Posts Tagged ‘Mike Brearley’

When Swiss great Roger Federer was once asked about the essay that David Foster Wallace wrote about him, Federer said that he enjoyed reading it and it was beautiful and he loved David Foster Wallace’s writing. Or he said something like that. Roger Federer’s fans, many of whom were nerds, were ecstatic when they heard what he said. Among tennis players, a significant proportion of Federer’s fans seem to be nerds. When nerd fans heard Federer gushing about David Foster Wallace, they probably fantasized that Federer has read Wallace’s epic book ‘Infinite Jest’, and maybe he has read Jonathan Franzen and William Gaddis too. Being from Switzerland, he probably has thoughts on his fellow countryman Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s memoirs and his philosophy, and maybe he has one or two insights to share on Immanuel Kant’s and Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Something similar happened when the great Serena Williams read Maya Angelou’s famous poem, ‘Still I Rise’. (You can find the video here . It is beautiful and inspiring.) Serena’s fans were ecstatic. They fantasized that Serena has probably read the rest of Maya Angelou’s work including her famous memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Maybe Serena has also read the works of Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler and James Baldwin and she has one or two insights to share on the differences between Paul Laurence Dunbar’s and Langston Hughes’ poetry and the common themes in Jacqueline Woodson’s and Jesmyn Ward’s fiction.

Nerds have this fantasy about their favourite sportspersons – that their favourite sportsperson reads like them, and thinks deeply about intellectual issues like them, and has insights to offer on the finer points of philosophical debates. This is all just pure fantasy, of course. Successful sportspersons don’t have time to read, because reading demands long uninterrupted time. A successful sportsperson’s life is filled with training, keeping their fitness level up, playing matches and lots of travelling. When they are not doing these things, their lives are filled with interrupts, as they have to give interviews, make media appearances, satisfy their sponsors’ requests, go for ad shootings and other such things. There is no time for reading and deep contemplation. They probably have a nerd in their team who tells them in five minutes about David Foster Wallace or Maya Angelou and they probably work this into their conversations or any kind of public speaking they do. The logical part of our mind knows this, but the tennis-fan-plus-nerd part of our mind fantasizes that Federer or Serena or another favourite sportsperson is also a nerd and reads serious books and contemplates on the meaning of life and the fate of history. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. If Federer or Serena spent their time reading, they wouldn’t be legends in their sport. Their sport demands action and that is what they are great at and that is what they do everyday. Reading and contemplating is for mundane people like the rest of us, who have the uninterrupted time and the patience to indulge in it.

Like everything else in life, there are, of course, exceptions to this. For some reason, there used to be nerds in cricket. The English batsman, Chris Tavaré, after retiring from cricket, went back to high school to teach biology. It is hard to imagine something like this happening today, but it did then. Another English batsman, John Crawley, also went back to high school to teach, and became a headmaster. I am not sure which subject he taught.

Mike Brearley, the great English captain, became a psychologist and therapist after he retired from cricket. Brearley was one of those odd cricketers. He mainly played as a batsman throughout his career but he was not great at it. To put it mildly, he was below average. Someone like him should have never made it into an international team. Brearley himself jokes about it in one of his books – “Rodney Hogg recently raised this role with me on air, asking with apparent innocence, “Why did you give up wicket-keeping, Mike?” “I wasn’t very good at it,” I replied. “But you carried on batting?” he said. Point taken!” By a series of extremely unlikely circumstances, Mike Brearley, who was a below-par batsman, became the English team captain. And that is where he realized his potential. He was a great leader, he inspired his team, and led them to great heights. He was still a bad batsman, but he became one of the greatest captains that the cricketing world had ever seen. After he retired, the English team got a new, young captain. But then things started going badly for them. The selectors invited Brearley back into the team. He came back. His hair was prematurely grey, he couldn’t bat or bowl or field, he came low down in the batting order because he couldn’t buy a run, and he stood in the slips, because he didn’t have to run around and field the ball. But he inspired his team with his direction and leadership and his smart decisions on the field and his clear communication, that within a short span of a few weeks, they performed some amazing deeds and went back to being world beaters again. When Brearley retired a second time, he became a psychologist and a therapist. He also wrote a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy’ which is a nerd’s delight. These days Brearley continues coming out with the occasional book and they are unlike most other cricket books – they are intelligent, smart, have beautiful prose and are nerdy. Frequently, Brearley writes about sport and music and art and philosophy in the same breath. He is well read and well informed and clearly looks like the contemplative type – an oddball among sportspersons. He is the one sportsperson with whom you feel you can discuss Kant’s philosophy and Rembrandt’s art and Mozart’s music. Brearley cannot hold a candle to Federer as a sportsperson. But as a nerd, he is in a different league. If you are a Brearley fan and you dreamed that he was a nerd, you got exactly that.

