The spectacular Colin Milburn was born on October 23, 1941. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the characters of the sport whose career came to a cruel end in its early days.
Colin Milburn did not resemble a cricketer from any angle. He weighed 18 stones (about 114 kilograms) and was so plump that he earned the nickname ‘Ollie’ (after Oliver Hardy of Laurel and Hardy fame). Despite that he was deceptively light on his feet and often moved too fast for the comfort of the opposition.
Even Wisden, in all their seriousness, wrote that Milburn “had been marking each passing birthday by adding a stone in weight” and added that Milburn was “the largest man to play First-Class cricket in England since Warwick Armstrong in 1921.”
It was unfortunate, even cruel, that Milburn’s career came to a premature end due to a car accident that damaged his left eye for good (his right eye was injured as well). Of course, ‘Tiger’ Pataudi had braved the same and had made a comeback — but unfortunately Milburn’s damage was too serious for a recovery. More importantly, Pataudi’s major damage happened to his right eye — which was not the ‘key’ eye when he took stance.
Milburn remains one of the greatest characters of the sport. Seldom seen without that contagious smile of his, he was one of the most popular cricketers of the era. Whether as a youngster or a senior cricketer he had that rare ability to mingle with any teammate, or for that matter, anyone around him.
In his book If the Cap Fits Colin Bateman wrote that Milburn “had an infectious zest for the game and life.” ‘Zest for life’ is perhaps the truest phrase ever spoken of Milburn: never was a moment wasted in a sour mood; Milburn’s presence was all about fun and frolic, of joy and laughter.
It does not mean that Milburn was not an outstanding cricketer. One of the cleanest hitters of the cricket ball, Milburn’s philosophy of batting was simple: “I just try and hit the ball. It is my way of playing the game and I want it to stay that way.” It did stay that way for the rest of his career.
He was one of those men who made the Championship worth a watch in the otherwise dull 1960s. In an era where cricket was passing through what was probably her most boring days thanks to defensive all-round cricket, Milburn threw aside the coaching manual and biffed the English bowlers all around the grounds, and beyond.
“He [Milburn] hit the ball with the strength of a lumberjack and he had the courage of a lion, but he was no Neanderthal clubber,” wrote Bates. It was amazing, the way someone with such a terrific sense of humour could turn out to be a brute with the bat. Despite the brute power (backed by the 18-stone frame), however, ‘Ollie’ was by no means an ugly batsman.
In other words, despite the fact that physical strength was his greatest asset, Milburn was also clinical in the execution of his strokes. He drove with a straight bat, and when a bowler erred in bowling one short, the fielder simply had no chance against a cut or a pull that ferocious.
It must not be forgotten that Milburn also used to be a more-than-useful medium-paced bowler, though persistent back problems meant that he could not bowl after a lot after his early days. This was somewhat confusing, given that he played squash and rugby on a consistent basis without any physical issues.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Milburn’s fleet-footedness was the fact that he fielded at forward short-leg, and was brilliant at that position (sometimes making things a bit difficult for the leg-umpire). His flexibility and movements were deceptively fast, and the batsman was often trapped into believing that the catch would be beyond that rotund existence that prowled just beside him.
From nine (yes, only nine) Tests he scored 654 runs at 46.71 with two hundreds. For the innings where data regarding the number of balls he had faced can be obtained his strike rate is a very impressive 61.8. He had also hit 91 fours and 11 sixes, which meant that 430 (65.7%) of his runs came in boundaries.
To put things into perspective, Adam Gilchrist (59.4%), Tillakaratne Dilshan (51.9%), AB de Villiers (50.2%), Virender Sehwag (63.8%), and Virat Kohli (50.4%) all rank significantly lower on the list; Chris Gayle (65.9%) beats Milburn only marginally. And this was in the 1960s.
In First-Class cricket Milburn scored 13,262 runs at 33.07 with 23 hundreds — numbers that do not reflect the extent to which he decimated the opposition bowling when he got going. Four of these hundreds had come before lunch on Day One. With the ball he picked up 99 wickets at 32.03 (65 of these came in two seasons); he also pouched 224 catches.
Colin Milburn was born at Burnopfield, a mining village in Co Durham that was about seven miles away from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His father Jack had the same bulk and the same reputation for power-hitting in the Tyneside Senior League. Colin’s mother Bertha, on the other hand, served tea at Burnopfield.
