I KNEW that he was dying.
He knew that he was dying.
But I asked the question anyway.
“How are you, Mr Close?” I enquired when I last spoke to him on the telephone in March.
Bob Appleyard, his former Yorkshire team-mate, had just passed away, and I had rung to ask for some words of tribute.
“Oh, I’m all right,” said Brian Close. “I’ve got a bit of a chest infection, but apart from that, I’m fine.”
A bit of a chest infection, as we both knew, was actually lung cancer, which, to anyone else, would have been one hell of a chest infection.
But Brian Close was quite simply one of the bravest men to have walked God’s earth.
He wanted to talk about Bob Appleyard, not his own savage illness.
Dennis Brian Close – “Closey to his friends, or DB” – lived life to the full.
He smoked like a chimney – and he drove like the wind.
He liked a bet, and no face-to-face interview could be conducted without him breaking off at some point to telephone his bookmaker or study a copy of the Sporting Life.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he would say, before nipping off outside with his fags and mobile phone.
Had he been more sensible, more self-disciplined, more steady Eddie, Close would surely have won considerably more than 22 Test caps, not fallen foul of the cricketing authorities and been a darn sight better off financially, too.
But had he been those things, he would not have been himself.
He would not have been a great character as well as a very great cricketer.
For although he averaged less than 35 with the bat and more than 25 with the ball, Close was a very great cricketer.
His record, in fact, did not do him justice.
Fred Trueman, born in the same month of February in 1931, felt that Close was more naturally talented than Garry Sobers, who is widely regarded as the greatest of all cricketers. Compliments do not come any higher.
But Close was never concerned with his own statistics or personal ambition.
As a captain, he had a saying: “The game comes first, the team comes second, and I come last.”
It was why he inspired such widespread devotion.
Close’s legacy is his unselfishness and especially his bravery.
It was a courage that struck a chord with every Yorkshireman who grew up watching him play.
For he was the type of Yorkshireman that they wanted to be. It would have been impossible, in fact, to imagine him hailing from any other county.
Stories of Close’s on-field bravery are legion.
He stood at short-leg, where he was seemingly so impervious to painful blows that he was the cricketing equivalent of Jaws.
“How can the ball hurt you?” he once asked. “It’s only on you for a second.”
Eric Morecambe famously said that all he had to do to find out when the cricket season had started was to listen out for the sound of Brian Close being hit by the ball.
He regularly came off the field beaten black and blue.
Indeed, it is genuinely terrifying now – in light of the tragic death of the Australian batsman Phillip Hughes – to watch footage of Close facing the West Indies’ pace attack in 1976 after he had been recalled to the team, aged 45.
Close – well past his prime and not wearing a helmet – somehow dodges bouncers from such as Michael Holding that whizz milimetres past his head.
“I should have been killed a few times on the cricket field,” he once said with glorious understatement.
In later years, Close served as Yorkshire president and did a typically whole-hearted job.
Typically, too, he displayed magnificent disregard for the national smoking ban.
In the end, the fags and the fast life apparently caught up with him, but not before he had improbably survived well into his ninth decade.
For he was one of life’s great survivors – not to mention someone who related easily to the man in the street, another great part of his appeal.
The phrase “we will never see his like again” is bandied around these days like cheap confetti.
In the case of Dennis Brian Close, it is indisputably true.