Another nerd from cricket was Ed Smith. Smith was a reasonably successful county cricketer. He even got a couple of opportunities to play test cricket and he didn’t do badly, but he didn’t get picked for the English team again and ended up retiring as a county cricketer. But during his time as a county cricketer, he wrote a diary which he published called ‘On and Off the Field’. It was beautiful, intelligent, smart. It was almost like reading a Brearley book. He backed it up with more books including one comparing cricket and baseball. They were all wonderful, written by someone who was clearly a nerd. Ed Smith went on to become the Chairman of MCC, like Mike Brearley, and even served for sometime as the Chief Selector of the English team. It has been a while since he published his last book. Fans are expecting a new book from him anytime now.

In Indian cricketing circles, Rahul Dravid is regarded as a nerd, as someone who reads a lot and who contemplates on things. There was also an interesting incident which happened sometime back – Indian cricketer Mithali Raj was once caught reading a collection of Rumi’s poetry while she was waiting for her turn to bat in a World Cup match. There was a lot of buzz in social media at that time, as that picture went viral.

But even in cricket, nerds are rare. The above are exceptions.

In tennis, nerds are non-existent. Tennis players start playing by the time they are ten years old, and they continue playing till their middle thirties, that is for nearly twenty-five years. Many of them don’t finish high school, or probably they do homeschooling and most don’t go to college, because of the demands of the game. Tennis is a game of action and there is no time to be a nerd. Atleast that is what I thought. Till I discovered Mihaela Buzarnescu.

Mihaela Buzarnescu is a Romanian tennis player. She is around thirty three years old, so that means she has been around for a while. She is a left hander and she has the leftie’s natural elegance. Her game is so beautiful that I can sit and watch her serve and play her forehand for the whole day. She can also hit all the other beautiful shots, the drop shot and the lob and even the moonshot. She played Serena Williams in the recent French Open and took a set off Serena. There were many beautiful points in that match and at some point Mihaela and Serena were laughing at the way things were going. As luck would have it, Mihaela was drawn to play Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon. She gave a good account of herself and the match went into three sets, and Mihaela brought her beautiful all-round game to the court, and in my opinion, at one point she was in command of the match, but it was still not enough against a legend like Venus, and Venus’ power game prevailed in the end. Mihaela Buzarnescu’s beautiful game is good enough for one to become her fan. But that is not the only beautiful thing about her. There is more to her than meets the eye.

Mihaela Buzarnescu is ranked around 190 in tennis now. There is no connection between her beautiful, competitive game and her low ranking. I wondered why she was ranked so low. I discovered that she had been beset by frequent injuries in the past and sometimes those injuries led to long breaks from the game. But Mihaela was not one to be fazed by that. Once, when she was forced by injuries into one of her long breaks from the game, she told herself – “Okay, I’m going to do something fun. I’m not going to just sit and mope around. Let me go to university and study something. And while I’m at it, let me go all the way.” And she went and did that. When Roger Federer took a long break from tennis because of injury, he told himself – “I’ll get fit again, I’ll practise hard, I’ll get competitive, I want to play Wimbledon again.” And he did just that. When Mihaela Buzarnescu took a long break from tennis because of injury, she went to university and got herself a Ph.D degree. Yes, you are reading it right. She got herself a Ph.D. That is how she became a nerd. It is appropriate to call her Dr. Mihaela Buzarnescu now.

I don’t know any other tennis player who has a Ph.D degree. Forget tennis, I don’t know any sportsperson who has got a Ph.D degree. There are Indian universities which dole out Ph.D degrees to celebrities like candy. I’m not talking about that kind of Ph.D. I’m talking about the real academic kind in which you attend classes and study and build your expertise in a particular field and then research on a particular topic, extend the frontiers of your field, write a dissertation about it, and defend it in front of an evaluating committee – I’m talking about that kind of Ph.D. Mihaela Buzarnescu did exactly that. As a tennis nerd, Mihaela Buzarnescu hit the ball out of the park. I am a certified nerd, and even I don’t have a Ph.D. When I read about Mihaela’s Ph.D, I got goosebumps.

