Keith Miller

Godlike all-rounder with Don Bradman's 'Invincibles'
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The Independent Online

Keith Ross Miller, cricketer and journalist: born Sunshine, Victoria 28 November 1919; MBE 1956; twice married (four sons); died 11 October 2004.

No more overtly glamorous cricketer has emerged from Australia - or perhaps any other territory - than Keith Miller. He seemed to be consciously performing on the grassy stage, laughing, glaring, tossing back his longish hair, stalking from his slips position to his bowling mark - not that he bothered much with a measured run-up - and batting with cavalier flourish, even when defending. He also happened to be the world's outstanding all-round player for some years after the Second World War.

Miller was a mood cricketer. When boredom seemed to have overtaken him opponents breathed slightly more easily. Then the flash: his blistering speed and vicious bounce as a bowler and his acrobatic catching won Test matches for his country and Sheffield Shield titles for New South Wales, his adopted state. Only in the matter of the captaincy of Australia could his career be seen as unfulfilled. The authorities simply did not trust him. They saw him as capricious and too honestly outspoken.

The tall Miller's majesty at the crease was captured in a 1950 photograph, an upstanding square-cut. Australia's long-serving prime minister Robert Menzies, another passionate Anglophile, had the picture on his office wall as a source of inspiration.

Except when he lunged forward in defence, hair splashing over his forehead, or slapped his bat hard to the turf to complete his speciality late-cut, there was a strange delicacy about Miller's movements, his catwalk gait. Boys in Sydney in those days didn't bother trying to emulate him. It was beyond them. Someone more recognisable in the bloke-next-door sense was preferred as a role model: a Lindwall or a Harvey. There was something undeniably godlike about Miller.

He seemed to play better the greater the need, especially as a bowler. He took umbrage at opposition resistance, often blasting out the enemy with thunderbolts intermixed with an off-break or even a googly off five paces. His new-ball partner in so many victorious Tests was Ray Lindwall, a complete fast bowler, but it was Miller who was regarded with the greatest apprehension by the likes of England's master batsman Len Hutton.

So often, like his English pal Denis Compton, Miller would arrive breathless and late, held up in traffic on the Harbour Bridge, perhaps, or detained at Ascot. As his NSW players looked to him for direction as they took the field of play he would simply command them to "scatter". Once, it was spotted that there were 12 men in the field. Not for Miller, their leader, the frowning, hesitant calculation as to who should stand down as 12th man: "One of you bugger off then!" was his chosen quick solution.

One clue to his mental make-up was that he had had a dangerous, exciting war as a night bomber pilot in Mosquitoes over occupied Europe. There was much exhilaration - and much grief at the loss of many mates. That grief came back to haunt Miller heavily in his final years.

He therefore knew the difference between sport and war, as did all his generation, so that while he could be distinctly aggressive on a cricket field he was never unchivalrous and very seldom unsmiling. Everywhere he went he won hearts - many of them female - and he had an uncanny ability to remember people's names, apart, it has to be recorded, those of his four sons from time to time. He was a social lion in England, friend to one and all, including royalty. For summer upon summer, long after his retirement as a player, he returned to the old country he had once helped defend.

His work as a journalist and later in soccer-pools promotion provided the excuse. Lord's Cricket Ground was his spiritual home, and he was pleased when MCC commissioned his portrait in oils, to be hung in the Long Room in 1993. It remained an irritant to him that, in spite of numerous seasons of success as leader of NSW, at the Sydney Cricket Ground "they haven't even named a gents' urinal after me!"

In 1938, when only just into his 19th year, Keith Miller scored 181 for Victoria against Tasmania on his first-class début, and added another century (with Don Bradman and the veteran Clarrie Grimmett in the opposition) before war broke out. In wartime matches at Lord's he suddenly became a fast bowler of exceptional power, a talent that, coupled with his glorious batting, proclaimed him as the successor to Jack Gregory in the 1920s, the all-rounder Australia had been dreaming about.

Born in Sunshine, Victoria, in 1919 and named after the Smith brothers, who were about to complete their epic England-Australia flight, Keith Ross Miller thrilled the crowds at Lord's and elsewhere during the defiant summers of the early 1940s. One of his sixes, off Eric Hollies during a knock of 185 for the Dominions, crashed on to the roof of the commentary-box, threatening to brain Rex Alston.

Out of uniform at last, Miller was chosen for his first Test. Australia crushed New Zealand at Wellington in two days early in 1946. Later that year, now married to the American-born Peggy Wagner and transferred to Sydney as a liquor salesman and then trainee journalist, Miller made an instant mark on Ashes cricket with 79 followed by seven England wickets for 60 on a treacherous pitch at the Gabba. The first of his seven Test centuries came at Adelaide, and, after a moderate series against India in 1947-48, he was an automatic choice for the momentous 1948 tour of England.

Bradman's side was unbeaten in its 34 matches in the UK (they are immortalised as "The Invincibles"), and the fast attack of Lindwall, Miller and Bill Johnston imposed an iron grip through much of the series, which was won 4-0. Miller sometimes bowled little because of the discomfort from a wartime back injury, and when he declined to bowl at Lord's, tossing the ball back to his skipper, there were sharp intakes of breath all round. In the opening Test, Miller had sent Compton (184) sprawling into his wicket in semi-darkness, and there were six other good wickets in that match, including Hutton twice. But only six further wickets came in the remaining four Tests.

