Mike Brearley has “a degree in people”, Rodney Hogg, the former Australian paceman, once said. Has to be true, since a batting average of 22.88 would hardly have been enough for the man to play 39 Test matches for England in the 1970s and early 1980s, 31 of them as captain. Indeed, it was as a leader of men that Brearley made a name, bringing out the best in Ian Botham, especially, and Bob Willis when the two were at the peak of their abilities. The 1981 Ashes victory, spearheaded by Botham, was Brearley’s greatest achievement and has ensured his place among the most respected voices in the game.
Those who saw him in action talk about his scholarly mind, clarity of thought and, as Hogg had said so famously, people skills. All of those qualities are still very much in evidence as Brearley, now 75, takes time out during an appearance at a literature festival in Chennai to speak to Wisden India on the good and bad of the modern game, and the way forward for Test cricket. Excerpts:
Let’s start with current-day Test cricket. They are shorter, almost no draws, all of them seem to have results. Is that good or bad? And is Twenty20 cricket the reason or something else?
I don’t know the answer to the question. Well, maybe it is the T20 effect. People are playing more shots than they did, which is good for the game. They don’t seem to have quite the same attention span, though, unless their name is Smith S, who seems to have plenty of attention span. But I don’t know the answer to the question. Maybe it is T20 cricket.
”The quality is there (in Test cricket) but it’s slightly different. Bats are better, everyone’s fitter, but they don’t seem to have quite the same attritional mental stamina.”
Is it fair to say that the lack of quality in Test cricket has gone down?
No, I don’t think so. I think the quality is there but it’s slightly different. You know, Test cricket had some pretty dour, some pretty dull games. Was it (Bapu) Nadkarni that bowled 20 or 50 maiden overs in a row [21 in a row in 32-27-5-0 v England in Madras, 1964]? He wouldn’t do it now, would he? He would be hit out of the ground every now and again. And that’s a good thing. Bats are better, everyone’s fitter, but they don’t seem to have quite the same attritional mental stamina.
And you feel that’s a good thing?
There’s quite a lot of good in it. I am not saying it’s all good. I think Test cricket was very good in the old days. I like Test cricket. What I’m worried about is that, when I watched some of the Test cricket in South Africa, there was nobody there. Must have been 20 people there as far as I am concerned. And that’s terrible. It’s not true when England play Australia or in most Test matches in England. It’s not true if India plays Pakistan, which they don’t. But it’s true in South Africa, it’s true in New Zealand, it’s true in West Indies, it’s true to some extent in India, it’s true in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. It’s less true in Australia and it’s not true in England.
For the longest time, many people thought Test cricket was too dull, there weren’t enough results. But why are people staying away now that all that has changed?
Life is faster, it’s busier, there are a lot of things people can do. They expect instant gratification, instant answers. You can pick up your mobile phone and immediately talk to someone, you don’t have to tolerate separation. Somebody told me the other day, somebody who went to Nigeria and six weeks later they got a letter saying they had arrived safely. That’s quite a difference from speaking five times on the journey home, or the journey away. So these things change people’s mentality. Advertising changes people’s mentality. There was an advertisement in the 1980s that said such and such product ‘takes the waiting out of wanting’. That’s a big change in mentality. So I think one has to leave room for that. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons people don’t want to watch Test cricket.
”Talking big is an interesting thing. I’m not sure talking big is very helpful. It doesn’t go very far, it’s just a puff of air. You’ve still got to have confidence in yourself but you don’t necessarily get that by talking big.”
How do you, as an individual, adapt to the changing times? How do you view the game now, how do you seek out the joy you had 20-30 years back?
The thing about cricket is that it’s still a ball being bowled, all five-and-a-quarter ounces of it, it’s bowled the same distance, someone else has to hit it with a bat; there are slip fielders and the ball swings a bit and bounces a bit and spins a bit and, you know, the game is still basically the same. I still enjoy those battles. As I get older, I’m more choosy. I like battles that are either between two teams that are very well balanced – we’re getting too few of those for some reason – or between two great players. I like watching, say, Dale Steyn bowling to Joe Root, just as an example. I love watching (Virat) Kohli bat. I think he is a brilliant batsman. Steven Smith can be an attritional player and a flair player; he can do both. So can Kohli to an extent, Kane Williamson, Root. So the best players are still fantastically good. Jimmy Anderson bowling when the ball is swinging is like poetry in motion. Watching (R) Ashwin and (Ravindra) Jadeja bowl when the ball is turning … those things are good to watch. The skills are still basically still the same.
So you look at it as a technical thing?
Yes, the technicalities, the psychological battles, who’s going to come out on top this time, how someone rides their luck, how someone doesn’t ride their luck …
“I have a lot of time for him (Ben Stokes). Just watching him on the field, he reminds me of Botham in several ways. Better batsman, not such a good bowler, same sort of fiery attitude, attacking, makes things happen.”
Since you mentioned psychological battles, I guess it was always there but all the pre-series talk we see these days, players talking big, how do you view that?
