Throughout his cricket career, which lasted from 1948 until the 1977 season, Close was one of the most charismatic and well-known cricketers. He scored almost 35,000 runs as a batsman, including 52 centuries with a highest innings score of 198. He also took 1,168 dismissals as a bowler, and over 800 catches as a fielder (and one stumping, as a stand-in wicket-keeper). At just over six feet (1.8 m) tall he was a noticeable presence on the field, often fielding at the short leg position, close to the batsman. As cricketers did not use head or body protection in Close's day, he would often get hurt when a batsman struck a ball that hit him. Close was also noted, as a batsman, for standing up to intimidatory bowling, letting the ball hit his unprotected torso rather than flinching.
Close was known as a cricketing gambler; he was prepared to take risks and to court controversy throughout his career. He was serving a "confined to barracks" punishment during his military service when selected for his first international cricket tour to Australia in 1950, was sacked as England captain for timewasting, and later sacked by Yorkshire for his lukewarm attitude to one-day cricket. He was also accused of not giving enough support to younger Yorkshire cricketers. He attracted further criticism by touring apartheid South Africa and white-minority controlled Rhodesia with private teams. As chairman of Yorkshire's cricket subcommittee he had many run-ins with the then Yorkshire captain, Geoffrey Boycott. However, he continued to serve Yorkshire cricket, and in his seventies was coaching and occasionally captaining the county's Colts XI.
The hero and dominating figure in Close's home town of Rawdon was Hedley Verity, a great England and Yorkshire cricketer in the period before the Second World War. The Verity family continued to live in Rawdon, and for a time the Close family lived in the Canada Estate, where Verity had once lived. At Rawdon Littlemoor primary school Close was taught by Grace Verity, Hedley's sister, and he was friends with two of Verity's children, Wilfred and Douglas. Later, Close went to Aireborough Grammar School, where Verity was the best-known alumnus. Close's early years were surrounded by images of local cricketing greatness.
At school, Close was a good all-round sportsman, and an excellent cricketer: Aireborough went unbeaten in the six cricketing summers while Close was there. Close dominated junior level cricket in the area, both within and outside schools. He joined Rawdon Cricket Club in 1942, when he was eleven years of age, and was almost immediately selected to play for the under-18 side and for the Second XI. However, he also excelled as a student, and seriously considered becoming a doctor. He had the offer of a university place on completion of his period of compulsory military service, but turned this offer down.
As well as cricket, Close was also proficient at football, to such an extent that he was signed as an amateur by Leeds United Football Club. He became the first Leeds player to play international football at youth level, when in October 1948 he played for England against Scotland at Pittodrie Park in Aberdeen. However, after gaining a regular place in Yorkshire's county cricket in 1949, his sporting ambitions became focused on cricket. His excellence at the sport, and the Yorkshire peoples' enthusiasm for it, encouraged Bradford MP Maurice Webb to request that Close be allowed to complete the 1949 season for Yorkshire, before commencing his National Service.
Close continued to do well for Yorkshire and was selected to play for the Players against the Gentlemen, at Lord's cricket ground, 13-15 July. "Gentlemen versus Players" was a traditional cricket fixture, played each year between teams selected from county professionals, known as Players, and county amateurs, known as Gentlemen. In 1949, social status was still an important factor in cricket. "Gentlemen" often did not share changing rooms with "Players", and printed cricket scorecards would differentiate between them, with the names of Gentlemen being preceded by their initials while professionals were styled by their surnames followed by their initials. Reportedly, at one match a scorecard error was corrected by a Tannoy announcement: "for F.J. Titmus read Titmus, F.J.".
Despite its anachronistic format, this fixture had some prestige, and good individual performances were likely to be noticed. Close did well for the Players, top-scoring with 65. When he reached 50 he was congratulated by the Gentlemen's wicket-keeper, Billy Griffith, and in a conversation that now seems innocuous, Griffith's "Well played, Brian", was answered by Close's "Thank you, Billy". However, Close had not referred to Griffith as "Mister", and ten days later was called to see Brian Sellers, a former captain and member of the Yorkshire committee, who reprimanded Close for the effrontery.
Close was then selected to play England in the third Test match at Old Trafford against the touring New Zealand cricket team; in this game, Close became, and as of 2008 remains, England's youngest-ever Test player, aged 18 years and 149 days. He came in to bat when the England innings needed quick runs, his instruction from Freddie Brown, the captain, being to "have a look at a couple and then give it a go". Close duly played two balls back to the bowler, then hit out for the boundary, only to be caught in the outfield for a score of nought. He had previously taken one wicket for 39 runs during the first New Zealand innings.
