In the long, proud history of English cricket, from WG Grace, the Gloucestershire doctor who invented the game as we know it, to Joe Root, its latest star, there was never a man quite like Brian Close, who died on Sunday at the age of 84.
He was never a great batsman. His highest score in 22 Test matches, spread over 27 summers, was 70. Nor was he a great bowler. As a ‘cricketer of the heart’, however, to use John Arlott’s evocative phrase, he knew few equals. And when it came to demonstrations of physical courage, he knew none at all.
Close the warrior is one of the game’s most enduring images. A century from now, people will still be talking of that savage evening in July 1976 when Close and John Edrich, opening the batting against West Indies on a cracked pitch at Old Trafford, faced without flinching the ferocious fast bowling of Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel.
As a French General said after the Charge of the Light Brigade; ‘It’s magnificent but it’s not war.’ What spectators saw that evening in Manchester resembled a form of war waged with a cricket ball. Even now, revisited on television, it makes harrowing viewing. Those born since 1976 might not believe their eyes.
Only Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, the great Australians who had battered the West Indians the previous winter, were as physically intimidating as the bowlers who targeted Close and Edrich without mercy. Yet those brave men took it.
Those mauve bruises that mottled Close’s body were, for him, badges of honour. ‘How can a cricket ball hurt you?’ he would ask, only half in jest. ‘It’s on you for less than a second.’
Modern batsmen wear helmets, arm and chest guards that were unknown in the summer of 1976. In those more innocent days, batsmen were not properly equipped to counter the physical threat of genuinely fast bowlers like Roberts and Holding, who pinged the ball down at speeds closer to 100mph than the 90 that is now considered an indicator of extreme pace.
Having survived so fearful a battering that night, Close was draining a restorative glass of whisky in the dressing-room when he started laughing. ‘Bloody hell,’ he told Edrich, his wounded comrade. ‘After all that I’m only one not out!’
But Close didn’t need to have a bat in his hand to reveal his courage. Team-mates at Yorkshire would watch with a mixture of admiration and trepidation as he positioned himself at the shortest of short legs to snaffle the catches and take the blows.
Recalled by England at The Oval in 1966 to captain a team that had been walloped by the West Indies, he plonked himself at short leg the moment Garry Sobers came out to bat. ‘Bowl him a bouncer,’ he instructed John Snow, who obliged. Sobers hooked, got a top edge and Close, who had kept his eyes on the ball, accepted the catch. England won the match.
Although he was never a braggart, he was unsparing in his criticism of more timid souls who, he felt, lacked gumption. ‘Look at that silly bugger,’ he said in retirement, as a heavily-armoured England batsman walked out to face India’s medium pacers on a flat pitch. ‘If I was that tall I wouldn’t need a box, never mind a helmet!’
Such a spirit made him England’s youngest ever Test cricketer when, aged 18, he played against New Zealand in 1949 — incredibly, almost three decades before his ordeal at the hands of Holding & Co.
Although Close’s Test career failed to bring fulfillment, he led a superb Yorkshire team to four County Championships, including three in a row, in the Sixties.
Yorkshire being Yorkshire, with more vicious rivalries than a Sicilian village, Close left the club in 1971, opting to join Somerset, where he enjoyed a fruitful autumn to his career. At Taunton he nurtured the youthful talents of two men who grew up to be giants. Viv Richards and Ian Botham would have excelled whoever looked after them in their salad days but it was their great good fortune to learn the game under Close.
The old warrior, who despised one-day cricket when it was introduced in 1963, eventually mastered it. The success that Somerset enjoyed after his retirement in 1977 had its roots in those vigorous days when he paved the way for Richards and Botham to declare their vast talent. Strong enough to pick up a lippy colleague and hang him on a dressing room peg, as he once did with Geoffrey Boycott, Close has been described as the hardest man who ever played cricket.
Close was truly hard, in his defiance of physical pain and in his understanding of a game that was forged in Yorkshire, the hardest school of all. But he was not a nasty or vindictive man. He had dignity, and could see the good in others.
No player reflected the spirit of our most famous cricket county, not even Fred Trueman, more truly than the indomitable Close.- [Daily Mail]