Mike Brearley © Getty Images
Mike Brearley © Getty Images

Mike Brearley, born April 28, 1942, was one of the most successful captains ever seen in cricket. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and leadership of the man who supposedly had ‘a degree in people’.

Graeme Wood had been a dogged customer during the 1978-79 Ashes series, difficult to dismiss at the top of the order. He had started the Adelaide Test full of confidence, finding the middle of the bat early in his innings.

However, once Bob Willis and Mike Hendrick had gone through their initial burst, Wood found himself constrained to the brink of frustration. A man had been placed at backward of point to cut off his most lucrative scoring area. And the pull shot had been taken out of the equation by another man placed in an unusual position half-way back to the mid-wicket boundary. When John Emburey came on, the off-spinner concentrated on the left-hander’s off-stump, and the ring of fielders from backward point to mid-off cut off every attempted stroke. Finally, gasping for runs, Wood went down on his knees and swept. Derek Randall, the best fielder of England, had been positioned 20 yards from the boundary, much squarer than a traditional fine-leg. The ball had sailed right into his hands.

In the previous match at Sydney, England had bowled in the fourth innings with Australia needing just 205 for victory. Geoff Miller had sent down his off-spinners to a field of only a silly-point and a mid-off on the off-side, along with two short-legs, short-midwicket, deep square leg, mid-wicket, mid-on and long-on. Kim Hughes had tried to run him down to third-man, and had been caught off bat-pad. Miller had picked up four, Emburey three and Australia had been all out for 111.

Luck, Leadership and Leeds

Mike Brearley himself admits that not all the moves he planned came off to perfection like the ones described above. He freely acknowledges the role of luck. When Ian Botham was going through a rough time as the captain of the England team in the Caribbean, Brearley’s advice to him had been succinct and practical: “Find someone else to captain England.”

Strategy, tactics, ploys are all fine, and Brearley excelled in them as few have ever done. Yet, he knew that a lot depended on the fickleness of fortune.

He himself says that he may have never led England had it not been for the Kerry Packer days which halted the run of Tony Greig at the helm. He knows he would not have managed the win-loss record of an amazing 18-4 had he not had been blessed with Ian Botham, Bob Willis and David Gower playing for him at the simultaneous summits of their careers. He might not have had that amount of success had he not played a Packer depleted Australia and some rather ordinary sides during his tenure. Brearley once received a letter from Ray Illingworth that congratulated him for being the luckiest man ever to lead England. And he agreed.

Even during the matches he had his share of fortunes. After Australia had scored 403 for 9 at that famous Headingley Test and England were facing innings defeat after following-on, it did not require esoteric powers of captaincy to engineer a victory. It needed a miracle. Ian Botham with the bat, and Bob Willis with the ball performed the magic.

Brearley himself writes that the most critical tactic on the field, as Australia chased a small total in the fourth innings, had been suggested not by him but by Mike Gatting. Running in from mid-on, Gatting had requested Brearley to ask Willis to bowl straight to Dennis Lillee, whatever be the length. Brearley had communicated the message, and Lillee had spooned the ball to mid-on where Gatting had thrown himself full length to come up with the catch.

Yet, in his own way, Brearley had contributed. Early in his innings, Botham had started to play his shots. After trying to force Lillee off his back-foot and missing, the all-rounder had glanced up at the players’ balcony. He had been reassured by a wide grin on Brearley’s face, conveying what Brearley summarises as:’my pleasure at his uninhibited approach and an unqualified approval for his continuing in that extravagant vein.’

Lillee, Terry Alderman and Geoff Lawson had continued to bounce, and Botham had continued to hook with gay abandon. Any one of the strokes could have shot up straight into the air off. But, they had kept hitting the middle of the bat, and finding the fence. The edges by Graham Dilley and Chris Old had kept streaking through the gaps. In the end Australia had been set a target of 130. By that time in 1981, Bob Willis had been playing the role of a stock bowler, sending down long spells at a steady pace instead of running in flat out. Just before the Australian innings commenced, Brearley and Willis had decided that for the rest of the match he would bowl faster and straighter. Willis ended up with 8 wickets.

Degree in people

Yes, Brearley played 39 Tests for England, 31 of them as captain — in spite of averaging 22.88 with the bat. It was because he was worth his weight in gold as captain. Not only did he read the game with his excellent and scholarly cricketing mind, he managed to take the undeniable talent of men like Botham and Derek Underwood and make them script heroic tales.

