Keith Miller (left) and Ian Johnson: questionable allegations © Getty Images
Keith Miller (left) and Ian Johnson: questionable allegations © Getty Images

In the summer of 1948, Don Bradman’s Invincibles romped across England, winning 23 of their First-Class matches, and drew the remaining 8. One does not question results like that. However, Keith Miller did voice that the skipper had favored Ian Johnson by allowing him to bowl at the tail, thus bloating the off-spinner’s wicket tally. Arunabha Sengupta crunches numbers to determine whether this was true or was another of the long list of Miller myths.

No Love Lost

Keith Miller always thought New South Wales under his captaincy was a stronger unit than Australia under Ian Johnson.

They were not exactly at loggerheads, but the star all-rounder and the off-spinner were not really the best of friends. Miller was certainly not amused when Johnson was preferred for the Australian captaincy ahead of him, in spite of being a much inferior cricketer.

A few days after the Ashes tour of 1956 under the captaincy of Johnson, Miller published his first reminiscences, a rather whimsically written Cricket Crossfire. And in it, he devoted a chapter on Bill O’Reilly, one on the mystery spinner Jack Iverson, even one on Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine. But Johnson was a spinner who missed out. He appeared in the narrative only occasionally, in chapters meant for more important characters and events. And most of the mentions did not demonstrate effusive admiration.

For example, quite casually and without real necessity, Miller allowed the reader to know that Johnson had been omitted for the Ashes tour of 1953. It seemed to suggest, “and yet strangely, he was made captain for the 1956 tour.” After all, Johnson, everyone knew, benefitted from his father’s friendship with Bradman. And it was not difficult to conclude that the claim of captaincy had been pushed forward by the great man himself.

Yes, the man who played the game for fun and considered pressure to be “a Messerschmitt up one’s arse” and certainly not cricket, did want the captaincy of Australia as much as the next man.

In fact, the most telling criticism of the Johnson-Bradman clique occurs in the chapter Miller wrotein his book about playing under Bradman in the late 1940s.

He spent several pages on the differences of opinion he had with Bradman as one of the Invincibles of 1948. And after the rather far-fetched story of his deliberately getting out first ball while Australia scored 721 in a day against Essex — a myth we have already debunked — Miller went on to say that Johnson got most of his wickets because of Bradman’s good graces.

“Ian Johnson took nearly a hundred wickets on that tour [the real number is 85, the third after Bill Johnston 102 and Ray Lindwall 85]. But, he would not have done so if Bradman, who wanted him to do well, had not given him chance after chance of bowling at nine-ten-jack. There was a remarkably high percentage of tail-enders among Johnson’s haul of victims.”

Miller claimed in the book that this reservation was not limited to him. “Colin McCool used to get bitter about this, and it was understandable. Ray Lindwall, Bill Johnston, Ernie Toshack, Colin and I might have worked hard to get the first six out, and then had to make way time after time so that Ian could have a go at the rabbits. It was very galling.”

Did Bradman present rabbits to Johnson?

Yes, Bradman wanted Johnson in the team. The tight off-spin was part of his plan to supplement the pace of Lindwall and Miller, the steady usefulness of Johnston and the sporadic brilliance of Toshack.

Johnson was very much a part of Bradman’s plan, and played as many as four of the five Tests. Bradman used a leg-spinner only in the final Test, at The Oval, and Doug Ring pipped Colin McCool for the spot. Otherwise, Johnson was a regular, playing 22 of the 31 tour matches, as many as Lindsay Hassett, Neil Harvey, Arthur Morris, Lindwall, Sam Loxton and Miller. Only Bradman himself played more, and that too by a single game.

It is difficult to imagine someone like The Don, who wanted to win everything in sight on his final tour, whose ruthlessness was to become a part of his persona, would have played an underperformer in the side because of favouritism. Bradman did not want to take any chances against even the most inferior of sides. Is it possible that he would play Johnson if he did not believe that he was indeed worth his place in the side?

The explanation many provide, as we have briefly noted above, is that with strike bowlers like Lindwall, Miller, Johnston and Toshack at his disposal, Bradman preferred an accurate finger-spinner as his fifth bowler who would keep things tight rather than a leggie who could be potentially expensive.

And Johnson was not exactly an underperformer either. He failed to deliver in the Tests, taking 7 wickets at 61. However, in the 22 First-Class matches, he captured 85 wickets at 18.37 with a ten-wicket haul and 5 five-fors.  For good measure, from the lower order he scored 543 runs at a healthy 30.16 and had a hundred to show for his efforts alongside two half-centuries. Besides, his economy rate of 2.33 was better than both Ring’s 2.54 and McCool’s 2.41.

However, Miller was convinced that Johnson was bowling at rabbits presented to him by Bradman. He and the others gave the off-spinner a new nickname: ‘Mixomatosis’, plague for the rabbits.

Now, let us see whether this assertion really holds water.

Johnston was the most successful bowler for Australia on the tour. He captured 102 wickets at 16.42.

