If we don’t tell our stories, we lose our history. And if we lose our history, we lose part of who we are.
In this week’s episode, we look back on an aspect of our recent history—or rather on a person of our recent history, who in his day was one of the most famous Christians in Australia. His name was Brian Booth. We’re glad to welcome his grandson, Nathan Anderson, to our conversation this week to tell us about Brian Booth’s life and ministry, and to reflect on the lessons that can be learned.
Brian Booth and the Christian Walk
Tony Payne: Phillip, Brian Booth was a great Christian man. Why should we know about him?
Phillip Jensen: Knowing our history is such an important thing because it is a matter of understanding yourself—where I've come from, how did I get to where I am, how it shapes the way I think. Of course, as Christians, it is natural to think about history, because our God is the Creator who has worked through the history of humanity to bring about his purposes and the salvation of mankind. Christians are the creators of history in that sense. But in our society, history is now being downplayed as our society moves away from Christianity. And the Christian aspect of our history is being almost completely obliterated.
So it's important that we do remember the men and women who have made such a contribution to the way in which we live. That’s why Nathan is with us to tell us about his grandfather, Brian Booth, who died only recently.
Nathan Anderson: Yes, he died in May this year. He was 89, so he didn’t quite make the nervous nineties.
PJ: He was a very important man in the Christian circles of Australia. But he was also important for other reasons than just his Christianity, although his Christianity shaped everything he did really. So what was he most famous for?
NA: Well, he played 29 test cricket matches for Australia in the 1960s and made his debut in 1961 at Old Trafford in England. And he also played a lot of Sheffield Shield cricket.
PJ: And what was his batting average in these tests?
NA: I haven't gotten down to the decimal place, but it's about 42.
PJ: I looked him up the other day and he was the 40th highest batting average for an Australian batsman.
NA: Yes, and he was captain of Australia in two tests, one draw and one loss, and that loss as captain was his 29th and final test for Australia—which was unfortunate, because if he’d made it to 30 matches, he would have had access to a fund for cricketers in their retirement. So he missed out by one match on getting a bit of financial assistance, which was quite important back then.
PJ: Yes, it was important back then because they weren't professional cricketers.
NA: No, not many of them.
PJ: How can you play test cricket as an amateur? How did they do that?
NA: Well, you had to take leave from your job. When my grandfather had to go overseas to England, it was about seven and a half months to travel there and back with a few games in between. Six weeks on the boat, roughly, and they effectively got paid enough to get by each day, but not much profit. My mother was actually born on his way back from England. He was on a boat and he got a telegram saying, “Your first daughter's just been born. Mother and baby both well.” And it was two weeks before he got to see them.
PJ: He also played hockey for Australia at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 which was the first time hockey was played in the Olympics.
NA: Yes, the team was actually known as ‘The Originals’ and a speech was given before the Olympics in which it was said, “You may lose every game, you may win every game, but you'll always be known as The Originals.”
PJ: And he was a school teacher by profession. What did he teach?
NA: Physical education.
PJ: Well, that fits in well! Now there's a funny story about his first major cricket game. Could you tell us that story?
NA: Yes, so he was teaching at Hurlstone Park Agricultural High School in Glenfield. And he got a call into the headmaster's office one day and the voice on the other end of the line said, “Arthur Morris unavailable to play today for New South Wales. Can you make it in this morning?”
So my grandfather couldn’t believe it and he asked his headmaster who says, “Yes, of course, go on.”
So he leaves the school, gets on a train. It took 70 minutes from Hurlstone Agricultural into Central. And then he found a taxi, which he said took almost as long as the train if not longer—or at least it felt like it.
The NSW team were playing the MCC, which is essentially the English cricket team. By the time he arrived at the cricket ground and looked up at the scoreboard, NSW was already 3 for 12, which is a disastrous score. By the time he was padded up, they'd lost a further two wickets. NSW was about 5 for 26 by the time he actually made it to the crease. And the ground announcer said, “Booth to bat”, which ended up being the name of his autobiography. He ended up top scoring that day with 72. He would have been 22 years old, I think.
PJ: Did he come from Sydney?
