Keith Miller: Self-mythologist? © Getty Images
Keith Miller: Self-mythologist? © Getty Images

May 15, 1948. As Australia piled up 721 in a day against a hapless Essex attack, Keith Miller fell for a first ball duck. The common belief is that Miller was sick of the carnage and decided to throw his wicket away. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the various accounts and records of the incident and tries to verify whether Miller’s story holds water.

Miller, Myth and 721

David Frith, the prolific and legendary chronicler of cricket, has a thing against myths.

In fact, given the amount of diligent research he carries out for his own books and articles, it is understandable that Frith does not suffer myths gladly.

In a recent article for the Australian periodical Between Wickets, Frith starts with the words: “Myth: ‘fictitious idea’ is one of the definitions given in my faithful dictionary.  Myths are all around us, and they seem as indestructible as cockroaches.  Perhaps people are sentimental, too reluctant or too lazy to let go, even after the false nature of the myth has been starkly exposed.”

We have seen this too many times as well, through the many attempts we have made in these pages to debunk certain deep rooted beliefs held to be gospel in cricket.

So strongly does Frith feel about myths that he does not allow even a hero of the stature of Keith Miller manufacture one of his own tales. Let me add here that based on the personal discussions I have had with the doyen of cricket writing, I know that Frith has a very soft spot for Miller. Indeed, Frith idolised the maverick Australian fighter pilot and all-rounder, respected him and later became his friend.

However, when it comes to this particular Miller story, Frith is vocal that it is indeed a myth.

The story is quite well-known, repeated often enough to snuggle in the mind of the cricket romantic as ‘part of history’. That was the glorious day in early summer of 1948, when Don Bradman’s Invincibles went down to Southend on Sea to take on the challenge of Essex and scored 721 runs in a day’s play.

The county side’s bowling was spearheaded by a young Trevor Bailey, but like most of the English attacks immediately after the Second World War, there was hardly any bite or depth in their ammunition. The visitors, however, were riding on the crest of five wins since setting foot on the shores of Ole Blighty.

And did the Australians make merry that day!

Sidney Barnes and Bill Brown put on 145 in 95 minutes. The dismissal of Barnes, against the run of play, set the stage for Bradman to stride out with a little more than 20 minutes to go for lunch. By the time the break was taken, he had raced to 42. 20 of them had come from five consecutive boundaries off Frank Vigar’s lobbed up leg-breaks during the last over before lunch.

After lunch the slaughter continued. Brown and Bradman added 219 in 94 minutes. The score was 364 when Brown hit Bailey to Dick Horsfall at gully.

Hence, at 364 for 2, Miller walked out. What followed, as they say, is part of folklore.

The Miller Story

Here is what Miller wrote in Cricket Crossfire, a whimsical biography published in 1956.

Bradman could have used such games to give batsmen like Ron Hamence and Bill Brown a chance to build up their form and confidence? Hamence was one of the most promising bats we had in Australia at the time, but it was no earthly use sending him in when the score was around 600 for 4. During the game at Southend I walked in to bat, did not take guard, made a sleep-walking stroke and was bowled. I turned to the wicketkeeper, said, ‘Thank God that’s over’ and walked away.”

This is the tale that is too good a story to resist. The War hero who played cricket with bravado and nonchalance only for pleasure, had got sick of the whole business and thrown his wicket away.

Is it true? Or was it a story he cooked up after getting out, and perhaps repeated it often enough to believe in it himself? Missing out for a duck when the team gets 721 in a day may not have been very pleasant.

In The Golden Nugget, his rather hagiographic biography of Miller, Dick Whittington faithfully quoted the entire story as written down by the all-rounder.

What is far more incredible is that the generally accurate Mihir Bose also fell for this tale in his Keith Miller — a cricketing biography. In fact, Bose took rather carefree literary license, something more associated with the likes of Whittington, AA Thomson and Neville Cardus.

“Miller came in to bat when the score was 364 for 2, he took guard perfunctorily, and to the very first ball that was bowled to him he lifted his bat, flung his hair back and was walking towards the pavilion even before the bails hit the ground. If ever a single situation could be said to epitomise the man, then this was it. Runs were there to be had, the Australians were to score another 357, but the idea had no appeal for him.”

It is indeed a spectacular story fitting the image of someone who said, “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.” Maps with the personality to perfection.

However, the various evidences that can be found from different sources do not quite tally.

Analysing the facts

If Miller had indeed walked back before the bails fell on the ground, as Bose insists he had done, it would not have allowed him to turn to the wicketkeeper and talk to him. But according to his own account, Miller did turn to the gloveman Frank Rist and say, “Thank God that’s over.”

