‘Anything can happen,” Mike Brearley says as, at the age of 81, he leans forward in anticipation of the sporting event of the summer. The Ashes are coming and, 70 years since he spent a shiny sixpence on a book of England-Australia Test scores dating back to the 1870s, Brearley seems more intrigued by this new series than any other.
As he considers whether the sense of jeopardy and joy at the heart of England’s Test match resurgence will succeed against a relentless Australia, Brearley smiles helplessly. “I don’t know whether it will work,” he says of England’s bold aggression under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes. “Like everyone else, I’m fascinated to see what happens with Benbuzz.”
Brearley looks at me quizzically. “Is it called Benbuzz?” he asks in his gentlemanly way. I remind him that Bazball is the buzzword for the riveting Test cricket which England, under McCullum as coach and Stokes as captain, have developed over the past year. Brearley still provides a fascinating insight into both men and how, in his view, overcoming depression underpins the freedom and positivity of their philosophy.
The former England captain engineered one of the great Ashes comebacks in 1981 as Australia, who dominated much of the first three Tests, were swept aside. England won 3-1, with Brearley having been recalled in the third Test to replace Ian Botham as captain, but even that incredible series may be eclipsed this summer.
We’re sitting in his consulting room in the basement of his north London home where, as a psychoanalyst, Brearley has treated patients for 40 years. He still works here three days a week and his intelligence and empathy resonate during our two hours together. Whether discussing philosophy, psychoanalysis, literature or cricket – the main strands of his excellent new book – Brearley is compelling company.
As in the book he moves smoothly from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Henry James and Wilfred Bion to Geoff Boycott, Jimmy Anderson and Zak Crawley. Brearley is also very funny when describing a play he recently saw about his old friend Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett as cricketers and how he suggested it should have been called Yes … No … Wait.
His wife once said “there are two Mikes – the cricketer and the psychoanalyst”. Brearley’s book unites these disparate sides of his character and they both can be heard in his reflections on McCullum and Stokes. The coach and captain might seem like extroverts but Brearley highlights their essential empathy and introspection.
“I’m interested in this question: can the two selves help each other?” he says. “Maybe what’s going on internally, and between them, means they can move between these positions. It’s like Stokes blocking for 76 balls and scoring two runs at Headingley [in 2019 when he hit a match-winning 135 as England reached a record fourth innings of 362 for nine to beat Australia] and scoring the next hundred in 80-odd balls. He changed gears dramatically and that coordination between different parts of the self is like standing back and reflecting and then being passionate and spontaneous.
“Stokes and McCullum are very like-minded and have real presence. They’ve got that extrovert capacity but McCullum is sober, quiet and reserved at matches. They also both have an infectious enthusiasm for their ideas.”
Their art of leadership might seem simple – allowing the players to express themselves and not fear failure – but Brearley considers their complex hinterland. “I have a theory based on the crisis New Zealand cricket had in 2013. New Zealand were bowled out for 45 and McCullum [as captain] said he and his team had lost their love of the game. He wanted them to go back to their childhood and ask: ‘Why did you play cricket in the first place? Because you loved it.’ Once you embraced that you relaxed, enjoyed it and looked at opportunities rather than risks. I think it was his way of overcoming his own depression.
“Then I saw Sam Mendes’s film about Ben Stokes. I knew about the court case [when Stokes was charged with, and eventually cleared of, affray in 2017] and his father dying but suddenly you see the same thing in Stokes. He had also been depressed and he eventually overcame it by lifting the game to another level. I’m thinking particularly of the more optimistic, almost manic, side which means Stokes believes one should never play for a draw. I don’t agree as there have been some great achievements in playing for a draw and always going for the victory is a bit over the top. But that may be part of what enthused the team. I was really interested to read Stokes saying he would do the same against Australia.”
England’s transformation happened so quickly because “there’s a certain charisma to Stokes and McCullum. They’re exemplars as well as guides. They’ve both played that way but you’ve got to be shrewd as well. Stokes is a pretty good and thoughtful captain, tactically, who avoids being critical of the players. One ball that strikes me as emblematic was in the second Test in Pakistan [last December] when they faced that mystery spinner Abrar Ahmed. He got 11 wickets in the match. When Ollie Pope came into bat his first ball was played as a reverse sweep. It went off his arm just past first slip. But it could just as easily have gone off his glove and he would’ve been out first ball for nought doing a reverse sweep. In my day, if you did that in a Test, you probably wouldn’t play for 10 years. But Stokes and McCullum said: ‘If that’s your spontaneous way of trying to dominate from the beginning, go for it.’”
Pope scored 60 and England eventually completed a clean sweep of the series. “I admire that,” Brearley says of the way they supported Pope, “because I could be a bit nagging and critical in ways I didn’t really approve of – but still found myself doing.”
