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.