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Geoff Miller: The workhorse who seldom got a bowl

Geoff Miller: A dependable off-spinner whose batting was an asset for England

Geoff Miller © Getty Images

The jovial all-rounder Geoff Miller was born on September 8, 1952. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the career of the Chairman of Selectors of England.

With his dry sense of humour and general congenial attitude Geoff Miller usually came across as someone who would take his cricket light-heartedly. When on the field, however, he was the exact opposite — he lacked in spin-bowling talent but made up for it with unwavering accuracy; and it was due to his batting that he often got an edge over his contemporaries.

A Derbyshire mainstay, Miller was one of their premium all-rounders for about a decade, moving to Essex in his later days. From 383 First-Class matches, Miller scored 12,027 runs at 26.49 with two hundreds and picked up 888 wickets at 27.98 with 39 five-fors and seven ten-fors. A reliable slip fielder, he also picked up 309 catches.

Miller’s numbers were slightly inferior at the highest level: 1,213 runs at 25.80 seems decent for someone who, along with Ian Botham, allowed England to play the extra bowler, but 60 wickets from 34 Tests at 30.98 does not really do justice to someone of Miller’s calibre. His economy rate of 2.16 is probably an indicator of the role he had to restrict himself to while the English seamers dominated at the other end.

Early days

After toiling for several years in the Second XI Miller eventually made his First-Class debut against Lancashire at Chesterfield in 1973. It was a disaster as he scored a duck and did not get a bowl. In the next match against Surrey at the same ground, however, he scored a crucial 42 and picked up four for 67.

He bowled well and his batting was on the rise till 1975 he remained just another Derbyshire cricketer. The first match-winning spell had come that season when he (six for 43) and Srinivas Venkataraghavan (four for 58) bowled out Nottinghamshire for 166 at Ilkeston.

Things changed in 1976 after he got his Derbyshire cap: in his very first match of the season he picked up six for 55 against Sussex at Ilkeston; then came the first ten-for, when he crushed Cambridge University single-handedly at Burton-on-Trent, picking up five for 70 and five for 46; he showed exemplary courage against the touring West Indians, who were on a rampage in the ‘grovel’ tour, top-scoring with 83 at Chesterfield; and he routed Kent with four for 66 and seven for 74 at Dover.

On one hand Tony Greig’s England had been receiving a sound thrashing in the hands of Clive Lloyd’s West Indians — both mentally and physically; on the other hand Miller was taking big strides in Championship cricket. Just before the fifth Test Miller picked up six for 130 and six for 88 in addition to innings of 51 and 26 at Lord’s and was picked for the final Test at The Oval.
Test debut

Miller did not disgrace himself on debut despite England’s 231-run defeat. In a Test immortalised by Dennis Amiss’ valiant 203 against a rampant Michael Holding (who picked up eight for 92 and six for 57 on a featherbed) Miller scored 36 and 24 and picked up the wicket of a dangerous-looking Roy Fredericks.

Miller finished that season with 820 runs at 25.62 with five fifties and 77 wickets at 21.55 with seven five-fors and three ten-fors winning the Cricket Writers’ Club Young Cricketer of the Year. He toured India, Sri Lanka, and Australia that winter but missed out on the Tests in India and the Centenary Test at MCG.

Determined not to give up he began the 1977 series well and picked up five for 97 for MCC against the touring Australians at Lord’s. With a six for 64 against Lancashire at Old Trafford shortly afterwards Miller got picked for his first Ashes Test at the same ground.

England had Australia down at 140 for five before Doug Walters and Rodney Marsh put up a 98-run partnership. Miller, introduced as the sixth bowler (after both Derek Underwood and Greig), removed both and finished with 10-3-18-2. He also picked up one for 24 in the next innings as Underwood ran through the Australians. After another innocuous Test (with Botham back and Greig in the side he was restricted to bowling five overs) at Trent Bridge Miller was dropped from the Test side.

It was at Karachi later that year that Miller finally had a good Test. He was the senior spinner, and he toiled on hard in tandem with the debutant George Cope, picking up three for 102. Then, with England at 127 for four in response to Pakistan’s 407, Mike Brearley sent out Miller to replace Geoff Boycott.

