Mike Brearley has a mythical status in English cricket. As the man who effected a stunning turnaround of the Ashes in 1981 ‘he proved that dreams can really come true,’ says author Mark Peel.
‘He played a critical part in bringing out the best in Ian Botham and Bob Willis, both of whom had lost their lustre over the previous year.
‘From the time of his accession in 1977 he was a past master at uniting a volatile group of individuals by treating them all differently.’
In masterminding the greatest comeback in the history of Ashes Tests, at Headingley in mid-summer 1981, Brearley ensured his long-lasting celebrity.
He was immediately able to restore dressing room morale and convince Botham, in particular, that he remained a class player on the verge of something great.
With Willis, who was to take eight wickets in an astonishing Australian collapse, he told him to run in as fast as he possibly could and forget about the no-ball problems which had worried him in the first innings. His rhythm would come.
‘The match captivated a nation,’ says Peel, ‘and helped fuel a mood of euphoria that expressed itself the following week at the Royal Wedding and at Edgbaston immediately afterwards (when England won again).’
Brearley had always mixed cricket with his academic vocations. For five years in his 20s, he hardly played any meaningful matches. Has he been a hard-nosed soloist like his opening partner Boycott, his figures would have been far superior.
He admits he didn’t develop a defensive technique until he was in his 30s, yet still made 25,000 first-class runs at 37. In Tests he became introverted and overawed and averaged just 22. Only twice in 10 series did he average 30 or more. And his runs came at a snail pace.
Strangely, for one so intelligent, he didn’t consult Boycott, the best technician in the team. ‘He found it hard to talk about his major professional weakness,’ said Boycott. ‘That was an oddity and a pity. I might have been able to help him but I certainly didn’t want to embarrass him.’
A Cricketer magazine poll voted Brearley England’s most successful captain of all time. He won in a landslide from Michael Vaughan. His record of 18 wins and just three losses in 31 Tests included three Ashes triumphs. Only WG Grace and Douglas Jardine are in the same illustrious pantheon.
Was it good judgement? Or just sheer luck? In modern times he’d never be considered for England’s top-order. It’s one of the reasons why his story is so irresistible.