But one can perhaps put that down to hyperbole and literary license associated with penning feats of honour.

However, let us look at other chronicles of the match.

Bradman, in his own account in A Farewell to Cricket, simply writes, “Strange to say, right in the middle of it all, the one man who might really have created a riot of runs, Keith Miller, was bowled first ball for 0.”

Bailey did note: “After hitting the stumps, I commented to Bradman, who was at the non-striker’s end, that he had not appeared very interested”. To this Bradman had noncommittally replied: “He’ll learn.”

Besides, as Frith says, “Miller was not completely averse to indulging himself against ordinary bowling. Double-centuries against Leicestershire, Worcestershire and also Combined Services on his tours of England come to mind.  In all he registered seven double-centuries, so he knew how to indulge himself. At Southend in 1948 he went in with the score 364 for 2, Bradman at the other end, with no real indication at that stage, of course, that the Australians were going to amass such a grotesque score by close of play.”

That is a point often overlooked. 364 for 2 in the middle of the day does not imply 721 by the end of it. Quick wickets, collapses, inspired spells are part and parcel of the game. Miller could not have been sure that such a huge total was on the cards.

Let us now look at the match played against Leicestershire a couple of weeks earlier.

The situation had been similar on the first afternoon. Australia were 316 for 2, Miller and Bradman at the wicket. The difference was that Miller had gone in at the fall of the first wicket, and had shown no inclination of throwing his wicket away. Bradman had fallen for 81, and then the remaining Australians had perished in search of quick runs. Miller, however, had decided to continue batting and had remained unbeaten on 202. The Leicestershire attack had been worse than that of Essex, but Miller had not really showed any inclination of shouldering arms to a straight delivery with a trademark toss of his hair.

Five years later, in 1953, the Australians played the Combined Services at Kingston-upon-Thames. Miller and Neil Harvey added 377 runs, both hammering double-hundreds along the way. The score read 450 for 3 at one stage, and by the end of the day Australians had piled up 592 for 4. Harvey had fallen, but Miller had continued batting and had remained unbeaten with 262.

Had he changed? Or was it that ‘he did learn’ as Bradman had predicted?

Besides, Miller’s logic is rather thin when one gets down to the specifics.

Bill Brown had already scored 153 and had been dismissed, so his argument that Brown should have been allowed the opportunity of getting into form is rather dense. Besides, in the previous match against Cambridge University the opener had scored an unbeaten double hundred. Did he really need to get into form?

And was Miller sure that had he batted on Hamence would not have got the chance he needed to settle down? In the event, Hamence did get his opportunity to bat after Miller departed and scored 46. What’s more important is that the batsmen who followed, Sam Loxton and Ron Saggers, both blasted individual hundreds. So, it does indicate that even if Miller had played a rather long innings the following batsmen would have had sufficient time in the middle.

To judge the veracity of Miller’s account, Frith also looked with a lot of interest at the amateur film of parts of the match recently made available.

The footage unfortunately does not show the dismissal itself. But it does show Miller, with his Brylcreem-sleek hair, walking out to bat, looking around, mainly towards the leg side. And, contrary to his claims that he did not take guard, between 4.59 to 5.01 of the film Miller can be clearly seen asking the umpire for his guard. That is taking a lot of trouble if he wanted to throw his wicket away.

And then we see him walking back with the stumps disturbed.

According to Frith, “The vital clue, I think, is the facial expression as the batsman turns and walks back to the pavilion. It is fairly blank — not, if the deliberate-dismissal theory is to be believed, smiling mischievously or conspiratorially.  The brief footage of his return to the pavilion reveals if anything the sort of disappointment and acceptance most batsmen display when done first ball.”

Frith went further: “Years ago I telephoned the Essex wicketkeeper in that match, Frank Rist, who thought hard for a while and, perhaps not wanting to become embroiled in controversy, said he couldn’t be sure whether Miller let the ball bowl him.  Waste of a shilling.”

Given that Miller claimed that he had uttered those words of relief to the wicketkeeper after getting out, it is rather surprising that Rist would say he was not sure about the batsman’s motives.

Frith ends with the words: “When Essex went in next day (they were bowled out twice before the end to give the Australians a two-day victory and a day off) Miller took the new ball and soon had 3 for 14 before the spinners took over.  Being a social animal, Keith Miller would have enjoyed the extra free day as much as anybody.”

