Brearley forever thinking of a way to rise from Ashes

'If you're playing against a team that's stronger, you have to find ways of keeping your attitude positive. You have to fight every inch of the way'
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At Saturday lunchtime at Lord's, as the temporary England captain, Michael Atherton, walked disconsolately back to the dressing-room no doubt reflecting on several missed catches and wondering how he and his players were going to avoid another thumping by Australia, the public announcer, with exquisitely cruel timing, declared that Mike Brearley would be signing copies of The Art of Captaincy (newly reprinted by Channel 4 books, priced £9.99) behind the pavilion.

As if that were not irony enough, Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of England's famous victory over Australia, masterminded by Brearley, at Headingley. Oh, and as the former England captain started signing books, the scoreboard read "Australia 401" – just as it had following the first Australian innings at Headingley in 1981. The past loomed large on Saturday.

But Brearley is well aware that banging on about it does not help the players. "At Middlesex in the 1960s and 1970s we would get very fed up hearing about Compton and Edrich. We didn't want to hear about it all the time. But we did."

Brearley smiles. He has another life now, as a psychoanalyst, yet still thinks deeply about cricket. Indeed, one of the most intriguing sights at Lord's on Saturday was that of Brearley in earnest conversation with the Australian captain, Steve Waugh. Two days later he politely declines to give me any details of his encounter with Waugh, the first time they have properly talked. But I imagine that the English author of The Art of Captaincy, and an Australian master of the art of captaincy, between them produced enough pearls of wisdom to make a rather fabulous necklace.

Brearley, grey-haired, solemn-browed and soft-voiced, is wisdom incarnate, but can he cope with my inswinging yorker of an opening question: can England beat Australia, and if so, how? "Well, if you're playing against a team that's stronger, you have to find ways of keeping your attitude positive," he says, gently. "You have to be shrewd, you have to keep expecting, you have to fight every inch of the way. But there is a danger of apeing the Australians. They have six slips and don't worry about boundaries. At Edgbaston we still had five slips, or three slips and two gullies, when it was 480 for 4.

"You also have to find the positives even in a huge defeat. Butcher really played well at Lord's, and Ramprakash played quite well, although I worry about the way he checks up on himself, always practising his shots. And Slater doesn't look in very good form suddenly, moving around a bit in the crease. Hayden and Ponting aren't doing all that well. The top of the Australian order looks a bit vulnerable."

In other words, once you've beaten Liverpool, Arsenal and Leeds, all you have to do is beat Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, and victory will be assured. Because behind the top of the Australian order lurk the Waugh twins and Adam Gilchrist. How, I wonder, might Brearley attack the really big guns?

"You have to learn where to bowl to people," he says. "They need to minimise Gilchrist, who is no mean player off his legs, but not as good as when he has room to swing his bat. Steve Waugh reminds me of Ian Chappell, in his absolute determination that nothing will get past him, and his equal determination to dominate where he can.

"So you might run him out, that's one thing you can do. And early on you might try bowling to hit the stumps and varying the pace, in the hope that he will play across the line a bit. But he's so good through mid-wicket you mustn't carry that on for too long. He's a bit like Viv Richards. He too would play good balls through midwicket or mid-on. I began to realise late on that the way to bowl to Viv Richards was wide of the off stump with the covers a bit deeper and gully back a bit, for the half-hit drive.

"On the other hand, Ray Illingworth told me that when Yorkshire played Somerset once, he told his bowlers to bowl on only one side of the wicket to Richards. 'We'll have six men on the off-side,' he said, 'and if he still fetches you over mid-on, at least he's got to work a bit.' So Illingworth put Stevenson on, and Stevenson's first four balls to Richards went through square leg for four. What I'm saying is there's no easy way, you've just got to stick it out."

Next inswinging yorker, albeit a predictable one that Brearley has played many times before: are these Australians the best Test side he has ever seen? "Well, the best other Test team I've seen was the West Indies under Clive Lloyd. They had four fast bowlers. Andy Roberts and Malcolm Marshall were swing bowlers, who changed the pace, Holding was just fast." A chuckle.

"Just. He didn't move the ball much but he didn't need to. And Joel Garner was about nine foot tall.

"The Australians are very different. Each of their bowlers is a thinking bowler. They pick teams with three spinners, they bring Miller, a 34-year-old state player who's never played Test cricket, who wears his hair blue.... there's a tremendous buzz in the team. Steve Waugh took them to Gallipoli, but not in a purely macho way. He was saying: 'Whatever you complain about, some have had it much worse.' He can even get a bunch of Australians to sit in the dressing-room while somebody reads their favourite bit of poetry. I wouldn't have done that. I'm very impressed it even occurs to him. It certainly seems to say that cricket is only one of the things life is for." An echo, I venture, of CLR James' celebrated dictum: 'What do they know of cricket who only cricket know.' "Yes, but to have that in the dressing-room?"

