Cricketing Caesar

Published: 2020
Pages: 320
Author: Peel, Mark
Publisher: Pitch
Rating: 4 stars

It must be a couple of years now since I first learned that Mark Peel was working on this book. My immediate thought was that it would be interesting but, my formative years coinciding with Brearley’s cricket career, I thought I had probably heard all there was to know about him and did not expect too many revelations. It is remarkable however just how much memories can dull because I have been surprised at how many episodes I had quite either forgotten about, or had not fully appreciated the significance of at the time they were first reported.

The initial point that probably should be made is that Cricketing Caesar is not an authorised biography and as a result Peel has had to make extensive use of Brearley’s own not inconsiderable volume of past writing, as well as the opinions expressed by others. As a consequence where there are contradictions Peel has generally not been able to test those nor give definitive answers. That said as Peel states somewhat cryptically in his acknowledgements that he thanks Brearley for all his help in answering a number of questions his subject has clearly had some limited influence on the book’s contents.

An experienced biographer Peel has previously written up the lives of Ken Barrington, Colin Cowdrey and Colin Milburn as well as producing a number of other cricketing titles. His style is conventional in that his narrative follows a chronological path through Brearley’s life. There are the usual descriptions of matches and much cricketing content. Books such as this can be tedious but it certainly remains an entirely sensible approach to take in the case of someone like Brearley whose involvement in the matches described is often pivotal and whose life outside cricket most certainly does not lack interest.

It is customary to begin such a book with a brief look at a man’s background prior to his taking up the game at First Class level. In the case of Brearley Peel dwells on that at some length and in doing so sets the tone for what is, I was pleased to see, a genuine attempt to look at what makes Brearley tick rather than simply describing his life and times.

Going right back to the beginning Brearley’s father, Horace was, just once, a county cricketer for Yorkshire. Brearley himself had what was very much a middle class upbringing and went to public school and onto Cambridge where he studied classics and philosophy with distinction. He later came joint top in the Civil Service Examination. It has been cricket’s gain that he chose not to pursue that particular career path.

The interesting aspect of the back story is that, on the basis of the very brief outline I have given, it would not be unreasonable if a reader were then expecting to read the story of an establishment man, but that is very much something that Brearley has never been. It would be wrong to describe him as a rebel as such, but certainly he always had a rebellious streak, and throughout his life has always been very much his own man.

As a cricketer Brearley was sufficiently promising as a 22 year old final year student at Cambridge to gain selection for the 1964/65 trip to South Africa. As a batsman however he disappointed on that trip, although he took the opportunity to look around him and have his eyes fully opened to the injustice of apartheid. On his return his form on the field did not much improve in 1965 and he left the game. Not all ties were severed however and in 1971 he was offered the Middlesex captaincy and lured back into the game that way.

A large part of the Brearley legend arises out of his captaincy, and all the stories we’ve heard and loved about that are here, and a number of new ones as well. It shouldn’t however be forgotten that Brearley was selected for his Test debut against West Indies in 1976 simply because he had a well earned reputation of being a decent player of fast bowling, and that for several years he was consistently amongst the top county batsmen in the country. The step up, perhaps, was just a little too far for Brearley the batsman, although to my certain recollection he generally found that good luck in that department was in short supply as well.

It was as a leader though that Brearley shone. His great and rare ability was to be all things to all men (except Phil Edmonds) and Peel illustrates that very well. I had forgotten about the prejudices Brearley came up against from the senior pros at Middlesex when he became captain and also, because of that diffident and self-effacing manner which he always adopted in interviews, just what a steely determination he had. The way in which his unpopularity amongst the Australian press and public in 1979/80 soared as the series progressed was something that had slipped my mind and he dealt with that with admirable and characteristic stubbornness. Despite all the grief it is satisfying to recall how Brearley then enjoyed one of his better series with the bat against the full strength of Australia, averaging more than double the mark he had achieved a year previously when leading England to a 5-1 victory over the Australian second string.

Any book about Brearley must of course go on to deal with the events of 1981 although the remarkable course of that summer are certainly still well remembered. The following summer, during which Brearley passed 40, was his last and, entirely fittingly, he led Middlesex to success in the Championship and averaged more than 47.

In terms of what Brearley has done for the last forty years he has, of course, popped up from time to time in the media and has certainly had a well publicised and successful career as a psychoanalyst. His private life he has kept that way, but Peel runs through that as well as looking at what has in fact been a rather more varied post cricket career than I thought.

In summary Cricketing Caesar is a compelling read. Entirely objective and thoroughly researched it is highly recommended and if we are really lucky it might even persuade Mr Brearley to let us have an autobiography.

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