“Tic-tac-toe, eight in a row”

England has swept away South Africa in the first Test in Port Elizabeth to take a one-nil lead in the five Test series. They eventually won by a comfortable seven wickets, following a South African second inning batting collapse.

The match was won mainly off the bat of Andrew Strauss – the Englishman with the Austrian name. He anchored the English first innings with 126 and then became the second batsman within a week to narrowly miss out on a pair of centuries in the same match (joining Langer). Strauss was left 94 not out in the winning chase of 3/145. A chase that had the shakes at 2/11 and 3/50. A chase that was also threatened by encroaching bad weather.

Some good bowling also saw them through with Hoggard returning to form and Simon Jones taking an important four wickets in the second innings.

England has now posted eight victories in a row – a record for England and equal fifth on the overall list of consecutive victories – in a year that goes from exciting to euphoric for the English cricket team. And as it turns out, Strauss has played eight Tests and known only victory. Of course, the record holder for that is A C Gilchrist with 15 victories and nobody is going to beat that.

So where does that leave England? Officially, they are second on the ICC Test rankings and I don’t think there could be any dispute that on current form, they are easily number two. How big is the gap between first and second? I don’t think that there is an Englishman who would dare utter aloud that they might be the best. But I wonder how many are secretly thinking it? All I can say is thank goodness that 2005 is an Ashes year and in less than eight months we will no longer be wondering. One thing seems assured: The next Ashes series will be the best (as in closely fought) series since hmmm – I’m not sure when.

A lot has changed for England since 2001, and even 2002-03. And not much has changed for Australia except that the boys are all a few years older. And last time I looked, McGrath, Gillespie, Warne and even Kasper were bowling rather well. The English summer of 2005 should hold the answers to some intriguing questions. And whichever way you look at it, those answers will be hard to swallow for some of those involved.

And now a digression on the subject of the consecutive Test victories list:

Looking at the list, I was interested to see a couple of surprises. The last time I looked at that record was when Australia was setting its 16 match winning streak. At that time, the mark to beat was 11 – set by Clive Lloyd’s West Indies team. And the next best was 8, by Armstrong’s Australians in the early nineteen twenties. So I was astonished to see that there are two new entries with 9 straight wins. A lot has been said about the overall lack of depth in Test cricket and this probably adds to the argument. Both Sri Lanka (2001 – 2002) and South Africa (2002 – 2003) had winning streaks of nine matches! I have two comments to make:

1. The first eight of Sri Lanka’s nine were at home. And in fact, they had played 13 straight Tests at home. The first seven of South Africa’s nine were at home (and they played nine straight at home) and the last two of the winning streak were against Bangladesh. It’s interesting that those teams played so many straight at home – I can’t think of a time where Australia would have played more than six. Not a criticism but it is interesting.

2. Of Sri Lanka’s nine wins, three were against Zimbabwe and one against Bangladesh. Of South Africa’s nine, four were against Bangladesh. Four “walk overs” each. Enough said on that.

Merry Christmas.

Memories of Hobart

Pakistan started the day well enough. In fact, with Australia at 5-78, just after lunch and Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami bowling very well, they were doing famously. Having put Australia in, they had them on the ropes.

But over the next two hours, through the two locals, Gilchrist and Langer, Australia first consolidated and then started to take the game away. This wasn’t a partnership of the proportions or gravity of Hobart 4-5 years ago, as Langer and Gilchrist miraculously and famously won a Test match, but nonetheless was significant. When Gilchrist fell for 69, the pair had added 152 and the score was 6-230. Not a commanding score, but anyone would take that after being 5-78.

The Australian top and middle order was undone by some good bowling and a couple of ordinary shots. Ponting was beaten by a good in ducker, having been feed a few away swingers, but it was a very careless shot. And Lehman’s dismissal was once again a disgrace. I’m afraid to say it was a typical Lehman dismissal as he walked right across his stumps and saw his leg stump knocked back. With Katich in the wings he Lehmann would do well to start playing more responsibly.

But the day belonged to Langer. He had just passed his hundred when Gilchrist went. With Gillespie, he built an 80 run partnership that really took the gain away from Pakistan and with his score at 181 overnight, he has the chance of back-to-back double hundreds.

And one final comment: The great Pakistani fast bowler and former captain (three times, I think, or was that four) is in the commentary box. And perhaps surprisingly (to me) he is beautifully and thoughtfully spoken. He says the Pakistani names very correctly and offers some interesting insights as a bowler and a Pakistani cricketer.

Oh, the score is 8/357. Pakistan bowled only 85 hours even though they went the full 30 minutes over. Run rate = 4.20

“I believe you owe me fifty bucks please, Mark”

One of the longest standing bets in cricket has finally been settled. It is quite well known that Steve Waugh had a $50 bet with brother Mark (and possibly Shane Warne too) that Glenn McGrath would score a first class half century. To that end, quite a few years ago, Steve Waugh became Glenn McGrath’s personal batting coach. While McGrath showed some improvement in style (he started to play some nice looking shots but was still unable to make contact with the ball on a regular basis), there wasn’t much promise.

