
This was the man who, a dozen years ago, had walked down the wicket to take on Wes Hall. Now, even at an age when most cricketers preferred to be in the game from the safe distance of coaching, commentary or criticism, he refused to flinch against some of the most terrifying spells of fast bowling ever seen. At the other end was John Edrich, no spring chicken himself, aged 39. And the two venerable men, with a combined age of 84, survived the 75 minutes of hostility that, according to Neil Squires, bordered on the insane. Even Wisden was moved to say, “The period before the close of the third day brought disquieting cricket as Edrich and Close grimly defended their wickets and themselves against fast bowling, which was frequently too wild and too hostile to be acceptable.”
As they left the ground, Edrich was convulsed with laughter. After batting for nearly an hour and a quarter, the number of runs beside Close’s name was just one. “I hope it was worth the pain,” joked the veteran Yorkshireman. When he took off his shirt in the dressing room, his teammates gasped at the number of welts and bruises. The rash of bruises down his right side and across his chest required long sessions with a pain-killing freezer before he could lie down.
The next day Close was out for 20, scored in two hours and 42 minutes. He never batted for England again.
No, it had nothing to do with those bouncers. The fear of bodily harm could never keep Close away from cricket. When struck on the head or shin while fielding at short leg, his eyes followed the ball to see whether the batsman was caught off the rebound, and would be livid if he was not.
Brian Close faced the cold-blooded Michael Holding, and still breathed fine © Getty Images
Neither was it age. He played regularly for another two seasons. After that he continued to appear occasionally till he was 54.
The reason was heavily loaded with controversy, another of the many aspects of Close that went on to make him a legend in spite of playing only 22 Tests in his 27 years of international cricket, that too with a very mediocre record.
He had been recalled to the England team after nine years — a curious but correct call after the desperate search for batsmen with the courage and technique to handle scorching pace. Close had scored 88 and 40 for his adopted county Somerset against the visitors. And Tony Greig, who had been three years old when the veteran had made his Test debut, had agreed with the selectors that Close was the man they wanted.
His role had been to absorb the pace, to blunt the bowlers. And he had performed it almost to perfection. At Nottingham he had remained unbeaten on 36 in the second innings, a patient knock that had thwarted the outside possibility of a collapse. At Lord’s he had scored 60 and 46, instrumental in saving England from defeat. All these knocks were played from No. 4 or No. 5. He had expected to bat in the middle order. On the eve of the Manchester Test, Greig informed him that he had to open.
Close was not amused. He had not opened since 1957. Bob Woolmer was in the side, someone who opened regularly for Kent. According to Close’s fittingly named autobiography I Don’t Bruise Easily, Greig’s answer was rather demoralising. “Ah, we think Bob is going to be on the international scene for a long time. We don’t want him to be killed off.”
Close knew that at 45 he was expendable. And at the end of the Test match, he was excluded. His explanation of the event in his autobiography makes for interesting reading, even if it can be said to be a bit harsh about the performance of Tony Greig: “Apart from my age, this time no one could level one single criticism about the way I had played my Test cricket. The answer of course was very simple, but no one in any newspaper wrote it. For a long time in Test cricket terms, Greig had not even justified his selection as a player. If he had been dropped, as he should have been on form and performance, then the same selectors who had appointed him after getting rid of Mike Denness would then be admitting they had made a mistake. Worse still, the obvious choice of captaincy then would be me, if I was still in the England side, and I certainly would have insisted on leading players who were going to give a hundred and one per cent for the side. Not every player picked for England during my time in the game has done that, by any means. So there I was, jettisoned for the eighth and obviously the last time.”
It is not too hard to believe that he would have been the logical choice as captain had the selectors looked for a change. In fact, Close was reputed to be one of the sharpest minds in the game and his captaincy record for both Yorkshire and England were extraordinary.
However, that was Close in a nutshell. Greatness in the county circuit, occasional forays for England, touched by bravado and smeared in controversy, and flashes of promise mired in inconsistency.