Talking big is an interesting thing. I’m not sure talking big is very helpful. It doesn’t go very far, it’s just a puff of air. I mean, you’ve still got to have confidence in yourself but you don’t necessarily get that by talking big. I quite liked talking small. Like Len Hutton did when he went to Australia in 1954-55. You’ve gone after a six-to-eight-week boat journey, and they ask how will you do, and you say, “We’re not very good, you know, we don’t have too many good bowlers.” How about Frank Tyson, they ask. You say, “He has hardly bowled, you know. We have a couple of guys who can bat a bit, yes.” It’s the opposite of talking big. I quite like that.
Is it what you mentioned earlier, instant gratification? Big talk, make headlines, get people talking …
As I said, I think it’s all a bit puffed up. I’ll tell you what I think I don’t like: Coaching. If coaching is supposed to motivate, in a rather crude sense, like we’re going to show them, we’re going to do this, it’s all a lot of eyewash really. As a matter of fact, one thing I have noticed recently is that when people are asked about the match or the series afterwards, they often talk with great respect for the opposition. Someone showed me a DVD of a New Zealand v South Africa rugby match the other day. I don’t remember which side won but the side that lost was very gracious in defeat. I thought that was admirable. One of the chapters in the book On Form is about the New Zealand team and humility, the importance of humility, which I like. So yes, I think I don’t particularly like the sound of talking big. Of course, I don’t want people to talk themselves down either.
Coming to the recent Ashes, the England team was beset by problems. The Ben Stokes incident, mainly, but also the events around Jonny Bairstow and Ben Duckett. And talk of the drinking culture in the England team. What’s your stance on all of this?
Personally, I don’t know. Of course Ben Stokes went far too far. But I have a lot of time for him. Just watching him on the field, he reminds me of Botham in several ways. Better batsman, not such a good bowler, same sort of fiery attitude, attacking, makes things happen. You can see something good about him. I saw Jermaine Blackwood smash Stokes for four in a Test match recently, through extra cover, and Stokes just stood there grinning, as if to say ‘that’s a good shot, but you won’t be doing that too often’. I thought that was a nice attitude. He was full of admiration but there was nothing aggressive. As for the drinking culture, the amount of drinking that was done in the old days was probably a great deal more. And people were drinking in the middle of matches, not Test matches maybe, but county matches.
”On the one hand, it’s a good thing to have a very good batting coach or fielding coach or general coach. If I were captain and I had a coach whom I respected, if he respected me, we could talk to each other, he could be a mentor to me. On the other hand, people who are employed to do something sometimes feel they have to say and do something in order to earn their money.”
You are widely credited for making Botham the player he was. How would you make Stokes as good a player as he can be?
Make friends with him. Not in a namby-pamby way, just be friends with him. You’ve got to be firm as well. He knows now, he probably knew straightaway, that he was out of order and that he would suffer for it. So would the England team, which they have. So I don’t think you need to underline it too much, but just start again. I think England were doing pretty well with him until that night in Bristol. They like him. They respect him. And that’s good.
And what do you make of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s reaction, putting in place a curfew, for example? Is it about public relations and keeping everyone happy, look to be doing something?
You’ve got to use your common sense. It doesn’t help if there are incidents and people are going to make a great deal of it. Sometimes it is a big deal. The Stokes incident was not a trivial one blown up by the press. It was a serious incident. It sounded to me that the Duckett thing was a trivial incident. I don’t know why such a fuss was made about it. And if other people are making a fuss about it, you’ve got to say to them that they should have a sense of proportion. And, you know, I still don’t really know what happened with the Bairstow headbutt. If nothing happened, you’ve got to say that nothing happened.
It became a bit of a joke …
Yes, I thought so. What’s the big story about, then? I would say take each case on its merits.
”Sometimes you have to make someone the captain and see what a mess they make of it. Hopefully before they can make it at the biggest stage. Sometimes you have to try people out and see how they react.”
Even if it means the team management taking on the administrators?
Yes, you’ve got to tell them. They don’t know what’s happening and only have reactions and reports to go by. So you’ve got to tell them, if you’re the captain. See, one thing about being a captain is that you’ve got to, wherever possible, stand by your players. I don’t mean stand by someone who is saying stupid things and hasn’t earned it. But you’ve got to learn to stand by them as much as you can. It’s part of your job. If you’re completely honest with them, they will respect you. So sometimes you’ve got to be upfront with the administrators, but it’s more difficult with so many coaches.
That was one of the things we wanted to discuss – it’s a big change from your time, isn’t it?
Again, it’s one of these delicate balances. On the one hand, it’s a good thing to have a very good batting coach or fielding coach or general coach. If I were captain and I had a coach whom I respected, if he respected me, we could talk to each other, he could be a mentor to me … it would work. You can be a good mentor and sometimes take things on to help you. Doug Insole was like that when I captained in Australia in 1978-79. On the other hand, people who are employed to do something sometimes feel they have to say and do something in order to earn their money. So too many people might be saying too many different things. Coaches, physiotherapists, and massage people and dieticians and doctors and doctors’ assistants and god-knows how many people, washing-up people; it must be difficult to have all those people around all the time.
