Obituary: Dennis Brian Close CBE, cricket player

Born: 24 February, 1931, in Rawdon, Yorkshire. Died: 13 September, 2015, in Bailford, Yorkshire, aged 84.

Brian Close, cricketer who managed Scotland and was the youngest man ever to play for England. Picture: PA
Brian Close, cricketer who managed Scotland and was the youngest man ever to play for England. Picture: PA
Brian Close, cricketer who managed Scotland and was the youngest man ever to play for England. Picture: PA

Renowned as one of the toughest characters ever to wave the willow, Brian Close was famously the youngest ever English test cricketer who never quite reached the heights predicted for him.

Given that his Test career lasted from 1949 to 1976, he should have gone on to set all manner of records, but the fact is that he never lived up to his youthful prowess, though he still became a legend due in great part to his immense physical courage.

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Close was selected on average less than one match per season for England, finally notching up a total of just 22 appearances in those 27 years.

Seven of those appearances were as captain in the autumn of his career when he faced the devastating pace of the great West Indies sides of the 1960s and 1970s and unflinchingly took every missile that could be sent down the wicket to him – he finished one match covered neck to hip in bruises, and never complained.

Close was the son of Harry, a more than competent wicket keeper for the Rawdon cricket club, and Esther. The second of six children, Close was a prodigy on the sports field from a young age, and while cricket was the family sport, Close was good enough at his lessons at Aireborough Grammar School to contemplate going to university to study for a degree in maths, at which he excelled.

He had become hooked on football and was set to play for Leeds United, for whom he signed schoolboy forms. He was also being tracked by Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and they invited him to nets and coaching over the winter of 1948-49.

So impressive was the chunky all-rounder that he went straight into the Yorkshire team, and from there it was a short step to playing for England, making his debut against New Zealand at the age of 18 years and 149 days, still a record.

That season he also achieved the all-rounder’s double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets, the youngest cricketer ever to achieve this feat in the first-class game.

Close spent his national service with the Royal Signal Corps, but the break from cricket did not last long as he was briefly called up for England’s 1950-51 Ashes tour of Australia, an experience that did him no good, as his confidence and play were badly affected by the lack of team spirit in the camp.

At the end of his two years in uniform, Close signed to play professional football for Arsenal as well as cricket for Yorkshire – he was an all-rounder in more than one way as he also took up golf to some avail. Later he would play for Bradford City before injury finished his footballing days.

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He had not been entirely forgotten by the England selectors but it was not until 1955 that he was recalled to the side to play against South Africa. He did not distinguish himself then or in subsequent one-off appearances, and it was not until Australia, captained by Richie Benaud, toured England in 1961 that he came back to the national side.

Another performance that was best described as eccentric saw Close out of the team, but then his years of apprenticeship behind other lesser men paid off in 1963 when he was made captain of his beloved Yorkshire. He would lead them to four county championships in the next eight years, and his balding pate became a regular fixture accepting the prizes and plaudits.

By then, whether unfairly or not, Close had also earned the reputation of being difficult with selectors and administrators. He was not one for mollycoddling players either, telling them what he thought in the mould of a bluff Yorkshireman. Geoffrey Boycott and he were two of a kind, and often clashed.

Yet just as many adored him as were appalled by him, while Close never varied in his positive approach to cricket.

His immediate success with Yorkshire could not be ignored, and he was chosen for England for the 1963 series against West Indies. In the Lord’s Test, Close played his most famous innings, achieving his highest score of 70 but, more importantly, unsettling the West Indian pace attack of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffiths, advancing down the wicket and taking their short pitched efforts wherever they landed – a famous photograph after the drawn match showed Close covered in bruises.

Dropped again despite his heroics, Close was recalled – this time as captain – to face a West Indies side led by Gary Sobers in 1966. He caught Sobers at short leg first ball in the third test to guarantee England a famous victory.

Close remained captain for six matches against India and Pakistan, and despite winning both series, he was dropped again, this time on a vengeful whim of the selectors after Close allegedly wasted time by deliberately lowering the over rate when captaining Yorkshire against Warwickshire.

Having always denied that charge, Close never apologised, and was enraged when his replacement as England captain, Colin Cowdrey, promptly employed the same slowing tactics against the West Indies.

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The monster that was one-day cricket had arrived, and Close did not like it. Yet there was more than that to his sacking by Yorkshire in 1970 and the mystery has never quite been resolved.

Close went off to Somerset, where he promptly helped build a team around a certain beefy all-rounder by the name of Ian Botham.

He was 45 when England called on him for one last hurrah, and again it was against the West Indies. In that tour of 1976, the Windies had unleashed their famous all pace attack, and yet Close – not wearing a helmet or body protectors – defied them with an exhibition of sheer bravery in the face of hostile fire.

He eventually retired having scored more than 35,000 runs and taken 1,200 wickets, plus more than 800 catches, of which most were taken at close quarters – he was that kind of man.

He became manager and chairman at Yorkshire, and lived quietly in retirement in his beloved home county.

Close was never scared to try something new in different territories, and that adventurous spirit brought him north of the Border. He was appointed manager of Scotland when they made their first foray into competitive cricket in 1980 when the national team entered the Benson and Hedges competition.

The 55-overs per side matches saw Scotland take on Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire and finish last in the group. He also played as a wicket-keeper for a warm-up game against Worcestershire in April before the tournament proper.

Cricket Scotland said yesterday: “In carrying out the role he brought his great experience of county cricket, and his contribution was greatly valued.”

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There was one last physical agony that Close could not defeat. He latterly developed lung cancer, of which he died at the weekend. Brian Close is survived by his wife Vivien, and their son and daughter, Lance and Lynn.