NA: No, he grew up in Perthville, near Bathurst; a small town with less than 150 people. There were 27 kids in the local primary school there and only 3 kids in his year group.
His dad was a cauliflower farmer, whose nickname was Snowy Booth because he went bald pretty early. They played cricket in the local competitions and were fairly well known throughout the district. Brian’s first game of cricket was with his father in the local men's team because they didn’t have a juniors comp or anything like that. So he got to bat at number 11. And his dad at number 10. And so he cherished that partnership, and I think he outscored his dad.
TP: Was he a Christian at that time?
NA: His parents would take him to church and he was encouraged to go to church as a young man. But it wasn't until he actually moved to Sydney that he fully committed his life to Christ.
TP: How did that happen?
NA: So as with a lot of things in his life, it did involve cricket. He had moved from Bathurst into Sydney on a scholarship with a teacher's college back in the late 40s, early 50s, into an area which would now be Hurstville. He boarded with a family and the mother suggested that he go visit a person by the name of Warren Saunders—who sadly passed away in March this year. And so he met Warren around Hurstville oval; they tried him out, put him straight in first grade.
And after playing a game of first grade one day, this gentleman walked across the change room to have a bit of a chat with him and gave him a bit of technical advice. When the man left, grandpa asked, “Who was that guy?”
And they said, “That's Roy Gray, a fantastic cricketer in his own right. He probably could have played cricket for Australia. I don't know why he ended up going into the ministry and throwing it all away.”
And so grandpa, who still believed in God but nothing too personally, one day saw a noticeboard outside the church in Hurstville and decided to go to one of the church services, and Roy Gray was the minister there at Hurstville. Over a series of weeks they met up and talked about a whole range of topics—sport, life, all those different things. And one night Roy just point blank asked the question, “Brian, do you know the Lord Jesus at a personal level?”
Grandpa was completely taken aback by it because no one had really asked him that at a personal level. And Roy actually used John 3:16, saying, “For God so loved Brian Booth that he gave his one and only Son so that if Brian Booth believes in him, he shall not perish but have eternal life.” And he was just so struck by the fact that it was Jesus dying for him. Making it so personal was quite a big thing for grandpa and Roy also used Romans 3:22-23. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” which did away with the classic “I'm good enough” attitude. And that was that night that he committed his life to Christ.
TP: What were the initial consequences of him committing his life to Jesus in terms of his life, his ministry, his involvements? Did it change his cricket and the way he lived?
NA: He certainly had a greater focus on sportsmanship. In one of the articles he mentioned, “I viewed sport as my god, before I converted.” Because he was just so enamored with all different sports—cricket, hockey, tennis, all those things. But afterwards he became known as quite a good sportsman who played by not just the rules of the game, but the spirit of the game as well. And it changed his life bit by bit, and after a while everyone knew he was a Christian.
TP: In terms of ministry, what sort of things did he get involved in as a young Christian man?
NA: So when he was teaching at Hurlstone Agricultural, he started up a Bible study. Because it was a boarding high school, they had kids from the country and other places that stayed on site. So it started with, I think, two or three boys after dinner, so as not to disturb everyone from their activities. And eventually, it grew so large they had to move it before dinner because it was disturbing all the people trying to go to sleep after dinner.
He then took many of those boys to the Billy Graham crusade in 1959. And many of the boys committed their lives to Christ for the first time there, and many of them ended up going into ministry as well. And he was quite involved in the Billy Graham crusade, particularly in 1959 and the 1968-69 crusades. He would then be one of the mentors to help those that committed their lives to Christ—chat with them, pray for them and so on.
And then at a church, he had helped out particularly in the Sunday school programs. My nan—his wife—was a primary school teacher. So they wrangled, I think at one point, about 400 primary school aged kids at Sunday school every Sunday morning. So it was a pretty big effort there. And then during the last 40-50 years of his life he was at Narwee Baptist Church. Across his career he was asked to help out with different speaking engagements and he was often characterized as a lay preacher because he didn't really go into ministry or do the formal training but would speak from his experience as a test cricketer and as a Christian and how those worlds intersected. In Adelaide before a Shield game, he was invited to deliver a sermon. In England in ‘61 and ‘64, he delivered the message at a couple of churches; and in the West Indies with Wes Hall and a few other well-known Christians.
