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Mike Brearley – England’s Greatest Captain?

Mike Brearley - England's Greatest Captain?

Mike Brearley captained England in 31 Tests between 1977 and 1981. His side won 18 of those matches giving him a 58.06% success rate. That 58.06% has, amongst those who have served on more than 15 occasions, never been exceeded and Brearley’s reputation has, if anything, grown as the years have passed since he finally relinquished the job in favour of Keith Fletcher at the end of the magical summer of 1981.

For my part for years I never questioned Brearley’s pre-eminence, mainly because nobody else ever seemed to. After all this was the man of whom Ian Botham said Brearley was without doubt the best captain I ever played under, a man with a billion dollar cricketing brain. And Botham was a man whose early First Class career was played under the watchful eye of Brian Close, himself a quite outstanding captain who brought great success to Yorkshire in the 1960s, before in the early 1970s turning cinderella county Somerset into genuine contenders, and who guided England to victory in six of the seven Tests in which he led them.

The man who was primarily responsible for appointing Brearley was Alec Bedser, not a man given to hyperbole. When he was contemplating the question of who had been the best captain over his long involvement with England he wrote …it would be Mike Brearley, the quiet persuader, who twice took over and triumphed when anything less than strong but sympathetic leadership could have led to disaster.

I knew that his former Middlesex and England teammate, left arm spinner Phil Edmonds, did not always see eye to eye with Brearley, and that indeed they clashed on a number of occasions, but even Edmonds said of Brearley In purely cricketing terms , he is the best captain I have ever seen, so there seemed no reason to doubt the apparent consensus until last year when, in the course of preparing his obituary, I read Fred Titmus’ 2005 autobiography, My Life in Cricket. It wasn’t so much that Titmus was critical of Brearley’s tactical ability, although he certainly didn’t praise it, as the way that Brearley had clearly upset the far from temperamental off-spinner during discussions about an extension of his final Middlesex contract. The man who Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg famously described as having a degree in people certainly did not cover himself in glory in his dealings with his senior professional.

So what sort of man are we dealing with here? Brearley’s was a most unusual career. He entered the First Class game as a 19 year old Cambridge University undergraduate. He won his blue in each of his four summers there between 1961 and 1964. No man has scored more runs for Cambridge than Brearley, although the impact of that statistic is less than it might be as he also holds, by a distance, the record for the most First Class appearances for the University. He was however noted as one for the future particularly when, just three weeks into his First Class career, and playing primarily as a wicketkeeper, he scored 73 and 89 against Richie Benaud’s Australian tourists. Later that season he made his Middlesex debut and in 1964 he enjoyed an extended run in the county side after the Cambridge season finished and his final tally for the summer, 2,179 runs at 44.46, saw a surprise selection for him in the England side that toured South Africa that winter. For Brearley the tour was not a success. He failed to make the Test side and in the dozen First Class matches he was selected for he averaged just 25 with a high score of 68.

Back in England in 1965 Brearley had his first full season with Middlesex, but he was no more successful than he had been on tour with England the previous winter. He had however been highly successful in his academic life and achieved a first in Classics and an upper second in Moral Sciences. He pursued his studies in the US through 1966 and 1967 and was seen just twice in English First Class cricket, although he did find the time to captain an MCC Under-25 side in Pakistan in 1966/67 where he averaged a Bradmanesque 132.16. His haul of runs included an unbeaten 312, scored in a single day, against an attack that included Test players Asif Masood and Intikhab Alam, as well as 223 against the Pakistani’s Under-25 XI seven of whom had already played Test cricket, and another two of whom would do so in the years to come.

Brearley played some cricket for Middlesex in each of the 1968, 1969 and 1970 seasons before he began playing full-time once again in 1971 on being made captain. He had not made many runs in his “part-time” seasons, and although he gradually improved it was not until as late as 1973, when he was already 31, that he finally scored a County Championship century. Despite his lack of consistecy with the bat for his county Brearley’s captaincy in Pakistan had attracted many admirers and Middlesex, who had finished joint last in the 1970 season, were desperate to arrest their decline.

There was an immediate improvement in Middlesex’s fortunes under Brearley and in 1971 they rose ten places in the table to sixth. Wisden, perceptive as ever, commented Brearley’s enthusiastic leadership, and specifically his ability to persuade the best out of each member of his team, proved the significant factor. That said the next four seasons saw no further improvement in the county’s performance, although Brearley’s batting continued to improve. In 1975 he averaged 53.41.

