Phoenix From the AshesGareth Bland |
Author: Mike Brearley
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Rating: 5 stars
Of the primary source testaments to Ian Botham’s life-changing summer of 1981, Mike Brearley’s “Phoenix from The Ashes” is the one most searingly branded upon this writer’s imagination. That said, it is the only account ever published by a member of that summer’s England side and, perhaps with a nod toward their captain’s scholarly erudition, none has ever attempted a retrospective portrayal of the events that occurred on England’s provincial Grand Tour of Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. Although the recounting of it does get an airing in the autobiography of the man at the centre of the events, Botham himself, none has ever attempted a stand alone document to their greatest summer. In the winter of Phoenix’s publication, The Daily Telegraph published their own summary of the summer, the excellent Botham Rekindles The Ashes with the material being the Telegraph’s own cricket team’s daily reports from the action. Read in tandem, these two accounts, stripped as they are of the rose-tintedness and myopia that can sometimes surround the series’ anniversary, provide the sharpest views of what it was actually like to be around at the time of the events themselves. Michael Melford’s memorable opening line in the The Daily Telegraph as he attempted to sum up the final passage of play from the fourth Test at Edgbaston, It happened again yesterday, is typical of the effect that the series had on even the most experienced Fleet Street sage as one seemingly unrepeatable event followed another. In the case of Brearley, Phoenix is the first-hand account of the man at the centre of decision making that year, returning to the Test team at 39 to resume leadership at the expense of the fallen Botham. Brearley’s captain’s account: thoughtful, occasionally wistful, candid, dramatic, and – most important of all – free of the cliche of the genre, is a very human document of the events that took place exactly 31 years ago.
Although many of the anecdotes have since entered into common usage at Ashes ’81 anniversaries, to read them at Brearley’s telling is to experience the touching naivety of the times. His agreeing to pay for the cost of the call from the selectors as the offer of the captaincy was sounded out, amid the fumblings of BT, is warming, as his admission of nervousness at accepting the offer in the first place. Brearley had, we read between the lines, experienced something akin to a cricketing midlife crisis during the previous summer as he returned to the grind of country cricket and left the business of running England to the young Botham. Clearly, his training in psyhcoanalysis had made this already thoughtful man delve even deeper into his own psyche. An onfield confrontation with Imran Khan in a Benson and Hedges tie had seemed out of place, but, Brearley explains, why should he behave in such an apparently effete and guarded manner? His experiences with the Australian crowds and media on the ’79-80 tour also reveal a man questioning his own relationship with the game, the English captaincy and public expectations – not to mention perceptions – of him. When July 1981 swung round then, this was a quite different Mike Brearley than the one that inherited the country’s cricket team from Tony Grieg four years previously. Well on his way to reaching his retirement aim of being a trained psychoanalyst, Brearley’s professional training had granted him fresh insight into the minds of his charges out on the cricket pitch. This did not prevent him having an attack of the nerves about taking up Bedser’s offer and assuming the mantle once more, though. With his Oxbridge background, eloquence and polished accent Brearley was, in his own words, in the externals, the kind of Englishman that they (Australians) were very suspicious of. Certainly, he showed an understanding of the political nature of his job as captain, at once representing the team but also being aware of his responsibilities to a selection panel headed up by Alec Bedser.In 1981 he was once again reappointed to what was still then that most outwardly establishment of roles, the England captaincy.
In a chapter entitled No more skylarking Brearley admits to fretting constantly in the lead up to the game at Leeds, being anxious about Botham’s reaction to his reappearance as captain and being almost crestfallen at the close of the first day as Australia crawled to 207-3 in a truncated first Thursday. Gradually, however,a spirit emerges among the players even as the torment of three and a half days of Australian dominance follows them to that titanic Monday afternoon. Call it gallows humour, but as England’s players envisioned increasingly dark scenarios from the base of their dressing room, little did they know it, they were about to be freed by the lifting of the burden on their talisman. Botham, along with Gooch, Gower, Boycott and Willey had struggled for form in the early English summer of 1981. Brearley notes that the batsmen were diffident in going on the front foot – literally – with the cumulutive effect of twelve months solid West Indies exposure being apparent The batsmen had collectively developed a form of paralysis. A wet, turgid opening to the Engish summer had compounded their already poor form and, unsurprisingly, a hitherto unfancied Australian team were one nil up after two Tests. Botham’s return to silence in Tony Lewis’s words, at Lord’s as he completed his pair was followed by a reversal of fortune so dramatic and so spectacular that, had it not happened, would have tested the imagination of the wildest fantasist. As Wisden put it, the comeback had stretched the bounds of logic and belief. The details of that comeback do not need recounting here, of course, although Brearley’s handling of the fluctuations of the human episode are of the greatest interest.
