An Interview with Mike Brearley

The Tab catches up with one of England’s most successful ever Cricket captains.

cambridge university cricket

Mike Brearley, Cambridge graduate, turned England cricketer, turned psychoanalyst, is generally considered to be one of the finest cricket captains England has ever known.

And so whilst talking to him just before his talk at the Union a couple of weeks ago; ‘rivalry and competitiveness in cricket and beyond: healthy or unhealthy?’, I found Mike to be intelligent, but also incredibly personable, and he spoke with ease about cricketing and wider sporting issues.

So, what does he actually think of rivalry in sport? Brearley’s view is that while “some people have thought that the mature attitude to sport is not to mind winning or losing, people should mind.

“Allowing for a degree of competitiveness within an agreeable and friendly amount of respect for the opposition enables one to express oneself more fully; it’s part of growing up and developing and discovering oneself as a separate individual from other people.”

Brearley literally ‘wrote the book’ on captaincy

This desire to win was a key factor throughout Brearley’s own career, in which he played 39 tests for England, but also while he was at St John’s. He explained just how much the game has moved on since then: “I think it’s more professional than it was in my day, the whole game and people are coached more thoroughly.

“They’re expected to practice all winter and expected to be much fitter physically, the season goes on longer. Perhaps people are more single minded than we were.”

Does that mean that it’s no longer possible for a Cambridge undergrad to dream of pulling on a cap with three lions on it? Brearley thinks not.

“I think it’s probably quite possible. I don’t know the statistics but someone told me quite a large percentage of people playing first class cricket in England went through university, not only Cambridge or Oxford but many different universities.”

There is hope, then, for young Cambridge stars like Zafar Ansari, who is embarking on a university and county career in a similar way to Brearley.

Mike’s appearance at The Union is particularly timely, as the World Cup began shortly after on the sub-continent and is now in full swing. What is his expert opinion on England’s chances?

Brearley batting in his prime

“Can England win it? Yes, there’s a chance. Of the 14 teams we’re one of the best six. Probably not quite as good, in those conditions, as India, Pakistan, possibly South Africa, possibly Sri Lanka, and possibly Australia. So we’re somewhere in the first six, but we might be sixth.”

Brearley led England to one of their three World Cup finals, all of which they lost, so does he think Andrew Strauss, who joined him as one of only three men to have won home and away Ashes series this summer, is the man to go all the way? “He’s very focused, very reliable.

He and Andy Flower make a good team. I don’t think he’s a great captain tactically; he’s a good captain tactically; he does sensible things.” But that isn’t to say that Brearley, often considered the greatest man-manager ever in the world of cricket, thinks tactics are unimportant.

“I would say they [tactics] are equally big, and actually they inter-relate. There’s no point in being able to manage people if you don’t know who to put on to bowl.

‘There’s no point being able to manage people if you don’t know who to bowl’

You’re not going to be able to manage professional cricketers unless you know a bit about tactics, so the two things go together, but some people are much better at one than the other.”

Perhaps the stand out point in Brearley’s career is his captaincy during the 1981 Ashes, in which he led the England team to victory.

That particular series is often referred to as ‘Botham’s Ashes’, and Brearley is full of praise for his former teammate.

“He was at the beginning of his test career, I was his first test captain and he was a spectacular talent. He was a terrific bowler, a brilliant fielder and a great hitter, a lively ‘cricketingly’ intelligent player in the team.

“He was also a bit of a lad; he would say the odd things out of place; he would drink a few beers too many on occasion, but he never let the England team down.”

Brearley and Botham celebrate the famous victory of 1981

Back then Brearley was able to bring the best out of ‘lad’ Botham. I asked him who he most respects of those playing today. Predictably, he chooses India’s star batsman Sachin Tendulkar.

“In truth it’s partly because he’s always been so utterly decent. How has he managed it, playing test cricket for 20 years?

“I think he’s a terrific player, and I’m quite amazed by his integrity, so I have a very soft spot for Tendulkar.”

With Tendulkar as his star player, and India as his potential winners, Brearley is hardly sticking his neck out. But looking at the tournament so far you would have to say that he is absolutely spot on.