Dropping a name with the impressive ease of an English cricketer dropping Gilchrist, I tell Brearley that I have just spent a couple of hours with Imran Khan, who says that no matter what anyone says, the West Indies circa 1976 to 1984 were peerless as Test cricketers. Brearley ponders this. "I suppose it depends on the pitch," he says. "On a pitch that took spin you'd have to back Australia. On a pitch with uneven bounce it would be a very good contest."

Since we're talking hypotheticals, let's pick a combined Australia and England XI. "I reckon that you might not get any England players into a combined team," says Brearley. "The only one I would argue strongly for is an uninjured Thorpe. In fact, Australia's second team would probably give every other Test team a run. The next tier of England bastmen are either inexperienced or not very good. But Australia can replace Langer with Martyn and still have a man utterly assured in Test cricket. They have Blewett, Miller, Law of Essex... they might even give their own Test team a run. It would be a nice match to see, Australia firsts against Australia seconds."

Indeed it would, but let's get back to reality. Back, in fact, to the reason I am here, Brearley's marvellous book. It has been reissued with a foreword by the Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, a cricket nut, who explains that he consulted his well-worn copy before directing American Beauty in Los Angeles. Brearley's analysis of leadership helped him deal with a film crew for the first time, he says. Its wisdom transcends cricket.

The book is the same as when it was first published in 1985, but there is a new introduction by Brearley, which touches on his post-cricket career. "I am often asked whether my psychology, as people often call it, helped my cricket captaincy," he tells me. "Really it's the other way around. It was because I got interested in what made people tick in the team that I got interested in psychoanalysis.

"But before I captained England, I worked for two winters as a nursing assistant in a clinic for disturbed adolescents. And I remember a seminar given by a psychoanalyst, Donald Bird, on the impact of different patients on us as members of staff. It was a fascinating lesson, really for the rest of my life, but it was related to the captain's job. You have to keep some room in your mind to reflect on the impact that a particular person has on you. Are you being provoked into being dogmatic, or bullied into being nothing more than a figurehead, or pulled into an excitable, or over-cautious, state?

"And later I was in analysis myself [an essential prelude to becoming a psychoanalyst] while I was still playing cricket. That helped with the universal problem faced by leaders, to feel absolutely elated and utterly responsible when things go well, and absolutely depressed and just as responsible when things go badly. That is not to say you don't bear some responsibility for either, but it is never total."

Brearley had a wonderful record as England captain, winning 18 Test matches between 1977 and 1981, drawing nine and losing only four. Unsurprisingly, he disagrees with Mike Atherton's notion that the captain should be picked from the best 11 players available. Brearley, for long stretches of his England career, was palpably not one of the best 11. He averaged 22 in Test matches and never scored a Test century. But as he says, "in an orchestra, or a company, or a hospital, you would never say of the person in charge that they had to be good at everybody else's job".

He was undoubtedly one of the most cerebral of England captains, but flatly dismisses the notion that his academic training – at Cambridge he gained first-class honours in Classics – helped in any way. "I don't think it helps to go to university. I don't think Mike Atherton [a Cambridge graduate] is a better captain than Nasser Hussain, or that either of them are better than Steve Waugh, or Ian Chappell, or Keith Fletcher, who left school at 15.

"There's all the difference in the world between knowing ideas, and knowing how to do things. Fletch knew instinctively how to react with people. I know that one of his Essex players was depressed, and Fletch made a point of having dinner with him every night during away matches."

A pause. "I'd certainly like to have played under Illingworth. He was tactically very, very good. At Leicestershire he had four spin bowlers, including himself, who used to pitch the ball in totally different places, and he'd be constantly looking to see where the worn bits were in relation to the stock length and line of each of his spin bowlers. He was very canny.

"He looked after his players. Looked after himself, too." And made a pretty disastrous England cricket supremo? "Yes, it says a great deal about him that when he was 50, and managing Yorkshire, he took over as captain halfway through the season. He wouldn't let anyone else play with his train set."

Who, I ask, were the great captains Brearley played under? "To be perfectly honest, there weren't any. Tony Greig was one of the best. He was pretty shrewd, although not very shrewd. His difficulty tactically was making the transition from all-out attack to all-out defence. And of course he made a terrible error against the West Indies saying he would make them grovel, which from a tall, white South African was the worst thing imaginable. He was extrovert, but he also thoughtful, and in small, quiet ways would let you know that he believed in you. He had a catchphrase: 'You'll do for me'.

"And made the most of his own abilities, especially on the big occasions. He scored a hundred in Calcutta with a fever of well over 100 degrees. And he suffered from epilepsy, and had to learn how to control that. He was most prone when he came down just after a Test match."

By comparison, then, Nasser Hussain has hardly anything to worry about. "I'm a great admirer of Nasser Hussain," says Brearley. "I think he has probably helped Caddick, for example, a very great deal." For Hussain read Brearley, for Caddick Botham? If only.