Most of us thought that the bet would not be settled until the retirement of Glenn McGrath. However, yesterday, in what was truly a remarkable last wicket partnership, McGrath posted his half century late on the third day. And he did it in style: hooking, pulling, sweeping and driving. It is true that some of the hooks when over the wicket keeper’s head and some of the drives when over and through the slips but there were some good strokes as well. The highlight was a sweep from Vettori that went right into the crowd. Channel 9 was showing a lot of player reaction in the players’ viewing area – possibly a little too much but it was a great moment to see the delight (and amazement) of McGrath’s team mates as he put one over the fence. New Zealand had their chances: Vettori muffed a run out by dropping the ball right next to the bails (and knocking a bail off before the ball spilt onto the stumps) and McGrath was dropped twice in one over from the luckless Oram. The second effort from a skied sweep was a shocker.

When all said an done, McGrath was out for 61 on the fourth morning. Gillespie made 54 not out, also his first Test half century and the partnership had realised 114 runs. Only the third time in history and the first time for 80 years that an Australian last wicket had added more than 100 runs.

The shattered Kiwis proceeded to loose four quick wickets before lunch, McGrath taking the first three.

But it was the partnership between Clarke and Gilchrist that really sunk New Zealand. Both hit brilliant centuries in a display of stroke play that is rarely seen. Clarke brought up his century with a magnificent hook for four, from the last ball before lunch. In an over that drew obvious comparisons with the Steve Waugh century at the SCG a couple of seasons ago, Clarke hit 4 and 3 off the first two balls of the over, leaving Gilchrist to make a single from the penultimate ball before lunch.

This is the first time I have seen Clarke bat and there is a lot to be excited about. Just the fact that we are seeing a truly new, young batsmen is something of a novelty. Most “new” bloods in the Australian team over the past decade have been well known and at least pushing 30 (Lehmann, Langer, Martyn, Hayden etc). One has to go back Slater in 1993 for such unbridled enthusiasm and stroke play. Clarke’s stroke play and style have to be seen to be believed. The day after Clarke made 70 in the third Test in India, it was the spectacular nature of his innings that the commentators were raving about, not Martyn, who had made 97.His 141 yesterday had some truly astonishing stroke play. He flayed the ball over covers, pulled the ball straight down the ground for six as well as text book driving, cutting, pulling and hooking. And with Gilchrist going at full tilt at the other end, the partnership featured two players that truly do, and did, play all of the shots. The partnership added 216 runs in just 43.4 overs and was clearly the defining partnership of the match. When the pair came together, the Aussie score was still 131 behind the Kiwis. When the partnership was broken, Australia was comfortably placed, nearly 100 runs ahead.

At the end of the day, Steve Waugh was at least $50 richer and despite McGrath and Gillespie’s heroics, the 3rd day belonged to Gilchrist and Clarke.

Vale Keith Ross Miller [memorial edition]

Down through the cricketing ages, nicknames for players have been widely assigned. Most are variations of the players’ names and are rather unimaginative (eg Gillie, Marto, Lang, Both and even Braddles) and some focus on the player’s origins or some other personal detail (eg Punter, Junior, Tubby). It is rare for a nickname to bestow honour and acknowledge playing prowess – that after all, would be unAustralian: The player concerned might get a big head! I can think of one player who did receive that honour and his name was “Nugget” because he was worth his weight in gold.

Earlier this month (Monday, 11 October), Australians lost one of our greatest cricketers and almost certainly, the greatest all rounder that ever played for Australia. Keith Miller was one of the few remaining members of the 1948 “Invincibles”. He was about six weeks from his 85th birthday.

Being a young man, I never saw Miller play, save a few seconds of tantalising footage here and there. I never heard him speak, I never met him and in fact, I didn’t even lay eyes on him. Being a devout cricket follower, as well as a casual cricket historian, I have read much about cricket. And as it turns out, that, by definition, means that I have read a great deal about Keith Ross Miller. Most players like to discuss their most respected contemporaries in their auto biographies as well as their heroes. Miller is discussed by many in both capacities. I recently read Miller’s autobiography, Cricket Crossfire and that did not lessen my fascination for Miller the man or Miller the cricketer.

Miller was one of those fortunate human beings that seemed to have it all. His batting and bowling were both of Test standard. He was a big, handsome, strapping man and a magnificent athlete (and you all know that I am not gay). And he had charisma and flair in great abundance. His fielding both in the slips and in the outer was sensational. But to simply state that Miller’s skills were of Test standard does not go far enough. Without even trying, Miller possessed an aura that has not been seen before or since. His batting, while classical, was aggressive, bold and expansive, and combined power and timing. His bowling was pace bowling at it fiercest and his “devil may care” attitude endeared him to the masses, even if it did cost him at times with the authorities.

Miller also played first grade VFL for St Kilda in his younger days. Similarly, his great opening bowling partner, Ray Lindwall, also played first grade football – Rugby League with Sydney club, St George. Miller and Lindwall formed one of the greatest fast bowling partnerships of all time. They were also great friends. Of course, as careers become longer and more cricket is played, their record in volume of wickets slips further down the ladder. However, for me, the combination of Miller and Lindwall is a match made in heaven and is unsurpassable. Not only were both men bowlers of the very highest order but they were both wonderful athletes and hard hitting batsmen to be reckoned with (one should not forget that Lindwall has two Test centuries to his name).