At Old Trafford in 1977, in just his second Test as captain, Brearley was up against Greg Chappell’s Australians. Just before the start of Australia’s second innings, he noticed a powdery rough just outside the leg-stump. He concluded that the left-arm spin of Underwood bowled from over the wicket could win the match for England. However, there was a problem. Underwood did not like his normal bowling style or fields tampered with. On the morning of the fourth day, Brearley had a talk with Alan Knott, who had virtually kept to every ball bowled by Underwood for over a decade. Knott agreed that it would be difficult to convince the spinner. “The last time I remember him bowling over the wicket was during the tour of India in 1972-73,” the ’keeper said. “Norman Gifford was much better in this style and Underwood was left out of the next Test.”

Brearley talked to Underwood, explaining his plans, drawing the suggested field positions on the back of an envelope. The Kent bowler was given the option of reverting to round the wicket if he did not feel comfortable. The captain enticed him with the idea of getting Greg Chappell into tangles with the round the wicket line. Gradually Underwood grew enthusiastic, warming up to the idea. By the end of the day, he had taken 6 for 66 in 32.5 overs, including Chappell for 8.

It is not for nothing that Rodney Hogg made his famous observation that Brearley had a degree in people. The amazing transformation of Botham, from a disillusioned captain at the lowest ebb of confidence to a series winning champion all-rounder during the 1981 Ashes triumph, is regarded as one of the greatest feats of sports psychology ever.

It was not that all who played under Brearley were under the spell of his captaincy. Phil Edmonds, who bowled under him for England and Middlesex, did not really enjoy the best rapport with his skipper in terms of trust and tactics. Reportedly, Edmonds developed the habit of walking backwards to his bowling mark, to prevent Brearley from changing the field behind his back. The much senior professional Fred Titmus, who had played alongside Brearley’s father Horace in his first season for Middlesex, did not see eye to eye with him. Titmus was rather critical of the captain’s much publicised man management skills.

Yet, there was something about Brearley which galvanised even the most difficult men into a winning unit. On the morning of the county’s last game of the 1982 season, against Surrey, Brearley discovered that the pitch at Lord’s was bare, loose and dry. Middlesex had the services of Edmonds and Emburey, but Brearley thought he could do with a third spinner. Fortune favoured him, and the 49-year old Titmus dropped in for a cup of tea just before the start of the game.”Fred, just the man,” Brearley exclaimed on seeing him. “We could do with a third spinner.” Boots were found for him and Titmus played. On the last afternoon, with time running out, Edmonds hobbled off with a bad back. Titmus captured three vital wickets, and Surrey were bowled out for 102 while chasing 160. The victory led to the fourth championship title under Brearley’s leadership.

Recounting the incident of Titmus suddenly turning up at Lord’s on that day, Brearley writes in his The Art of Captaincy, “Ray Illingworth was right when he said I was the luckiest captain ever.” He was more than that. He performed his final magic with Edmonds and Titmus, the two players who were his biggest critics.

Mike Brearley and the art of captaincy

Mike Brearley (left), acknowledged for his man management skills, brought out the best in the difficult-to-handle Ian Botham (right) © Getty Images

The cricketer and the captain

Brearley was a splendid wicket-keeper batsman for Cambridge University, but his brilliance was not limited to the cricket field. He obtained a first in Classics and a 2:1 in Moral Sciences.

He graduated to county cricket as an opening batsman of Middlesex possessing a doughty, dour quality — limited in talent, but with exceptional cricketing acumen.

Captaining the under-25 MCC side in Pakistan in 1966-67, Brearley scored 312 not out against North Zone and 223 against the Pakistan under-25 side. The knocks demonstrated immense potential as a batsman, but unfortunately such successes with the willow were infrequent during his career.

By 1971, he had taken over the captaincy of his county. With his academic career competing with cricketing commitments, Brearley tended to be irregular in his outings for the county till 1970. However, after his appointment as skipper, he became a constant feature in the side.

Brearley was 34 by the time he was called up for England duty in that infamous series against West Indies in 1976. Bernard Julien got him for a duck in the first innings of his debut at Nottingham.