I don’t know how long Mihaela will continue playing tennis. She is thirty three now. And she looks pretty fit. I hope she continues playing for atleast a few more years. She has the game to reach the second week of a grand slam. I would like to see her play in the semifinals or the final of a grand slam one day. She will delight many other tennis fans with her beautiful aesthetic game as she has delighted me. She is waiting to be discovered by mainstream tennis fans. But I am more interested in finding out what she will do after she retires from tennis. Will she become the Fed cup team captain? Will she get into tennis administration? Will she coach kids to play tennis? Or will she nurture her nerdy side and become a professor at university? I hope all these are in the distant future, but I can’t wait to find out!

Mihaela Buzarnescu with the trophy after she won her first title

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Well, it is Christmas time and what makes us happier than new books 😊 This year after resisting temptation for most of the year and buying books only occasionally, I couldn’t resist it anymore and the dam broke, and I went crazy 😁 I blame it on the holiday season – something in the air makes us let our guard down. This is the second part of the new book arrivals.

(1) The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – I got this as a present from one of my favourite friends. It looks very beautiful. I don’t know whether Laing focuses on the pain of loneliness or on the bliss of solitude. I hope it is the second one. I can’t wait to read it. I got a beautiful cat bookmark too 😊

(2) Two Brian Dillon books – I included Brian Dillon’s ‘Suppose a Sentence‘ in my previous post. Couldn’t resist featuring it here too. I also got his memoir ‘In the Dark Room‘ and his famous ‘Essayism‘ (not featured here, but in my Kindle)

(3) The Years by Annie Ernaux – I have wanted to get Ernaux’ memoir for a while. It is all the rage these days, and I can’t wait to read it. I’m happy that at the grand age of eighty, she has become a literary superstar.

(4) Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis – This was an impulse buy. It looked funny and I couldn’t resist it. It will be my first Kingsley Amis book when I read it.

(5) Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann – More Thomas Mann 😊 This one is a fictionalized imagining of the grown-up Lotte going to meet Goethe. I can’t wait to read it.

(6) Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves – After reading Edmund Blunden’s First World War memoir, I decided to get Graves’ more famous one. Just started it. It is wonderful.

(7) Night of the Restless Spirits by Sarbpreet Singh – This is a collection of stories set during the 1984 riots in Delhi. This is one of the most shameful, violent and tragic episodes in recent Indian history, and this book promises to be heartbreaking.

(8) Spirit of Cricket by Mike Brearley – Brearley’s newest book. He was one of the great cricket captains during his time, and is one of the finest cricket writers now. He is one of my favourite writers and I can’t wait to read this.

(9) A Sound Mind by Paul Morley – This was highly recommended by Kaggsy (You can find her short review here and longer review here). I love books on classical music and this promises to be interesting. I am looking forward to long pleasurable hours of reading the book and listening to the classical music compositions that it recommends. I also went and got Morley’s memoir ‘The North‘ (on the Kindle, so not featured here).

Have you read any of these books? What do you think about them? What books did you buy or did you get as presents for Christmas?

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When I went to the bookshop a couple of weeks back and saw Mike Brearley’s newest book ‘On Cricket‘, I was very excited! The release of any new book by Brearley is an event and I couldn’t wait to read it. I dropped whatever I was reading then and started reading Brearley’s book. I didn’t want to rush and read it slowly, savouring every word and sentence, and reached the last page yesterday.

I am sure cricket fans here would have heard of Mike Brearley, but if you haven’t, here is a little bit about him. Brearley was one of the greatest English test captains. He made his debut for England when he was around 34 years old, and it happened probably by good fortune. He became the captain probably after a year, because of more good fortune and historical accidents – like the Kerry Packer series. But his real self flowered when he became captain. He was a brilliant leader, he knew how to inspire the team, he was wonderful strategically and tactically, and it all came together for him. After a wonderful stint as captain, he retired. England started a new Ashes series in 1981 against Australia and they were in a disastrous position, with their present captain Ian Botham having a bad year as captain, and during mid series, the selectors requested Brearley to come back and lead the team. He came back to just lead the team. He stood in the slips while fielding, he batted at No.9 or 10, and just captained.