With the image of the elderly man in an advanced stage of baldness braving the Caribbean pace is so distinct in our memories that it is somewhat shocking to remember that Close holds the record of being the youngest England Test cricketer of all time. In his inimitable words, “I’m proud of having the record of being the youngest player to have played for England. It’ll never be beaten. They’re wrapped up in cotton wool now, they don’t get out and play. I was playing against grown men at the age of 11.”
Not only had he been young, he had been precociously talented.
Trevor Bailey later said that Close was the best young player of his time and was unrivalled in that category until the arrival of Sachin Tendulkar. Ray Illingworth, a close friend of our man, recalled that at 18, Close was the finest player of the straight drive. He was also a big hitter of colossal standards, who “used to pepper the rugby stand at Headingley.” Given that the rugby stand is some distance away from the cricket ground, he must have been quite a hitter.
During his first season for Yorkshire, Close had walked out at 68 for three against Derbyshire at Park Avenue, Bradford. The side needed 185 to win in just about a couple of hours. The opposition attack included Les Jackson, Cliff Gladwin and Bill Copson, all of them fast bowlers who had played for England. Close unleashed a succession of huge hits, one of them landing on the roof of the stand. Copson went for 45 in five overs. The correspondent of Yorkshire Post was delighted enough by the 18-year-old to gush effusively, “Close gave the Derbyshire attack a Jessop-like hammering, using his long arms to hit out with terrific swings.” Noted cricket historian Jim Kilburn wrote, “Close has the grace and balance of a natural player of games. Nobody would wish to withhold congratulations and hopes for a famous future.” High praise indeed for the newcomer.
Bailey recalls being awestruck by his big hitting that season when Close scored 88 not out against Essex at Headingley. In that match Close had also picked up five wickets in the first innings with his medium pace.
The all-round brilliance of the first season catapulted Close into the England side. It was a revolutionary decision by the selectors to pitchfork a teenager into the Test world. However, in retrospect, many felt that it had been too early.
Young Brian Close (right) at a practice ground in Hendon in training for his footballing career with Arsenal. And more importantly with some hair on that tough skull © Getty Images
Cricket and Football
Close was born in Rawdon, near Leeds, the second in a family of five brothers and a sister. Father Harry Close played as wicket-keeper for the local club Rawdon. Close and his brothers were frequently at the practice, or sitting under the pavilion during the Saturday games.
His first cricket was played with his father and brothers in the backyard of the terraced house in Rawdon. In winter the same pitch was used for football.
Cricket and football both developed at Aireborough Grammar School. Close attended the school well aware that the same institute had produced Hedley Verity.
His talent was noticed quickly enough. The sports master of the school sent him for coaching under former Yorkshire and England player George Hirst. Soon Close became a schoolboy prodigy, playing both cricket and football. He played for Rawdon when he was 11.
In football, Leeds United signed him as an amateur when he was 14. He played as an inside-forward. A year later, he toured Holland with the West Riding FA team.
In cricket, at 15, he represented the Yorkshire Federation against the Sussex Schoolboys, slamming a hundred. Two years later, he was playing for Yeadon in the Bradford League. He scored his first century against the Salts, and was invited to play for the Yorkshire Colts against the Nottinghamshire juniors.
By 17, Close was over six feet tall, star sportsman and an excellent student as well. His headmaster encouraged him to work for a university degree. Close, with distinction in mathematics, chemistry and biology, had the desire to become a doctor. However, while he was given provisional admission in the university he could not be accepted until he had completed his two years of national service. With six months to go before he turned 18 and qualified for national service, he chose the path of professional sports.
Close signed up for Leeds United and attended the Yorkshire nets. His performance during the winter nets was impressive enough for the Yorkshire management to put him in the first team. He made his debut alongside Fred Trueman and Frank Lowson. A left-handed batsman with a spectacular variety of strokes, a medium paced swing bowler who was equally adept at off-spin, he started out as an immensely valuable asset to the side.
