Mike Brearley earned his reputation as one of England’s greatest captains when his brilliant handling of a downtrodden Ian Botham transformed the 1981 Ashes and reignited the nation’s passion for our summer sport.
The 75-year-old led England to 18 wins and only four losses in 31 Tests in charge and is one of only three captains to win the Ashes home and away.
But he will be remembered forever for his part in what one reporter called “the greatest comeback since Lazarus”. Asked to replace Botham as captain after Australia had taken a 1-0 lead, he coaxed his wounded star back to match-winning form at Headingley, Edgbaston and Old Trafford as England ran out 3-1 winners.
Brearley freely acknowledged that his batting alone was not enough for him to retain a place in the side. But as befits a trained psychoanalyst, his ability to get into the mind of team-mates and opponents alike marked him out as one of the shrewdest and most cerebral of leaders.
His passion for the game remains undimmed and his analysis of the events during Australia’s Test against South Africa in Cape Town that led to bans for skipper Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and batsman Cameron Bancroft and the reaction to them, is as sharp and to the point as ever.
Peter Hayter caught up with Brearley this week to discuss this and other issues.
PH: The Aussies were clearly caught red-handed trying to tamper with the ball on the field, but many consider the punishments imposed, a one-year ban for Smith and Warner and Bancroft banned for nine months to be excessive. Some say the response indicated the cricket world and Australians in particular have lost patience with the way they have behaved on and off the field in recent years. Questions are being asked not only of them, but also of how they have played the game and also of how the game should be played. Where do you stand?
MB: It is striking how unpopular the Australian team has become. The players have to take responsibility for that unpopularity and I think that is why this ball-tampering thing became so big.
First of all, ball tampering as an issue has been going on since cricket has been played, if perhaps not so overtly.
It happened in county cricket when I played, though not using implements or sandpaper. But people had good nails and would just lift the seam a little bit. One or two counties were notorious for it and everyone, I’m afraid to say, did it a little bit. Then you might have sun cream on and that, mixed with sweat, might help you to keep the shine on the ball. Michael Atherton had his own incident with dirt in the pocket, for instance.
It was almost accepted. Nobody thought of it as a terrible crime. You thought people probably shouldn’t do it and if you got caught you deserved to get a slap on the wrist, not a year’s ban. You would never expect that.
But that has happened because the Australian public, in particular, were already fed up with the attitude of their players over various issues and behaviour… not just not being averse to unpleasant language and remarks and things like that, but also complaining about other people when they did that back.
So I think that’s why it made such a big splash, as well as the fact of being so incredibly naïve, 24 cameras, yellow sandpaper and a jockstrap.
PH: Regarding that unpopularity, Mark Waugh has said these players are no different from most Aussie teams of the past.
How would this group compare with the players that you faced, Ian Chappell, Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and the like?
MB: I have some sympathy with them and, on the whole, I like the Australian attitude. Ian Chappell was a kind of rough diamond, a fine captain and a very good player. Yes, they did a bit of sledging and his side were a very militant, aggressive team but he was twice given out in a Test match in Melbourne against us caught at the wicket off his pad or hip and both times he got off the field without delay and no one in the crowd would have known he’d been wrongly given out.
So they had this straightforward morality; they left it to the umpire and if the umpire gave you out you got off the field.
PH: We know that off-field relations between England and Australians were generally good; On the rest day in that Headingley Test in ’81, for instance, both sets of players were invited to a barbecue at Botham’s Yorkshire home. What about on the field?
MB: There was usually a bit of humour in what went on between the teams which makes a big difference. I recall a tiny example involving me and Dennis Lillee in a Test at the WACA. I was not renowned for big hitting but I’d got a few, slowly. I blocked one back to him and as he stopped it in his follow-through he wrung out his hand as though I’d really lambasted the ball and I thought that was pleasant and friendly. And funny.
Then there was the famous tussle between him and Derek Randall in the Centenary Test in 1977 at the MCG. Dennis hit him on the cap with a bouncer, he tumbled back and did a sort of backward roll, then got up, doffed his cap and soon after hooked him for four. He went on to make 174 and won the man of the match of the award, even though Lillee took 11 wickets and Australia won it, and when they gave Derek the microphone he first thanked everyone for coming, then, in his broad Nottinghamshire accent, said: “And thanks to Dennis for the bump on the head. If you’d have hit me anywhere else it might have hurt.”
The Aussies didn’t really know how to take him; he sort of provoked them with his humour and by saying incomprehensible things.
PH: You yourself were also quite unpopular in Australia. You grew a beard on the 1979-80 tour Down Under which earned you the nickname of “the Ayatollah”. And is it fair to say you could be quite nasty on the field when necessary?
MB: I’d like to say tough but, yes, I suppose I was sometimes. I’m not very proud of it. When you talk about sledging, there is a fine line between ordinary strutting and showing people this is your arena and you know what you are doing and you are not going to let them do something they want to happen… and when the captain, bowler or batsman sometimes goes over that line.
But it’s not a vicarage tea party.
As for the beard, there is a word, rebarbative, which means to stick your beard in someone face, anticipating trouble. I did, but I didn’t anticipate being called the Ayatollah!
PH: When discussing the recent behaviour of the Australians, it has also been pointed out that England players have been known to dish it out on the field as well.
MB: England are not exempt from criticism over their behaviour and when we were beating Australia in three out of four series, I don’t think we were shy in our triumphalism.
That happens; the way in which sport can veer towards gang warfare.
In gang mentality the worst thing that can happen to you is humiliation, so you have to hit back and thrust it down your opponents’ throat as quickly as possible so you can strut again and they have to swallow humiliation.
That’s the basis for these vendettas and, at its worst, that’s a bit of what happens in these cricket rivalries like the Ashes.
It would be wrong to expect 22 young men, built up for these great traditional series, especially the Ashes, not to do some things wrong.
I’ve heard it said about David Warner that the Australian management and possibly their authorities wanted him to be a rough diamond and pushed him in that direction, so they have partly created what they then had to reject.
You shouldn’t expect decorousness all the time but respect is important. If you have a go at other players, fair enough, but it should be in the context of respect for your opponent and done with humour.