(Brearley’s test batting average was 22.88. There is nothing much to say about it other than that there was no way he could have been picked for any international cricket team, as a batsman, with that batting average. One of the great things about Brearley is that he pokes fun at himself about it. There is a passage in the book which goes like this – “Rodney Hogg recently raised this role with me on air, asking with apparent innocence, “Why did you give up wicket-keeping, Mike?” “I wasn’t very good at it,” I replied. “But you carried on batting?” he said. Point taken!” I couldn’t stop laughing when I read that 😁)

Now back to the story of the 1981 Ashes. Brearley turned the series around with his amazing leadership, inspired Botham to get back his magical game, and won the series 3-1 for England. He then promptly went back and retired from the game. It is a story as fantastic as the ancient Roman general Cincinnatus, who had retired and was working as a farmer in his small farm when his country went into deep crisis because of enemy invasions. The people prayed to him to come back from retirement, and he did, and led his country’s army and defeated his country’s enemies. But once it was all done and dusted, when his fame and authority were at their highest, he handed over the reigns of the country to the civilian authorities and went back to his small farm and continued with his farming. It is a story which gives me goosebumps everytime I think about it. Brearley’s story during the 1981 Ashes is the sporting equivalent of that. After retiring from the game, Brearley became a psychoanalyst. He also wrote a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy‘, which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest books on cricket captaincy or even leadership ever written. He also wrote the occasional cricket article for the newspaper. Now in the last two years, after a long hiatus, he has published two books in succession. It feels like Christmas.

On Cricket‘ is mostly a collection of short essays and articles that Brearley wrote across the years and some he wrote especially for this volume. I think half of the articles are modified versions of already published articles and half of them are new. The book is divided into many parts. The first part is very autobiographical and in that part Brearley talks about how he got into cricket during his childhood and how his father, being a club cricketer himself, inducted him into the game. He also talks about two of his favourite players Len Hutton and Denis Compton. If you like cricket history, especially post-Second World War cricket history, these two chapters are an absolute delight to read. There is a section on the Ashes (there is a good discussion of Douglas Jardine and the Bodyline series in one of the chapters), there is another where Brearley talks about his cricketing heroes (there are some usual suspects and there are some lesser known legends), there are two sections on cricket controversies, covering cricket and race, and cheating and corruption (the Basil d’Oliveira affair is covered in reasonable detail, there are also pieces which talk about the Zimbabwe affair involving Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, and another about how Frank Worrell became the first black captain of the West Indies), there is a section on the innovations which have happened in cricket (including thing like reverse swing and switch hits), there is a section on Indian batsmanship which will delight Indian cricket fans (Brearley reveals here that his wife is Indian, which is so cool). There is a section on commentators which is very beautiful – there are chapters which talk about the marvellous John Arlott, the great Harold Pinter, the wonderful Ian Chappell, and there is an overall chapter which discusses C.L.R.James’ famous question ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?‘ There is a section on wicketkeepers and I was so happy to read that because there were chapters on two of my favourite keepers, Rod Marsh and Alan Knott. I wish Brearley had compared them both and revealed who he thought was the better among the two. Many former cricketers have said that Alan Knott was the greatest keeper ever, but Rod Marsh has the better keeping record in terms of catches and stumpings. Brearley praises them both, though I think he leans more towards one of them. I won’t tell you which one ☺️

One of the last sections in the book is about cricket and aesthetics. In my opinion it is the most beautiful section in the book and the section which is the most accessible to a reader who is not a cricket fan. There are two chapters in this section. In the first one, Brearley describes how cricket is the art of the masses. The second chapter is a conversation between Brearley and the art critic David Sylvester in which they compare cricket to art. This is the longest chapter in the book and probably the most beautiful. I think it is a must read for any reader who contemplates on beauty whether in its static or kinetic form.

I was so thrilled to read Brearley’s ‘On Cricket’. It is a pleasure to read for any Brearley fan and any cricket fan who likes intelligent writing. There are chapters in it which are fairly straightforward – like those in which Brearley raves about his favourite players. There are other chapters which bring cricket, art, philosophy, literature, beauty, music and psychoanalysis together and weave them into one beautiful whole. These chapters have passages which we will rarely find in a cricket book, passages like this –

“I read recently of Mozart’s support for democracy, not in politics itself, but in the music of his operas. How so? Mozart gave his minor parts complex characters, with complex music. They are not just pawns, either in the plot (content) or in the music they are given to sing (their form). He shifted music away from a hierarchical tradition. Rather than there being a totally dominant top line, with others in unison beneath it, supplementing, harmonizing, fitting in, in short, serving the dominant tune, Mozart gave each instrument and voice a unique line of its own.”

