Arthur Morris, born January 19, 1922, was batted with elegance and carried himself with incomparable charm. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who was hailed by many as the greatest batsman of the world when Don Bradman retired.
Not too many men can claim to have overshadowed Don Bradman in a Test series. Arthur Morris can.
It was the farewell series of the master. On each ground he was cheered by the thousands who had queued up to watch his final appearance. As he led his Invincibles through that incredible romp in England, the crowds thronged to watch his exploits. And he did not disappoint. The duck in the last innings stopped his career average from spilling across the hundred run mark. But, Bradman did get 508 runs in the five Tests, at an average of 72.57.
Yet, the left-handed opening batsman, with his penchant for back-foot strokes, did even better. Morris finished the series with 696 at 87.00, with three superlative centuries.
Years later, while lunching with a business associate, Morris remarked that he had watched Bradman’s last innings duck from the other end. His companion was surprised to know that Morris had been there at all, let alone as the non-striker. Morris, incidentally, had scored 196 in that innings. It had been cruelly overshadowed by Bradman’s zero.
During that tour and later, Bradman was effusive in his praise of the young man. In Farewell to Cricket, he devoted several pages to Morris, marking him out as the greatest batsman of the new generation.
The great man had watched him closely, sometimes for hours, from the other end. At Leeds, set 404 to win, Bradman and Morris had added 301 for the second wicket. Bradman had been shaky early on, struggling against the occasional left-arm wrist-spin of Denis Compton, dropped in the slips at the start of his innings. With plenty of runs to play with, captain Norman Yardley had kept the field well up. Morris had exploited it to plunder boundaries. His hundred had come with as many as 20 hits to the fence. The initiative had been wrested, paving the way for an Australian win by a huge margin of seven wickets.
On achieving the incredible victory, Morris did not pause to celebrate. With Ian Johnson for company, he hopped on a train to London to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
During the tour, Morris received some sound guidance from Bradman: “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it.” Morris enjoyed excellent rapport with his captain and picked his brain often enough in case of doubt, but he considered this piece of advice as the most useful.
By the end of the trip, he was hailed as the greatest batsman in Australia, now that Bradman had called it a day. Neville Cardus, who had called his batting style ‘loose’ when Morris had emerged on the scene, had changed his verdict to“masterful, stylish, imperturbable, sure in defence, quick and handsome in stroke play. His batting is true to himself, charming and good mannered but reliant and thoughtful.”
Ups and downs
Morris, who had made his debut against England in the Goodwill series of 1946-47, had failed in his first two Test matches, but had scored a hundred in his third – batting through the fourth day and waiting for the loose balls.In the following Test, in a blisteringly hot Adelaide, Morris had notched centuries in each innings, becoming the second Australian to achieve the feat in an Ashes Test after Warren Bardsley. This had led EW Swanton to write, “Morris set himself up as a number one for Australia for a while to come…Arthur at his best looked out of the top draw, a left-hander with all the strokes.”
In fact, by the time Morris played his first matches, he was more of a finished product than a promising talent. He had made waves as early as 1939, as a 18-year old schoolboy, slamming centuries in each innings of his First-Class debut – the first time such a feat was accomplished in history. However, the Second World War intervened, and Morris served in the South West Pacific, mostly in New Guinea. Six prime batting years were lost to the mayhem, but Morris maintained, “Lost years … but a lot of people lost their lives.”
When Australia toured South Africa in 1948-49, Morris, riding on the form of his life, was appointed vice-captain. The vastly experienced Lindsay Hassett was chosen for the top job, but only after Morris lost out 7-6 on a vote across the board.
The stylish batsman started the tour with a duck, but recovered to score two hundreds in the last two Tests as Australia won 4-0. At this stage of his career, he had scored 1830 runs from 19 Tests at an average of 67.77 with nine hundreds. The world seemed his to conquer with the feats of his willow.
