Pushing the boundaries of intellect

Rohit Mahajan

IF you like cricket, and like a brainy writer whose intellectualism is friendly and endearing, you’d better read this book. Mike Brearley was a cricketer with modest abilities, but he possesses a beautiful mind. Most creditably, excelling in cricket and studies at Cambridge didn’t make him insufferable. His mind has trumped his batting feats, which are nondescript — 1,952 international runs at an average of 23.23. But he is extraordinarily cerebral, and it’s primarily due to this that he played 64 international matches, of which he captained in 56. His brain kept him in the team; if not captaining, he wouldn’t have been in the team for so long. His leadership qualities were exceptional, his man management top-drawer — post-cricket, he became a psychoanalyst.

Brearley remains acutely aware of his limitations as a player, as is most evident in the chapter on Viv Richards, the original King. Brearley writes with breathlessness and incredulity that Richards treated him as his peer. We all know Richards had and has no peers, and Brearley knows it too. Richards has respect for the intellect of Brearley. As a force for positive change in cricket, Brearley’s intellect is respected and can be useful, which Richards recognises. Brearley is left awed by the encounter. ‘I want him to like me,’ he writes. ‘I am almost surprised he remembers me, that he wants to talk to me. But I don’t feel relaxed. I don’t easily take in what he is saying. I have to listen hard. He is, as my colleague John Stephenson, also present, said afterwards, an alpha male. One can’t imagine a woman not being fascinated. As a man (am I one?), older, in every sense paler, I am charmed, but also a tad intimidated, even by his friendliness.’ Considering Brearley’s high intellect, this extreme modesty seems unreal, artificial. But it’s not fake, for Brearley is a very sincere, earnest man.

Brearley is perhaps less intimidated when it comes to, say, invoking Socrates when discussing the aesthetics of the game. 

In a delightful discussion with art critic David Sylvester, Brearley said: ‘A batsman shovels a ball through mid-wicket in an ungainly way, with a lot of bottom hand, and manages to time it and place it right and the ball goes for four, this doesn’t give us the same satisfaction as seeing Viv Richards, say, stroking the same ball through the same space, imperiously, with a sense of inevitability. And the reason for this satisfaction is partly that it is beautifully done, but also that it’s more reliable.’

In short, Brearley resides as easily on the intellectual plane of the sport as on the physical one. 

Brearley wears his intellectualism lightly. A few years ago, as we discussed depression among cricketers, he prefaced almost every sentence with ‘I think’, ‘perhaps’ or ‘probably’. When he speaks, he leaves room for a contrary or dissenting view, that’s the generosity of his spirit. Doubt isn’t necessarily a bad attribute.

He writes, too, with self-effacing simplicity, having a wry laugh at himself every now and then. Any traces of immodesty he might have had were summarily crushed by his father when he was a teenager, as he relates: ‘I had been both arrogant and falsely modest, commenting to Mike Griffith and my father that my wicket-keeping was ‘not quite as good as Mike’s on the leg-side.’ His father told him off, ‘quietly’. ‘I felt and can still feel the shame,’ Brearley writes. No wonder Brearley, 60 years on, is touched when the great Viv Richards doesn’t fail to add ‘I think’ after expressing an opinion to him.

This book is valuable for several reasons. One reason is that it’s full of anecdotes and contains affectionate and kind portraits of great players such as Bishan Singh Bedi, Sarfraz Nawaz, Richards, Dennis Lillee and Michael Holding. A more important reason is that it provides terrific food for thought, and can help one get a perspective on something important such as, say, racism.

Above all is Brearley’s ability to put himself in someone else’s shoes — and, more particularly, head. As a philosopher-cricketer, that’s his greatest gift.