Miller soon lost Graham Roope and Chris Old, but he found a suitable partner in his county mate Bob Taylor. Together they added a painstaking 89 runs in 173 minutes, virtually saving the Test. A quick jolt from Sarfraz Nawaz then saw England lose three wickets for two runs. Bob Willis hung around for 96 more minutes, but eventually Miller was left stranded on 98. It would have been his maiden First-Class hundred.

A few months later he missed out on the elusive hundred again, this time at Christchurch. This time Boycott promoted him to five, and he found himself coming out to bat at 26 for three. He was struck on the face and had to retire hurt on 31, but not before he had helped Roope add 77.

He resumed his innings at 288 for six and soon saw England slip to 305 for eight. An exhilarating fifty from Phil Edmonds followed, and with nine wickets down, Miller decided to go all out after Richard Collinge, hitting him for four consecutive boundaries before holing out to Bevan Congdon for 89.

He had a decent 1978, scoring 674 runs at 33.70 (he missed out again, scoring 95 against Lancashire at Old Trafford) and picking up 37 wickets at 27.56, thereby making it to the Ashes trip of 1978-79.

Miller comes big

This was the series that defined Miller’s career. England retained the Ashes by a 5-1 margin; despite playing mostly a support act (he bowled less than 30 eight-ball overs — or 40 six-ball overs) Miller emerged at the top of England’s charts in terms of both wickets and averages.

Miller had warmed himself up suitably with three for 41 and two for 37 against South Australia at Adelaide, and followed it up by bowling out New South Wales single-handedly at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) with figures of six for 56. As a result he was picked for the first Test at Gabba alongside Edmonds.

Miller did not get a bowl in the first innings at The Gabba as the hosts were shot out for 110; he contributed with 27, and managed to put a put a stranglehold on the Australians with two for 52 from 34 overs (45.2 six-ball overs).

Geoff Miller: A dependable off-spinner whose batting was an asset for England

Geoff Miller… 60 wickets from 34 Tests at 30.98 does not really do justice to someone of his calibre ©Getty Images

In the second Test at WACA Miller scored 40 and 25 and picked up a single wicket before the fourth innings. After Australia were 58 for four, however, Graeme Wood and Gary Cosier led a fightback, adding 83 runs. Along came Miller; he rounded off things with a short burst of three for 21.

Then Miller broke into a run — he picked up three for 35 and two for 39 in the next Test at MCG, one for 37 and three for 38 at SCG, and scored 31 and 66 at Adelaide. He saved his best for the last, though.

With the Ashes already won, Miller picked up a single wicket in Australia’s first innings; then, after England managed a 110-run lead, Miller bowled virtually unchanged, picking up figures of five for 44 in 27.1 overs (36.1 six-ball overs) to bowl out the hosts for 143. It would remain his only Test five-for.

Miller finished the series with 23 wickets at 15.04; he also scored 234 runs at 23.40. In that series Botham and Miller became only the third and fourth Englishmen to have scored over 200 runs and have taken 20 wickets in an Ashes in Australia. Nobody has done it ever since: the other two, Len Braund and Frank Foster, had both done it before the first World War, and none of them had a bowling average less than 20. That season he was also appointed the captain of Derbyshire.

Ups and downs

Though Miller’s Test career never reached the lofty heights of the previous season’s Ashes he still continued to perform at domestic level. He scored 63 not out at Edgbaston and 62 at Lord’s in consecutive Tests against India in 1979 but could not find a place in the fourth Test at The Oval.

A moment of glory came in the first NatWest Trophy Final in 1981 against Northamptonshire at Lord’s. Northants scored 235 for nine in the allotted 60 overs. Derbyshire were on track thanks to a 123-run partnership between John Wright and Peter Kirsten, but Neil Mallender picked up wickets and Derbyshire were soon reduced to 213 for six as Colin Tunnicliffe walked out to join Miller.