Sadly, it was the last really successful series he managed to play. In the next Ashes series, played in Australia, Alec Bedser gave him a torrid time, aiming at his leg stump with catchers in the leg slip. Morris countered by taking guard outside the leg stump, but the dismissals followed thick and fast – leading commentators to claim that Bedser had a hoodoo on him. He was also branded Bedser’s bunny. In the fourth Test at Adelaide, Hassett shielded him from Bedser during the initial phase of his innings and Morris used this help to bat over a day and a half to score a career-best 206. A visibly relieved Bradman, glad that his protégé was back among runs, called the innings faultless. But, even this huge innings could only inch his series average to 35.66.
Bad days continued as Morris failed miserably against the visiting West Indians. During this series, he also led his first Test match when an injury side-lined Hassett. On a rain affected pitch, Morris opted to bat and Australia was bundled for 82 – finally losing the match by six wickets.
His return to England, a land of happy memories and gallant conquests, also could not revive his form. Poor scores continued, and this was made worse by an affliction of the heart. Morris came across Valerie Hudson, an English showgirl, while she performed in the Crazy Gang vaudeville show at London’s Victoria Palace, and soon he was hopelessly in love.
Morris continued to score heavily in First-Class cricket, but his touch did not return in Test matches. Yet, with the retirement of Hassett, he was one of the names considered for captaincy.Finally, veteran off-spinner Ian Johnson was recalled and put in charge, with Morris being appointed his deputy.He managed a hundred in the opening Test, his first in four years – and led the side in the second Test – again as a makeshift captain. Australia lost by 38 runs, collapsing to Frank Tyson’s express pace. Morris failed miserably in that Test as well as the ones subsequent matches of the series.
Things looked brighter in the sunny islands of the Caribbean. In the tour that followed in 1954-55, Morris managed 266 runs at 44.33 in four Tests, with a century in the second match.
However, on his return to Australia he discovered that Valerie, now his wife, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had kept it hidden from him, fearing it would affect his cricket. But, now, as he realised that his wife’s condition was terminal, he decided to stay close to her during the remaining days of her life, and retired from cricket at the age of 33.
His final figures read 3533 runs from 46 Tests at an average of 46.48 with 12 centuries. After the peaks reached in England in 1948, and standing on the brink of greatness during the South African summer that followed, his career had gone spiralling downwards. His last 27 Tests brought him 1703 runs at a lowly 34.75 with just three hundreds. However, his class was never in doubt.
History still rates him as one of the best left-handed batsmen ever produced by Australia – alongside Clem Hill, Neil Harvey, Allan Border and Michael Hussey. Elegant and aggressive, he was particularly noted for his back-foot play – pulling and hooking fearlessly. Ray Robinson wrote, “no other post-War batsman has rivalled his smashing counter-attacks on bowling swift enough to give the toughest team the tremors…A menacing bouncer colliding with Morris’ bat was like a rocky fist against an iron jaw.” Once, during a Sheffield Shield match, Keith Miller had bowled him five consecutive bouncers. Morris had hooked four boundaries before playing a jump and smash towards long-on for three off the last one.
In the present day, he actively watches cricket and is often filled with bewilderment.
He wonders about the logic behind committing oneself on the front foot as the modern cricketers do. “When you put your weight on the front foot, unless you’re very agile, there’s not much you can do after that. You can’t pull or cut properly. You can’t work the ball. And you’re losing over a metre of watching the ball,” he told The Age in an interview a year ago.
He also cannot fathom the modern inclination of hugging each other on the cricket field. “It never occurred to us. My captain in grade cricket was Bill O’Reilly. If I’d put my arm around him, I wouldn’t have played cricket again,” he says.
Once when he had accompanied Harold Larwood to the Sydney Cricket Ground, and had met Geoff Boycott at the nets.The old fast bowler had asked, “You enjoying yourself out here?” Boycott had replied: “I didn’t come out here to enjoy myself, Harold. I came out to play cricket.”
Arthur Morris could never understand that attitude either. He was a great batsman simply because he loved every moment that he played the game.
What characterised Morris was the great spirit and cheer he brought with him, winning hearts with stroke-play and charm. Swanton wrote of him: “What the figures do not say is that few more charming men have played for Australia, and I cannot name one who was more popular with his opponents.”
John Arlott agreed, “One of the best liked cricketers of all time — charming, philosophical and relaxed.”
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)