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Mike Brearley on the D’Oliveira affair, The 100, Joe Root and the future of Test Cricket

Mike Brearley is cricket’s answer to Freud and Aristotle.  Part psychoanalyst, part philosopher, it was said of him by Australian opponent Rodney Hogg that ‘he has a degree in people’, and his leadership was so invaluable that he played 39 tests as a specialist batsman with an average of just 22.88.

At the helm of England between 1977 and 1980 and then again for the final 4 tests of ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in 1981, he won 3 Ashes series out of 3 and 17 out of 31 tests in all losing only 4.  He also led England to runners-up spot  in the 1979 World Cup and captained Middlesex between 1971 and 1982 leading them to 4 County Championships and 2 Gillette Cups during his highly successful tenure.

Since retiring in 1982 he has worked as a psychoanalyst, and has also written on cricket, including the acclaimed ‘The Art of Captaincy’ and ‘On Form’.  The follow up, ‘On Cricket’ is a collection of his cricket writing over the past forty-five years. 

Brearley recently spoke to the Sports Gazette to discuss ‘On Cricket’, and offered typically insightful views on topical issues within the sport.

SG: You write in ‘On Cricket’ of similarities between writing and cricket. That both are a ‘benign marriage between discipline and spontaneity’.  Do you get similar satisfaction from writing as you did from captaincy?

MB: Yes the elements are the same and they’re equally significant I think.  You need discipline; you can’t say just anything that comes into your head and you can’t ramble all over the place.  You need spontaneity; you need liveliness and you need to be able to take a risk every now and again. You can’t plan everything in advance and know exactly what the impact is going to be.

SG: You write of being a lucky captain.  Do you feel lucky to have played in the era in which you did and to have had the likes of Botham and Gower burst onto the scene under your captaincy?

MB: There was a very nice rhythm to professional cricket in those days.  It was 6 days a week and there was longer preparation on overseas tours.  Yes absolutely they were exceptional players.

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SG: It’s 50 years since the D’Oliveira affair and you write in the book of your anonymous source who told you recently that the TCCB (the forerunners to the ECB) had decided to pick Basil D’Oliveira for the tour of South Africa in 1968-69, but that his selection was then vetoed by the MCC rather than him initially being left out as they’d always said.

MB: Yes but I don’t know what the truth was and I doubt if anyone ever will know.  One thing against that idea is that if it is true then it’s remarkable it’s been kept quiet since then because a lot of people would have known about it.  But still, it may well have been so, and the amount of pressure that was put on by the MCC may have been significant.

SG: The ECB has recently come up with ‘The 100’.  What are your views on it?

MB: Well obviously it’s a gimmick but some gimmicks stick.  T20 was a gimmick when it started and it stuck and no doubt roundarm bowling seemed like a gimmick compared to underarm bowling and then overarm bowling compared to roundarm bowling.  Even leg glances, when Ranjitsinjhi brought them in, as I say in the book, a Yorkshire bowler said of him ‘He didn’t play a Christian stroke in all his life’.  So ‘The 100’ is a gimmick and I don’t particularly like it myself but I can see why they want to do it.  They’ve got a designated 3 hour slot for television and wanted to try something different.

SG: Do you think that cricket, in particular for batsmen, is a uniquely mentally challenging sport?

MB: I don’t think it’s unique but it’s exceptionally challenging.  There’s quite a long time in which you can think yourself into bad ways and have too much relaxation, or you can feel intimidated, or over-confident and complacent.  You can lose concentration and you can think over-rationally.   All sorts of things can get in the way.   So yes I think cricket is like that and it’s one of its great charms.  

SG: If you were to write ‘The Art of Captaincy’ again today what would you change?

MB: Obviously I’d have to say more about Twenty20, and I’d have to say something about dealing with the backroom staff in the dressing room: the manager, the batting coaches, fielding coaches, bowling coaches, wicket-keeping coaches, the psychologists, the masseurs, the dieticians, the Doctor, the Priest?!  There are about 20 of them sometimes (by comparison when Brearley skippered England for home matches there was just a physio, and for away tours there was additionally a manager and a scorer).