The match was poised for a nail-biting finish and Derbyshire needed two off the last ball. Tunnicliffe simply managed to touch the ball and before he realised anything Miller had almost finished his dash to the striker’s end. Peter West’s voice boomed on television: “And there’s Geoff Miller, diving for the crease as if he was scoring a rugby try.” The single was completed and Derbyshire won the tournament as they had lost less wickets.

After a few ordinary Tests he again got a call-up against India at Old Trafford. Miller came out at 161 for five to join Botham; the great all-rounder went on a rampage and added 169 in no time. Miller batted on and reached the nineties, eager to reach for that maiden First-Class hundred.

He eventually equalled his 98 scored at Karachi; then, as Dilip Doshi tossed one up Miller was caught at bat-pad by the other Dilip — Vengsarkar; once again he had come agonisingly close to that hundred and had missed out.

Back to Australia and the Melbourne Miracle

Of course, Miller could not have been left out of an Ashes tour. He was picked for the First Test at WACA and responded well, picking up four for 70. The next Test at The Gabba saw him score a valiant 60. After a failure at Adelaide the teams headed for the fourth Test at MCG with Australia up 1-0 in the series.

Miller began well: he picked up three for 44 in the first innings, and the Test seemed all but over when Norman Cowans had reduced the hosts to 218 for nine with a six-wicket burst. The Test was, however, far from over, as Allan Border shepherded Jeff Thomson quite efficiently and the duo returned after Day Four with the score on 255 for nine.

Willis allowed easy runs to Border and the target came closer. Thomson did not get out. Willis took the new ball, but neither he nor Cowans could provide with the breakthrough. Desperate, Willis threw the ball to Botham. Miller recalled: “I was at first slip and I said to Chris Tavaré, who was at second slip, that we had to move forward because it was a low-bouncing pitch. We moved up a couple of yards but we forgot about the new ball.”

Then, with four runs to win, Botham bowled one just outside off; Thomson edged it and the ball went straight to Tavaré at second slip, ricocheted off his hands, and looped in the air behind Tavaré; Miller ran in from first slip to complete the catch, thus ending the closest Test since 1902.

In the final Test at SCG, too, Miller scored 34 and 21 not out and picked up four wickets. He finished the series with 193 runs at 21.44 and picked up 13 wickets at 30.53. Though it was a letdown after his performance four years back it was certainly not a disgraceful one.

An abrupt end

It happened at Old Trafford in 1984. Things seemed to be moving normally. Lancashire scored 269 with Miller picking up two for 49. Derbyshire then slid to 166 for six before Miller salvaged things with a 107-run partnership with Roger Finney followed by a 108-run one with Paul Newman. In the process Miller registered his first First-Class hundred (130), reaching the milestone in his 380th innings.

Geoff Miller: A dependable off-spinner whose batting was an asset for England

Geoff Miller scored his maiden First-Class hundred in his 380th innings © Getty Images

He was picked for the first two Tests of the home series against West Indies at Edgbaston and Lord’s but was dropped for good after doing nothing worth a mention. His Test career ended the same way it had begun – as a result of a pasting by the West Indians.

Back to First-Class cricket

The next season, 1985, was Miller’s benefit season. It raised £35,207. Miller celebrated the occasion with yet another hundred, this time in the fourth innings, against Essex at Colchester. He came out to bat at 68 for five and scored 105; nobody else crossed 40 in that innings against Derek Pringle, Neil Foster, and John Lever.

He shifted to Essex in 1987 on a three-year contract, returning to Derbyshire in 1990, which proved to be his final First-Class season. By this time, at 38, his best days were clearly past him, and he retired after that season. He moved on to Minor Counties cricket and played for Cheshire till 1994 before finally calling it quits.

Post-retirement

In collaboration with Chesterfield Football Club player Ernie Moss Miller opened a sporting goods emporium called Moss & Miller. He was also a much-sought after-dinner speaker. In 2000 Miller was appointed a Selector by ECB.

In 2008 Miller was named the new Chairman of Selectors — a post he continues to hold till today — ending David Graveney’s eventful 11-year tenure. It has been an eventful period that has seen England regain and retain the Ashes, rise to the top position in ICC’s Test rankings, and win a Twenty20 World Championship.

(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

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