After his fourth day innings where he remained 145* Botham, Brearley and several other members of the team convened to a near by chip shop in Leeds. Botham, Brearley recalls, was greeted by team mates and patrons alike as John the Baptist would have been. The scene is difficult to conjure in today’s cossetted world of endorsements and PR men, where England’s centrally contracted players are seldom seen sans Adidas baseball caps. It seems here, engagingly so, that at the dawn of the eighties the culture of the county pro still pervaded the national set up. The chapter covering the Edgbaston Test Lightning Strikes Twice and the interregnum between that and the Old Trafford Test shows a nation spellbound in the euphoria. Even now, 31 years on, it is difficult to imagine a time, with the possible exception of the 2005 Ashes series, where cricket had the nation so in awe. Brearley’s fan mail, and he selects several examples here, shows the uplifting effects of the team’s rescue acts on the country. Evident here too is the social scope of the captain’s life; telegrams and well wishes from John Cleese and Spike Milligan and his perhaps surprising friendship with Rodney Hogg – “Quintin” to Brearley a la Lord Hailsham. What is also surprising is that, whatever internal animosity there almost certainly was between Kim Hughes and his senior lieutenants, relations between the two teams off the field was as cordial as ever. Brearley recalls the post Edgbaston Sunday night bash held at which he and Hughes chatted amicably about the reversal of fortunes. Dispelled too are some of the myths surrounding the supposedly larrikin mindset of Lillee and Marsh. The Australian wicket keeper, Brearley argued was the first to congratulate opponents when they do well, while Lillee’s frustrations were usually self-directed and not taken out on the batsman come on Dennis, what is that Dennis? as he struggled with length or line. The great fast bowler, appearing at the same function as Hughes that Sunday night greeted a wary England captain with come on Mike, I’m only fierce on the field; a reference to their famous spat over Lillee’s aluminium bat eighteen months previously in Perth.
In the England dressing room, Brearley once again reigned over a team of wildly diverse characters. Gooch, still blossoming into a world force yet downcast over his loss of form and moved to number four in the batting order at Edgbaston; Gower, struggling for form, too, and subdued; the Geordie tough nut, Willey, and of course the incomparable Boycott, made up a batting line up along with the captain and Gatting that struggled along all summer. While England collapsed in the Edgbaston Test setting the Australians an apparently meagre 151 to win, Boycott enthralled listeners with his tales of playing under the disciplinarian Brian Close at Yorkshire and being hung from a hook as his former county captain took him to task. Boycott signs off the anecdote with a resigned I just shut my eyes and waited for the end. The dressing room, then, was not without its moments of black humour even as most of its inhabitants fretted about form and the worry of keeping their places. This was, after all, a very low scoring series and, Botham’s twin epics apart, only one other Englishman – Boycott with his 137 at The Oval in the 6th Test – managed three figures all summer.
Brearley’s skill as an observer is in allowing us into the dressing room to get to know these characters not as oafish, leaden caricatures but as normal men with occasionally abnormal gifts. His gifts as captain and communicator are obvious as he takes time to blend the laddish pranks of Botham while also attempting to fathom the complicated mind of his elder statesman and opening partner, Boycott. What emerges in this case – at least from Brearley’s perspective – is an immensely sympathetic and compassionate understanding of one of cricket’s most infuriating and labyrinthine personalities. It is one of Brearley’s strengths here that he does not dwell on the influence of Botham off the field or in team meetings and dinners. Rather, all members of the team are presented to us as being invaluable to him for their thoughts, ideas and suggestions as he is revealed as a most consensual leader, though one with great convictions. He would, for instance, call Gooch for his opinions on batsmen around the county circuit or enlist Boycott’s help in designing a more protective batting glove. Similarly, the skipper was not afraid to take advice from Gatting in the closing moments at Headingley,It doesn’t matter what he does, just tell Goose to bowl straight being the view of his Middlesex team mate.
Above all, Phoenix endures because it refuses to cut corners and dumb down. It is clearly written by a man of considerable intellect and it does not insult its audience. There are few tales of rowdiness, or of drunken nights or hangover cures here. Readers wishing to be illuminated by memorable tales of sledging will be disappointed, too. Brearley’s book is a tale of ordinary men – or, for the most part the singular, man – performing extraordinary deeds, in a summer when the nation needed a tonic. It is about thinking cricketers fighting their way out of a corner with the help of luck and the heroics of the 25 year old central figure. It does not spare us the human frailties or insecurities that come with sporting leadership or the performance anxiety that goes with being a top rank sportsman. Instead Phoenix elevates them to being central to the narrative. Moreover,along with Botham Rekindles The Ashes Brearley makes plain that he and his team were aware that they had been involved in something that summer that would become part of the legend of the game. With the advent of that 1981 summer, Botham’s Ashes had created a kind of instant nostalgia. For although the 2005 Ashes summer was fought between incomparably stronger teams, the sheer scale of Botham’s individual achievements 24 years earlier are simply staggering in the context of his comeback. After all, very few Test series can claim terms of reference such as phoenix and Lazarus as this one does.
Given its near contemporaneous nature,Phoenix does not present us with images of embattled police officers splattered in blood or cliched portraits of the wedding of Charles and Di. The political and cultural aspects of that summer are handled deftly by Brearley and only used in the main to add colour to his descriptions of the period between the Headingley and Edgbaston Tests. This is perhaps refreshing given the modern trend among documentary makers and revisionists who insist on locating the Ashes summer of ’81 in a kind of socio-cultural time capsule, with hackneyed images of a crumbling, dystopian Britain juxtaposed with the ruritanian pomp of the royal wedding.
What still endures about Brearley’s work 31 years on is the erudition and incisiveness of his writing and the evocative captions that accompany the photographs. My particular favourite as a boy and one which has grown with meaning and affection with age is the caption that accompanies a wildly beaming Willey, Gooch, Gatting and a clearly drained and expressionless Willis as they sprint from the field at Headingley immediately at the moment Ray Bright’s middle stump had been removed. It is a caption that is at once pithy but is laden with the understanding that such events are ephemeral. A career in life insurance is safer notes Brearley but possibly lacks moments like these Thirty one years to the day since it all happened at English Test cricket’s most famous northern outpost that sentiment stills rings as true as ever.