Colin never got a formal coaching, but there was one thing his parents were never short of providing him with: encouragement. Thus motivated, Colin’s enormous aptitude saw him make it to Burnopfield Second XI by the age of 11. He made it to the First XI soon afterwards, and by 13 he opened both batting and bowling for them.
Milburn’s school — Secondary Modern School at Annfield Plain — had limited facilities for cricket. Despite that Milburn played for Durham Schoolboys at 13, and was chosen to play for North against South in the annual schools’ match at Northampton and Oldham. Thus began his famous association with Northamptonshire — something that would last a lifetime. He later moved to Stanley Grammar School and represented Durham Public Schools: he scored 285 runs at 57.00.
Then, sometime in 1959, Milburn decided that he was being ‘crippled’ by the limited opportunities Burnopfield offered to him: he moved to Chester-le-Street. He became a sensation almost immediately (scoring two hundreds and a near-hundred in three weeks along with a spell of seven for three) and was almost immediately picked to play for Durham against the touring Indians.
This was only a two-day match — and one without First-Class status. Opening batting at Sunderland he scored a 210-minute 101 with seven fours and two sixes against a full-strength Indian bowling attack. The match was drawn, but Milburn had proved his point.
A tussle, a coincidence, and Northamptonshire
Obviously Milburn became hot property among the clubs. Warwickshire and Northamptonshire had both expressed their interest in him: though turning up for the Northamptonshire trials Milburn played for Warwickshire Second XI. Warwickshire made him an offer.
Then something very improbable happened: Ken Turner, the Secretary of Northamptonshire, had kept the radio on while holidaying on the beach; he heard the Warwickshire coach mention Milburn as one of their most promising players during an interview on air.
Turner’s instincts and experience came into play: Milburn was offered ten shillings a week more than Warwickshire’s terms and by July 1960 he had made his First-Class debut against Cambridge University at Northampton, scoring four and not picking up a wicket. However, he managed a 201 not out for Northants Second XI against Middlesex Second XI. His team had scored 256.
The year 1961 and saw him get an extended run, but the ‘golden boy’ could still not come to terms with the fierceness of Championship cricket, averaging 18.80 with the bat and 56.25 with the ball. However, he managed to establish himself the next season.
The first hundred came against Cambridge University at home: Milburn scored 129 and added 227 with the impressively named Michael Eric John Charles Norman. After a fortnight he opened the bowling against Glamorgan at Swansea and picked up six for 59. It remained the only five-for of his career.
In the very next match came a very special hundred against Derbyshire at Buxton: Northants were bowled out for 90 in the first innings and Derbyshire led by 147. What followed was a rather unusual scorecard: Milburn scored 102, Norman got 58, and they added 153. However, nobody else crossed five (the nine batsmen got 13 between themselves) and Northants were bowled out for 182.
Milburn has always maintained that this was the best hundred for Northamptonshire. Carving out a hundred on a wretched pitch against an attack that boasted of Les Jackson, Peter Eyre, Ian Buxton, Derek Morgan, and Edwin Smith was indeed special.
He finished the season with 945 runs at 39.37 and 32 wickets at 27.15. He trained hard that winter and managed to lose two stones (12.7 kilograms). A new-look Milburn was rewarded with the Northamptonshire cap the next season. Soon after the Championship began Milburn played a valiant lone hand against Yorkshire at home scoring 48 and 123 and picking up four wickets.
His bravado and ability to counterattack against the touring West Indians were a treat to watch: he took Charlie Griffith, Lester King, Lance Gibbs, and Alf Valentine to the cleaners and scored 100 and 88.
He played 30 matches this season, scoring 1,580 runs at 29.81 and picking up 33 wickets at 23.75 with two spells of four for 16 and four for 17. By now he was considered a serious Test prospect: however, after this season his bowling became sporadic, and his claim to the spot of the all-rounder was gone.
He went on a tour of East Africa that winter; in a match against Kenya Kongonis at Nairobi he suddenly exploded against a leg-spinner called Noel Shuttleworth. He hit him for five sixes in five balls and was caught in the deep by MK Giles. Shuttleworth finished with the unusual figures of 1-0-30-1.
Two more seasons passed by without Milburn doing anything sensational — other than the carnage against Gloucestershire at home. It was one of the outrageous displays of power-hitting where he scored 152 not out from a team score of 227 for five. The innings included 15 fours and seven sixes.
