The Brian Close Affair – Class Prejudice in Cricket?

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The Brian Close Affair

Did Southern class prejudice oust a professional Yorkshire cricket captain?

by Guy Fraser-Sampson

Exactly fifty years ago this summer English cricket was rocked by the Close Affair, which raised the unpleasant spectre of the southern, upper middle class cricketing establishment deposing a northern, working class professional cricketer as captain of the England test team in the most controversial of circumstances. Doing so, moreover after he had already been formally appointed to lead England’s tour of the West Indies that winter by the selection committee.

The official pretext given was that Close had been guilty of time-wasting when captaining Yorkshire in a championship game at Edgbaston. Having spoken to other players in that game, including former England captain M.J.K. Smith, it seems that some time-wasting did take place, but that it was no more than happened routinely during the closing stages of first class matches up and down the country.

brian close affair Cricket at the Crossroads book coverClose had already been summoned before a disciplinary committee (though it remains unclear who filed a complaint: Smith is adamant that Warwickshire did not) and censured for his conduct. Strangely, the two bowlers involved were not, making it pretty clear that Close was being singled out.

The Close Affair: “Some within the establishment were scheming to get rid of him”

Following the disciplinary hearing, to which Close went (perhaps unwisely) unrepresented and unprepared, the selection committee, which in those days was a sub-committee of the MCC, and in full knowledge of the disciplinary outcome, announced that Close would lead the touring party that winter. An emergency meeting of the full committee of the MCC was promptly convened and overturned the decision, appointing southern toff Colin Cowdrey in Close’s place and leaving Close out of the party entirely.

My research in the MCC archives for my book Cricket at the Crossroads quickly revealed a smoking gun. The chairman of selectors had asked M.J.K. Smith to captain the side some weeks before the ‘time-wasting’ game. At that time, however, he was planning to retire and so said ‘no’. In other words, at least some within the establishment were already scheming to get rid of Close as captain; sporting journalist Chapman Pincher warned Close about this time the MCC were out to get him, and wanted to install ‘their own man’ (Cowdrey?) in his place.

The Close Affair: “Open references to class prejudice”

The unprecedented action of the MCC roused a blizzard of letters, some strongly supportive of the Committee’s actions, but most fiercely hostile with open references to class prejudice. The MCC, steeped in the traditions of ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’, disdained to engage with public opinion and simply rode out the storm. Bad feeling persisted, however. The following summer a journalist who had criticised Close received death threats and had to be given a police escort during matches at Headingley.

The D’Oliveria affair the following summer, which raised the even uglier spectre of racial prejudice, showed that the MCC had learned nothing from their PR disaster a year earlier. My research of that second controversy would show just how cynical and duplicitous the behaviour of the cricket establishment  could become to protect their own interests.

“Cricket at the Crossroads” by Guy Fraser-Sampson is published by Elliott and Thompson.

One Comment on "The Brian Close Affair – Class Prejudice in Cricket?"

  1. James Turner October 2, 2017 at 11:26 PM · Reply

    Hi

    I want to make a comment on the article relating to Brian Close, and his alleged sacking because of class prejudice.

    I think this unlikely. If the selectors were so determined to get rid of him, why did they appoint him in the first place, given his background. Secondly, at the end of the 1967 season he had captained England to six wins in seven test matches, which must be the most incredible start to any England captain’s career. To get rid of him at that point would beggar belief! Since the abolition of the amateur status in 1959, there was a growing backlash against the “amateur type” cricketer, and overwhelming support for professionalism in the game.

    Close’s dismissal was not for time-wasting, but for something far more serious. At the end of the game in question, Close, leading Yorkshire off the field, heard a rude remark from a spectator. He reeled round on him and there was a “in the face” angry encounter, which must have really scared the person. I learned this from Close’s autobiography, published years later, when the issues were long gone. So the reason for his dismissal was simply a matter of public relations, and the reputation of the game. With the West Indian tour in the offing, the selectors could not risk appointing a captain with anger management issues, given the known provocassional tactics of some West Indian supporters. On that tour some spectators hurled missiles at the players and shon light into batsmen’s eyes with mirrors.

    The time wasting charge was probably a cover up of the real reason, given the attitudes of the time. I would also question the chronology of the offering of the captaincy to MJK Smith. I do not have access to the facts, but think it most likely that MJK was offered the captaincy AFTER the dismissal of Close. This is bourne out by an article Cowdrey wrote in Cricket Monthly 2 years later, saying that he did not feel good about being given the captaincy. He said it was like coming third in an egg and spoon race but being given the prize because the 2 in front dropped their eggs. Hence Close dismissed, and MJK turning it down.

    One point about Cowdrey. To call him a southern toff is to prejudice readers. He WAS a southern toff but not a toffee nose. He was widely respected and loved for his modesty and kindness, and his selfless devotion to the game before his own ambitions.

    Finally, let me say that Brian was a great, dedicated and brave cricketer whose reputation will outlive all of the above shenanigans

    James Turner

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