Keith Miller: Tricks of Memory © Getty Images
Keith Miller: Tricks of Memory © Getty Images

December 27, 1929. A young Don Bradman was nearing his century against Victoria when he was bowled by Harry ‘Bull’ Alexander. The legendary all-rounder Keith Miller had just turned 10, but was, by his own account, present in the ground that day. And also according to Miller that was the day the superstition surrounding 87 was born. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the facts and figures and tries to deduce what took place.

Myth and Memory

Once again we return to a question we have dealt with often in these pages. “How reliable are player memories?”

I recall a conversation I had a few months back with Neil Robinson, the diligent MCC Library and Research Manager at Lord’s.Comparing our own interview notes and quotes by the same individuals in different books, we had come to a common conclusion.

Old cricketers, and some young ones too, often repeat a story so frequently in the popular raconteur sessions, after dinner talks and guest lectures, that it soon becomes part of a well-polished performance. Minor differences that tend to occur between retellings gradually disappear. Soon it reads scripted. Embellishments, if indulged in, mingle and merge with the facts — assuming facts had anything to do with it in the first place. And soon the event, even if partly or fullyfictional, becomes a part of the cricketer’s honest memory.

Of course the affliction is not limited to cricketers, but spreads across cricket writers, umpires and commentators as well … and well beyond the cricket world.

Sometimes, this indulgence towards fiction can be compulsive. If one is blessed with the wizardry of language as a Neville Cardus, small, medium and gross manipulations of mundane facts can be passed off as poetic license. However, for Dickie Bird, tales of  imagination and hilarity can be put down to the constant demands for a good story that eggs a celebrated raconteur, when minor fabrications refined through time become enmeshed with memory as veritable truth.

There are honest mistakes too, because our memories are very fallible. Therefore we get such accounts of events that did not take place in the memoirs of players ranging from Wilfred Rhodes and Herbie Taylor to Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar. When one looks back at hundreds and hundreds of matches in a career, events do get juxtaposed. That is a known problem of human memory.

All these serve as recurrent reminder to us that scorecards and contemporary reports are often more reliable than great cricketing stories narrated by great names.

Keith Miller and the 87 tale

So, what is the story we will be looking at now?

We touch upon an endearing tale told by the great all-rounder, the universally admired Australian cricketing and War hero Keith Miller. The dashing, debonair superstar who enchanted one and all with bat, ball, charisma and camaraderie.

The story was first penned by David Frith in the November 1990 edition of Wisden Cricket Monthly.  And after that it has been repeated often enough, through the convenient media of web sites.It has assumed the stature of truth through constant retellings.

It is about the superstitious fear of the score 87 in Australia.

In 1990 Miller, by then 70 and suffering from cancer, told Frith that he was the one who gave birth to the ’87 nonsense’. The roots traced way back to the winter of 1929.

The legendary Australian cricketer said that as a kid he had frequented the Melbourne Cricket Ground. On what has to be December 27, 1929, as a ten-year-old kid he was there watching a 21-year-old young sensation Don Bradman bat for New South Wales against Victoria.

That day, according to Miller: “I’m just a kid in the outer, watching The Don bat … Christmas 1929 I think it was … So I’d be what, 10? Anyway, Don’s seeing the ball as big as football. But suddenly ‘Bull’ Alexander bowls him! I’d looked up to see his score just before ‘Bull’ got him, and that score —87 — stuck in my mind. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Every weekend I’d look through the club scores, searching for more 87s. It became a sort of fixation.

“Even a few years after, when I began to play for South Melbourne alongside Ian Johnson, I was still conscious of this 87 thing. I always tried to avoid it when I was batting, but Johnno got out for 87 once and I said to him, ‘That’s bloody funny I saw Bradman get out for 87 once.’ It was a sort of cult, a superstition.”

“Anyway, after the war. Into the early 1950s Richie Benaud and Alan Davidson, and some of those blokes picked it up, but they didn’t really know what it was all about. And more years later I heard Paul Sheahan on the radio talking about this superstition being based on 87 being 13 less than 100. What a load of hat!”

He went on to add, “I checked the thing out with Bob Radford at the NSWCA one day, just to refresh my memory. And there it was. Bradman bowled Alexander 89! It wasn’t 87 after all. The scoreboard had been slow again.”

Plausible, believable story. And what if Bradman actually scored 89? Miller admitted he was mistaken. That the scoreboard had been slow.

Indeed. But, let us tarry and look at what actually happened that day.

Bradman’s innings

On Boxing Day, 1929, Victoria skipper Jack Ryder had been dismissed for a duck. In the second innings he scored 1, and Bradman later opined that it was the failure in this game which resulted in Ryder’s omission from the 1930 tour of England.

It was largely due to Bill Ponsford’s resilience that the hosts reached a total of 229. The New South Wales innings had just got underway when the stumps were drawn with the score on 8 for no loss, Alan Fairfax and Norbert Phillip at the crease.

