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Close of play

The death (aged 84) of Brian Close, a Yorkshireman through and through, sometime cricket captain of England, Yorkshire and Somerset and an all-round sportsman of some renown, was announced yesterday.

Although when he made his debut for England at the age of 18 he was the youngest ever to do so, there is no chance that he will go down as one of the great batsmen. Nevertheless – for an impressionable young man like myself in the 1960s and 1970s – he was one of the all-time heroes.

For a period I was indirectly involved in the making of the light entertainment show This Is Your Life when it was hosted by Michael Aspel.

johnnieI remember talking to a senior executive involved a day or so after one of its more notable episodes – on the occasion in 1985 when WW2 RAF fighter ace ‘Johnnie’ Johnson [full moniker Air Vice Marshall James Edgar Johnson CB, CBE, DSO & 2 bars, DFC & bar] was the subject – he of 34 confirmed victories over enemy aircraft, 7 shared victories, 3 probable shared victories, 10 damaged, 3 shared damage and 1 destroyed on the ground in 700 operational sorties.

Said colleague testified that the night’s escapades in the ‘green room’ (where pre and post recording ‘refreshments etc.’ are made available to guests) would probably have put the excess of any wilder rock & roll pop group to shame. It seemed that, when assembled together, legendary survivors of the Battle of Britain retained the scant disregard for authority and convention that had probably been a key element contributing to the success of their wartime exploits some four decades previously. Apparently, the bar staff had barely distributed the first round of drinks before the bread rolls started flying across the room and a decidedly raucous evening followed.

As my then boss said to me in a different context after we had attended a difficult business meeting with the chairman of the company (another WW2 fighter ace) who had been impressively calm throughout: “Well, you’ve got to remember that when you’ve been a Hurricane pilot and squadron leader – accompanied by death, maiming and destruction on a daily basis for weeks at a time – at the age of 21, compared to that whatever else life throws at you is a complete doddle”.

I mention all this because my colleague and I went on to discuss the nature of bravery.

Based on his experience of meeting war veterans, including several VCs, on This Is Your Life, he suggested that there were basically three types of bravery – (1) those who seemed pathologically not to register fear at all; (2) those who happened to do extraordinary things in the heat of a moment, things that perhaps they would never have done if they’d had time to think about it; and (3) those who, knowing the dangers of what was entailed, nevertheless made a conscious decision to confront that danger knowing they might be killed or badly wounded.

In his opinion, it was questionable whether the first category mentioned actually qualified to be considered as ‘brave’ at all – simply on the basis that, if you have neither a capacity to register fear nor barely a desire for self-preservation, you never have to conquer any fears and doubts before acting.

For that reason he considered the third (‘calculated’ bravery) category probably the most admirable.

He gave the example of a Royal Navy submarine in WW2 which desperately needed to surface in a fiord in order to re-charge its batteries and clean some troublesome obstruction from one of its torpedo tubes. The captain assembled the ship’s crew, laid bare the circumstances and asked for volunteers to go out and clear the obstruction. One officer and one seaman volunteered, did the job and subsequently the submarine went happily on its way. But – the point is – in his address the captain had told the crew that if by any chance the submarine was spotted whilst it was surfaced, he would have to order an immediate dive in order to try and escape and prevent the submarine’s secret equipment from being captured by the Germans, in which case anybody working in or around the torpedo tubes would be drowned. Yet, knowing that, the previously-mentioned officer and seaman still volunteered to do the work.

Today – when there is going to be a fly-past of forty WW2 British fighter planes in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of 15th September 1940, considered as a pivotal date in the Battle of Britain – I hope it is not inappropriate to associate cricketer Brian Close with that happy band of brothers (“The Few”) who put their lives on the line in the skies of southern England so long ago.

I do so in particular because of Close’s extraordinary performance in facing the lightning quick hostile bowling of Michael Holding and other West Indian greats in the Third Test at Old Trafford in 1976.

Despite his age (45 at the time), he had been recalled to England’s colours because other England batsmen were plainly terrified of such fast short-pitched bowling and the selectors knew that Close was one Englishman whose ‘bottom,’ and guts were undeniable. On that occasion, knowing exactly what he was going to be confronted with, Close duly answered his nation’s call and took on the West Indian pacemen with defiant, unflinching courage. It was one of the most memorable episodes of sporting bravery ever witnessed.

See here for an appreciation by cricket pundit Vic Marks that appears today on the website of – THE GUARDIAN



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About Charles Thursby

After a lifetime in sports journalism, Charles Thursby continues his immersion in the world of sport by providing the National Rust with dispatches from all points of the compass. More Posts