Bill Brown - serene as the deep blue sea
Flamboyance has its own place in cricket. The swashbuckling, Errol Flynn-like dashers have long enthralled spectators, and they still do.
But spare a thought for those who weren’t particularly – for lack of a better term – flashy. They quietly went about their task day after day, innings after innings, match after match. Not for them the limelight or playing to the gallery.
If Australia had Don Bradman to boast of, they also had another exceptionally skilled exponent of the willow – who did his job almost unobtrusively.
He was William Alfred Brown, more commonly known as Bill Brown, arguably one of Australia’s best batsmen to have ever played the game, especially in the pre-war era. Between 1934 and 1948, he represented his country in 22 Tests, captaining in one. His opening partnership with Jack Fingleton is considered among the finest in Australian Test history.
But things were not as rosy as they seem now.
Born on July 31, 1912 in Toowoomba, Queensland, Brown’s father made the decision to move to Marrickville, Sydney, after his hotel business failed. At the age of three, Brown had to share a bed with his brother in the family’s modest one-bedroom home. The family’s poor financial position prompted young Bill to leave high school after two years to find work and substantiate the household income. In those days of the Great Depression, the then-17 year old was unable to find regular full-time work.
Proceeding to the Marrickville Cricket Club, Brown began playing grade cricket in 1929-30. Having started off as a wicket-keeper, he soon changed his focus to opening the innings, but couldn’t hold down a regular place in the side. An innings of 172 for the Sutherland Shire re-invigorated his career just when he had almost decided to leave Sydney. Following consistent performances, he won a place in the New South Wales squad in 1932-33.
Run out for a duck in his first first-class match for NSW against Queensland, Bill ended up on the winning side as his team won by an innings and 274 runs. Against Douglas Jardine’s touring English squad, the 20-year old made a faultless 69, and later scored 79 against South Australia. He faced Don Bradman’s ire owing to poor communication with his batting partners, and finished the season with 269 runs.
He fared better in his second season, scoring 878 runs to finish second behind Bradman on run-scoring aggregates. When the squad for the 1934 England tour was chosen, Brown was selected ahead of Fingleton, owing to a nomination from the Don. He scored a match-winning 73 in the second innings of the first Test, handing his country the win.
In the second game of the series, Brown opened with skipper Bill Woodfull after long-time opener Bill Ponsford was sidelined due to illness. Playing at Lord’s, he scored his maiden Test century – unhurried, unruffled and balanced. Though England won the game, Brown was one of the few Australians to have made a significant impact with the bat. He scored 300 runs in the entire series, failing to pass 20 in the last two Tests, as Australia took the Ashes 2-1.
Upon returning to Australia, both Woodfull and Ponsford retired, handing over the baton to Brown and Fingleton for the 1935-36 tour of South Africa. It was to be their most productive phase – the two shared Australia’s highest double-century opening stand in Test cricket at Cape Town in the third game of the series. With Fingleton scoring three consecutive centuries, the pair helped Australia win the series 4-0, and established themselves as the country’s premier opening partners.