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When Brearley and Gatting led Middlesex to dominance

John Stern by John Stern 10 minute read

Under two very different captains, first Mike Brearley and later Mike Gatting, Middlesex were the preeminent county side for a decade, winning five County Championship titles and four one-day trophies in 10 seasons. John Stern finds out how they did it.

First published in March 2016

In 1971, frustrated by a decade of under-achievement, Middlesex took the left-field decision to offer the club captaincy to a batsman who had not yet made a County Championship century and who spent much of his time lecturing in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

The appointment of Mike Brearley proved to be a masterstroke. He built a team full of talented, feisty and, in some cases, eccentric characters.

Middlesex reached both one-day finals in 1975 and even though they lost both, it was apparent that progress was being made. At the same time their under-25 side, containing Mike Gatting, John Emburey and others who would become first-team regulars, reached successive finals of their own in the Warwick Pool competition. A new era was dawning.

Brearley leads his team on to the field at the Oval in 1976

Mike Brearley (opening batsman; captain 1971–82): The club had been fairly snobbish. There was quite a class distinction. There was a lot of humour, some of it quite sharp. It wasn’t a kindly set-up. There wasn’t much sense that your opinion was welcomed until you’d played 10 years as a capped player or played 20 or 30 times for England. It wasn’t conducive to a good team spirit. When I was made captain I did try to change that attitude in the dressing room and I had some sympathy with the younger players, which meant I probably didn’t have sympathy with the older players. They were suspicious of me, with some cause.

One of the emerging talents was a Zambian-born, Cambridge-educated left-arm spinner called Philippe Henri Edmonds. He didn’t hold back on or off the field.

Ian Gould (wicketkeeper): Edmonds was a decent enough bloke, bit strange at times, but I’ve met a lot stranger people than him. He was good round the changing room. He was always having a pop at Brearlers. Those two were very educated people. Well, Philippe said he was educated, not sure whether he was. The other guy certainly was. But there was great banter in the corner between the two waffling on with long words.

MB: He was a terrific cricketer. It’s well known that we had our difficulties. We also had enjoyable conversations. He was stimulating and provocative and probably I was too. His nickname when he first came into the side was ‘Margaret’ – leader of the opposition. That wasn’t me, that was the team. It was a tough environment.

Mike Gatting (batsman; captain 1983–97): The atmosphere in the dressing room was very spiky at times but that’s what Brears wanted. He obviously didn’t get on as well with Philippe as he might have done but he didn’t want ‘yes men’ or everybody to be the same. The one trait that everybody had, particularly Philippe, was they didn’t like coming second.

In 1976 Middlesex won the County Championship outright for the first time since the immortal summer of Compton and Edrich in 1947. The title was secured with a five-wicket victory at the Oval, against London rivals Surrey. Four bowlers – Allan Jones, Fred Titmus, Edmonds and Mike Selvey – took more than 60 wickets each for the season.

Mike Selvey: It was the first year that the old guard weren’t around apart from Fred [Titmus]. We didn’t have any stars. It was a good side that played well together. It was a typical [Clive] Radley scampered single that won it in the end [securing a first-innings bonus point]. Jonah [Allan Jones] and I went down to the bar – in the middle of the innings – and had a couple of pints. But then a couple of wickets went down and I had to bat. I played like God. I was only in 10 or 15 minutes and got 29. I was playing shots all over the place, pissed as a parrot. I’d obviously been too buttoned up before!

The following season Middlesex were one batting bonus point away from winning the title outright again but instead had to share it with Kent.

Brearley holds the trophy aloft with Clive Radley after Middlesex trumped Glamorgan in the 1977 Gillette Cup Final at Lord’s

MS: We were playing Lancashire at Blackpool and we needed two more runs [to reach 150 and secure the crucial bonus point] and I was lbw to Jack Simmons. I got sawn off. Flat Jack was bowling round the wicket, this big swinging arm-ball and I just tried to turn it to leg and was given out. Terrible decision.

A month earlier Middlesex had a remarkable win over Surrey at Lord’s in a three-day match in which only two overs’ play were possible on the first two days.

MS: In those days I travelled down to Lord’s by train and I was standing at Wolverton station thinking about how we could win this game. It sounded simple: Wayne [Daniel] and I bowl them out, we declare, then Wayne and I bowl them out again and we knock off the runs. We started talking about it. The pitch was a bit damp. Wayne and I did bowl them out – for 49. Embers faced one ball for us and we declared. We bowled them out again [for 89] and won by nine wickets, all in a single day, and got maximum points out of the game.

In 1980 the county thought that their star overseas player, the Barbadian pace bowler Wayne Daniel, would be required by West Indies on their tour of England. They made alternative arrangements, recruiting a balding, 32-year-old South African swing bowler recommended by Mike Procter. But Vintcent van der Bijl had already turned down an offer from Glamorgan because he had just started a new job.

Vince van der Bijl: It turned out that the chief executive of my new company, Derek Smith, was a Middlesex supporter and had lived through the golden summer of 1947. They gave me six months off. We had a magical time. Our two eldest daughters were six and four and the headmaster of the school we sent them to in London allowed us to take the kids all over the country. He viewed it as a great education.