By mid-season 1949, Close had amassed 579 runs and captured 67 wickets. The only eventuality that could have come in the way of his double was National Service. An understanding Ministry of Labour deferred his call-up, and his cricket career proceeded uninterrupted.
The spectacular success in the season led to the selection of Close for the third Test against New Zealand at Old Trafford. Perhaps the rather ordinary opponents helped the selectors to opt for him. Close made his debut at the age of 18 years and 149 days.
It was a rather forgettable affair for the young man. He took one for 39 and none for 46 with the ball. When England batted, Close was slotted to go in at No. 7. With the side needing quick runs, captain Freddie Brown held him back, not willing to sacrifice the wicket of a debutant. When he did go out to bat at No 9, the instruction of the skipper was to “Have a look at a couple and then give it a go.” Close took it literally. After padding two balls back to Tom Burtt, he heaved the third one and was caught one handed on the long on boundary by the tallest New Zealand player — Geoff Rabone.
Close was replaced for the next Test by Jim Laker. However, he went on to complete his double at Scarborough during Yorkshire’s festival match with the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Yorkshire captain Norman Yardley awarded him his county cap.
The call up from the army came eventually at the end of the cricket season. In October 1949, he became No 22185787 Signalman Close, DB, Royal Signals, Catterick.
Brian Close (the striker) had an absolute nightmare during the 1950-51 tour of Australia © Getty Images
The dreadful tour
Close was approached by a number of clubs for the football season of 1950-51, and among them was Arsenal. However, in August he found out that he had been selected for the Australian tour in the winter. The MCC managed to obtain his release from the army, and Close sailed with Brown’s men to the antipodes.
It was a dismal Australian summer for England. For Close it was an unending nightmare.
In his book, Close laments that there was no guidance from any senior player. He did not receive any advice on building an innings or the special significance of particular fielding positions. The Len Huttons and Denis Comptons kept to themselves. Only Bill Bowes, travelling as a journalist, helped him with wise words of experience.
The voyage was exciting, if lonely, but the tour did start off on the wings of hope. In the opening First-Class fixture against Western Australia, Close scored 108 not out and took four wickets with his off-spinners.
However, that was the end of his happy days. He did not score over 30 again on the tour. Close also picked up a groin injury which got worse as the tour progressed. When Brown asked about his fitness prior to the second Test, he replied that he could play — more hopeful than honest. It was a mistake. He walked in at 54 for four, with four balls to go for lunch. Jack Iverson bowled one down the leg side, and he top-edged a sweep down the throat of square leg.
The Australian off-spinner Ian Johnson, who visited the England dressing room during lunch, remembered finding Close on the verge of tears. He said to Brown, “Young Close is a bit down. Go and have a word with him, he needs a little help.” Brown replied, “Let the %$** stew. He deserves it.”
The groin strain got worse, and Denis Compton was unsympathetic when he captained the England team against Tasmania. Close was diagnosed with ruptured tendon roots in the pubic bone and was advised rest. According to his autobiography, when he handed the doctor’s letter to Compton, he tore it to bits and said, “I couldn’t care less what the %$$* doctor says. You are playing.”
When Close was out to a half volley mainly because of his sluggish foot movement, it was alleged that he had got out deliberately. The young lad denied it, letting his captain know about the letter from the doctor. Brown told him, “You’re a professional. If the captain tells you to play with a broken leg, you play.” Even as he dragged his feet while walking, Close was made to bowl long overs in tour matches, often at medium pace.
Close writes, “Freddie Brown, Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook, Reg Simpson, Denis Compton — you made my life hell. And I had so admired and respected you all when I set out.”
Not many men have had unflattering things to say about Compton, but then Close seemed to attract antagonism. Even poor JJ Warr, for a long time the holder of the record of the worst career bowling figures in Test cricket, managed to eke out a relationship with Close that was not quite cordial.