Overall, Close's first season was seen as a resounding success. He had played his first Test: he achieved the "double" of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a first-class season, and as of 2008 remains the youngest player to have done so. He became the first and so far only player to have achieved this double in his first season as a first-class player. This season set the tone for the remainder of Close's career: times of notable success, tarnished by many run-ins with officialdom, and with Sellers in particular. Close himself felt that the early Test call-up was an albatross round his neck—he was always referred to as "England's youngest player", usually with the suggestion of unfulfilled promise.
Close's call-up to the Australian touring party attracted considerable press interest, and a press conference was called at Catterick to give the press a chance to question him. However, his moment of glory also gave rise to controversy, when one pressman found out that Close was "confined to barracks" for disciplinary reasons at the time his call-up was announced: he had apparently absented himself from an army cricket match. The pressman promised to stay silent, but a week later a clerk on the camp newspaper telephoned the Daily Express with the news. However, Close still toured, and his National Service was suspended so that he could do so.
Close was the youngest player on the tour, and had little in common with the rest of the party; by the end he was not even on talking terms with most of them. After a reasonable start, Close faltered, and then became injured, with a badly pulled groin muscle. He was selected to play in the second Test, which England lost by 28 runs. After Australia were dismissed for 194 (Close 1 for 20), England had collapsed to 54 for 4 when Close came in to bat, with only eight deliveries to go before the lunch interval on the second day. Misjudging the bounce on the Melbourne wicket, which was somewhat different from the bounce of English wickets, he swept a ball from Jack Iverson only to get a top edge to Sam Loxton, fielding behind square leg. The dressing room was silent when he returned. Brown, when advised that Close was a bit down and needed consolation, replied "Let the blighter stew. He deserves it."
Later, in Tasmania, Close was ordered to play despite doctor's advice to rest, and as he tried to nurse his injury he acquired a reputation for malingering and insubordination. He was made to play in six of the next seven games. When England won a Test match in Australia for the first time in 13 years in the final Test, Close was not present. Nowadays, someone in Close's position would be carefully man-managed, and well looked after by captain and team manager. But times were different then, and the Yorkshire stalwarts were proved right: he had been picked too early, and would never be a regular Test player.
The years between 1951 and 1958 were a period of career consolidation for Close, who achieved 1,000 runs in a season five times. Immediately after the tour to Australia Close had a good season in 1951, playing for the Combined Services, including a century against the touring South Africans. At the end of his National Service in October 1951, he signed for Arsenal Football Club, and tried briefly to combine playing football with his cricket for Yorkshire. This proved impossible; although Close received permission from Yorkshire captain Norman Yardley to leave the first match of the 1952 cricket season early, to play football or Arsenal, this leave was rescinded by the match manager. Close arrived late at Arsenal and was sacked.
Close enjoyed a good 1952 season at Yorkshire, achieving another double, but played no Test cricket. He played soccer, for Bradford City this time, and in doing so picked up a serious knee injury which ended his professional footballing career. It also threatened to end his cricket career—Close played only two first-class matches in the 1953 cricket season.
In 1954 Close scored his first first-class century for Yorkshire, an undefeated 123 against the touring Pakistanis. In 1955 he scored his first county championship century. In that year he played one Test match against South Africa, and at the end of the season was only 3 wickets short of another 1,000 runs/100 wickets double. He was in the selectors' sights again, and was picked for the tour to Pakistan in 1955/6. This was not a full England tour, and no Test matches were played. Close returned to the full England side in 1957, playing in the first two Tests against the West Indies, but did not perform well enough to secure a regular Test place.
Meanwhile, in this period, Yorkshire had not won a single County Championship. At the beginning of 1958 a new captain, Ronnie Burnet, was appointed. Burnet was 40 years old, without first-class cricket experience, and seemed an unlikely choice to restore to Yorkshire's fortunes. It was believed by the Yorkshire committee that Burnet would inject some discipline into the Yorkshire team, but initially the appointment caused problems. Several senior players left the club; Johnny Wardle, Yorkshire's top bowler and Close's preferred choice of captain, was sacked for disciplinary reasons.
During this period Close was called up for his seventh Test in 1961, against Australia.This match, which at one time England appeared certain to win, turned to disaster, with Close bearing the main blame for England's defeat. Many considered this unfair, including the Australian captain, Richie Benaud, who said, "I thought the slating of Brian was one of the most unjust things I have ever experienced".