After a good start to the following season Brearley was selected to play in the early season Test trial at Bristol. He failed. Despite that he found himself making his Test debut in the first Test of the series in which Tony Greig declared his intention to make the West Indies grovel. Perversely fellow opener Dennis Amiss, who scored a century in the trial, did not get his chance until the final Test (when he scored a double century). Test trials, clearly one of the more pointless cricketing exercises, at least in England, have not been repeated. Once the series started Brearley managed 40 at Lords in the second Test, but achieved little else and made way for the return of 39 year old John Edrich for the (in)famous Old Trafford Test where Edrich, together with 45 year old Brian Close, were subjected to that furious bombardment by the West Indies pacemen.

Back at Middlesex Brearley continued to bat well but, as significantly, he led the county, against all expectations, to the Championship. It was no surprise when he was named as Tony Greig’s vice-captain for the 1976/77 tour of India that was to be followed by the Centenary Test in Australia. At this point I will pause and mention, briefly, the question of Brearley’s batting. It is unarguable that he was not a Test class batsman. An average of just 22 over 39 matches, without ever scoring a century, is ample evidence of that, but it is wrong to suggest, as some do, that he was initially selected just for his captaincy skills. Brearley played all six Tests that winter. He averaged just 27, but his highest ever Test score, 91, came in the final Test against India and he also batted well in the second innings of the Centenary Test so when, with the first Ashes Test of 1977 looming, he was riding high in the national averages on 68.33, and given the continuing self-imposed exile of Geoffrey Boycott, his selection as an opening batsman was clearly earned by weight of runs.

By the time the series started the story of what was dubbed the “Packer Circus” had broken. Greig was stripped of the captaincy which then passed to Brearley. To the great delight of all England fans the Ashes that had been snatched back by Australia so comprehensively in 1974/75 returned home after a comfortable 3-0 victory. As to the captaincy Wisden commented Brearley, a totally different animal from the volatile Greig, led his men with quiet efficiency. He is clearly a master in the art of cricket. He handled his bowlers skilfully and was clearly ahead of Greig in field placing

But for some Brearley was simply in the right place at the right time, and had a number of slices of good fortune. Firstly he inherited an excellent team spirit and, Greig having been returned to the ranks, he had the wholehearted support of his predecessor. Brearley the motivator made sure there was no ill-will shown towards England’s four Packer players, Greig, Amiss, Alan Knott and Bob Woolmer, and was doubtless assisted in that by the fact that they were in a minority. He also made sure that he kept the four on-side by fighting their corner successfully for a share of a bonus he negotiated for the team. On the other hand the Australians, 13 out of 17 having signed for Packer, and the talismanic Dennis Lillee and Ian Chappell both missing, were by all accounts a less than happy unit. As if that were not enough over the course of the series Brearley also acquired the services of the world’s best opening batsman, Geoffrey Boycott, who Alec Bedser finally persuaded to end his self-imposed exile in time for the third Test.

Brearley’s greatest stroke of good fortune was the fact that throughout his tenure as captain he was, effectively, able to field a twelve man team. He had at his disposal a fast-medium bowler who, over the 26 of those 31 matches in which he played, took 150 wickets at just 18.77 each, world class figures in any era. That same man, Botham of course, also scored his runs at 41.36, an average that has always been accepted as reflecting a batsman of genuine Test quality. How, ask Brearley’s detractors, could he possibly have failed with such a player at his disposal. It is of course a fair point.

After the celebrations at regaining the Ashes died down Brearley was reappointed as captain for the winter tours of Pakistan and New Zealand. Against Pakistan the first two Tests were dull affairs and Brearley’s captaincy could do nothing to lift the tedium that they became. He then broke his arm and missed the final Test, and the New Zealand series, to give Boycott his longed for opportunity to captain his country. The Yorkshireman failed to make the most of his chance and there was never any question but that the fit again Brearley would resume his duties against the same opponents in the summer of 1978.

Pakistan were beaten heavily twice before rain ruined the third Test. The series was no great Test for Brearley. Both sides were without four Packer players but England’s loss was much less acute than Pakistan’s loss of Majid Khan, Asif Iqbal, Mushtaq Mohammad and Imran Khan. A 3-0 clean sweep followed against New Zealand, which was no more testing than the Pakistan series.

England’s next series was the 1978/79 Ashes and a 5-1 success followed. It was however Australia’s second team that played against Brearley and his captaincy was again not really tested. To the extent that it was he could do nothing about the new Aussie paceman, Rodney Hogg, who took 41 wickets in the series at the ridiculously low cost of 12.85.