Lindwall came next with 86 at 15.68.

Johnson was at third place with 85 at 18.37.

Ring captured 60 at 21.81.

McCool did not play a Test, but managed 57 wickets at 17.82

Miller, bowled sparingly in some matches due to his troublesome back, picked up 56 at 17.58.

Toshack took 50 at 21.12.

Loxton chipped in with 32 at 21.71.

As one can see, there was immense depth in the great side.

Now comes the interesting part. Let us look at the composition of dismissals for each bowler.

The following table demonstrates how the wickets of the main Australian bowlers were distributed through the tour in terms of batsmen dismissed.

Bowler Wickets Ave Openers 3 to 6 7 and 8 9,10,11
Johnston 102 16.42 19% 45% 15% 22%
Lindwall 86 15.68 26% 48% 16% 10%
Johnson 85 18.37 19% 34% 21% 26%
Ring 60 21.81 15% 38% 22% 25%
McCool 57 17.82 19% 32% 25% 25%
Miller 56 17.58 27% 41% 11% 21%
Toshack 50 21.12 22% 38% 26% 14%
Loxton 32 21.71 28% 31% 16% 25%

It turns out that Johnson’s proportion of “9, 10 and Jack” victims was 26%, just marginally more than McCool, Ring and Loxton’s 25% apiece. Thus “there was a remarkably high percentage of tail-enders among Johnson’s haul of victims” is superficially cooked up nonsense with the underlying assumption no one would take the trouble to check the figures.

In fact, 53% of Johnson’s wickets were top-order batsmen (1-6). This was actually greater than McCool’s (51%) and equal to Ring’s (53%) proportions. So, while Johnson and Ring each obtained 47% of their wickets by dismissing the lower order and tail, McCool, the one Miller claimed was vociferous against Johnson because he got to bowl at the tail, claimed 49% of his share of wickets by knocking over the lower order and rabbits.

So much for the rest of them (including ‘Colin’) trying to pry out the top order batsmen and Johnson getting the rabbits. Perhaps Mixamatosis was labelled on the wrong guy.

And while 74% of Lindwall’s wickets accounted for top order men and only 10% for 9, 10 and jack, Miller (21%) and Johnston (22%) did have quite a few rabbits in their tally.

The distribution of wickets of all the spinners in the line-up were more or less identical, Ring being somewhat less successful against openers.

Further granular detail

If we look at the individual scorecards, Miller’s assertions sound more unfounded.

On four occasions, including twice in Tests, Johnson dismissed Len Hutton, the English opener and the best batsman for the hosts. On three occasions he accounted for the New Zealand great residing in England, Martin Donnelly. Bill Edrich fell to him twice. These were not the results of bowling at 9, 10 and jack. Apart from Denis Compton, there was no better batsmen in the country facing the Australian bowlers than the ones mentioned in the last few lines.

Perhaps it was the great mythologist in Miller at work. Or it could also have been the first outing which left a lasting impression and bitterness, and a convoluted and distorted view of the truth.

In the tour opener against Worcestershire, Lindwall, Toshack, Miller and McCool had indeed taken the first handful of wickets before Johnson cleaned up the tail, taking the last two wickets. He had also taken the sixth, but perhaps the final two blows did not go down well with Miller and McCool.

However, in the very next game, against Leicestershire, Johnson was on a roll in the second innings. He dismissed the openers, numbers 3, 4, 6 and 7. He did not get No 5, because Victor Johnson struck an unbeaten 31 as the rest of the batsmen folded around him. Bill Johnston picked up the No. 8, Jack Walsh, and then Johnson struck again. He got his 7th wicket by dismissing No. 9 Bill Etherington.

With 2 wickets in the first innings and 7 in the second Johnson had a good chance now to finish with 10 for the match. But someone charged in and whisked out 10 and jack. Guess who this bowler was? Keith Ross Miller.

Yes, Miller did get the tail out in the very second match, denying Johnson an opportunity of getting 10 for the match after the off-spinner had run through the top-order and the middle. And Miller himself had not got any wicket in that innings before running in to knock over the last two. In retrospect, that Miller should accuse Johnson of benefiting from dismissing 9, 10 and jack is quite ironical.

Perhaps Miller forgot that and remembered only the first match of the tour.

Johnson did go on to take the last few wickets in matches against Surrey and Gloucestershire, but in both these cases he also did the hard work of getting the rest of the batsmen. He picked up 8 against Surrey and 11 against Gloucestershire.

There was only one match against Lancashire late in the tour when he once again picked up 3 of the last 4 wickets without capturing any previous ones. But this was also done on other occasions by different bowlers in the line-up, such as McCool against Middlesex, Loxton against Derbyshire, Ring against Northamptonshire and so on.

In summary, Miller’s allegation was baseless and falls to pieces when one looks at it under the statistical microscope. In fact, Miller’s reminiscences can be quite accurately summarised as‘a myth-buster’s dream.’

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)