Keith Miller was all class while batting, with a rifle like straight drive, elegant cuts and effortless pulls and sweeps    Getty Images
Keith Miller was all class while batting, with a rifle like straight drive, elegant cuts and effortless pulls and sweeps Getty Images

Keith Miller, born November 28, 1919, was the greatest all-rounder to ever take the field for Australia. Arunabha Sengupta pays homage to the dashing and debonair ‘Nugget who demonstrated that there was a lot more to life than cricket.

After the devastation of the Second World War, austerity was the way of life. It was a period for ‘make do and mend , thrift, food rations and frugal living.

As a reflection of the times on the sporting fields, the late 1940s and the 1950s often saw drab safety-first approach to cricket. Cautious tentative batting, bowling focussed on containment, hours of painstaking vacillation before venturing into an over of attractive, attacking cricket. It led Neville Cardus to lament, “Should we be parsimonious in our cricket too?”

However, from Down Under there emerged a remarkable man who threw all such unnecessary, and sometimes even necessary, caution to wind. He was devilishly handsome with hair kept stylishly long and carelessly flicked back as he started to run in to bowl. In all respects he was throbbing with the force of life as it ought to be lived.

Keith Miller was a flame of brilliance that lit up post-War days on the cricket field. He batted with an air of gay abandon, with spectacular hitting that overshadowed an excellent technique. He bowled from long and short run ups, often peeling the gel off the batsman s hair with a quick one from a few steps or fooling him with a slow leg-break after running in fifteen paces. And sometimes, he interrupted animated conversations in the slips to take acrobatic blinders.

And all this he did with the staunch, steadfast conviction that there was a life beyond cricket.

Miller loved life, and along with his bosom buddy Denis Compton, often painted the town red before turning up at the Test match to score centuries or pick up wickets with casual elegance. “Outstanding as he was at cricket, the game was for him only a part of living life as a man might do,” wrote John Arlott.

This led to severe run-ins with captain and later selector Don Bradman. But, the same attitude won him legions of fans.

Cricket loving Prime Minister Robert Menzies kept a photograph of a perfect Miller square drive on his office desk. Ian Wooldridge called Miller “the golden boy” of cricket, leading to his being nicknamed “Nugget”. Cardus was moved enough to refer to him as Australian in excelsis.

There were very good reasons for Miller to live life to the fullest

Small and lacking in power as a boy, Miller thought of becoming a jockey till he was discovered by Bill Woodfull. The ex-Australian captain taught Mathematics in the Melbourne High School. It was here that young Miller spent his days, not really doing too much schoolwork.

Although he failed most subjects, including earning a blob in the Geometry course taught by Woodfull, he made progress in cricket, making his debut for Victoria against Tasmania as a batsman in 1937, hitting 181. The previous year, he had grown eleven inches, which put paid to his aspirations as a jockey. He was also a promising Australian Rules Footballer and played for St Kilda with reasonable success.

When the War intervened, Miller, named after pioneering Australian aviators Keith and Ross Smith, fittingly became a fighter pilot. The War years were particularly eventful. Other than being sentenced to three weeks of hard labour for threatening to punch his superior officer, and hurting his back an injury which would plague him throughout his career in a wrestling match, Miller had several experiences which defined the way he would lead his life.

He flew Mosquitos, was sent on several action-filled missions, had quite a few near-death experiences, met Denis Compton, and played a lot of cricket in England. On one flight, Miller veered away from the stipulated flying formation and returned to base late because he wanted to fly over Bonn, the birthplace of Beethoven.

Many years later, when asked about the pressures in playing cricket, Miller famously told Michael Parkinson: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.”

The Victory Tests and The Invincibles

When the War came to an end, the Allies celebrated through a series of Victory ‘Tests between England and the Australian Servicemen. The thrilling 5 ‘Test series ended 2-2. This was a splendid result for the Australians with only Lindsay Hassett as a Test player in their ranks. England, comprising of Wally Hammond, Len Hutton, Bill Edrich, Les Ames and Cyril Washbrook was almost a full-fledged Test side.

For Miller the series proved pivotal. He scored 105 in the first ‘Test , hit Hutton on the arm and Washbrook on the head in the second, scored a couple of 70s and took 6 wickets in the third and hit 118 in the fourth. When a fifth ‘Test was added to the schedule due to public demand, Miller responded with 77 not out.

This brought him to the forefront of Australian cricket, making him an important member of the Invincibles under Don Bradman. However, Bradman needed him more as a fast bowler, and this led to Miller batting lower down the order and also saw the rise of a fearsome opening partnership with Ray Lindwall.

As a bowler, Miller had a classical high-arm action, and moved the ball both ways and sharply    Getty Images
As a bowler, Miller had a classical high-arm action, and moved the ball both ways and sharply Getty Images

After a quiet debut against New Zealand, Miller scored 384 runs at 76.80 and took 16 wickets at 20.87 when Hammond s Englishmen visited Australia in 1946-47. And by the time the Invincibles toured England in 1948, Miller was already the leading all-rounder of the country, pairing up with Lindwall and putting the fear of God in the English batsmen.