Middlesex, too, had a magical time. Daniel was not picked by West Indies so suddenly they had a devastating new-ball attack, with Selvey and Simon Hughes as back-up and John Emburey and Edmonds as a top-class spin combination.

MS: I can’t think that there have been many better bowling sides in the history of the County Championship and it’s a surprise we didn’t win more easily. We were very good that year.

They finished 13 points clear of Surrey, who themselves were 67 points clear of Nottinghamshire in third. Wisden described Middlesex’s title as “virtually a one-horse race”. Van der Bijl took 85 Championship wickets at an average of 14.72, while Daniel took 67 at 21.

MG: He [van der Bijl] was undoubtedly one of the nicest men you’ll meet in cricket and an awesome bowler. He was a bit quicker than Joel [Garner] and he swung it away as well. He probably didn’t quite have Joel’s yorker but he was as accurate.

MB: I remember being suspicious of the signing of Vintcent, wondering whether we wanted a white South African. He became one of my best friends! But I was worried it would upset the balance of the team. Vince was an unbelievably good cricketer and a terrific member of the side. He also changed the culture. Part of that sharp humour, which we still had some of, was that you wouldn’t generally take the blame yourself. But he would always take the blame himself. He’d say things like: “We lost that match because of the two half-volleys I bowled at the start.” He was a lovely bloke and he would say this with complete sincerity.

VvdB: I know there have been some great captains around the world but if anyone was better than Brearlers I’d like to have a chat. He was like an intellectual realist. He loved the intrigue of life and the interaction with people. He opened thoughts and experiences for us, which were lasting. He allowed us to explore ourselves. He challenged what we were thinking and within that absorbed and accepted all individuals in the group and made us a cohesive unit.

Brearley, Gatting and Richard Ellis celebrate winning the 1982 County Championship

Middlesex also won the Gillette Cup in 1980, their second one-day trophy following their triumph over Glamorgan in the same competition in 1977. They also reached the semi-finals of the Benson & Hedges Cup and finished third in the 40-over John Player League. Van der Bijl returned to South Africa, leaving behind memories of one of the greatest single-season contributions in Championship history.

Two years later Middlesex won the Championship again, having been unbeaten in all competitions until the middle of June. Brearley hit the winning runs at Worcester in his last match before retirement. Both Emburey and Edmonds wanted to take the captaincy reins but instead they were passed to Gatting, who provided a seamless transition with no let-up in the pursuit of silverware.

MG: One good thing was that everyone knew I wasn’t going to be Mike Brearley. I hadn’t been to university. I was just me. They knew what they needed to know – I was hopefully fairly honest, sometimes a bit gullible in those days, probably still am. Brears allowed everyone to say their piece and we carried on with that, we didn’t shut the dressing room down. It made for a feisty environment – oh yeah. Embers and I had some real good settos. I did what I thought was common sense which was to get the experienced players on board. You tried to get Philippe involved but… he was Philippe.

Mike Gatting in action for Middlesex

Gatting’s side finished second in the Championship in 1983 and won a thrilling B&H final against Essex; the following year they came third and picked up another one-day trophy, beating Kent in the NatWest. In 1985, despite losing five players (Gatting, Paul Downton, Emburey, Edmonds and Norman Cowans), to England at various stages, Middlesex won their third Championship title in five years, heading off Hampshire by 18 points and gobbling up 85 of a possible 96 bowling points. New talents had emerged. Fast bowler Cowans debuted in 1981, toured with England in 1982/83 and took 125 Championship wickets in 1984 and 1985 combined.

Wayne Daniel: I think I helped Norman a great deal. I first met him when he was on the MCC ground-staff and he always wanted to talk about fast bowling. Then some evenings Norman would come into the Tavern and I would buy him a few pints of Guinness and say to him: “You gotta get strong, boy!” He was a skinny rake at that time. Then he joined Middlesex and we obviously spent a lot of time opening the bowling. I think he became a lot more aggressive by watching my attitude. Also Angus Fraser. He was very talented but at first he lacked the ‘I’m-gonna-get-you’ aggression that you need. Those guys observed the way I went about things and maybe that mental side of the game rubbed off on them.

Ken Barrington presents Wayne Daniel with the Man of the Match award after his devastating spell of 6-15 in the 1980 Gillette Cup semifinal against Sussex at Hove

Daniel and Cowans were two of five members of that side who were of Caribbean extraction, the others being opener Wilf Slack, batsman Roland Butcher and paceman Neil Williams. The group became known as the Jackson Five. Slack was Middlesex’s leading batsman in 1985 with 1,618 runs at 47 and won a place on England’s ill-fated tour of West Indies the following winter. Four years later he was dead after collapsing at the crease while playing a match in The Gambia. In all, Middlesex used 20 players in winning the Championship, including a teenage Angus Fraser.

MG: People forget that we were losing so many players to England. We had some really good people who came in. I remember saying to the players at the start of the season that we would lose players to England and that opportunities will come. You have to take that opportunity and help keep the side as strong as it possibly can be, to maintain our standards and keep us where we are.

Under Gatting’s captaincy, Middlesex continued to win trophies, including two more County Championships in 1990 and 1993. It took them 23 years to win their next County Championship title.

First published in March 2016

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