Brian Booth died on May 19, 2023, aged 89. He played made 1,773 runs at 42.21 in 29 Tests, led Australia twice, and was part of the field hockey squad at the 1956 Olympics. He was remembered in the 2024 Wisden Almanack.

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BOOTH, BRIAN CHARLES, MBE, who died on May 19, aged 89, was a slender, orthodox batsman – and excellent all-round athlete – who was a mainstay of the Australian middle order in the first half of the 1960s. He was also one of the most popular players of his era. Test leg-spinner Kerry O’Keeffe, a team-mate at Sydney’s St George club, called him a “truly great human. Averaged 42 in Tests, and had quicker hands than David Copperfield. He’d be a strong candidate to captain an Australian Best Blokes XI.” Bill Lawry, another member of that 1960s batting line-up, felt he was “one of nature’s gentlemen. If you had a son, and he was a Brian Booth, you’d be thrilled.”

Booth hailed from the New South Wales country town of Bathurst, where his father, “Snow”, who ran a market-garden business, would regale him with cricket stories. Brian shone at youth cricket weeks, as well as athletics and tennis, while his hockey was good enough to make the Australian squad for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. He eventually moved to Sydney, to train as a teacher.

He had already made his first-class debut before the Olympics kept him out of the 1956/57 cricket season. Two summers earlier, he had started with a duck against Queensland, before receiving an emergency call to face the England tourists at the SCG after two internationals suffered adverse reactions to injections ahead of Australia’s tour of the West Indies. Booth arrived late after being hoicked out of the classroom, and had to pad up quickly as New South Wales nosedived to 26-5. He survived for almost four hours to make a cultured 74 not out. Some consistent scores followed and, after the hockey hiatus, he crafted a maiden century, against Victoria in January 1958, putting on 325 with future Test team-mate Norm O’Neill, who battered 233 in around four hours.

After a quiet 1958/59 season, two productive  summers sealed a spot for the 1961 Ashes tour. By now 28, Booth made 1,279 runs at 44, including 46 on Test debut in the fourth match at Old Trafford (where Australia won by 54 runs to retain the Ashes) and 71 at The Oval, where Wisden saluted “a stylist who drove beautifully”. Against Lancashire, Booth was the only batsman the Australian cricket writer Ray Robinson ever spotted laughing after being out for 99: “He saw a comic side to losing his wicket to a bowler of the same name – Brian Booth from Blackburn.”

It heralded a successful run in the national side. Booth collected two centuries in the 1962/63 Ashes, and two more against South Africa the following season, including a Test-best 169 at Brisbane, where even the opposition captain, Trevor Goddard, admitted: “We didn’t mind the leather-chasing when he played so charmingly.” Back in England in 1964, he made 1,551 runs at 55 overall, with three county centuries and 98 in the Manchester runfest in which skipper Bob Simpson made 311. In Trinidad early in 1965, he made 117, and ran out Garry Sobers and Basil Butcher. By now, Booth was deploying a full range of shots. He stroked rather than hit the ball, using its pace to beat the field, and was equally at home on both sides of the wicket. Arguably his star turn was the late cut, which he seemed to cuff from out of the wicketkeeper’s gloves: “so late it was almost posthumous”, said John Arlott.

Booth had been Australia’s vice-captain since the retirement of Richie Benaud, and stepped up to lead in two of the 1965/66 Ashes Tests, after Simpson first broke an arm, then went down with chickenpox. It proved a poisoned chalice: Booth was out of form, and scraped together only 84 runs in the first three Tests before being dropped following an innings defeat at Sydney. Unusually, chairman of selectors Don Bradman explained the decision in a personal letter: “Never before have I written to a player to express my regret at his omission from an Australian Eleven. I am making an exception because I want you to know how much my colleagues and I disliked having to make this move. Captain one match and out of the side the next looks like ingratitude, but you understand the circumstances.”

Booth said he was “deeply moved” by the letter, but he never played for Australia again. “I understood why. My scores were not good enough. At some stage I knew I’d be passed over for someone performing better. Ian Chappell and Keith Stackpole came into the side, and were to have great careers.” There was one regret, though, as Lawry recalled: “The only time I ever saw him a bit upset was when he was dropped after playing 29 Tests, and the provident fund, which helped players financially, kicked in after 30. That probably said a lot about the Australian Cricket Board in those days.”

He carried on for New South Wales for three more seasons, and in 1967/68 led what would now be called an Australia A-Team to New Zealand, where he made a career-best 214 not out against Central Districts, and 179 in the fourth representative match at Auckland, putting on 212 with his old Test team-mate Peter Burge. They were the 25th and 26th centuries of Booth’s career, in which he averaged 45. A devout Christian, he was never at ease playing on Sundays, which was becoming more widespread. He retired, having calculated: “Over 14 seasons, I spent 1,000 days, or the equivalent of some three years, playing first-class cricket – all of this on leave without pay. But at no time did I feel hard done by.”

He returned to teaching, and remained a steady performer for St George until 1976/77, finishing with more than 10,000 runs and 100 wickets for them. The pavilion at the Hurstville Oval is named after Booth and Warren Saunders (another club stalwart, who also died in 2023). In 1983, he produced a slim memoir, Booth To Bat, and a few years later a handsome volume based on his 1961 Ashes tour diary. Greg Dyer, the former Test wicketkeeper who is now chairman of the Australian Cricketers’ Association, said: “Brian was a true gentleman – I can’t think of anyone more greatly admired and respected across the generations.”

Brian Booth led Australia at Test cricket and was part of their field hockey squad at the 1956 Olympics.