England were chasing a total of 256 runs to win the match, with just under four hours left to play. Scoring rapidly, they reached 150 for 1 wicket. Then Ted Dexter and Peter May got out in quick succession to Benaud, who was pitching his leg breaks into the rough outside the right-handers' leg stump. This brought Close to the crease. May, the captain, was instructing his players to go for the runs and secure the victory. Close accordingly took a calculated risk, and chose to hit out. He took one six off Benaud, but to the tenth ball he faced he played another unorthodox shot which Norm O'Neill caught above his head with two hands. Neither commentators nor reporters appeared to understand that Close's approach was to hit Benaud out of the attack, and thus make it easier for right-handed batsmen to score runs. Purists were outraged, and as England collapsed to 201 all out and a 54 run defeat, Close took most of the blame, with some commentators saying that he should never play for England again.
Close's attitude, in his own words, was that "I've always believed that the team is more important than the individual", and that credo stood Yorkshire in good stead. Ray Illingworth noted that when he left Yorkshire to play for Leicestershire, the players there were surprised that, while Yorkshire were perennial Championship winners, the batting averages of their leading batsmen tended to languish in the 20s. The answer was that Close had honed them to play the innings required at the right time: when quick runs were required, players did not play for their averages, they played for quick runs.
Close was recalled to the England Test squad in 1963, and played his first full series of five matches, against the West Indies. His innings in the second Test at Lord's remains his best known. When England were pressing for a last-day victory, Close took the battle to the fastest West Indian fast bowlers, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, daring to advance down the wicket to them. This was before body protection and helmets were in use, and time and again the ball struck Close firmly on his body. But he persevered. With no other England player but Ken Barrington scoring above 20, Close's innings of 70 saved the game for England, and came near to winning it. Set 234 to win, England ended on 228 for 9, with Colin Cowdrey famously coming in to bat (for two balls at the non-striker's end) with his broken arm in plaster.
Close had been dismissed going for runs to win the game, and his courage earned him many plaudits. His shirtless torso, black and blue with bruises where he had been hit, made the front pages of the newspapers the next day. Len Hutton wrote him a congratulatory letter on his innings, and he returned to county cricket the hero. Overall in the series he made over300 runs, but still did not get selected for the next series.
Close also had immediate success as Yorkshire captain, winning the County Championship in 1963. His successes saw him named as one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Year in 1964, acknowledging his impact on the 1963 season. Close went on to captain Yorkshire to the county championship in 1966, 1967 and 1968.
He first met his wife Vivienne, an air stewardess with BOAC, in Bermuda whilst touring there with Yorkshire in 1964, when she was engaged to someone else. He pursued her relentlessly, even though initially she considered him not to be her type. Brian gambled with his love life too: on New Year's Day 1965 he told her that if she didn't agree to marry him, he would never see her again. They married the following March. They went on to have one daughter, Lynn, and a son, Lance.
There was no overseas tour in 1966/7, so the next game Close captained was the first Test at Headingley against India in 1967. Of the 16 Tests India had previously played in England, England had won 12 and drawn 4, and there were no expectations that there would be anything other than an England victory in the three-match series. But they still needed to be beaten, and England, under Close, won each game convincingly.
Pakistan toured England in the second half of the summer of 1967. The first match of that three-Test series was a rain-affected draw. The second Test was won comfortably by England by 10 wickets. It seemed certain that Close would be selected to captain England in their 1967/8 tour to the West Indies.
Then on 16, 17 and 18 August, Yorkshire, captained by Close, played Warwickshire at Birmingham. Warwickshire had been set 142 to win in 100 minutes. When the match ended, Warwickshire were 133 for 5, nine runs short of victory, and the match was drawn. However Yorkshire managed to bowl only 24 overs, with only two being bowled in the last 15 minutes. Whilst it was wet, and Yorkshire had to dry the ball often, this was seen as unacceptable time-wasting and gamesmanship. Close did not help himself as he personally berated a Warwickshire spectator who he thought had called out something inopportune, though in the event he picked on the wrong man. After the game, Close said to the Warwickshire captain, M.J.K. Smith, "Bad luck, Mike, you played better than we did. But I couldn't give you the game." Smith appeared to accept this when he replied, "I quite understand."