The greatest Australian all-rounder

He carried on in the same vein, scoring important runs often from the top of the order sometimes going in as high as No. 3. As bowler he remained quick in patches, often resetting the troublesome disc of his lower back with his fingers as he walked back to his bowling mark.

He scored 3 hundreds against England and 4 against West Indies. With the ball too, he singled out these two sides for his best performances. It led West Indian captain John Goddard to exclaim, “Give us Keith Miller and we’ll beat the world.”

In 1956, on his third and final tour of England, Miller was 37 and his back had not really borne the burden of age too well. He was not really looking forward to bowling a lot, but his dear friend Lindwall pulled out of the second Test at Lord’s, and replacement Pat Crawford broke down in his fifth over. With no other option available, Miller bowled 34.1 overs in the first innings and 36 in the second, taking 5 wickets on each occasion, bowling Australia to a famous 181-run victory their one bright spot of that Jim Laker-dominated series. Having scored 109 in the 1953 Lord’s Test, Miller went up on the honours board of the visitor s dressing room at Lord s for both batting and bowling; Vinoo Mankad was the only other cricketer to achieve the feat.

Miller ended with 2958 runs at 36.97 and 170 wickets at 22.97 from 55 Tests. The figures put him at the top of the list of all-rounders when he retired, and has been matched by only the likes of Garry Sobers, Imran Khan and Jacques Kallis since then.

Miller was all class while batting, with a rifle like straight drive, elegant cuts and effortless pulls and sweeps. He could also be unorthodox and attacking, capable of hitting sixes with backhand tennis shots and beginning a day s play in Test cricket with an over-boundary. One straight six that he hit at the Sydney Cricket Ground was still rising when it hit the first deck of the Monty Noble Stand.

As a bowler, Miller had a classical high-arm action, and moved the ball both ways and sharply. The ball would often kick up dangerously from a good length and gain pace after pitching. He seldom cared about run ups, sometimes bowling from fifteen paces and sometimes five. While he occasionally generated more pace than his partner Lindwall, he often mixed it up with leg-breaks, looping slower balls or wicked round arm deliveries.During a Test match he once bowled English opening batsman David Sheppard with a googly bowled off a long run.

His best buddy, Compton, observed that Miller “often had no preconceived idea what he intended to bowl even as he turned to start his run”. Len Hutton singled him out as “the most unpredictable cricketer I have played against.”

Beyond the confines of cricket

But Miller was much more than just cricket. He was the spirit of life as it should be enjoyed.

His larger than life social image jarred discordantly with the disciplined continence of Don Bradman. When he refused to bowl during a Test match due to back problems, Bradman was not really amused.

They say today's cricketers attract the fairer sex. They should have seen Keith Miller.    Getty Images
They say today’s cricketers attract the fairer sex. They should have seen Keith Miller. Getty Images

The story that he allowed himself to be bowled for a duck when Australia was piling up 721 in a day against Essex is possibly apocryphal. None of the newspapers of the day reported anything unusual about the dismissal, and the claims were made by Miller in the books he wrote later. Even a free spirit can feel slightly abashed at getting a blob in a score of 721.

Similarly fictitious may be the anecdote of Bradman answering a knock on the door late one night to see Miller dressed in a dinner suit, informing that he had been in bed at curfew as demanded and was going out now that the rules had been met.

However, the Don was not very keen on Miller s habits and did not take it too kindly when he found the fast bowler targeting him with a series of Machiavellian bouncers during a festival match. Miller claimed that it led to his being ridiculously omitted from the team to tour South Africa in 1949-50, and he was included only after injuries affected selected players.

It certainly cost him the chance to captain Australia. Miller was a born leader, if somewhat unorthodox in his leadership.

He once arrived to captain for New South Wales still wearing his tux from the previous evening’s festivities, and set the field with a single command: “Scatter.” Satisfied, he took 7 for 12 to bowl South Australia out for 27.On another occasion, being told that his team was taking the field with one player too many, he asked for one of them to volunteer to “piss off”.

Arlott observed that for all the glamour attached to Miller, he was staunch and unaffected as a friend. After his sporting days were over, he worked as a journalist, married and had five children.

Life was not very kind to his wayward, wild young days. He suffered from skin cancer, reportedly because of refusing to wear a hat on the field. He had a hip replaced, and part of an ear removed. Finally he was confined to a wheelchair. Even as others were dismayed to see the dashing debonair knight of the yesteryears reduced to this state, Miller laughed it off. To him, these were life’s deliveries and he knew that one would get him out eventually.

Ten years before his death he was asked about that eventual certainty that awaits everyone.His response was typical Miller: “Never think about it. No regrets. I’ve had a hell of a good life. Been damned lucky.”

Keith Ross Miller passed away in October 2004.

(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)