The Brian Close Affair – Class Prejudice in Cricket?
By Guy Fraser-Sampson
Exactly fifty years ago this summer English cricket was rocked by the so-called 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.
Close 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.
“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.
“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.