Brian Sellers, chairman of Yorkshire and the one who berated Close in 1949 for saying "Thank you, Billy", then made matters worse for Close by sending an apology to the MCC. In 1967 England touring sides were still MCC sides rather than "England" sides, and the MCC took the opportunity to overrule the selectors who picked Close as captain. Close, whose temperament had been shown lacking, did not go to the West Indies. On the Wednesday before the third and final Test against Pakistan, he was told he had been stripped of the captaincy; the replacement captain was Colin Cowdrey.
The third Test against Pakistan was Close's final Test as captain. He led England to a comprehensive 8-wicket victory, winning the series 2-0. His record as captain was played 7, won 6, drawn 1, the best record of any England captain who has captained in more than two Tests.
Close, however, has always opposed one-day cricket, believing that it lessens players' abilities. Mike Procter notes that when Gloucestershire played Yorkshire in the John Player 40-over League in 1970, with Yorkshire three wickets down and needing six an over, word came from Close in the dressing room: "No chance of winning this one, lads — just get some batting practice."
Yorkshire had a policy of not offering contracts to its players, but in return they would tell cricketers by the end of July if they did not require their services the next summer. When July 1970 came and went, Close must have thought he was safe. However, Close offended the Lancashire president, the Honourable Lionel Lister, when Lister entered the away captain's changing room to speak to Close after Lancashire, Yorkshire's arch rivals, had beaten them at Old Trafford to retain the one-day John Player League trophy. Close, who may not have known who Lister was, offered Lister some choice words. Lister immediately told Brian Sellers, his Yorkshire counterpart, of the insult.
Close wrote a letter to Lister apologising, and gave a copy to a Yorkshire committeeman. But the letter was never presented to the committee as a whole, which voted to sack him as the first agenda item at their next meeting. In November 1970 Close was summoned to see Sellers, and given the choice of either resigning or being sacked. To begin with, he chose to resign. Later that day, and after speaking to his legal adviser, he retracted this, leaving Yorkshire to sack him. The reason, according to Yorkshire, was Close's dislike for the new 40-over one-day cricket league that was first played in 1969 (Close thought it led to bad habits and negative play), and because Close had supposedly not brought on the younger players.
The rest from the captaincy did Close good; he went through the 1971 season without injury, and scored 1,389 runs, including a century in his first game for Somerset, and a century in the game against Yorkshire. In 1972 he was awarded the CBE by the Queen for his services to cricket. Close was also promoted to Somerset captain. He soon gained the same respect and commitment from his players as he had at Yorkshire. He was also called up to the England one-day squad to captain them in a three-match One Day International series against Australia, which England won 2-1, when the regular England captain and his former Yorkshire team-mate, Ray Illingworth, injured his ankle in the last Test.
In 1972/3 Close led a two-match tour of the "International Wanderers" to Rhodesia. The next two winters he captained the Derrick Robins' XI tours to apartheid South Africa. Robins' tours were the closest thing South Africa had to Test match cricket at that time, and for his efforts in the first of the tours to South Africa, Close was named as one of the four South African Cricket Annual Cricketers of the Year in 1974.
During his time at Somerset Viv Richards and Ian Botham joined the county squad, and Close's leadership and discipline helped them become great cricketers. Botham said of Close, "There was a genuine enthusiasm for cricket which rubbed off on all those playing alongside him. You couldn’t help but get excited by the game."
After his retirement from Somerset, Close continued to play at the Scarborough Festival against the touring international teams, first for T.N. Pearce’s XI in 1978 and then for his own XI from 1982 to 1986. In 1986, aged 55, and playing his last-ever first-class innings, Close needed 10 runs to achieve a career-total 35,000 runs. With his score on 4 he glanced a ball down leg-side to the wicket-keeper and walked. Afterwards, the New Zealanders said that if they'd known how near he was to the landmark, they would have let him stay, but Close would have none of it – he was out, and that was that. When asked why he gave himself out he said: "It's an honourable game and that's the way I was brought up. Close's 786 first-class matches leave him 10th on the all-time list. Only four other outfielders have taken more catches.
Close continued to turn out to help train Yorkshire youngsters, appearing for Yorkshire Colts XI in his seventies, sometimes captaining games and taking the short leg position without a helmet, a position he had taken so many times in the past. According to Imran Khan, Close once stood his ground when fielding at short leg when a batsman played a pull shot, the ball hit him on the forehead, rebounded and was caught at cover. Imran commented "We are not all bullet-headed Yorkshiremen, however, and I don't recommend copying Close.