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SG: Staying with captaincy how do you think Joe Root has done so far?

MB: I think he’s improving and he’s got all the qualities to be a very good captain.  He’s very intelligent, he’s articulate and he’s got a natural intelligence about the game.  He thinks it through properly.  He’s a good Yorkshireman.  He is a terrific player and I think he’s a straight forward bloke which is important. People come to trust him.  I think it’s difficult because he’s come in so young and with so little experience of it.  But I think he did very well this Summer and hopefully he’s learning all the time.

SG: Moving on to your work with the MCC World Cricket Committee.  How do you think floodlit test cricket has gone so far and is there a future for it?

MB: I think there’s a definite future and I think it’s a very good thing to try.  I’m not sure it would work in every climate or every venue, but it should be tried.  I’m very disappointed that the Indian team, as far as I know, have refused to play under lights in Australia at Adelaide.  I think they’re wrong because this is in the interests of test cricket long term.

Of course it’s not perfect but nothing is perfect.  You get matches in which the game changes from hour to hour.  The cloud comes over or it gets a bit dark or there’s dew on the ground the next morning, all sorts of things happen.  The pitch sometimes deteriorates much more than anyone expected or it doesn’t deteriorate.  It’s not such a travesty of fairness that you bat under lights, people can score runs under lights.  One day-night match I went to was in Dubai where they have very good lights and when I got there the score was something like 420-2, so it couldn’t have been all that difficult to see the ball!

SG: What are your thoughts on 4 day test matches?

MB: Well I’m slightly against them but if they need to try them then okay.  I like to keep test cricket distinctive.  I think that it’s very good that test pitches have become slightly more balanced in favour of the bowlers than they were for some time, that makes for much better cricket and it makes for more matches that finish in five days.  But nevertheless I’d like to keep that fifth day if I possibly could.  Of course if England play Ireland in a test match, or Afghanistan, I think that a 4 day test match would be absolutely right.

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SG: Talking of Ireland and Afghanistan what do you think of them being brought into test cricket?

MB: The great difficulty for a country to come into test cricket is if it doesn’t have the structure of well established extensive high quality domestic cricket in which the test players learn their skills and on which the test selection can be based.  On the other hand it’s very important to get new blood and expansion and I think they’re completely right to bring Ireland and Afghanistan in. Let them come in gradually in the way that they are doing.  The odd test match here and there, playing each other and playing 4 day tests against England and some of the other teams.  India played a test match against Afghanistan and that’s all for the good.  I hope that in 10 years’ time test cricket is still going strong and hasn’t been too overtaken by T20 domestic tournaments.

SG: Finally what do you think of the format of the County Championship?  Should it be two divisions of 9, or 2 divisions of 8 and 10, or go back to the old days and have 1 division of 18?

MB: I’m in favour of two divisions.  I think promotion and relegation makes for a far higher percentage of the games being significant at the end of the season for one reason or another and I quite like it.  Great teams have gone down into the second division including Middlesex (he chuckles), Warwickshire, Surrey, Yorkshire.  There’s no disaster that comes from that they just have to play better the next year.  So yes I think two divisions are a good thing.

‘On Cricket’ by Mike Brearley is published by Constable, priced £20 in Hardback. 

Edd Oliver
A keen cricketer at various levels since the late 1980s (before most of the other Sports Gazette reporters were born), after a decade working in Sports Administration Edd is finally pursuing his love of sports writing. As well as having a lifelong passion for cricket, as a player, coach, administrator and spectator, he is a keen follower of the NFL and English non league football (mainly in the West Midlands), and takes an interest in most other mainstream British sports, particularly Horse Racing and Snooker, as well as following the rapidly expanding 'E Sports' industry. You can follow him on Twitter at @EddOliver1
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