December 11, 1963. As Australia played South Africa at Brisbane, Ian Meckiff’s career came to an end in murky circumstances after the Victorian pace bowler had been called four times in the only over he bowled in the match. Arunabha Sengupta relives the curious events that led to his retirement and wonders whether he was the victim of conspiracy.
Ian Meckiff will forever live in our memories as the man with that desperate lunge for the crease as the wicket is broken by a throw from Joe Solomon. We can see it every time we recall cricket’s most famous picture. Lindsay Kline looking over his shoulder to determine the fate of his partner, Garry Sobers leaping across the stumps in exultant joy; Rohan Kanhai’s arms reaching for the sky; Wes Hall looking on pensively, having somehow reached as far as silly mid-off on his follow-through, wondering if he has leaked the last run to give Australia victory; and the serene, unruffled Frank Worrell at the stumps at the non-striker’s end, guarding against excited overthrows.
Yes, Meckiff was run-out and Test cricket experienced the first ever tie.
Yet, when some years later he named his autobiography Thrown Out, it was not that arrow-like throw from Solomon that Meckiff was referring to. His connection with the throw went way beyond that — culminating in another Brisbane Test three years later.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, men like Geoff Griffin, Peter Loader, Charlie Griffith, Jimmy Burke, Gordon Rorke and Tony Lock — to name a few — had combined into a formidable army of bowlers with suspect action. And, among them, Meckiff was singled out by fate to become the most unfortunate victim.
He had a beautiful leisurely run-up, somewhat reminiscent of Ted McDonald. But after the approach, Meckiff’s actual delivery and follow through showed all the symptoms of a chucker. Ian Peebles, who observed him in the nets on the morning of a Test match, remarked “… his action exactly resembled a coach throwing the ball to a young batsman at the net.”
The problems of 1958-59
The problems surfaced when England visited in 1958-59. According to some of the members of the tour, they came across throwers everywhere — from the state teams to the Test matches. Huw Turbervill, author of The Toughest Tour: The Ashes Away Series Since The War wrote, “Australian bowlers were … throwing the ball at the English batsmen at startling speed.”The chief offenders were Rorke and Meckiff, and the occasional spinner Jim Burke.
According to England batsman Tom Graveney, “Rorke was huge and he threw it at you. There were no crash helmets back then. All you had to do was stand there and fend it off…”
All-rounder Trevor Bailey fumed about Meckiff. He not only threw, but also dragged. As Bailey put it: “He managed to break the batting crease with his back foot which intimates that he got pretty close to you … Meckiff was the worst bowler ever to represent Australia.”
Captain Peter May added: “Englishmen who fell to Meckiff’s speed and lift were hardly happy at being victims of deliveries that began with a bent arm and finished with a pronounced wrist-whip.”
During a team meeting of the 1958-59 tour, Bailey warned, “This man throws. I can assure you that if nothing is done he will win at least one Test match for Australia.” However, May desisted the urge to complain. On the tour, the need for diplomacy was paramount. Besides, with Peter Loader and Tony Lock in the side, England were not really well placed to lodge a complaint about throwing.
But later May confided to biographer Alan Hill, “Having a ball thrown at you from 18 yards blights the sunniest disposition.”
Jim Laker was more forthright in his controversial Over To Me. “I vividly remember batting in the Brisbane Test with Meckiff at one end and Burke at the other. ‘It’s like standing in the middle of a darts match,’ I told Neil Harvey. Neil doubled up. It was about that time that Meckiff had one of his wild spells. Norman O’Neill, from the boundary, sent a fine throw right on top of the stumps. ‘Put Norm on,’ yelled a wag in the crowd, ‘at least he can throw straight.”
When Meckiff took six for 38 against England in the second Test at Melbourne, it raised some infuriated English voices. Journalist EM Wellings wrote, “He runs no faster than Hedley Verity, yet the balls leave his hand at express pace.” Alf Grover claimed he did not bowl a single legal delivery, adding that it was “ridiculous that a player with this action should be the agent of England’s destruction.”