1979 was the summer of the second World Cup. Brearley steered England to the final, where they put up a disappointing performance against West Indies. Set 287 to win in 60 overs Brearley and Boycott took the best part of 40 overs to put on 129 for the first wicket, and the later batsmen were left with far too much to do. A four Test series against India followed. In the first Test Brearley won the toss and batted and after his batsmen allowed him the luxury of declaring at 633-5 a comfortable innings victory followed. The second Test was drawn, with England unable to ram home the advantage of a first innings lead of 323, and after rain spoiled the third Test a magnificent double century from Sunil Gavaskar almost brought India a remarkable victory as they ended up on 429-8 chasing 438 for victory. His critics argue it was not Brearley’s finest summer.

Peace, if not tranquility, had returned to world cricket by the 1979/80 Australian summer and Brearley and England were back for a three match series just 12 months after the 5-1 mauling they had inflicted on their hosts. This time however it was the Australian first team who were waiting for them. Brearley proved to be as unpopular with the home supporters as Douglas Jardine had been during the Bodyline series. He took the blame for England’s refusal to put the Ashes on the line. He aggravated Australia further by his haughty English manner, his refusal to embrace some Packer innovations in the ODIs, and for his appearance as he took to sporting a beard that resembled that of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In England the ferocity of the reception “The Ayatollah” received served only to enhance his reputation. He also had one of his better series with the bat, averaging 34 and twice passing fifty, but his captaincy couldn’t prevent Australian winning all three matches with plenty to spare.

The England captain was not unduly perturbed by all the hostility he faced responding, when asked why he had grown the beard, with to roughen my exterior for contacts with the rebarbative Australians. He shared with Jardine, certainly at that time, a certain antipathy towards all things Australian, although with rather more humour than the Iron Duke. On one television chat show he produced a somewhat bizarre looking cuddly toy that was clearly intended to resemble some sort of marsupial. He introduced it to his host as a gift from an Australian friend that he had christened “Dennis”. With a twinkle in his eye, but with his best academic voice, he pointed out its Australian features, particularly the small space reserved for the brain, and the large mouth.

Brearley turned 38 in 1980 and, unsurprisingly, decided he did not wish to tour again. With home and away series against Clive Lloyd’s West Indians coming up the selectors decided to appoint his successor straight away and Ian Botham began his short and ill-starred time at the helm. Brearley’s critics accuse him of ducking out of the contest with Lloyd but that is certainly not a fair comment as he would have been happy to ease the transition by taking charge at the beginning of the series. In fact a closer look at the results of the matches suggests that had Brearley done so the outcome of the series might well have been different. Only the first Test was finished the weather helping England draw all of the other four. At Trent Bridge West Indies margin of victory was just two wickets. Had Brearley played he would probably have done so at the expense of Tavare, who contributed just 17 runs. Had Brearley simply maintained his average the additional 27 runs might have made all the difference. Of more significance is the fact that two slip catches went down in the West Indies second innings. Whatever his limitations as a batsman Brearley’s ability as a top-class slipper was never in question. Finally, with West Indies chasing a modest 208 for victory, the experienced Brearley would surely have been better equipped than the novice Botham to exert pressure in the field.

With Brearley’s absence for so much of 1979 because of the World Cup and the Indian series Middlesex had slipped to 14th in the County Championship, and while Botham struggled with the demands of being England’s captain and talisman during that 1980 summer, Brearley led his county back to the summit of the domestic game. After the second Test of the 1981 Ashes series, when the selectors and Botham decided that a change was required, Brearley’s acceptance of the approach he received was greeted with relief by England supporters. He was averaging more than fifty for Middlesex and those who used his very ordinary Test batting average to sound a word of caution were reminded of his unbeaten 132 for Middlesex against a full strength Australian attack in the tourist’s final match before the first Test.

The latter four Tests of 1981 are the cornerstone of the Brearley legend and, for his detractors, a close look at them is the means of casting doubt on his talents. For most the story is well known, but to summarise the series Australia won a low scoring first Test, and then drew the second, although not without the occasional alarm. Botham and then Willis put in scarcely believable performances in the third Test at Headingley and Australia contrived, with a bit of help from Botham, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at Edgbaston too. The demoralised tourists were then bludgeoned by Botham at Old Trafford, England’s one comfortable win of the series, before bouncing back to get much the better of a draw at the Oval.