Because of his injury, Close was sent back to England as the rest of the side went to New Zealand. It would be the last full tour for England that he would make.
“The promotion was too sudden; he would otherwise have been in the England team for the next 20 years,” said Yorkshire veteran Ted Lister. In fact it was Brown who had vetoed the objection of experienced Yorkshire committee members to include Close for the tour to Australia. After that the England captain, a martinet in his own right, turned his back on the needs of the youngster almost heartlessly.
According to late Yorkshire captain Ronnie Burnet, Close had once interrupted him during a few well-meaning words with the exclamation “You’re wasting your breath, I’m finished.”
Close enjoyed a successful season with the Services as he completed his army duties, scoring a century against the visiting South Africans. Released by the Army in October, he was signed by Arsenal.
Even here controversy dogged him. As he tried to manage both the careers in cricket and football, they got in the way of each other. The opening match of the 1952 cricket season was between Yorkshire and MCC at Lord’s. The same day there was the reserve team cup final that he was supposed to play for Arsenal. Captain Yardley assured him that he could leave early from Lord’s to make the Arsenal match in time. But, as luck would have it, Yardley did not travel for the game because his wife was expecting a baby. John Nash, the Yorkshire secretary, refused to release him before the match was over. He could make it to the Cup Final as half-time was approaching. The Arsenal management sacked him immediately.
Close continued playing cricket for Yorkshire in 1952, enjoying fair amount of success. He turned out for Bradford City in the winter. However, having scored nine goals in the season, he injured himself in a collision with the centre half of Port Vale. The internal cartilage of the knee was torn and an operation was deemed necessary. It was the end of his football career, and he missed the entire 1953 season apart from one match.
Close returned to cricket in 1954, scoring his first century for Yorkshire, a 123 not out against the touring Pakistanis. He continued getting runs and wickets in the domestic seasons, in spite of periodic migraine attacks. However, his Test appearances remained rare and rather ordinary. There was one Test against South Africa in 1955, and in 1957 against West Indies he played two consecutive Tests for the first time in his start-stop career. He toured Pakistan with the young MCC team in 1955-56.
Yes, even after seven years at top level cricket, Close was still just 24. And controversy dogged him there as well. He was one of the key players who were behind the forceful kidnapping of umpire Idris Beg.
In 1959, Close was recalled to England side for one match against India at Headingley. He scored a quick 27 as the side pushed for a declaration, and captured five wickets for 53 in the match with his off-spin. However, he was overlooked for the remaining Tests in the series.
Close went back to Yorkshire, where by now he was one of the senior-most men. In the match against Kent at Leeds, he took advantage of cloudy skies and swung his medium pacers to take eight for 41 in an amazing win.
With Vic Wilson missing a game against Derbyshire, Close captained Yorkshire for the first time in June 1960.
The fatal sweep
Close courted controversy yet again when he was recalled for the famous Old Trafford Test at Manchester in 1961 against Richie Benaud’s Australians in 1961.
England were set 256 to win in just under four hours. Ted Dexter led the way with a majestic 70. Benaud countered the acceleration by bowling his leg-breaks round the wicket into the rough. Dexter was dismissed and May was bowled round his legs. Close, sensing that the right-handers would struggle, apparently decided that it was his job to hit England out of trouble. Benaud was hit for a huge six. And soon, he played a fatal sweep, trying to go over square leg, and Norman O’Neill leapt high in the air to take the catch with the tips of his fingers.
Close was hauled over fire with critics lambasting him for reckless strokeplay. There were voices that screamed that Close should never play for England again. In his book, Close characteristically defends himself, while attacking Raman Subba Row for playing for himself, and hinting that May’s attempted upright sweep shot was as ‘irresponsible’ as his stroke.
The year 1963
The year 1963 was perhaps the sweetest for Close. At long last, with palpable reluctance, the Yorkshire committee made him the captain of the county. It was perhaps the impetus he had needed. Close impressed one and all with aggressive leadership, extremely imaginative field placings and astute bowling changes. Benaud observed in the News of the World that he should be leading the country. Even Wisden thought he had matured overnight.