Bailey even filmed Meckiff’s action and the movie was shown to Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC).
Meckiff on his part, maintained that he had a permanently bent elbow. In Thrown Out he writes, “Like most fast bowlers I get most of my pace from my wrist action. Being slightly double jointed in the shoulders … this gives me added strength and power. I have the support of the umpires in five countries.”
The attacks of the English press infuriated the Australians as well. Skipper Richie Benaud was furious. Former captain Ian Johnson slammed Lock and Loader for their actions. He also charged Brian Statham and Fred Trueman of producing jerky deliveries, claiming that both employed a ‘whip lash’ wrist movement at the point of delivery.
Meckiff, however, had a torrid time. His parents were pestered by press and public, his wife was continually upset, and even his young son was named Wayne ‘Chucker’ at school. Once while giving some tips to schoolboys, Meckiff had rolled his arm over, when a kid screamed, “No Ball.” The strain of the series became a bit too much to bear, and Meckiff had to seek medical advice.
Yet, at the Imperial Cricket Conference meeting of 1960, Don Bradman was adamant. He was acting as a member of the Australian Cricket Board and also one of the selector. The issue was so volatile that Bradman himself had been sent to England to attend the meeting instead of the normal British representative. And The Don refused to admit that he had picked bowlers with illegitimate action. Interestingly, the one who locked horns with him on this touchy issue was his old adversary of the 1930s, Gubby Allen.
As Allen remarked later, “He wouldn’t budge an inch and neither would I. He said Australia had no chuckers and I said that was rubbish … I had film of some of the worst offenders, but Don and the other Australians would not look at them. But deep in his heart he knew they had a problem …”
It was the way this problem was tackled that left a lot to be desired.
Change of rules
In the 1960 conference, the throwing law was changed to forbid the straightening of the arm at the instant of the ball’s delivery. However, the interpretation remained variable.
In the 1960-61 season, the Victorian bowler was not called. He played in the great series against West Indies and made himself immortal with his desperate scramble in the last ball of the Tied Test. After the series, he ran out of form and also had his share of injuries. As a result, Meckiff did not go to England for the 1961 Ashes tour.
The 1963-64 series was the first Australia played after the retirement of Alan Davidson. As a result, there was a giant void to be filled. And as the leading wicket-taker of the 1962-63 season, Meckiff was the man to step into the giant shoes. At the same time, the Australian Board of Control had issued a directive asking umpires to “get tough” in enforcing laws of cricket.
In the first two Sheffield Shield matches of the season, Meckiff took 11 wickets — most of them important ones. He was called as well — once in each match. And in spite of that he was selected for the first Test against South Africa at Brisbane.
The South Africans were supposedly stunned by Meckiff’s selection. They believed his action was illegitimate. Across the world, the selection was met with hostility — especially in England, with the Ashes to be played for in the summer of 1964. In the News of the World Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie wrote: “There is no room in cricket for throwers. Let us hope that…the Australian selectors realise this…otherwise the throwing war will be waged in earnest.”
At home, speculation was rife that the bowler was chosen so that he could be no-balled in a high profile Test match — thus improving Australia’s anti-throwing credentials. According to Keith Miller, the selection had “peppered this once drab-looking series into a curry hot-pot, with all the excitement and trimmings of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller”. The outspoken Bill O’Reilly observed inThe Sydney Morning Herald that Meckiff’s inclusion was “one of the most fantastic somersaults in cricket policies in our time.”
Miller also predicted that the umpires Col Egar and Lou Rowan would have sleepless nights. He added that he hoped that Meckiff was not being used as a scapegoat.
The predictions of Miller turned out to be eerily close to the mark, including the projected dilemma of the umpires. Egar was particularly flustered. Meckiff was a close friend. The duo had won a pairs lawn bowling competition just a few months earlier. However, the fast bowler and the umpire socialised freely at the pre-match function.