Then, in 1966, he ran into an amazing run: he began the season with 130 against Derbyshire at Derby; followed it up with 137 and 68 not out against Sussex at Hove; and then, opening batting against Wes Hall and Griffith, he scored a crucial 64 against the West Indians.
Whatever doubts were there regarding his selection vanished when he blasted a Leicestershire attack for a 171 (out of a team score of 273 during his stay). All three hundreds were scored at a remarkably rapid pace. Three days after the match he made his Test debut at Old Trafford.
West Indies scored 484 after Mike Smith won the toss and put them in. Disaster struck when Milburn, opening batting with Eric Russell, pushed the ball to Gibbs at cover and ran for a single; he went so far before being sent by Russell that Gibbs sprinted and broke the stumps at the striker’s end. Milburn had been run out for a duck in his debut innings.
Gibbs and David Holford (also making his debut) bowled out England for 167 and Garry Sobers asked them to follow-on. This time Milburn came to his elements. It was an innings of the highest order: Milburn scored 94 in 136 balls with 12 fours and two sixes, and England were only 166 when he fell.
He had hooked Hall for a six, and when Gibbs dropped one short, he pulled him for another to reach 94. Most men would have been cautious at this stage, but not Milburn: he moved across the line and tried to heave Gibbs to the leg-side, missed the line, and was clean bowled. England lost by an innings inside three days, Gibbs picking up ten wickets.
England struck back at Lord’s as Ken Higgs bowled out the tourists for 269; Milburn opened with Geoff Boycott (has there been a more contrasting pair) and failed, but England obtained an 86-run lead. West Indies were down to 95 for five before Sobers and Holford took them to the safety of a 283-run lead.
Milburn gave Hall and Griffith the charge who soon reduced England to 67 for four, but Milburn did not care. He bludgeoned his way to a 170-ball 126 that included 17 fours and three sixes. Tom Graveney managed only 30 for the unbroken 130-run fifth wicket.
Not only did the two innings mark the arrival of Milburn, they also became one of the biggest crowd-pullers of the English team. He played in two more Tests that series but was dropped for the dead rubber at The Oval on the grounds that he was “too much of an encumbrance in the field.” Milburn had scored 316 runs in the series at the series 52.67 and finished only next to Graveney in terms of both runs and averages.
Sandwiched between the first two Tests was an 82-minute hundred against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. Milburn scored 113 out of the 157 he added with Roger Prideaux for the opening stand. He played a similar innings towards the end of the season, scoring 203 out of a 293-run first-wicket stand against Essex at Clacton-on-Sea.
Milburn was the first to reach a thousand runs that season and finished with 1,861 runs at 48.97 with six hundreds from 23 matches. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. He also received an invitation to play a season for Western Australia in Sheffield Shield that Australian summer.
Wisden wrote: “The enterprise proved an enormous success both on and off the field. [Colin] Milburn’s jovial manner and love of his fellow human beings made him immensely popular in the dressing-room and beyond the boundary. The Australians acclaimed him.”
Milburn had a good outing, scoring 571 runs at 40.78. He scored a quickfire 106 against Queensland at WACA, but the innings that really won Australian hearts was the 77-minute hundred (he eventually scored 129) against South Australia at Adelaide.
In and out
Milburn got only a solitary Test against India at Edgbaston (he scored 40 and 15 in a Test that is usually remembered as the only occasion when India’s famous spin quartet played together) and another against Pakistan at Lord’s (three and 32). He finished the season with 1,771 runs at 37.68 with two hundreds.
Milburn’s earlier success against West Indies earned him a call-up for the West Indies tour. He had a poor outing, his only score worth a mention being a support act of 68 to Boycott’s 243 against Barbados at Kensington Oval. He did not get to play a single Test.
England made five changes to their playing XI after they had gone down by 159 runs in the first Test of next year’s Ashes at Old Trafford. Milburn was one of the recalls at Lord’s: now batting below John Edrich and Boycott, Milburn scored a 142-ball 83 with 12 fours and two sixes in a 132-run partnership.
Batting on a wet pitch Milburn was hit time and again by Graham McKenzie’s vicious bouncers. However, he did not flinch and managed to pull McKenzie for a six. When Bill Lawry brought on Bob Cowper (who had taken six wickets at Old Trafford) was blown away by Milburn in his very first ball: the ball landed in the Grand Stand.