The following morning, the day Miller was supposedly at the ground, Fairfax was caught by Blackie low down in the second slip off Ted a’Beckett for 2. The score was still 8 and Bradman walked to the wicket amidst ‘cordial cheers’. He soon settled down into his groove.

With the score on 24, Alexander, the fast bowler, swerved one away and Phillip edged to give Blackie another neat, low catch. Captain Alan Kippax was greeted with a generous ovation as he walked to the wicket.

Alexander bowled with lively pace but wasted too many balls down the leg side. Bradman twice turned him to the fine leg fence. The runs came steadily.

The bowling changed, Bert Ironmonger was brought on. However, Bradman and Kippax continued to bat comfortably. The Don’s half century was brought up in 68 minutes, with the legend driving Ironmonger to the on side. He celebrated it by repeating the stroke for 4 and 3. Kippax pulled to the leg and chopped through the slips for boundaries and Bradman drove vigorously for two more fours. The 100 of the innings was up in 71 minutes.

There was one moment of blemish when Bradman drove hard at Blackie, but the bowler dropped a sharp one-handed chance. Bradman, on 72 at that time, rejoiced at the let off, hitting the experimental bowling of Ellis for three boundaries in an over. He went in to lunch at 85 not out.

After lunch, Alexander opened the bowling and Bradman turned him neatly to fine leg for four. One contemporary account, quoted by Michael Page in Bradman — The Illustrated Biography stated: “Never has a batsman taken the liberties that Bradman took when facing Alexander. Long before the ball pitched, he walked confidently across to the off and hooked the fast-rising ball. For sheer audacity it has never been matched.”

However, the report continued: “While the crowd was still applauding the success of the venture it brought about hisundoing, Alexander shattering his stumps with a ball pitched further up.”

The Age also records, “[after the boundary] he tried to deal similarly with the next delivery, but he missed the ball and it took his leg stump.”

Thus Bradman was out for 89, made in 100 minutes, out of the 127 scored while he was at the crease. It was etched with 12 boundaries. The match went on and ended in a draw after Stork Hendry scored a match-saving century for Victoria in the second innings.

The Trick of Memory

Most importantly, in the context of our article,The Don had been unbeaten on 85 at lunch. And he hit a boundary after the break before being bowled the next delivery.

If at all the scoreboard had been slow, it would have shown 85. There was not really any logical way that the scorers would have stopped at 87. Bradman had not been on 87 that day. And the figures used on the scoreboard were not on a number wheel that could get stuck on 7 as the unit place was rotated from 5 to 9. The figures on the scoreboard at MCG were individual digits. When the score progressed from 85 to 89, the 5 would have to be taken down and the card denoting 9 mounted on the board. There was very, very little chance of a human error ending with 7 in the slot.

There seems to be very little chance that Miller saw 87 against Bradman’s name when he fell.

The Don was out for 87 only once in his career, against MCC in November 1928, while representing New South Wales at Sydney. Miller, who spent his formative years in Melbourne, would not have travelled to Sydney to watch the game as a not yet 9-year-old.

Apart from that 89, Bradman never fell between 87 and 99 at Melbourne.

The memory of seeing 87 on the Melbourne scoreboard as The Don walked back short of his century was a trick of memory. Perhaps it was really believed by Miller, but it did not take place.

However, what Miller says about the spread of the superstition does seem to be factual.

Ian Johnson indeed got out for 87 once while batting for South Melbourne. The match was against Richmond, and Miller was also playing for the South Melbourne side. In fact, the club match had several current and future Test cricketers in the fray. South Melbourne was led by Lindsay Hassett, Ernie McCormick opened the bowling for Richmond and Johnson was caught by Leo O’Brien off Doug Ring.

Hence, Miller’s reaction to Johnson’s dismissal and subsequent events could definitely have given rise superstition surrounding 87. Yet, even in that case, the root event leading to the entire 87-phenomenon was largely spurious.

Brief Scores:

Victoria 229 (Bill Ponsford 65, Stork Hendry 43, Keith Rigg 44; Sam Everett 5 for 57) and 343 (Stork Hendry 103, John Ellis 40, Ted a’Beckett 50, John Scaife 60; Alan Fairfax 5 for 104) drew with New South Wales 402 (Don Bradman 89, Alan Kippax 80, Alec Marks 68, Stan McCabe 70) and 145 for 2 (Norbert Phillips 45, Stan McCabe 50*).

South Melbourne 296 for 9 decl. (Ian Johnson 87, Dud Fitzmaurice 55; Doug Ring 3 for 79) and 18 for no loss beat Richmond 207 (Leo O’Brien 57, John Ledward 81*; Owen Evans 4 for 35, Keith Kildey 4 for 64) on first-innings lead.

(ArunabhaSengupta 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.)