PJ: He was certainly a great cricketer, and a dual international sportsman, which is extraordinary, but he really was known as the most upright sportsman of cricket. Because cricket is a game in which it is very easy to cheat. And Australians have got a very bad reputation in recent times, not only for cheating, but for being unpleasant in the way in which they play the game. But your grandfather was nothing like that. In fact he was almost the opposite.
NA: Indeed, he wrote an article in Wisden Australia in the early 2000s entitled “The Curse of Sledging” which was quite critical of Steve Waugh and the approach in which they took their cricket. But even during his own time, he was known for ‘walking’.
TP: Can you explain what ‘walking’ is for our many listeners who won’t understand that term?
NA: So in cricket, sometimes you very slightly hit the ball and get caught, but the umpire gives it ‘not out’ because he didn’t think you hit it. Now most batsmen would think, “Oh, what a wonderful reprieve! I'll continue my innings.” But Grandpa was one of those cricketers who, if he knew that he’d snicked the ball, would just walk off, regardless of what the umpire said. He’d give himself out, you could say. It was a rare cricketer who did that.
TP: It is certainly very rare these days. It was a little more common in the past as being the gentlemanly thing to do. If you knew you were out, you walked off, even if the umpire hadn't spotted it. Some modern cricketers have done it—Adam Gilchrist used to do it from time to time and was criticized for it in this day of professionalism and win at all costs. But your grandfather was certainly one of those people who ‘walked’ and was known for it.
PJ: How did he cope with the issue of Sunday sport?
NA: Well, that in many ways was what led to the end of his career at the higher levels. Initially, for many years, they had a rest day for test matches and Sheffield Shield matches where even if a match started on a Friday, they played Friday and Saturday, rested up on Sunday, and continued the game on Monday. So when they started playing through Sunday, he felt as a Christian that he should take a rest day for himself and not train and play sport seven days a week. But obviously, if they're now playing on Sundays, you can't excuse yourself for a day and just come back for the next day or two. So after one last match in the late 60s where he played for NSW in South Australia (because it was the only state where Sunday was still taken as a rest day), he retired from the state level of cricket.
TP: The interesting thing about his Christian witness is that it was very noticeable. Everyone commented on it. Kerry O’Keefe in his biography wrote very glowingly about Brian as a Baptist and as someone who was a moral and decent person, who “didn't shove it down your throat”. He was transparent and open, but admirable in the gentle way that he witnessed. Gideon Haigh in his article says, “He may have been the most straightforwardly decent and self-effacing cricketer to hold the country's highest cricket office.”
What's your impression of him as to how he managed to be an open and straightforward Christian, but in a way that others really admired?
NA: He wasn't a Pharisee; he wasn't setting down the legal law and expecting everyone to come under that banner. Particularly perhaps with his own background and playing a fair bit of professional sports, you come across many different characters. But even in the change room, he often just let the others do what they wanted to do, say the things they wanted to say. He wouldn't involve himself in what they were doing, but he also wouldn't berate them for their beliefs. There were a few occasions where certain cricketers’ attitudes weren't particularly good, and he’d have a quiet word one-on-one rather than make a big scene out of it in the change room in front of the whole team, which they particularly appreciated too.
He wasn't a heavy drinker, wasn't a gambler, or any of those sorts of things. At one point their team was conducting a Melbourne Cup sweepstakes, but rather than joining in, the captain put grandpa in charge of the money.
TP: And how did you know him as a grandfather? What struck you as a Christian grandson of a Christian grandfather?
NA: Well, growing up it was every kid's dream to have a grandfather who played test cricket for Australia; there was a sense of pride there. I was always happy to be known as Brian Booth’s grandson. He was very, very gentle, calm and loving as a grandfather. And particularly as I became a teenager and on to adulthood, the more I started thinking about Christianity a bit more seriously, the more I appreciated who he was as a Christian and how we went about his faith as well, which was always something quite special. He never pushed, but always encouraged us in our own faith journeys. We'd have many family lunches and it was enjoyable to spend time with him, not even because he was a test cricketer or an Olympian, but just because he was my grandfather, a loving man with a very good sense of humor right till the end.
