John Michael Brearley, popularly know as Mike Brearley, is a person with many unique records. He was a member of England cricket team from mid 1970s to early 80s, and led the side in 31 out of the 39 Test matches that he played.
He had a very average record as a batsman scoring only 1,442 runs at an average of 22.88 per innings, with 91 as his highest score. But he is remembered as a successful captain, under whose charge England won 17 Tests and lost only four.
After his retirement from the game, he served as president of Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) for a term.
His brilliance in academics saw him graduate from Cambridge University and work as a lecturer in Philosophy before moving on to practise as a psychoanalyst, where his success led to nomination as president of British Psychoanalytical Society.
He successfully campaigned for cutting off cricketing links with South Africa on the issue of 'Apartheid' in 1968 and seconded the motion moved in MCC in this regard.
He has also authored numerous books on cricket. 'Intellectual' and 'articulate' are two words that come first to mind when one thinks about Brearley.
He possessed an amazing ability to manage top cricketers such as Ian Botham, Bob Willis and David Gower and was once famously referred to by Rodney Hogg, the Australian fast bowler, as the 'bloke with degree on people'.
He commanded the respect of the side despite his own moderate performances as a player and was a motivator par excellence, knowing the right buttons to press to get the best out of them.
His books and articles are a sheer delight to the reader as he expresses his views in excellent language, combining his formidable analytical skills with experience as a international cricketer, while retaining an element of objectivity.
His latest book 'On Cricket', brought out by Hachette in 2018, does not disappoint those who await his offerings.
It comprises of a series of articles that he has written on various topics, which have been clubbed under 11 categories.
The scope and sweep of the subjects covered are so vast and range from aesthetics of the game to issue of racial prejudices in cricket.
He has not baulked from commenting on sensitive matters such as match-fixing and ball-tampering.
But for the lay reader, the most interesting are those chapters that deal with his playing days and his observations about other cricketers.
It is widely recognised that Brearley’s greatest achievement was in taking over the captaincy during the Ashes series of 1981 when England were trailing 0-1 after the first two Tests and then shaping a amazing turnaround that saw them win by a margin of 3-1.
In the third Test at Headingley, Australia, after choosing to bat first on a green track were 210/ 3 at the close of play on first day. Brearley has written that at this stage he thought that going into the match with a four-pronged pace attack comprising Willis, Botham, Chris Old and Graham Dilley, leaving out off spinner John Emburey was a mistake.
He felt that it would have made more sense to have played Emburey in the place of Willis, who was not fully fit, going through bad form and having troubles with over stepping.
He has confessed that he did not envisage that Willis would suddenly roar back into form and bowl a deadly spell when he captured 8 wickets for 43 runs in Aussie second innings to script an 18-run win that brought England back into the series. It takes a supremely confident, completely honest and innately humble person to acknowledge that good turn in fortune was brought about by a huge slice of luck, overcoming the common human frailty to claim credit for glad tidings.
Brearley brings the same intellectual honesty and understated modesty into his writings.
A considerable portion of the book is devoted to the great cricketers against who he had played. There is a chapter about Dennis Lillee, detailing the greatness of the Aussie pacer as a fast bowler, his competitive spirit, complete devotion to his craft and contribution to the game after his playing days in grooming fast bowlers in India.
The infamous 'aluminium bat' incident involving a much-publicised attempt by Lillee to play with a bat made of metal and the events that took place in the field in its aftermath find detailed description but Brearley has concluded this piece by making a touching reference to the warmth that this long-time opponent exuded as a person and human being off the playing field.
Brearley has analysed the innovations that have taken place in the area of batting and bowling during the last three decades.
In this section, chapters are devoted to Sarfraz Nawaz, father of reverse swing, Muthaiah Muralitharan who introduced 'doosra', and Shane Warne, the lord of leg spin, among bowlers, while in the batting segment strokes such as scoops and switch hits are covered.
He has also written about his own contributions to laws of cricket, which involve making provision in the statute for forfeiting an innings and keeping helmets used by fielders behind the wicket keeper when not in use.
On the issues of cheating and other forms of gamesmanship, Brearley's views are coloured by his experiences as a player.
He condemns match-fixing but recommends a stricter punishment for senior players like Hansie Cronje and Salman Butt who forced players under them to perform such shameful acts.
But he has adopted a softer line on ball-tampering as he feels that attempting to change the condition of match ball to suit the bowlers is something that most fielding sides indulge in, at least occasionally.
He has attributed the outcry over actions of Steve Smith and company at Cape Town to the widespread disenchantment over poor behaviour of Aussie cricketers.
Spirit of Cricket
An entire chapter is devoted to 'Spirit of Cricket', where matters such as 'walking' by batsmen and sledging are covered.
Surprisingly, the person for whom Brearley professes maximum admiration is Ian Chappell, who the author felt, never budged from the basic principles, whatever the situation or provocation.
The section that I liked best was the one on wicketkeepers, where his insights as a former stumper makes the reading more interesting.
He laments at the very beginning that quality of wicketkeeping has suffered a fall after advent of limited overs’ cricket as sides prefer to pick a batsman who can also don the big gloves behind the stumps rather than go in for a specialist.
There are chapters about four stumpers - John Murray, Rodney Marsh, Alan Knott and Kumara Sangakkara - who he rates as the best he has seen. Syed Kirmani, who has kept wickets splendidly standing up to the legendary spin quartet of India, also finds a mention in this section.
The Indian heroes
Indian cricketers figure prominently in this book. There is a section devoted entirely to Indian batsmen, in addition to a chapter on Bishen Bedi. Further, Kapil Dev figures prominently in the write-up about the four fast bowling all-rounders - Botham, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee being the other three - who straddled the cricketing world during the 1980’s.
The piece on Bedi comes in the section titled 'Heroes' and is laudatory, with the focus on his beautiful bowling style and outspoken, yet warm and generous nature.
The part about batsmen starts off with Ranji, followed by Pataudi, the two princes who caught the attention of British cricketing elite. There is a chapter about Sachin Tendulkar titled “Indian Bradman”, but the real surprise is the piece about Virat Kohli, on who Brearley has showered heaps of praise.
Hailing Kohli as a bridge between the two cultures of Test cricket and limited overs' version of the game (originally coined by Suresh Menon), he quotes Martin Crowe’s description about the Indian captain -- 'he combines the intensity of Dravid, the audacity of Sehwag and the extraordinary range of Tendulkar'.
While there cannot be higher praise in cricketing terms than this, Brearley closes the chapter with a small note of warning that Kohli, like President Kennedy, needs strong men around him as his own checks and balances to prevent proper pride from crossing into arrogance.
The book is laced with pithy humour, often directed against the author himself, which never fails to bring a smile on one’s lips.
An example goes like this. Once Rodney Hogg asked while doing television commentary “Why did you give up wicketkeeping Mike?
Brearley replied “ I wasn’t very good at it”, but Hogg did not let go “But you carried on with your batting!
To conclude 'On Cricket' is an excellent book which falls under the category of “must read” for all cricket lovers.
It should form part of collection of those with a sense of history who are eager to know the finer points about this beautiful game and its evolution during the last five decades.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)
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