Miller’s Test career started in 1946 against New Zealand, immediately after The War. Indeed the war almost certainly robbed Miller of a few years of Test cricket. The war cost Miller far more than that in cricketing terms. A serious back injury from crash landing his Mosquito plagued his career and one can only wonder how much better his bowling could have been. Miller played until late in 1956 and played in 55 Test. He scored 2958 runs at 36.97 (with 7 centuries) and took 170 wickets at 22.97.

To my knowledge, Miller is the only Australian to feature on the honour boards in the rooms at Lords for both batting (scoring a century) and bowling (five wickets in an innings). Miller scored 109 in 1953 and took five wickets in both innings in 1956.

I’m not going to run through Miller’s career in chronological order. Rather, I’m going to relate some of the moments that would seem to be highlights and also share some of the brief stories and quotes that I have come across that particularly appeal to me.

I am fortunate enough not to know what it is like to live through a war, let alone fight in one. Miller’s life must have been shaped by war in some of the ways that a whole generation was effected. John Arlott, Sergent of Police, poet and cricket tragic knew Miller from mid-war and is the source of some excellent Miller quotes. He said that when he met Miller in London in 1943, Miller was fighting with the RAAF, flying fighters and “was busy living life as though he were about to run out of it.”

Miller’s outlook on life and cricket would seem to have been very different to that of say, Sir Donald Bradman. I’m not suggesting that Miller has a distain for authority but perhaps a strong desire not to stand on ceremony. He said very clearly himself that he regarded cricket very much as a game and not to be taken too seriously. A couple of short stories illustrate this very well. From Miller’s own book (paraphrased):

On the 1948 tour of England, the Australians ruthlessly slaughtered English county attacks. In Miller’s opinion, far more than was necessary or even useful for the Australian team. There were times when the lower order did not get a bat and where the bowlers could have done with some practice. On one famous day, Australia scored 721 in a single day against Essex. Bradmanhimself made 187. When Miller’s turn came to bat, he took guard, took a “windy woof” at the first ball he faced, making no serious attempt to connect and over went the castle. Miller turned around, surveyed the damage and said to the ‘keeper, “Thanks God that’s over.”.

Another incident is discussed by Miller, but it is the words of Michael Parkinson (who became firm friends with Miller) that make better reading. Also paraphrased:

It was the first Test after the war in Australia in 1946-47 in Brisbane. Australia had made a monumental score on the back of centuries from Bradman and Hassett and good supporting scores from McCool and Miller himself (79) . England were now caught on a sticky wicket (for those of you who don’t know, wickets in Australia were uncovered at that time and rain turned them into a sticky quagmire – very good for the bowlers). Miller had England’s innings in a mess and eventually took 7-40. Bradman beseeched Miller to really bend his back and “give ’em a few” [short deliveries] while they were down. Miller’s perspective was that the men he was playing with had recently returned from risking their lives in a horrific war, in which he himself had served. Why should he trying killing them with a cricket ball when he bowling was proving quite effective as it was? Sir Don suggested that Miller needed to take his cricket more seriously. Miller’s famous reply was “Don, it’s a bit hard to be serious about cricket when you have had a Messerschmitt up your arse.”

Miller burst on to the scene during the “Victory Tests” played immediately after the war. These Tests were played in 1945 in the interests of boosting morale – and that they did. They were a great success and Miller was at the centre of attention, scoring two centuries (including one at Lords) and taking wickets with his express bowling. Miller returned to Lords later in the year, playing for The Dominions against England. He scored 185 at Lords in an innings that included seven sixes, one of which broke into the famous Long Room. “Plum” Warner (who among other things was England’s manager on the bodyline tour) said “In an experience of over 60 years of first class cricket, I have never seen such hitting.”

Miller captained NSW for many years, for several Shield victories. Richie Benaud idolised him and states in his auto biography that Miller was the best cricket captain ever to live, save none. It is a sad that Miller never captained his country and in truth, he probably should have taken over when Hassett retired. But instead, Ian Johnson got the job. There is much conjecture as to why Miller was overlooked but it can probably be summed up in one word: Bradman.

Miller, while openly respecting Bradman, did have his differences. In probably the biggest shock in Australian selection history, Miller was not initially selected for the 1949-50 tour of South Africa. Fortunately for all (except Bill Johnston), Miller had to replace Johnston who was injured in a car accident, and played in all of the Tests. Perhaps it is coincidence that Bradman had just joined the selection panel for the naming of that squad and that Miller had recently given him a “touch up” with a spate of bouncers during a charity match. And perhaps not.

Miller was the complete cricketer. He could do it all and most importantly, when it mattered. It seems appropriate to return to John Arlott in closing. He said, “If I had my choice of a player to win a match off the last ball, whether it required a catch, a six or a wicket, I would pick just one player – Keith Ross Miller.”

Rest in Peace.