There is no more evocative cricket book title than I Don’t Bruise Easily, the autobiography of Yorkshire cricketing icon Brian Close. As a description of its subject it is both unimprovable and factually correct: no batsman so resourceful was bruised blacker, bluer or more brutally than Close by the West Indian fast bowlers Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith at Lord’s in 1963. Photographic evidence of the ordeal sealed Close’s fate as cricket’s ultimate tough guy.
He reprised that role against the might of Andy Roberts and Michael Holding in fading light at Old Trafford in 1976, a moment of the documentary film Fire in Babylon that makes you want to jump through the screen and stop the fight. Watching the highlights on a hotel TV, Close’s Somerset teammates were diving under the sheets like it was a horror film. Yet the next day, witnessed by almost nobody, he played a Gillette Cup game for Somerset and his bruises acquired their own bruises when he was struck a vicious blow to the chest from Bob Willis. Close crumpled to his knees, then immediately stood up, concealed the agony, stared down the pitch and kept batting.
Those incidents and others prompted Eric Morecombe’s classic gag that the start of an English summer was “the sound of leather on Brian Close”.
Close was often labelled the bravest man to play cricket, and there are layers to the statement beyond his relish for staring down the world’s fastest bowlers with nothing but his wits to protect his bald pate, or his suicidal short leg fielding (“Catch it!” he once yelled as a thundering blow to the skull knocked him to the ground and deflected towards a teammate). In his youth, he’d hardened his body with half-hour sessions of press-ups and burpees — inside a sauna. After watching an Ali-Frazier fight, he told teammates he could beat both fighters on the same night, and nobody doubted his straight-faced sincerity. Seemingly indestructible, he once walked straight through a plate glass door and was unhurt.
As a cricketer, Close was versatile and as resilient as they come. His professional career was a self-masochistic marathon spanning from 1949 to 1977. He played Tests as a wet-eared 18-year-old—making him the youngest man to wear an England cap—and as an old sea dog of 45. The “Bald Old Blighter” was the term of endearment by then, and his bravery sat at the intersection of madness. “How can the ball hurt you?” he’d ask his men. “It’s only on you for a second.”
Close is also an object lesson in statistics not telling the story. His tally of 22 Tests seems paltry and his first-class batting average of 33.26—unaided by his unselfish attitude and chameleonic approach in different game scenarios—was unimposing. Other numerical details reveal what might have been: his seven Tests as his country’s captain yielded six wins and a draw; 950 professional appearances made him nothing less than an oracle; he led Yorkshire to four County championships. Hundreds of Country cricketers of the ’60s and ’70s called him skipper and he commanded their respect. In his youth, he’d also managed stints as a footballer with Leeds United, Bradford City and Arsenal, and been an England youth international.
Close’s chief indulgence was overconfidence in his considerable batting prowess; dismissals were never his fault, and for 25 years after his Test debut, he’d faithfully diarise each summer’s Test dates, always assuming he’d be picked. But his was not the self-obsessed path of fellow Yorkshireman Sir Geoffrey Boycott, with whom he clashed. Other champions were moulded in Close’s image, on and off the field; as the inspirational captain of a brilliant and colourful Yorkshire team in the 1960s, one of Close’s tricks at hotel bars was to drop into the press-up position with a pint of ale balanced on top of his head and pick up a box of matches with his teeth.
In the twilight of his cricketing life, as captain of Somerset, he helped shape the careers of the cricketing knights, Ian Botham and Viv Richards (Close made do with a CBE). By then, young teammates referred to him as “The Godfather” and respected the fierce individualism of the man, his originality and the uncompromising desire to win. Another of his protégés, Peter Roebuck, called him “a mixture of King Lear storming in the wilderness and Churchill defying ’em on the beaches.”
By the end of his career Brian Close was a truly remarkable figure, his eccentricities many. On the cover of the paperback edition of I Don’t Bruise Easily, he hunches over a stroke to leg, his neatly-rolled shirtsleeves recalling the 1940s of his early career while his St Peter mittens and Stan Smith sneakers place him firmly in the late ’70s. By that point, substance had well and truly triumphed over style.