England were by now a better side than Australia. The visitors had lost potency with the retirement of the Chappell brothers, or at least the two who mattered, and Lillee was a veteran. On the other hand Graham Gooch had shown in the Caribbean the previous winter that he was now a top class player, and as well as him Botham, Willis, Bob Taylor, Boycott and David Gower were all as good as any in the world game. In the first two Tests Botham had scored just 34 runs and taken 6-149 – anything approaching an average performance from him and both matches would have been won. So it wasn’t a case of Brearley overcoming a stronger side in 1981 – in fact it was very far from that.

So let us look at Headingley again. In typical English conditions the side that Brearley took over were, to say the least, mediocre in getting themselves into a situation where, with just three second innings wickets still standing, they were still 92 runs shy of making Australia bat again. How exactly did Brearley’s captaincy bring about the transformation? It didn’t of course – what happened was that Botham, without a care in the world, went out and had a barnstorming net, and he infected Graham Dilley with the same mentality, and they were both bloody lucky.

And what did Brearley do when Australia went back in to try to score 130 to win? He hadn’t actually wanted Willis in the side at all (not because of any lack of confidence in his ability but because of concerns about his fitness), and he gave the new ball to Dilley and Botham. He gave the ball to Willis after two poor overs from Dilley, but expected the 32 year old to bowl uphill, something he did poorly. It was only when, with the match seemingly gone as Australia passed 50 with just one wicket down, that he brought Willis back to run in downhill, that the tide turned so spectacularly.

At Edgbaston the story was much the same. England struggled to overcome their inferior opposition and indeed without the 61 runs that Brearley himself contributed, the highest of any Englishman in the match, they wouldn’t have even got to the position of Australia needing 36 to win with five wickets standing, let alone setting the scene for another piece of Botham magic as he produced his famous spell of 5-1 – and there were no inspired field placements from his captain either – Botham hit the stumps three times, the pads once and had Lillee caught at the wicket.

I said earlier that England won the fifth Test comfortably, and 103 runs is clearly not close, but without Botham’s famous 118 then by the laws of mathematics it would not have been a victory at all, and the advantage was certainly not rammed home at the Oval in the sixth Test and, given the totality of those circumstances, some say that Brearley was merely a good captain, who has the record of a great because of factors entirely beyond his control or influence, and indeed that Kerry Packer and Ian Botham were the two real catalysts for his success.

In due course Bob Willis became England captain. With his usual caution he wrote of the man whose legend he played a large part in creating; He was a fine captain, one of the best that I have played under, but he did have at his command an extremely capable bowling attack.. And of course he did. Willis’s figures under Brearley were not quite as spectacular as Botham’s, but still highly creditable and Brearley could also call upon seamers like Mike Hendrick and Chris Old, and when he wanted spin there were Derek Underwood, John Emburey and Edmonds available to him.

Ray Illingworth, a fine England skipper himself, said of Brearley, before the “Miracle of Headingley”, The statistics suggest that he is one of the great England captains, the luckiest would be nearer the truth.

Dennis Lillee wasn’t particularly impressed either, though that is hardly surprising if he saw the chat show appearance I have already referred to. He said I don’t overrate him as a captain. Certainly he’s smart, and a good man-manager, but my belief is that a great team makes a great captain, and if you are a great captain with a team of ordinary players, you are not going to win too many matches. He marshalled the troops he had at his disposal very well, but if you have a player like Botham in your side, you are halfway there. He handled him well but that was as much to do with man-management as it was captaincy.

The man-management is a recurring theme. According to Bedser He had that indefinable gift of earning personal respect and getting the best out of his team. . Boycott added to that Like the very best man-managers the men who were being managed never realised it. Of course if anyone were likely to be critical of Brearley it would probably be Boycott, but summing him up the Yorkshireman said I have no hesitation in saying he was the best captain I played under.

Brearley’s successor as England captain was Keith Fletcher, recalled for the 1981/82 tour to India and Sri Lanka five years after his last cap. Fletcher also paid tribute to Brearley’s determination and ability to get the best out of people and wrote in 2004 He was the best captain of the modern era Even Edmonds, as noted not a man who got on well with him, conceded There is no doubt that Brearley was a very good captain.

There can be no doubt either that, despite his generally defensive batting, Brearley as a captain was always trying to move a game forward to his team’s advantage. To quote Edmonds again Things happened when he was in charge, because he was always wanting to do something to ensure that they did………the tremendous thing was the way in which we were always trying to achieve something positive As an illustration he referred to an occasion when a game was drifting due to the opposition’s refusal to look for runs. Brearley decided to place a helmet at short mid-wicket, in the hope that the batsmen would be unable to resist the prospect of an easy five runs and start playing across the line.

