Bygones: Brian Sellers ‘tyrant’ behind Yorkshire glory years

Brian Sellers: A man with an insatiable appetite for victory.
Brian Sellers: A man with an insatiable appetite for victory.
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HE was one of the greatest county captains of all time, leading Yorkshire to six County Championships between 1932 and 1939 and to another on the resumption of cricket in 1946.

And he was Yorkshire’s cricket committee chairman when they won another seven Championships between 1959 and 1968, guiding Brian Close’s great side from behind the scenes.

Directly or indirectly, Brian Sellers was involved in the two most successful periods in the club’s history.

But he was also involved in the controversial departures of Close and Raymond Illingworth at the end of the Sixties and start of the Seventies, decisions which helped to dismantle the cricketing empire that Sellers himself had done much to create.

The clue as to why Sellers’s legacy has a yin and yang quality is reflected in the sub-title of a new biography of him.

Mark Rowe’s book, the latest in the Association of Cricket Statisticians Lives in Cricket series, is sub-titled “Yorkshire Tyrant”, which hardly conjures images of a conciliatory character.

Tall and thick-set, with a no-nonsense manner, Sellers was what might kindly be described as a disciplinarian.

Less kindly, he was a bully and an autocrat whose “very certainty that he knew what was best brought his downfall”, says Rowe, “and let his club in for decades of trouble”.

Born in Keighley, West Yorkshire, in 1907, Sellers was a modest batsman who might nowadays have got nowhere near the Yorkshire first team.

He averaged 23 in first-class cricket – effectively playing as a specialist captain in the days when amateurs led the team – and was primarily renowned for his skill in the field, where he would stand in suicidal positions a la Close, with whom he shared a capacity for bravery and the ability to inspire.

Had it not been for the fact that his father, Arthur Sellers, a former Yorkshire batsman, was chair of the club’s selection committee, Sellers junior might not have risen to prominence in the way that he did.

As it was, he led the side on his first-class debut against Oxford University in 1932, taking the reins permanently that summer after club captain Frank Greenwood was forced to prioritise business interests following his father’s death.

Charges of nepotism – subsequently pushed into the background as Yorkshire swept all before them in the 1930s – initially rumbled beneath the surface.

As Rowe relates: “Sellers took time to find the right voice. In old age Fred Trueman told how, according to ‘old players’, Sellers in his early days might say ‘my father says’.”

Rowe adds that George Macaulay, the great Yorkshire off-spinner of the inter-war period, replied to one such comment by saying: “Here’s t’ball then. Get your dad to come and bowl these b*****ds out.”

Despite his cricketing limitations, Sellers was a strong tactician who led from the front.

He won over his doubters by putting the team’s interests first and backing his players.

Like Close, he was not afraid to take a risk to win a game, further earning the respect of his men.

One writer recalled his “lust for victory”, while the Yorkshire and England batsman Len Hutton was reminded of “a house set on fire, set alight by the sudden flaring truth of the old maxim – a game is never lost until it is won.”

For all his nous and tactical acumen, which helped to mould Yorkshire into a formidable unit, Sellers had some outstanding players at his disposal.

The likes of Hutton, Herbert Sutcliffe and Percy Holmes were among the finest batsmen to have played the game, while pace bowler Bill Bowes and spinner Hedley Verity were also among the immortals.

In truth, the team were good enough to have captained themselves, perhaps just needing a slight guiding hand from time to time.

Indeed, writer and broadcaster John Arlott recalled a conversation on the subject of county captains with another great Yorkshire batsman of the period, Maurice Leyland, who tellingly said: “Nay, I don’t count captain in t’Yorkshire side, we do it with ten.”

That Sellers won acceptance was perhaps due as much to his performance in the bar room as on the cricket field.

A colourful man with a fund of stories, many of them unprintable, Sellers liked a drink and was wary of those who did not share his proclivities – not least a young Geoffrey Boycott.

Rowe prints a story from Boycott’s autobiography after Boycott had scored 126 not against Cumberland at Gargrave.

“We went into a pub and Sellers offered to buy a round. When it came to my turn and I told him I would like an orange juice he snorted with contempt.

“‘You can buy your own bloody orange juice. Fancy drinking orange juice...

“I didn’t know Sellers well at the time, though his power at Yorkshire was legendary and he was obviously a man used to giving orders and having his own way. There was no need for him to try and belittle a young man who quite simply did not like the taste of beer. I felt small and humiliated.”

Sellers did not care whom he offended.

Rowe describes his part in the sacking of Yorkshire spinner Johnny Wardle in the late 1950s, after Wardle had written a series of newspaper articles, and also his involvement in the departures of Illingworth and Close.

Illingworth left after Yorkshire refused to give him the security of a contract as he came towards the end of his career, Sellers booming: “Let him go, and he can take any bugger who feels t’same way.”

He then issued a resign or be sacked ultimatum to Close, whom Yorkshire felt was not encouraging young players sufficiently and was too critical of one-day cricket.

Close – himself one of the greatest of all county captains – resigned after Sellers gave him just 10 minutes to make up his mind.

Close wrote: “I drove away with my mind in a whirl. I wanted to cry – my vision misted up so much I had to stop and there, by the side of the road (Kirkstall Road), I was sick.”

Close went to Somerset, Illingworth to Leicestershire, and Yorkshire cricket descended into chaos.

Boycott was appointed captain, and the club went 33 years from 1968 without winning the Championship.

Sellers, who also sat on several committees at Lord’s and served as a Test selector, eventually stepped down, his legacy damaged.

A peculiar man, he was Yorkshire cricket’s answer to Henry VIII.

‘Brian Sellers: Yorkshire Tyrant’ by Mark Rowe is published by ACS Publications, priced £15.