And finally there was that bit about fielding close to the bat. At Gravesend, Alan Brown swiped at Don Wilson and Close copped it on his forehead. He was distinctly unhappy when the ricochet was not taken, quite oblivious of the bump beginning to swell on his forehead.
This year, he was was selected for England against Frank Worrell’s West Indies. Strangely for him, Close played in all five Tests and batted steadily all through the series. And in that thrilling Test at Lord’s, he essayed a breath-taking innings of 70 when England were looking down the barrel, and walked down the wicket to face the extreme pace of Wes Hall. He wrote in his book, “By getting a long way down, I was countering to some extent the effect of the ridge, but even more important, I made Wes lose his rag.” Both Hall and Charlie Griffith struck him on the body quite a few times, but as usual, Close went on batting.
The innings could not quite win the match for England, but went down as heroic. Not for the last time in his career, his body was covered with angry welts after the severe battering from the fast bowlers. However, when Close wrote about this knock in his book, he somewhat spoilt the effect by launching in a rather uncalled for criticism of the methods used by Ken Barrington in the same innings. Throughout his career and in his reminiscences, Close comes across as bitter with most of the course his cricketing life has traced. However, Barrington, whom he mocks as ‘who was often glorified as England’s saviour in Tests’, was one of the greatest batsmen produced by England any way one looks at it, and scored 60 in that innings as well.
Close scored 315 runs in the series at a decent 31.50. However, he was dropped yet again as England toured India. He went back to Yorkshire, continuing to lead them with distinction and flair.
Brian Close (left) and Garfield Sobers tossing up before before the fifth and final test at the Oval, London, 18th August 1966 © Getty Images
He continued to captain Yorkshire with flair, and his greatest hour came in 1966. The West Indies were back in England, hammering them in three of the first four Tests. After trying out MJK Smith and Colin Cowdrey, the selectors made a radical change for the fifth Test and appointed Close as captain.
Buoyed by a 217 run eighth wicket partnership between Tom Graveney and John Murray, England rode upon some telling blows delivered by John Snow to win by an innings. Garry Sobers, who could do no wrong in the series with a string of centuries and a bagful of wickets under his belt, was out to a classic Close move. On Close’s instruction, Snow bounced the first ball. Sobers hooked and edged it on to his body. Close took the rebound, as usual standing perilously close at short-leg.
Close was reappointed captain when India and Pakistan toured in 1967. England won five of the six Tests, a dropped catch enabling Hanif Mohammad to bat over nine hours and ensure a draw at Lord’s.
So, hardly anything stood in the way of Close leading England on the tour of West Indies in 1967-68. However, the management disagreed.
The Edgbaston Incident
It happened at Birmingham, with Yorkshire needing to beat Warwickeshire to take over the top position from Kent. Two incidents took place. Close was hot, sweating and not really in the best of moods after a low first innings score put up by Yorkshire. Hearing something shouted at him from the members’ seats, Close approached a spectator, and placing his hand on his shoulder asked him if it was he who had made the remark. When the man said no, Close apologised and walked away. However, the issue was taken up by the press and public and Close was roasted in the media.
Besides, the Yorkshire team resorted to slow over rates and time wasting tactics as Warwickshire gunned for victory. Only 24 overs were bowled in 100 minutes – ‘only’ by the standards of those times. The hosts finished nine short of the victory target. Close was held responsible for the negative tactics and was asked by MCC to apologise. Close refused, and he was removed as captain of England and was dropped from the side. The decision seems atrocious even today.
Close was outraged especially when his successor, Cowdrey, won the series in West Indies by the same method of slowing down the over rate.