At Brisbane, Benaud won the toss and Australia batted. Brian Booth scored 169 and Peter Pollock picked up six wickets as the home side finished on 435. South Africa took strike just after lunch on the second day.
Graham McKenzie bowled the first over and conceded 13 runs. And then came the moment that had the entire cricket world at the edge of the seat. Meckiff started the second over from the Vulture Street End, bowling to Trevor Goddard. At the same time, South African manager Ken Viljoen set up a movie camera and started filming his action.
Egar had officiated in three Sheffield Shield matches and two Test matches featuring Meckiff and had never had any problem with his action. In fact, he had told his friend that there was no point in changing his action after the rules had been modified. He was one of the umpires who had stood in the Tied Test.
Now, standing at square-leg, Egar called the second, third, fifth and ninth deliveries as throws. After the third ball, captain Benaud ran up to Meckiff and spoke to him. After the fifth ball, a full toss struck for four, the bowler and captain spoke again. The same thing happened after the ninth ball. The next three balls were not called and the over was completed.
The rest of the 133.5 eight ball overs in the innings were shared by McKenzie, Alan Connolly, Tom Veivers, Benaud himself, Bobby Simpson and Norman O’Neill.
The crowd stood vociferously behind the bowler all through. Egar was heckled during the infamous over, and before the close of the second day’s play, chants of “We want Meckiff” grew louder. When play ended, spectators entered the field and carried the Victorian off the ground on their shoulders. Egar had to be escorted out by the Queensland Police.
Later Meckiff said that he not bear Egar any grudge. Yet, he added that although the umpire had done what he had thought was correct, the calls had felt like being stabbed in the back — more so because Egar was a close personal friend.
The Test ended in a dull draw — all its excitement provided by the Meckiff affair. At the end of the game, the Victorian pace bowler retired from all forms of cricket.
Victim of conspiracy?
Several sections of the Australian cricket community believed that Meckiff had been the victim of a conspiracy. At a dinner for the visiting state captains hosted by Bradman in January 1963, it had supposedly been hinted that Meckiff might turn out to be a sacrificial offering. During the evening, Bradman had run a film showing bowlers with suspect actions — Meckiff among them. The legendary batsman definitely had his doubts over Meckiff’s action, yet he was one of the selectors who ensured the fast bowler’s inclusion in the Test side.
Phrases such as “smacks of a set-up”, “obvious fall-guy”, and “sacrificial goat” flew about. Several, including Keith Miller, wanted Bradman to resign. Cricketer-turned-journalist Dick Whitington reported that Egar and Bradman had travelled from Adelaide to the Brisbane Test together, making it look very much like a plot. It was also revealing that Benaud did not try to bowl Meckiff from the other end.
The Australians played the Test with five regular bowlers apart from Simpson and O’Neill. This fact somehow hinted at prior knowledge of things to follow.
Connolly remained adamant that his teammate’s action was legitimate and the entire incident implied treachery. He said, “I wasn’t amazed …There was a good reason for that, which I can’t disclose and won’t disclose.”
Veivers, who made his Test debut for Australia in that match, said that at the pre-match function, the other umpire Rowan had mentioned, “It’s going to be a very interesting game.”
However, Egar always denied any conspiracy.
Bobby Simpson, in his memoirs, Captain’s Story, branded several cricketers as chuckers, and his list of throwers predictably included Meckiff. In 1965, the fast bowler sued his former teammate for libel. The case ended five years later with an out-of-court settlement and apology from Simpson.
In spite of all that took place, the affable Meckiff continued to socialise with the cast of characters involved in his last Test, including Simpson, Egar and Rowan.
Australia 435 (Bill Lawry 43, Norman O’Neill 82, Brian Booth 169, Richie Benaud 43; Peter Pollock 6 for 95) and 144 for 1 dec. (Bill Lawry 87*) drew with South Africa 346 (Trevor Goddard 52, Eddie Barlow 114, Jack Waite 66; Richie Benaud 5 for 68) and 13 for 1
(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)
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