Do you think, looking at the stakes and the role of the media and all the money, players in general have become a bit artificial, plastic?
It must be more in India, because there is a deification of Indian cricketers. But, let me tell you a story about Kohli. During the Champions Trophy, before the semifinal when India played Bangladesh, there was an event at Lord’s to commemorate the 70th year of India’s independence. It was hosted by the Indian High Commission at Lord’s, a very nice occasion. The Indian team came. A lot of people, mostly Indians. It was very nice, but after a while people started to talk among themselves when someone was on the microphone. And Kohli went up to the microphone, asked if he could take it, and said, “I think you should listen to what is being said”. That was admirable. That wasn’t artificial. It wasn’t arrogant. He had the nerve and courage to stand up and tell people, in effect, that they were being rude. I thought that was terrific. When he spoke, he spoke very well indeed. He doesn’t look plastic to me in the slightest. He looks animated and intense, perhaps a little over-excitable, but that’s a good quality too. He is very engaged. He wants everybody to be absolutely on the ball … I like the look of him as a captain.
On the subject of choosing captains, the temptation has almost always been to pick the best player in the team. That might be a double-edged sword, isn’t it?
Yes, and sometimes it’s difficult because the best doesn’t necessarily understand what it is like to be an ordinary player. They don’t have quite the same difficulties in getting to where they have. And they may or may not be geared up to the sort of thinking that makes a good captain. Not just intellectual thinking. Way of being, emotional intelligence, practical intelligence, interest in tactics, and the whole team attitude. So it doesn’t necessarily follow …
You mentioned Kohli, who seems to be respected by his teammates. Your people skills, on the other hand, are legend, and you were not the best player in the team. How do you choose the right man for the job?
I don’t know, how do you see it among your colleagues? You just think who will be the best manager or editor … not always the most senior person. You have to be a good judge. Sometimes, as I have written in The Art of Captaincy, sometimes you have to make someone the captain and see what a mess they make of it. Hopefully before they can make it at the biggest stage. Sometimes you have to try people out and see how they react. But you have to form a view of people as you do in other walks of life.
A recent example is of Rachael Haynes, who was named Australia Women captain when Meg Lanning had an injury. She might not have made the team otherwise but led the team to victory in the Ashes.
Well, that would have been true of me much of the time too. She won them the Ashes, so it did make sense. The difficulty is to judge what the worth of the contribution of the captain is. It’s sort of intangible. Not to say that it’s impossible, but it’s hard to establish.
And then the vice-captain is made to feel inadequate.
Not as good as the other person? Might be. People are different. I like to talk about Clem Power, who is a great orchestral conductor. People said that every time he conducted a different orchestra, it still produced the Clem Power sound. Remarkable. A hundred new musicians, totally different culture, different language, different style, but they all produce the sound that has something to do with this man who stands in front of them and waves his arms, doesn’t make a sound himself. He is thought of as a great conductor. I couldn’t judge. It’s intangible. Hard to say how he did it. But apparently he did. So those things are hard to assess, but they happen. And a leader can make a difference without necessarily being someone you would have picked if he or she hadn’t been a leader.
To return to what we started with: Present-day Test cricket. It’s almost not the same game as the one you played. Now, we have a great disparity between the performances at home and those away, a big gap between the top few and the rest of the teams, DRS, fake fielding, much else …
DRS has been a good thing for Test cricket. I don’t think the rule changes last season have made a big difference to the essence of Test cricket.
But the home v away thing is a worry. As is the gap between the teams. And the third is the predominance of big money in the IPL and the other domestic T20 competitions and the fact that the people who run the game are like representatives of their countries, looking after their interests. What they need to think about is the future of the game as a whole. It’s very difficult to feel that that’s always being done. Home and away – people no longer go and play five-six games against good state sides or county sides as preparation for the tour. They go and play one match or one-and-a-half matches against second-rate sides on totally different types of pitches. And then they play the Test matches. That’s in favour of the home team. And I think fixing pitches is dangerous. In India, in England, probably less in Australia is my impression. But I think fixing pitches to suit the home side is disastrous for cricket. I don’t think it will be a bad idea to try Test cricket without a toss. Away team wins the toss. That will stop them fixing some of the pitches. I don’t mean that they (pitches) shouldn’t be different. I’m all in favour of Indian pitches turning and Australian pitches bouncing and English pitches seaming, but when they start leaving more grass on because we’ve got better seam bowlers than the other side or when in Australia they might complain if it’s a slow pitch, South Africa complaining about the pitch for the last (Centurion) Test, or India preparing pitches where the match is going to be over in two-and-a-half days, it’s going to turn from ball one, I think that’s shocking. I don’t like it. And the other thing is about availability of top players. I don’t like it. It has to do with money and it has to do with time tables. Those are the things that worry me.