That winter, Brearley travelled to India as the deputy of Tony Greig. And the following summer, top job came his way when Greig had been removed after his involvement as Kerry Packer’s recruiting officer became known.

Brearley started off by leading England to a 3-0 Ashes win against Greg Chappell’s Australians. For the rest of his career, he led in every Test he played in.

There was a string of victories between 1977 and1979. At home, New Zealand were defeated 3-0, Pakistan 2-0 and India 1-0. And when England engaged in a battle for the Ashes against a Packer-depleted side in Australia, they triumphed 5-1. Brearley also led England to the World Cup final in 1979, but the title round was disappointing. Brearley and Boycott were too slow in the response to the large West Indian total, and by the time there was some urgency in the ranks, it was way too late.

As Brearley maintained, captaincy could not perform miracles. When England toured Australia in 1979-80, the famous old hands had returned from their World Series interlude. Lillee, Chappell and the rest destroyed England 3-0.

This series also saw the infamous aluminium bat incident surrounding Dennis Lillee. At the end of the series, Lillee went to get the bat signed by Brearley. The ex-Cambridge man, with infinite astuteness, inscribed it simply as “Good luck with the sales.”

Brearley led England to a win in the Jubilee Test against India and made way for Botham to take the reins. With his bat far from productive, he lost his place in the side.

But, Brearley was back for the final four Tests of that dream Ashes win of 1981. England had fallen back by 0-1, and Botham had resigned as captain. Brearley stepped back into the breach and England won three of the four Tests. It went on to become known as Botham’s Ashes and laid the foundations of lasting fame for Brearley’s captaincy.

The Art of Captaincy

Brearley approached the task of leadership with painstaking attention to detail. Every opponent was rigorously studied, and the tactics customised for each of them. Depending on the nature of the batsmen, the field positions was modified, depending on the degree of firmness of the grip of each batsman, the slips were brought up a shade or slightly pushed back. The fielders themselves were placed after assiduous optimisation based on their speed, quality and whether they were right or left handed.

The bowlers were chosen and put on to bowl after scrupulous study of the pitch conditions, the opposition, the nature of the ground and the wind that blew across it during different phases of the game. The batting order was kept stable as well as dynamic, always prone to change depending on the situation.

The nets were also arranged with exactness mingled with certain subtlety. There were times when advice was sought from ideal ex-cricketers. And there were also delicate lines drawn, such as when Fred Trueman was gently discouraged from tampering with the action of Graham Dilley. Brearley always seemed to know what would work and what would not.

Apart from his success for England, some of his moves for Middlesex have become legendary. There was the occasion against Surrey at Lord’s in 1977 when he declared the Middlesex first innings at zero for no loss to take advantage of the green pitch. The final scoreline read Surrey 49 and 87 lost to Middlesex 0-0 declared and 137 for 1.

And of course there was that famous match against Yorkshire. With Edmonds running in to bowl his slow left arm spinners, Brearley placed a helmet at short-midwicket, inviting Jim Love and Richard Lamb to hit against the turn and get five penalty runs.

Throughout his long period of captaincy for England and Middlesex, Brearley never appeared flustered. On the worst of days, he had an excellent answer for those who questioned some decision or tactic: “You never know, the alternative might have been still worse.”

The Art of Captaincy, written by Brearley after his retirement, has become a classic of cricket literature. Brearley starts the book discussing the quality called ‘charisma’ — dwelling on the root of the word to try and unearth its exact meaning. And then he goes on to talk about the various facets of the job —team selection, preparation, morning of the match, setting the batting order, declaration, the mere act of taking the field, placing the fielders, tactics, strategy, ploys and aggression. There have been books written about the game, in various styles and degrees of substance, about historical events, romantic diversions, technique, statistics and tour diaries. But, not one of them has discussed the details of leading a team in this concise detail and evident scholarship.

Brearley was conferred honorary doctorate by Oxford Brooks University. And scholarly mind stood him in good stead when he took pains to learn Gujarati after getting married to Mana Sarabhai of Ahmedabad.

After retirement, Brearley moved to the field that seemed to have been tailor made for him. He is now a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist—registered with the British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC). That is perhaps the best post-cricketing vocation for someone known to have a ‘degree in people’.

Brearley will perhaps remain the only person to have been president of MCC as well as BPC.

(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)