And this –

“When I hear the first movement of Schubert’s piano sonata in B flat, with its lyrical sweetness interspersed with growling rumbles from the lower depths, I think of John (Arlott).”

Mike Brearley says in his introduction to the book – “If a sufficient number of people enjoy the book, and if I live long enough, there may even be a sequel. You may take this as a warning or a promise.” I hope and pray that there is a sequel. Mike will be 77 this year (I can’t believe how fast the years pass), but I hope he lives long and writes not one but more sequels to this book. Mike Brearley is one of the greatest cricket writers in the last 50 years. I think he belongs up there with some of my other favourites, David Frith, Gideon Haigh, John Major (Yes! The former British Prime Minister wrote a cricket book! It is beautiful!), Ed Smith. He has a unique way of offering commentary on the overall state of the game which is very insightful, wise, aesthetic and a pleasure to read. I think the only contemporary cricket writer who can come close to him is Ed Smith. I hope more readers read this book and fall in love with it like I did.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Discipline Vs Flair

“We (all) need both discipline and flair.
We need to practise, to be trained, to think clearly, not to let ourselves off the hook into dishonesty and self-delusion. We need to learn from mistakes, keep control of our recklessness, rein in some of our emotions. We need to be realistic. Yet it is not realism to deny a further fact of human experience : that we also need to give up our desire to control everything; that we have to let go of our attachment to the will, and allow spontaneity, freedom and flair their place. We have to trust the parts of our minds over which we have no immediate control. Provided we have a sound basis of discipline and an ability to monitor what we produce, we need something other than, wider than, deeper than, discipline and convention.”

The Meaning of Life

“We are confronted in life by the reality that we are specks of dust in the vast aeons of space and time; that when we die we go (I believe) into nothingness; that our importance in the long run is nil; that we live always in the brink of ‘death’s dateless night’. But we believe that at the same time, or in the same breath, there are things (if one is lucky) that make life fascinating and well worth living. Literature, love, family closeness, art – all these and others may do so. Even sport quickens the apprehension, lifts the spirits, engages and challenges the whole being physically, psychologically, emotionally.
And cricket – a rare team game each of whose dramatic moments is a contest between individual protagonists, the only game that goes on seven hours a day for the best part of a week, and at the end of which neither side may be much nearer winning or losing than they were five days before – cricket has (for me) the capacity to enthrall, bore, enchant and also evoke argument to a greater extent than any other.”

The Essence of Sport

“…it is of the essence of sport that, unlike much music and theatre, the course and outcome are not ordained before the event, however predictable it might be that the favourite will win. The drama of sport lies partly in the way things turn out on the day. There is always the chance of a shock result. The result is not, then, ‘fixed’ in the other sense; that is, there is no script or score (as in theatre or music) : cricket matches are open to the vagaries of form, morale and luck. In normal circumstances we naturally take it as given that both sides are striving to succeed.”

On Beauty in Sport

“It is a nice question how far beauty lies in the outcome of an action. Is salvation achieved by works or by faith, by successful actions in the world, or by right attitudes? When David Gower, the languid genius of left-handed batsmanship, caressed the balls through the covers with effortless ease, and impeccable timing and placement, was his stroke any different from the one where the ball deviated a few centimetres, found the edge, and was caught at slip? Had elegant beauty degenerated into a careless waft? Would we have been right to bemoan and castigate his ‘carelessness’, his not going on? Yet both strokes were identical, both balls pitched in the same place, at the same speed, perhaps from the same bowler. Had these unpredictable centimetres turned virtue into vice, beauty into ugliness (the ‘waft’)? If we ignored the fate of the ball, we have exactly the same movements of the batsman. Phidias could have constructed his sculpture on the basis of either.”

Sport and Life

“Sport and art have something else in common. They are set aside from the absolute necessities, the bare necessities of life. And they have a frame around them. The painting with its frame, or the cricket ground with its boundary, or the boxing ring, or whatever. They are framed and set off from ordinary life. This wouldn’t be true of everything, of architecture for instance, but it’s true of many forms of art and sport. And yet within that frame, there’s a possibility of finding many of the qualities in life that we admire or lack in concentrated form. What fascinates us is a moral dimension, in a broad sense of ‘moral’ : the dimension of the revelation of human qualities.”

Have you read Mike Brearley’sOn Cricket‘? What do you think about it? Have you read any other Mike Brearley book?

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