The umpires took the players off the pitch during the third Test between India and South Africa at Johannesburg when South African batsman Dean Elgar was struck a number of times. The rationale for the early close of play was that the umpires were fearing for the safety of the batsmen in conditions that seemed dangerous.
It is not our place to debate their decision – and enough has been said by many people already anyway. But the whole affair does make us wonder what “dangerous” is in an era where batsmen have extensive protection in terms of equipment (helmets, padding, et al) and regulation (the number of bouncers is restricted).
And that is no “our time was better” gripe from older folk. Cricket has seen its share of bruises and battering. And yet players have stayed put.
The greatest example of this was seen at Old Trafford in 1976, the third evening of which witness what many call “cricket’s most dangerous eighty minutes.”
This was the third Test of the series that has since become (in)famous as the “Grovel” series, thanks to England captain Tony Grieg’s less than tactful remark of making the West Indies grovel before the matches got underway. Given Grieg’s South African heritage (and this was the age of Apartheid), it was a remark that raised the hackles of the West Indies, who possessed one of the most potent pace attacks in Test history, featuring the likes of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel.
Such had been the viciousness of West Indian pace that the English selectors had been forced to turn to older players to weather the storm. Among those called back to the war zone were 38-year old opener John Edrich and 45-year-old former captain Brian Close. And to their credit both had batted well – Close so much so that he was “promoted” to opener, a post no one wanted (there were fears that younger cricketers would get shell shocked by the kind of attack the West Indies were serving up).
On that third evening of that day at Manchester, John Edrich and Brian Close had the task of facing out the final session of play on a pitch that many considered among the worst to have international cricket played on it for a while – bits of its were coming off and bounce was uneven (sounds familiar?). England’s task? Theoretically, to score 552 to win. Practically, to somehow survive without dire physical damage on a pitch where the ball bounced and skidded from the same spot.
For eighty minutes, these two men with a combined age of eighty three faced Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel at their ferocious best. And bowling a line that seemed more targeted to kill than to dismiss – a newspaper later reported that of the 73 deliveries bowled in that session, only ten had any chance of hitting the wicket. They had no helmets, no elbow guards, no thigh pads – just basic gloves, the ‘box’ and pads, and perhaps a thin towel tucked inside the trouser to absorb a blow to the thigh.
For eighty minutes in fading light – eighty minutes that terrified the watching crowd – Edrich and Close took on the fastest bowling attack in the world. And never once did either complain to the umpire or ask for the physio to come out. Edrich, a veteran opener, ducked and weaved and dodged the ball, using all his experience. But it was Close who would go down in legend that evening. The 45-year-old had always been known to be tough as nails – when hit on the forehead while fielding, he had famously ignored the blow on his head and screamed at his teammate to “catch the bloody ball, and had shocked many a pace bowler by simply walking down the pitch to meet his owning – but on this day he display courage that did not border on insanity but went well beyond it.
While his partner ducked and weaved, Close simply chose to stand like a barrier reef between the West Indian pace attack and his attack. He either played the ball, left it, or let it hit him.One of the most sickening sounds of the evening was that of the ball thudding into his body. Again and again, the West Indian pace attack literally battered him.
Close just stood there, bald, bareheaded and brave. Implacable. Impeccable. A veritable cricketing rock of Gibraltar. He never gave the bowlers or the fielding side even the satisfaction of seeing him wince or rub the place where the ball hit him. No physio was called out. No protests were made about the light or the pitch. And when one of the umpires finally warned Michael Holding for bowling too short, Close was actually annoyed – for him, short pitched bowling was not dangerous because there was no way he could be declared leg before to a ball pitched in the bowler’s half of the pitch! That did not make them any less dangerous in the physical sense, though. One Holding delivery actually seemed set to decapitate him, only for Close to flick his head out of the way at the last minute.
It was a scary sight for any cricket fan. So much so that at one stage, West Indies legend Viv Richards, who played under Close’s captaincy at Somerset, and was fielding the slips quietly inquired if the “skipper” was all right. Close’s response was unprintable.
When it was over and the players trooped off the pitch, Edrich burst out laughing suddenly, pointing at the scoreboard. In eighty minutes, England had scored 21 runs. Close had scored just one. When he reached the dressing room and peeled off his shirt, his torso was a mass of bruises – a teammate recalled that it looked “like a sunset.” But his face was smiling. “You should see the state of the ball,” he laughed at his concerned teammates. The physio recommended he go to the hospital. Close opted to have a Scotch! This was the man who believed that it was better to get bruised than to get dismissed – bruises could disappear, but if you were out, you might not bat again for a while!
He and Edrich went out a day after and continued to defy the West Indies attack a day later and when they perished after adding 54, the rest of the batting folded up, and England went down by a massive 425 runs. Ironically, neither Edrich nor Close was ever selected to play for England again. Even more ironically, they topped the batting averages for the series among the players who played two Tests or more!
But both, and Close in particular, are to this day remembered for the way in which they negotiated cricket’s most dangerous eighty minuted.
With courage. Without complaint.
A day after the end of the match, his body covered with bruises that had not healed, Brian Close, was back doing what he loved. Playing cricket for Somerset against Warwickshire. He was hit again, this time by a young pace bowler who would become one of the greatest bowlers produced by England, Bob Willis. This time he winced a little. But again, he did not rub the place where the ball struck him.
He top scored.
Postscript to postscript:
Many years later, a young English player called Michael Vaughan was having problems with his technique, often falling leg before the wicket. A sixty year old man walked out to help him. Picking up a bat, he put on his gloves and started to show him how to handle the bowling in the nets. Vaughan asked him why he had chosen not to wear pads. He replied: “Bat without pads, son, because that way you learn to hit the ball.”
They did not call Brian Close “the lion of England” for nothing!