As well as understanding the needs of his own players Brearley could also get inside the heads of his opponents. Botham extolled his virtues in that respect by writing His intellectual power and how he applied it to Test cricket was awesome. He spent his entire captaincy two steps ahead of the game, picking the minds of opposing batsmen and bowlers like a master safe-cracker and, after a while, his reputation for being able to out-think opponents became a weapon in itself.In 1977 the Australian reserve ‘keeper Richie Robinson played in three of the Tests. Brearley, for no good reason other than it irritated Robinson, took to moving a fielder to short cover for him early in his innings. Robinson, unable or unwilling to resist the temptation to try and get rid of this unconventional close fielder, got himself out more than once as a result.

So where is Mike Brearley’s rightful place in the hierarchy of England’s captains? Is he, as the statistics suggest and Ian Botham believes, right at the very top of the list, or do the factors I have highlighted mean that we need to reassess him and downgrade him? I must confess to having started my research for this feature believing I would conclude that he has been over-rated, and indeed that view remained with me for some time as I became persuaded by the argument that good luck and “people skills”, coupled with a willingness to experiment were not quite enough.

But then I came across Brearley’s final match at Lord’s at the end of August 1982. In a couple of weeks time another Championship title would be confirmed but at this stage Middlesex, playing their rivals from south of the river, still needed points to maintain their advantage over Leicestershire, their only challengers. It was more than four years since Fred Titmus’ Middlesex career had ended with, as we have seen, his harbouring considerable ill-feeling towards his captain. He had played three matches since then, but not for more than two years. He was three months short of his 50th birthday and had only walked into Lord’s that morning to have a cup of tea and a chat with old friends whilst he was in London to pick up a travel visa. Brearley looked at the wicket and decided it would take turn later on in the game. When he got back to the pavilion he spotted Titmus and, explaining he felt he might need an extra spinner, enquired as to his availability.

The fact that Brearley felt able to ask suggests that he might not have realised he had upset Titmus back in 1978, and it speaks volumes for Titmus that he immediately started to make arrangements to borrow some kit. The press were certainly surprised to see not only the names of Edmonds and Emburey on the team sheet but also that of Titmus FJ, or perhaps he was by then, as befitted his newly acquired amateur status, FJ Titmus.

Middlesex batted first and laboured to 273 in their first innings. A combination of rain, the slow pitch, some poor fielding and good batting from Geoff Howarth and Alan Butcher meant that the Surrey reply did not end until lunchtime on the final day. In the afternoon session Middlesex showed rather more urgency than on the first day and declared at tea leaving Surrey a generous 135 minutes to score 161. as if to slightly mock Brearley at this stage of the game, with three innings out of the way, only five of the 16 wickets that had fallen had been taken by spinners. But if the fates were laughing Brearley had the last word as Surrey were all out for 102 with seven overs still to bowl. Between them the three Middlesex spinners took all ten wickets, and FJ Titmus had three of them – now that is what I call impressive captaincy so, highly as I rate Jardine, Close, Illingworth, Vaughan and Strauss, I think on this occasion that perhaps the old phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics” has no place in the discussion, and I am going to answer the question posed in the title of this feature in the affirmative.


Thanks for the read – good article.

Comment by aussie tragic | 12:00am BST 6 April 2012

Great piece Martin – especially the references to county games which, perhaps, say more about his credentials than his test career.

At test level, he was indeed lucky for all the obvious reasons – lots of weak opponents, a very fine attack, Botham in his pomp, Boycott back and never facing WI. Perhaps his first series when Aus were seen off 3-0 was actually his finest. I certainly think he was lucky in 1981, especially at Leeds, when Aus should never have made anywhere near 400 in their first innings.

Mind you, it was ripe of Illingworth to make anything of that, as his situation was similar – SA removed when he would have had to face them, relatively weak opponents for the first few years of his tenure, and then came unstuck when India & WI improved.

Obviously there’s no definitive answer to the question in the title. My answer is usually Hutton, but I know he has his detractors. Before my time, of course, so I’m only going by the scorecards.

Comment by wpdavid | 12:00am BST 7 April 2012

I’d put The Hon F.S.Jackson (only really captained one series but should have captained in place of McLaren) and Douglas Jardine to the mix.

The best captain England shoulod have had, but didn’t probably P.G.H.Fender.

Comment by Biryani Pillow | 12:00am BST 7 April 2012

What about Percy Chapman ?

Comment by Mike Fry | 11:03pm GMT 8 January 2021

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