Somerset and England
Brian Close bats for Somerset against Surrey in 1971 © Getty Images
However, his misfortunes were not over. By 1970, Close had led Yorkshire to four championship wins in the eight years at the helm. The side had also triumphed in two Gillette Cup competitions. In the 1965 edition, Close had achieved the impossible of coaxing Geoffrey Boycott to throw caution to the wind and essay one of the most attractive hundreds in the competition.
Now, the county committee, headed by former captain Brian Sellers, informed him that he had the options of resigning or getting sacked. The reasons were that Close was open about his dislike for One Day cricket, failed to introduce young players and was himself becoming a liability with his injuries.
It devastated Close. At 39, he believed there was still a lot of cricket left in him. Within a few days Somerset had approached him and he had signed.
Close scored a century against Leicestershire in his first match for the new county in 1971. When Somerset met Yorkshire, he scored 102. In 1972, the erstwhile captain Brian Langford resigned, and Close took over. This was the first time Close averaged over 50 in a season.
A bigger, pleasanter surprise was to come soon. For the first time, England and Australia contested a series of three ODIs. Illingworth, England’s regular captain, was out with an injured ankle. A replacement skipper was required. And the English selectors decided that Close was the man for the job. The veteran all-rounder came back to the national side and led England to a 2-1 victory.
Close continued playing for Somerset, going on unofficial tours to South Africa and Rhodesia during the winters. However, with his advancing age and increasingly empty pate, his international career seemed to be over. That was before he was recalled for the final time, to take on the might of the West Indian pace bowlers in 1976.
Brian Close (batting in picture) playing for Old England against Old World XI. Says something about the man… © Getty Images
Close retired from First-Class cricket at the end of the 1977 season. He move to the Lancashire League where he turned out for Todmoren. He continued to appear in the Scarborough festival matches, making his final appearance in 1986 at the age of 55.
Close played 22 Tests in his career over 27 years. Only Wilfred Rhodes (30 years) has had a longer interval between his first and last Tests. His record remained unimpressive, just 887 runs at 25.34 with four fifties, and 18 wickets at 29.55 with a best of four for 35.
However, if one looks at his record in First-Class cricket, we find a veritable giant, with 34,994 runs at 33.26 with 52 hundreds and 1,171 wickets at 26.42 with 43 five wicket hauls. The greatness of these numbers are emphasised when one considers the genius of Ian Botham managed 19,399 First-Class runs at 33.97 with 38 hundreds and 1,172 wickets at 27.22.
Of course, there can be no comparison between Botham and Close in Test cricket, but the First-Class numbers are similar. As captain of Somerset, Close played a crucial part in the growth of Botham as a champion all-rounder — allowing him the much-needed breathing space that raw talent requires away from the constraining clutches of coaches.
From 1979 to 1981, Close was a Test selector. He was elected to the Yorkshire County Cricket Club committee in 1984, and remained chairman on the cricket sub-committee for long. It was he who was instrumental in the final omission of Boycott from the Yorkshire side.
Even when in his sixties and seventies, he appeared on the cricket field once in a while, fielding at square leg, sledging with abandon.
Close was known for his courage against the fastest bowlers. He was a fine player of spinners as well, equally adept at skipping down the wicket or sweeping them towards the leg. However, he did lack the temperament to succeed at the Test level of building a long innings.
He started out as a seamer, and later picked up off-breaks from the Yorkshire nets. He was uncommonly aggressive as a bowler with both these styles. As the years wore on, he bowled less and when he did he stuck to off-spin.
As a character he remained controversial, frequently erratic, sometimes almost masochistic in his willingness to suffer pain. He rubbed many people the wrong way, and from Compton to Trueman, had clashes with every one.
At the same time, he inspired loyalty, with that very characteristic of standing close to the batsman, willing to take one for the team. In this context even the volatile Trueman was happy to play under him, as were most others.
Close won six of the seven Tests he led in, the other ending in a draw. If one looks at his captaincy record for Yorkshire and England, he cannot help but wonder about what might have been if had had been given a long stint.
But then, that was what Brian Close was all about – curious, controversial and a composite of unfulfilled promises.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)