Brearley lauds the fact that Stokes and McCullum don’t seem “to care too much about losing”. Would freedom from the fear of defeat be rooted in the fact that Stokes, especially, has coped with harrowing mental health problems? “Yes, I do think that has something to do with it.”
Was Brearley surprised how open Stokes has been about his psychological fragility? “Yes I was, but it was such a good sign that a big figure like Stokes could talk about it frankly. I have a lot of time for him and think there’s a great deal of resilience, self-confidence and a willingness to change in him.”
The heat and fury of an Ashes series will test Stokes and McCullum in new ways. “If they lose one Test everything will be forgiven,” Brearley says. “But if they lose two Tests against Australia and people are caught off the glove, reverse-sweeping first ball, the accolades won’t last long. The magic solution always has to be modified. So the interesting question is can they modify it? If Zak Crawley keeps on getting low scores and Ben Duckett doesn’t make it against a different type of bowling, would they bring in an old-fashioned opener like Haseeb Hameed? Or does every county cricketer now think he has to play like Crawley, Duckett or [Jonny] Bairstow to be selected?”
Ben Foakes, the outstanding wicketkeeper who batted relatively cautiously for England, has been dropped for the returning Bairstow. “I was disappointed,” Brearley says. “It’s a difficult decision but I would have gone with Foakes and left out one of the openers. But I gather England want small boundaries and good pitches because they’re going to hit more sixes than Australia. Test cricket. Who’d have thought it?”
The hope lingers that the Ashes will regenerate widespread interest in the longer form of the game. As Brearley says, “the worry about Test cricket increases every year because of the predominance of the Indian Premier League.”
Does he fear that in another 20 years we will have hardly any Test cricket beyond the Ashes? “I do. I fear two things about cricket’s future. One is Test matches and the other is the way in which it’s played so little in state schools now – almost not at all.”
Brearley’s love of Test cricket is palpable even if, as a batsman, he struggled to believe he belonged in the game’s most unforgiving arena. “I often wondered if I was good enough at Test level. It increased the tension, and anxiety and I became a bit inhibited as a batsman. I did not feel it so much as a captain, even if I had my moments. Before my first Test as captain I had a dream where I was a snail looking out of its shell.”
He shakes his head at our human insecurities. Brearley also points out that “between the ages of 25 to 29 I didn’t play much. Those were key years. On the other hand I learned a lot [Brearley had retired temporarily from cricket and he worked as a young lecturer in philosophy at Newcastle University] and my interest in psychoanalysis began.”
When he returned to cricket aged 29, making his England debut at 34 in 1976, one of his predictable nicknames was Egghead. Brearley remembers that Boycott would stress his disdain “more bluntly. One match we were 50 for no wicket at tea and he walked off sideways to the pavilion ahead of me. I had to run to catch him up. I said: ‘Are we going to the same place, Geoff?’ He said: ‘I want none of your intellectual stuff!’ He and others came round to me but they were suspicious and doubtful at first.”
A similar uncertainty stalked Brearley in the very different world of psychoanalysis. “I felt self-conscious,” he says, “as I didn’t want to be known as ‘the cricketer’. But now I’m completely relaxed and more interested in the overlaps and continuities between these worlds.”
The two Mikes have become one complete and deeply admirable man who has survived cancer with his curiosity about life intact. “In cricketing terms there’s a legend about me,” he says wryly. “But it was rebutted healthily by Ray Illingworth who, when asked if I was the best England captain, suggested I was just the luckiest. There was a lot of truth in that. But the older you get the easier it is to be relaxed. My two worlds are not so different. In cricket I wanted to find out what was going on, and learn what made people tick, and that’s exactly what happens here in this room with my patients, and with me as a person. What’s going on? What is it inside that makes us do silly things or good things?”
We amble out into his sun-filled garden and it does not take long for our talk to return to McCullum and Stokes, a transformed England and the delicious uncertainty of how they will perform against Australia. As the days lengthen and another English summer begins, Brearley knows there will not be many more Ashes for him to savour and so this series feels meaningful.
The great old captain explains that, rather than settling back to watch with an occasional glass of wine in his hand, he will be immersed in the intricacies of Test cricket. He will place himself firmly inside Stokes’ head as he considers bowling changes, field placements and batting with just a modicum of restrained abandon.
“As an observer I’m almost a participant,” Brearley says with another smile. “I can’t help it.”
He laughs when I say I might suggest his new phrase of Benbuzz replaces Bazball as shorthand for England’s dangerously thrilling strategy. “You certainly can,” Brearley says in amusement. “It’s going to be fascinating, whatever happens.”
Turning Over the Pebbles by Mike Brearley is published by Constable