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Lancashire Legends

Legends #5 Walter Brearley

Legends #5 Walter Brearley

One of Lancashire's 'Invincibles' of 1904 is featured in this latest Legends series - a great fast bowler, Walter Brearley.

WALTER BREARLEY was born in Bolton on 11 March 1876, and was educated at Tideswell Grammar School in Derbyshire. He played local cricket in Bolton and Bury, a fairly long apprenticeship before making his debut for Lancashire in 1902 when he was at the ripe age of 26. In a comparatively short career that finished in 1911 and was punctuated with disputes with the committee and periods out of the game, he took 690 wickets for the county at a cost of 18.70 runs each.

Brearley was an eccentric, one of the greatest characters Lancashire has known, a volatile person who had frequent brushes with authority. He was one of the outstanding fast bowlers of the early years of the century and it is surprising he did not play in more than four Tests. He himself was not backward at expressing his own surprise, perhaps even disgust, at Test team selections that did not include him. Sir Henry Leveson Gower recalled in his book, Off and On the Field, an occasion during his period as chairman of the Test selectors when Brearley was not chosen. 'I thought at the time and still think,' he wrote forty-four years later, 'that it was a mistake, though the captain [Archie MacLaren] disagreed with me. Brearley, however, was of my opinion. He stationed himself below the box I was occupying at Lord's, one of the clock tower boxes, and in a voice that was perfectly audible, made a running commentary on his omission, such as "I often get six wickets in an innings, and generally the leading batsmen." Brearley's crooning voice had caused spectators to gather and a policeman, who was parading the ground to keep the crowd in order, had to move him on.

Brearley was a great believer in keeping fit. He never smoked until cricket was over for the day, though he held that no fast bowler should be a teetotaller. He was capable of bowling, and willing to bowl, for long periods. It was said he would bowl all day on the hottest day in June and bowl with just as much pace and energy in his last over as in his first. He was a fast bowler, genuinely fast, yet he ran in from only seven yards with a body action which he himself described as being like a windmill. When he died The Times wrote 'As a bowler he was a model and as a man he was the most genuine human being that could be conceived.'  Brearley revelled in the Roses matches and in fourteen games against Yorkshire between 1903 and 1911 he took 125 wickets — an average of nine a match — at a cost of 16 runs each. Archie MacLaren, who was captain through most of Brearley's career, said of him:

           "When playing regularly he was one of the few bowlers I should put unhesitatingly in the 'great' class. Here you had perfect length and a fizz off the pitch. Except on very rare occasions he was always turning the ball and used to swing away with his arm just enough to cause the highest in the land to make mistakes. Like Tom Richardson he could keep it up all day. He never spared himself either. Through the 1904 season when Lancashire gained the championship without losing a match, it might almost be said that he kept one end going unchanged. He was brimful of confidence and he justified in others his belief in himself. Give Brearley a wicket with a touch of fire in it and he was a man and a half to his side."

Brearley sent his son to Wrekin College near Telford — where the cricket pavilion was named after him — and often coached the boys. He was responsible for MCC sending a team to Wrekin for the first time in 1927, a team which included his old captain, Archie MacLaren, who was then 55 but still made top score in the match with 42. The following day, being Sunday, they were taken to chapel. It was a hot day and the two Lancashire veterans sat quietly side by side, their eyes closed, thinking of many things. At last, the sermon ended and the chaplain announced in a clear voice 'Hymn number 200.' Those at the back heard Brearley's voice: 'Wake up Archie. This is where we take the new ball.'

Brearley also coached at Lord's where he spent many of his days in the summer. He was to be seen in the pavilion Long Room stamping in annoyance at the introduction of a new, young fast bowler. 'I could throw my hat down the wicket quicker than that,' he would declare.  Brearley was at Lord's in the summer before his death, 1936. He met an old friend, C. B. Fry, on a wet day, and with their coats off, shirt sleeves rolled up, they were showing each other how to bat and bowl in the members' lunch room with the waitresses impatiently waiting to clear the tables for tea.

Brearley's batting was nothing more than an interesting diversion. He was last man and would ignore the gate and leap the fence on his way to the crease and would hurry, at times almost run, to the wicket. He frequently scorned gloves and did not always wear pads and tried hard, at least once an over, to smash the ball out of the ground.

He once bet Gilbert Jessop he would hit him to the boundary. And when Jessop rolled the ball down the pitch to the other bowler at the end of an over, Brearley seized his chance to hit the ball to the boundary. Jessop was not amused and when he batted started to hit out at Brearley who responded by bowling bouncers and head-high full tosses. Jessop was so upset that when he was out he refused to take any further part in the game and handed over the captaincy.

Brearley, however, was a genial, popular man with an attractive personality. His career was short — he took his 669 wickets in virtually seven seasons — but he left behind more impressions, more memories than many players who last three times as long. Brearley married the daughter of an hotelier in the Lake District and when he died, on 13 January 1937, aged 60, he was buried in the family grave at Bowness. He remains one of the top four or five outstanding fast bowlers Lancashire have ever had. But he should be remembered, too, just as much for his personality.

Brian Bearshaw
Photos: Walter Brearley pictured above in a staged fast bowling shot, and in later years with his good friend Archie MacLaren


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