Even this innings could not earn Milburn a place: he was left out at Edgbaston and Headingley, only to earn a recall for the last Test at The Oval: Milburn scored eight in the first innings, but when England needed to score quick runs after a 170-run lead he began by hooking McKenzie’s first ball for four and then pulling Alan Connolly from outside off-stump for a huge six.
In the end he scored 18, but had set the tempo: Derek Underwood eventually won the Test for England after a Basil D’Oliveira hundred and great enthusiasm displayed by the spectators who mopped up the grounds themselves to ensure play resumed. D’Oliveira’s innings turned out to be crucial in more ways than one: it famously led to South Africa’s two-decade ban from international sport.
Having a blast at Brisbane
Milburn turned up for Western Australia later that year. He had scored four fifties in his first five innings of the tour, and one got the feeling that the characteristic outrageous hundred was somewhere round the corner. It finally came against Queensland at The Gabba.
It was a humid day. Milburn was 61 not out at lunch, and was sweating so profusely in the excruciating Brisbane heat and humidity that he could barely grip the bat. He decided to vent it out on the hapless Queensland bowlers.
The weather cooled down a bit after the interval. What followed was carnage: Milburn scored a whopping 181 between lunch and tea. He was eventually out for 243 in the first over after tea and – in typical Milburn fashion — apologised to his colleagues. It remained his highest First-Class score, and he finished the Australian season with 940 runs at 62.66.
The surprise call-up and the exit
Milburn received an emergency call-up from Pakistan as reinforcement. Matthew Engel later wrote in Cricket Heroes: “He [Milburn] was on a Perth beach with (so the story goes, and it is almost certainly true) a couple of birds and a good many beers when, three months later, he got the message that England needed him to reinforce the party for the substitute tour of Pakistan.”
His teammates arrived at the airport as the ever-popular man reached Dacca from Perth via a very convoluted route. He was given a guard of honour — but on the flip side, they convinced him that there was no more space at the hotel and Milburn would have to kip at a doss-house next to a swamp, all by himself.
Milburn’s appearance changed the mood of the team. The teams moved to Karachi for the final Test. Milburn began in typical fashion on a slow pitch: he brought up his hundred in 163 balls, eventually winning the Walter Lawrence Trophy for that year. He eventually scored a career-best 139 with 17 fours and a six (scored out of 234 during his stay). Seldom has a batsman played faster on a pitch as sluggish.
Then, with Alan Knott on 96 and England on 502 for seven on the second day, riots broke out and the rest of the Test had to be abandoned. Milburn never played another Test.
Milburn began 1969 on a high note, scoring 82 in the opening match for MCC against Yorkshire at Lord’s. Soon afterwards he scored a blazing 158 against Leicestershire at home, and did not disappoint against the West Indians either, where he scored 41, thereby playing a hand in Northants’ upset victory against the tourists.
The season also marked the beginning of the Sunday League: had Milburn played till 40 he might have been a champion of the format. What was more, with the hundred against Pakistan and the form he was in, he was a certainty for the Tests.
However, soon after the match against the West Indians he had a terrible car accident: he was thrown forward into the windscreen, his left eye was gone for good, and his right eye also suffered considerable damage. He spent 11 days in a hospital (where he maintained his famous spirit) and when released his eyesight was never the same.
Inspired by Pataudi’s example Milburn tried to make a comeback four years. However, with the reflex gone, he had been reduced to a shadow of his past, and managed a solitary fifty in 28 outings. He left with a whimper, scoring five and eight in his last match against Hampshire at home.
Before the comeback Northamptonshire had generously offered him a benefit season: it had earned the man, still immensely popular, £19,473.
He also became a sporadic radio commentator. Engel wrote: “His [Milburn’s] occasional commentaries were shrewd and funny and generous, because he did not believe no-one else could play.” He also appeared in an episode of the television series This is Your Life.
Milburn got involved into several small jobs after retirement. He returned to his native Durham, never married, but the odd adventure with the fairer sex continued, as did a lingering relationship with alcohol. The bulk never seemed to reduce, and led to coronary problems.
On February 28, 1990, at the age of only 48 years and 128 days, Colin Milburn suffered from a heart-attack at Aycliffe Village in Durham. He passed away on the ambulance to the hospital.
He was buried at his hometown Burnopfield. Somewhat fittingly, Ian Botham became one of his pall-bearers. What a sight would it have been, to watch the two in action together on a cricket field!
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature — though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)