Graham McKenzie © Getty Images
Graham McKenzie © Getty Images

Graham McKenzie, born June 24, 1941, was the premier pacer of Australia during the 1960s and a master on heart-breaking docile wickets. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the fast bowler who played his last Test at 29, and still finished with 246 wickets.

Dramatic debut

Lord’s 1961. Neil Harvey’s only Test as captain was turning out to be a gripping one. Alan Davidson had taken five, some of the England wickets falling in front of the Duke of Edinburgh. He had been helped by the depressions at the Nursery end that caused a lot of debate. Experts arrived to take a look at the wicket and promised to take care of it before the year was over. As for the Test match, it soon developed into a Battle of the Ridge. At the other end, young Graham McKenzie toiled away with limited reward. The debutant, who would turn 20 on the third day of the Test, was running in wearing the huge shoes of the injured captain Richie Benaud. As things turned out, Benaud’s leg-spin was not quite required on the wicket.

England scored 205 and Bill Lawry responded with a typical dogged six-hour century. But when Ted Dexter, using the conditions perfectly, dismissed him and Wally Grout at the same score, the total stood at 238 for 8. The lead looked likely to be limited as the rookie McKenzie walked out to join Ken Mackay.

The Englishmen, however, had not traced the formative cricketing steps of the young man. McKenzie had entered the First-Class scene in 1959-60 playing as an all-rounder, and had spent the early years as a batsman who bowled a bit of off-spin. At the end of his first season his Western Australia captain Ken Meuleman had persuaded him to concentrate on fast bowling. He still approached batting with the thought process of a batsman.

By the end of the day, the lead had stretched by another 48 runs, and McKenzie had played Fred Trueman and Brian Statham with remarkable confidence to reach an unbeaten 29.

The following morning he was castled by Trueman for 34, but 53 valuable runs had been put on with Mackay. Frank Misson proved another dogged tailender and at the end of the innings England trailed by 135.

When the hosts batted again, McKenzie charged in and used the uneven wicket brilliantly, picking up two important wickets to end a fantastic birthday. Dexter was bowled off his body after being unsettled by the disconcerting bounce. Peter May, in a stubborn stand with Ken Barrington, received another rising ball and Wally Grout held a brilliant one handed catch.

After Sunday’s rest, McKenzie returned to get John Murray, Trueman and Tony Lock, picking up the last three wickets in 12 balls, ending with figures 29-13-37-5. The Australians made heavy weather of the paltry target and finally got there with 5 wickets to spare.

McKenzie went on to play another vital part as Australia clinched the Ashes with a tense victory in a fascinating Test at Old Trafford. Again, it was his bat that made the difference. Walking in as last man in the second innings, he joined Davidson at the wicket with the lead only 157. As Davidson pummeled fours and sixes, McKenzie batted for an hour an forty minutes to score an unbeaten 32 and added 98 for the last wicket. The lead was stretched to 255, and Benaud’s leg-breaks skittled England out for 201.

Batsman to bowler

McKenzie’s progress to the Test side had been quick. After a reasonable but unspectacular show of promise he had been drafted to fill the protracted void left by the departure of the legendary duo of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.

As a kid, he could not have helped but taken to sports. Father Eric was an opening batsman who played for Western Australia against the visiting South Africans of 1931-32. Uncle Douglas had been a batsman of no mean skill who turned out for Western Australia, and later became the President of Western Australian Cricket Association. Both father and uncle also represented their state in field hockey.

McKenzie made his gradual way up the grades of cricket, starting as a batsman who also bowled off-spinners. He would have played in the under-14 interstate competition at Adelaide in late 1953 had a polio epidemic in Western Australia not led to the withdrawal of his team. The next season, the tournament was held in Perth and McKenzie captained his side to a memorable win.

After making first grade cricket debut for Claremont-Cottesloe as a batsman, he lost his place in the first XI. It was as late as 1958-59 that he took up fast bowling to cover for shortage of pace in the second XI of the team. And this fast-tracked him into the first XI again, and pitchforked him into First-Class cricket by the next season. He initially batted in the lower middle order as well as opening the attack for Western Australia. By the end of the 1959-60 season, he was advised to concentrate on his bowling. Captain Meuleman remarked, “McKenzie will never be a batsman, but as a fast bowler he will be a sensation.”

At the beginning of the 1960-61, McKenzie played the third First-Class game of his career against the visiting West Indians. With Bobby Simpson leading the way with 87 and 221 not out, the state side defeated the tourists by 94 runs. McKenzie did not get a chance to bowl in the first innings as West Indies collapsed for a small total. In the second, he picked up 4 wickets. West Indies captain Frank Worrell was impressed and gracious enough to predict a bright future for the youngster. McKenzie’s name kept cropping up in the newspaper articles penned by the Caribbean skipper. This weighty and solid recommendation went a long way in cementing his place in the side.

Some steady bowling performances in the Sheffield Shield saw him selected for the Ashes tour, although his first five-wicket haul in First-Class cricket would come against Leicestershire during his England visit. His selection was no doubt driven by his potential, but it also underlines the scarcity of pace bowling talent in the country at that time.

The supreme year

In the Australian side, McKenzie’s excellent physique led to the nickname ‘Garth’ after the comic-strip hero. McKenzie’s run up was self-taught, influenced by his memories of Ray Lindwall. He ran in with a deceptively gentle action, but hit the deck hard. The balls often flew off the wicket, striking the bat at alarming velocity. Often he did strike the batsman quite painfully as well. In spite of his structure and sometimes hitting the batsmen on their body, McKenzie was not a hostile fast bowler. He seldom sledged. Many felt that he was too nice to be a fast bowler.