Yes, that tallies with his image. But the fact is, the ‘Messerschmitt up my ass’ comment notwithstanding, Miller did take the business of cricket seriously. He was fully aware that Len Hutton’s injury during the War years had shortened the great opener’s left hand by several inches, making it quite impossible for him to play the hook shot. However, with Hutton remaining the most obdurate batsman in the otherwise thin England batting line-up, the all-rounder did not hesitate to pepper the Yorkshiremen with bouncers screaming towards his body.

In other words, in cricket Miller could be as ruthless as the next man. It requires a rather romantic stretch of imagination to believe that he would have thrown his wicket away just like that.

Some do hint at the races or poker vying for his time, influencing him to throw his wicket away, but those are idle speculations.

The accounts of the day

As is normal in these situations, the different camps have different tales to tell.

The Don-hating Jack Fingleton was critical (as always) of Bradman’s tactics. In his account of the tour, Brightly Fades the Don, Fingleton provided the template for Bose’s story. According to him, Miller walked across with boredom and was bowled. There is also that allusion to the charismatic all-rounder flinging his hair back.

However, off-spinner and future captain Ian Johnson refused to agree. Well, Miller later claimed that Johnson picked up 92 wickets on the tour because The Don allowed him to bowl to 9, 10 and Jack. Differences of opinion seem natural in the circumstances.

In Johnson’s words, “Keith is said to have made no attempt to score but just lifted his bat and allowed himself to be bowled first ball, indicating that he thought there were more than enough runs on the board without his having to make an effort. That is nonsense, and is unfair both to Miller and his team. What happened was that Keith had been sitting in the dressing room through a long partnership and when he was suddenly summoned to the middle the first ball he received from Trevor Bailey was a yorker. Just as with many other batsmen, the yorker got through before he could get his bat down.”

Malcolm Knox, in his reconstruction of the tour, calls Miller a “self-mythologist of the first rank, not necessarily to be trusted.”

However, if he had indeed ‘lifted his bat, flung his hair back and walked to the pavilion’ as Bose claims he did, would it not have been evident to the reporters around the ground?

Let us look at the contemporary newspaper accounts of the day.

This is what was printed in Courier Mail (Brisbane): “Miller Shock: Brown’s dismissal set the stage for the biggest sensation of the day — Miller’s duck. He is rapidly challenging Bradman as a cricket attraction, and with the bowlers at his mercy there was a buzz of excitement as Miller came in and took block to Bailey. The roar of the crowd as the first ball dismissed Miller shook the rickety stand.”

There is no mention of the deliberate dismissal.

In the Times, the report reads simply: “T. E. Bailey bowled away nobly and had one good spell when he dismissed Brown and K. Miller with successive balls, the latter’s dismissal being a merciful release for Essex.”

Perhaps the most telling evidence lies in the Sydney Morning Herald report of the day’s proceedings. In that publication, the piece by Tom Goodman simply stated: “It was ironical that Keith Miller, the man who had batted best on a rain-damaged wicket at Bradford, should go first ball yesterday.”

But more important was the dispatch from Bill O’Reilly, the travelling cricketer-turned-journalist, writing for the same paper.

The former leg-spinning legend dwelt on the achievements of Barnes, Bradman and Brown, spoke of the Loxton-Saggers jollification, and lamented the state of attacks of a country that had boasted the late Ken Farnes and Stan Nichols not too long ago. He did not mention Miller and his dismissal at all.

If there had indeed been such an act by Miller, an act of obvious and deliberate criticism against Bradman and his tactics, one person who would have certainly written about it, apart from Fingleton, was O’Reilly.

One can put it down to the sectarian rifts that plagued Australian cricket teams during the Bradman days, or the differences in mental make-ups of the fun-loving cricketers and the relentless run-machine from Bowral. But the fact remains that alongside Fingleton, O’Reilly remained The Don’s biggest critic.

However, since Fingleton wrote about the match in a book after the tour, he had the luxury of seeing the story form, mature and snowball in order to put it into his account in the guise of fact.

O’Reilly on the other hand, on the ground and expected to furnish accounts on a daily basis, noticed nothing out of the ordinary and wrote nothing in his match report. And if O’Reilly could not spot someone getting out deliberately, no one could.

That perhaps is the biggest evidence that the Miller story is yet another of the many myths that riddle the cricket world.

Brief Scores:

Australia 721 (Sid Barnes 79, Bill Brown 153, Don Bradman 187, Ron Hamence 46, Sam Loxton 120, Ron Saggers 104; Peter Smith 4 for 193) beat Essex 83 (Ernie Toshack 5 for 31) and 187 (Ian Johnson 6 for 37) by an innings and 451 runs.

(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.)