PJ: You met with him in the end while he was in hospital?
NA: I did. He was in hospital just prior to Easter, for the following six weeks after that, and almost every day or every second day I was visiting. It was certainly a time I hold quite dear to me. And one evening I noticed he had a Bible next to his bed and the inscription in the front of it said from 1964, from Howard Guinness, who had founded the Evangelical Union at Sydney University where I had spent a bit of time. It was given to him as a gift from Howard Guinness and his Church ahead of his 1964 tour. And it was just meticulously noted, highlighted on almost every page. And there was one evening where I sat down with him, flicked over a few pages, and we just read through different bits and pieces of what he had highlighted and underlined. And I pretty much had a two-hour Bible study with my grandfather that night, which was incredibly special.
PJ: Absolutely. And it's wonderful, isn't it, to hear that the public Christian was such a private Christian too. There was just such authenticity about him, such genuine reality in this man.
NA: Yes. Whether it was the public Brian Booth at a cricket function or grandpa sitting down for lunch, it was the same man.
PJ: It's always a great problem for us when there are big personalities—big famous people in arts or sports or anything like that—and we get them to give testimonies about life but then finding out they're living a double life. Brian was never like that. He never was the ‘great testimony’ necessarily, but he was just himself and people knew.
TP: And it was part of the effectiveness of his ministry. It wasn't that he sought fame or sought to be a big Christian celebrity in any sense; it was simply because he was well-known and was a genuine Christian. And whenever he spoke, he spoke with integrity and reality. And people love to hear that.
NA: Yes, and that was one of the reasons he actually didn't go into ministry. He had written a couple of books with Paul White—aka The Jungle Doctor. The first was his autobiography called ‘Booth to Bat’, which they made just after he finished his playing days. But he also wanted to write another book that got across elements of his faith and have a few lessons in there. So a few years after his autobiography, they wrote ‘Cricket and Christianity’. It’s interspersed with stories from his cricketing career, but also the Christian lessons attributed to that. He even put a few Bible passages in there to get people looking at the Word of God and not just reading ‘Christian lessons’.
Many people had approached him about perhaps going into ministry, and grandpa at one point even considered going to mission. But I think it was Paul White, amongst a few others, who encouraged him to continue being a Christian public figure rather than a minister.
PJ: But he still was an educator as well, yes?
NA: Yes, he was at the Sydney Teachers College until the 90s I believe.
PJ: Because we're cricket tragics, we're talking about cricket, but your granddad also wrote a book on hockey, didn’t he?
N: Yes, he did—”Hockey Fundamentals”, which was basically just a guidebook for how to play hockey and bits of sportsmanship. But even after his playing days, he coached for many, many years in both hockey and cricket and imparted some of his wisdom as well. He was actively involved with the St. George Cricket Club until probably March this year at the end of the season, and the hockey club actually has a best and fairest medal named after him for the entire Sydney competition. And I only heard this story for the first time at the wake: they introduced the Brian Booth Medal while he was still playing. And one year, he was actually in the lead to win the Brian Booth Medal. And so he removed himself from the counting as he didn't think it was right that he would win his own medal. And it just speaks volumes about who he was.
PJ: And he is certainly the man to make a medal after him the best and fairest.
TP: Yes, indeed. Nathan, thanks so much for coming in and talking with us about your granddad. It's a great example of someone who became a public Christian but who didn't seek to become one; it was simply because he was an extraordinary man with extraordinary talents and gifts, and therefore became a prominent public person and hero in Australia in his time. And yet, in all of that, he was calmly, self-effacingly, clearly and unashamedly a Christian. And it showed in his witness, his behavior, his character, and in the way he played the game. It showed in the way he carried himself and how he spoke to his teammates and how he witnessed for Christ in the middle of all of it. He's a great person for us to know about, who is part of our history and whom we can seek to emulate as one of the cloud of witnesses cheering us on from that great grandstand in the sky.
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