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Bill Brown — the oldest Ashes combatant

Paul Weaver

He is now 92 and played the last time Australia lost at Lord's

London: Some time on Thursday evening an elderly, distinguished gentleman in Brisbane will shuffle towards his TV set and tune in to the opening overs of this summer's Ashes series.

He has turned down the VIP invitation to be at Lord's, where, feted and famous, he would have enjoyed one of the best seats in the house.

For Bill Brown, 93 in 11 days' time, is the oldest Ashes combatant. He is the only survivor from the Lord's Test of 1934, the last time England defeated Australia on cricket's most famous stage. In the 17 Tests since, Australia have won eight, with nine draws.

Brown opened the batting for Australia 71 years ago and scored 105. He returned there four years later and carried his bat for 206, before making his final trip with Don Bradman's "Invincibles" in 1948.

"I played the best cricket of my life in 1938 but it was that first appearance at Lord's in '34 that I remember best," he said.

"It was the first time I'd played there and I was only 21. I found the atmosphere very exciting as I walked down the steps and much of that was self-induced.

"But there was something else that struck me about the place and it came from Lord's itself, the very heart of cricket. It was redolent of history and I felt part of it. WG Grace had walked these same steps. I'd arrived. And I remember thinking how smooth and soft the grounds were, compared with back home."

First series after Bodyline

It was the first Ashes series after Bodyline and old resentments lingered but Brown recalls only small kindnesses. "I remember dropping a catch.

There would have been shouts of abuse back in Australia but all I heard was a cry of `hard luck, young Brown', which I thought was nice."

His century came in response to England's 440 and Australia looked likely to get a lead. But then it rained and they were bowled out twice by Hedley Verity, who took 15 wickets, 14 in a single day.

"He was a great bowler and a great man, too. He was tall and got bounce. Even Don Bradman found him difficult. I remember a lot of us feeling very upset when he died as a prisoner of war a few years later.

"The other bowler I remember best in that match, Ken Farnes, also died in the war. He was a big, strong fellow, the best looking of the England boys, and he was really quick on that pitch, which was hard and fast — like Australia — before it rained.

"And we were scared of Wally Hammond, though he failed at Lord's. What a driver! I remember fielding in the covers in another game and my hands would be stinging and I would be thinking to myself, `Hey, this is real cricket.'

Bradman, he says, could be very kind. "I had 70 in one match and he said to me, `Bill, we've got to get you to your hundred before the new ball.' He kept pushing singles and when I got to 100 he was 15 not out. But by the time I got to 120 he had passed me."

Brown is the fourth-oldest Test cricketer, behind the New Zealanders Eric Tindill and Jack Kerr (both 94) and South African Norman Gordon (93). A very correct player, he averaged 46.82 from 22 Tests and 51.44 in first-class cricket.

"I nearly came to England but my ticker plays up a bit. I will be watching, though. I don't know why England don't do better at Lord's. I think it's a combination of things but playing there lifts everyone."

And the modern game? "I think it's great but I don't like the sledging. I remember having a bit of banter with, say, Denis Compton, as he came to the wicket. But nothing would be said while he was batting."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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