With time he became the regular bowling partner of Davidson, capturing his first Test five-wicket haul at Adelaide during the Ashes series of 1962-63. When Davidson retired after the series, McKenzie graduated into the spearhead of the Australian attack. This was a role he would play for several years.

During his career, he seldom batted as well as on his first tour, but during his first series as the leading Australian bowler he did play a valuable knock of 76 at Sydney against South Africa. He put on 160 with Benaud and was instrumental in saving the Test match.

It was the Ashes tour of 1964 that saw McKenzie blossom into a top class bowler. He finished the tour with 29 wickets from 5 Tests, equaling the record set by Clarrie Grimmett. It included a toiling sustained effort to capture 7 wickets at Old Trafford as England piled up a 600-plus score. But, his stellar role was in combining with Neil Hawke to rout England in the first innings at Leeds. He took four in the first innings and three in the second, and Australia emerged as winner in the only Test that saw a result during the tour.

It was McKenzie’s greatest phase. He captured 21 more wickets in India and Pakistan, including a 10-wicket haul on the unhelpful track of Madras. Between December 11, 1963 to December 8, 1964 McKenzie managed 73 wickets, surpassing Maurice Tate’s record of 65. He also became the then youngest bowler to reach 100 wickets in Test cricket at the age of 23 years 162 days, a comfortable 139 days younger than Alf Valentine. The great year was capped off with his being named as one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year in 1965. McKenzie was the first player from Western Australia to be honoured as one.

Master of docile wickets

McKenzie could not sustain the incredible run of 1963-64, with the absence of Davidson and the new front foot no-ball rule bothering him. But, he remained consistent and enjoyed several moments of triumph thereafter.

As he had demonstrated at Madras in 1964, he produced his best on wickets notorious for their lack of life. When other bowlers broke their backs with little to show for their efforts in the wickets column, McKenzie thrived in snaring batsmen out. On the placid Adelaide Oval, he took six for 48 against England in 1965-66, to win the Test for Australia. In the latter half of the 1960s, McKenzie did form a profitable opening partnership with Alan Connolly.

However, he also ended on the wrong side of some curious selection policies. After figures of 7 for 66 and 3 for 85 at Melbourne against the touring Indians in 1967-68, McKenzie was dropped from the next two Tests. The official version was that he was being rested, but it was speculated that his dominance over the Indian batting had the potential to end matches too quickly and hence he had been omitted to ensure gate receipts. That Melbourne performance included 6 for 34 on the first morning, which remains the best bowling figures before lunch on the first day of a Test — beating Tom Richardson’s six for 39 achieved seven decades earlier at Leeds in 1896.

In the summer of 1968 McKenzie resigned as a Physical Education Teacher in employment of the Western Australian Government Education Department and became a full time cricketer. He spent the summer playing for Leicestershire, a strong team led by his Western Australia captain Tony Lock. Much of the county’s success in the limited-overs tournaments of the early seventies rode on McKenzie’s fast bowling.

Another great year and sudden end of career

His greatest performance perhaps came against West Indies at Melbourne in 1968-69, when he routed a line-up glittering with the likes of Roy Fredericks, Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Seymour Nurse and Basil Butcher. He picked up eight for 71 in the first innings. As he captured two more in the second innings, he completed his third and final ten wicket haul in Test cricket. The visitors slumped to an incredibly heavy defeat. In the series McKenzie accounted for 30 wickets and, at the age of 27, became the then youngest man to capture 200 Test wickets.

He followed his success against West Indies by taking 21 wickets on the beautiful batting strips of India, a country where he dreaded touring but always enjoyed bowling.

However, as Lawry’s side travelled to South Africa after that, McKenzie ran out of form in spectacular fashion. As Australia were beaten 4-0, McKenzie’s final figures from the 4 Tests read 1 for 333. Suspicions were rife that he was not fully fit and had contracted hepatitis.

He did turn out in the first, second and fourth Tests against England in 1970-71 Ashes — a 7-Test extravaganza of which the third was abandoned without a ball being bowled. The second match was played at Perth, the first ever Test played at WACA — McKenzie’s home ground. He did well enough to capture 4 wickets.

However, in the fourth Test at Sydney a John Snow bouncer struck him on the face as England won by a big margin. McKenzie, the premier Aussie fast bowler, had only one wicket to show for his efforts whereas Snow, his English counterpart, captured 7 in the second innings. It did not impress the selectors. Even though he did recover from the injury and broke Geoff Boycott’s forearm while playing for Rest of the World XI against England just before the seventh Test, he was never considered again for Australia.

McKenzie finished with 246 wickets from 69 Tests, ending two short of Benaud’s Australian record of 248. His average did take a beating due to the ordinary showing in his last few Tests and ended at a rather high 29.78. He was just 29 when he played his last Test, with quite a few years of top-class cricket left in him. One cannot help but wonder about the nature of the final figures had he been able to carry on for another few years, and enjoyed another dream run as in 1963-64 and 1968-69.

He represented Western Australia till 1974 and returned for a while in 1977 to play in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. He later moved to South Africa for a brief period to play in the domestic One Day tournaments, McKenzie will be remembered as the frontline pace bowler of Australia who carried the torch of fast bowling almost single-handedly through the sixties, passing it along from the great days of Alan Davidson to the famous era of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.

Graham ‘Garth’ McKenzie was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2010.

(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)