There had been another incident in the Essex match at Southend. Said to be lacking in appetite as the Australians reached 364 for two, Miller played a blithe, indeterminate stroke to his first ball and was bowled by Trevor Bailey. He was easily bored and he was always stubbornly his own man.

Not that he was averse to high run-scoring. Adding his first two innings on the 1948 tour to the first two on the next, in 1953, plus the first innings of his final tour (1956), gave a total of 795 runs for once out. And that was a run-out.

Miller's omission from the 1949-50 tour of South Africa was widely criticised and unsustainable. There had to be more to it than met the eye. However, he was soon called in as a replacement when Bill Johnston was hurt in a motor accident. Miller played a key part in Lindsay Hassett's 4-0 victory.

When England toured in 1950-51, during the Sydney Test Miller soon had his name splashed over the newspaper placards with an instinctive flying catch followed by the wickets of Hutton, Reg Simpson and Compton. Then, before his adoring crowd, he put together an unbeaten 145 against a depleted England attack to sew up the series with still two Tests to come.

In the next Test, at Adelaide, he carelessly got out for 99, his bat and Doug Wright's fizzing wrong 'un both striking his off stump. Australia went four up, but when Freddie Brown led England to that elusive victory at Melbourne in the final Test it began to appear that Australia's great post-war strength was receding.

Still, Keith Miller's force of character inspired further triumphs. A Sydney century and two five-wicket hauls contributed to the 4-1 demolition of the 1951-52 West Indians, though year later he did little of note against the young South Africa side which drew the series. His bad back continued to hamper him.

When Australia relinquished the Ashes in England in 1953, Miller's effectiveness was limited to a half- century at Nottingham and 109 at Lord's, where his popularity remained undimmed. On the tour overall he earned his modest fee, averaging 51 from 1,433 runs and taking 45 wickets.

Now, with Hassett's retirement, came another captaincy fandango. Miller, skippering NSW in 1953-54 (a no-Tests season) when they won the first of nine consecutive Shields, was the people's choice for the Australian leadership. With the appointment of Ian Johnson, a favourite of the establishment, Miller's chance was gone.

The Ashes series of 1954-55 and 1956 were both lost. And yet the Miller imprint kept reappearing. When England needed only 94 to win the match and the Ashes at Adelaide, Miller reawakened some of his old bowling fury to get rid of Hutton, Bill Edrich and Colin Cowdrey in three overs and then dived to catch Peter May at cover. It was 49 for four and Hutton was wringing his hands, saying: "The booger's doon us!" England did win, but A.G. Moyes wrote, "Miller lifted us out of our melancholy for a time." That was one of his specialities.

Miller slammed three centuries in the five Tests of 1955 in the Caribbean, the first, in Jamaica, being the highest (147) of his career. It was here that he captained Australia for the only time, taking over when Johnson was injured on the second day. His shrewd and bold command lent further weight to the conviction that he would have been a stimulating - not to say interesting - long-term leader.

One tour remained; to England in 1956, when Jim Laker (46 wickets in the five Tests) became Australia's bogeyman. Keith Miller, having been appointed MBE by Her Majesty's Government, fell to Laker six times in eight innings. But Lord's brought out the best again in the 36-year-old all-rounder. For the only time in his career he took 10 wickets in a Test, to become the inspiration behind Australia's sole victory of the summer. He raised his bat like some gladiator when his last Test innings at Lord's was done. And at the end of the match, in a moment of high theatre, he took the balls from the umpire and tossed them into the cheering throng at the base of the Warner Stand.

When Laker humiliated Australia in the next Test and Ian Johnson tried to lift his men with the assertion that his own off-spinners would be an effective response when England batted, Miller, ever the realist, chipped in with a crisp retort: "Six-to-four they don't."

After the one Test in Pakistan on his way home to retirement, his final Test figures were 2,958 runs (36.98) in his 55 matches, 170 wickets (22.98) and 38 catches. These numbers are not supreme, but much of the substance should be in Technicolor, for Miller's capacity for swinging matches was unsurpassed.

He made an appearance for Notts in 1959, when in his 40th year, scoring 62 and 102 not out against Cambridge University. And, when none of the invited Australians could be bothered going to Pakistan for a flood-relief charity match, Miller went, rising from retirement to uphold his country's pride and avert offence to Pakistan.

Having collaborated with Dick Whittington, a like soul, in several lively books, Miller pursued his newspaper career. His generosity of spirit sometimes gave way to vitriolic attack on latter-day cricket stars. Dennis Lillee was one whose sense of outrage was eventually soothed by meeting the great old-timer, who laughingly told him he was "paid good money to write that kind of shit". Lillee, like so many other moderns, was quickly taken by the charm and charisma still evident about Keith Miller.

Despite severe health setbacks - hip operations, cancer, a stroke - Miller bravely carried on, treating these afflictions like so many flies annoying him in the slips on a hot day. He remained incomparably thoughtful and gregarious, making long phone calls to friends around the world on birthdays or for the hell of it. He haunted the racetracks, smilingly shrugging off losing bets, and took continuing pleasure from classical music, which had been a strong bond between him and that most lyrical of cricket writers, Neville Cardus.

It now seemed of trivial significance to Miller that he had once hit the first ball of the day in an Adelaide Test match for six, or that at the SCG, while merely completing his broken overnight over, he decided to continue bowling and overthrew the hapless South Australians for 27 all out with a furious seven for 12 onslaught. And, as legend has it, in his rush to take the field, he had overlooked his socks.

Last year a statue of him was unveiled outside Melbourne cricket ground. He attended in his wheelchair with his second wife, Marie.

David Frith

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