The apprentice and the master: Bobby Simpson (left) and Keith Miller © Getty Images
The apprentice and the master: Bobby Simpson (left) and Keith Miller © Getty Images

Keith Miller was an excellent reader of the game and often got the best out of his wards. Young Bobby Simpson found out some of that on November 13, 1953. Abhishek Mukherjee recalls the incident.

Some hail Shane Warne the greatest captain to have never led Australia in Test cricket. It is not far from the truth, as he proved by leading a low-key Rajasthan Royals to the inaugural IPL title. Old-timers often used to say the same about Keith Miller.

This is somewhat counterintuitive, for we typically associate shrewd strategies and man-management with mature faces and calm demeanours. That is probably why Mike Brearley — of Cambridge and Middlesex and a psychoanalyst (in other words, with “a degree in people”) — fits into that image so seamlessly.

Miller and Warne were debonair men, extravagant and larger than life in every possible way. Miller bounced at batsmen and knocked their stumps and hit humongous sixes. Warne was perhaps the first to glamorise leg-spin. Off the field Miller flew planes in The War and blew women off their feet. Warne’s tales vary from drugs to affairs, and beyond.

But they were among the two most intelligent men to take field for Australia as well. Both were excellent readers of the sport, and knew how to get the best out of their men.

Young Bobby Simpson had heard of Miller’s tale before he made his debut. In his autobiography Simmo: Cricket Then and Now, Simpson recollected being a part of the side when Miller walked out to the field with his troop and uttered “scatter”. The fielders obliged knowingly. Simpson moved to the “spot vacant at fine leg.”

Miller dropped Simpson for a few matches in 1953-54. However, Simpson came out as substitute fielder in the Sydney match against Victoria. At this point Simpson was still not the legendary slip fielder he would later evolve to. So he sprinted out and approached Miller with a basic question: “Excuse me, Mr Miller, where would you like me to field?”

This was hardly the question Miller expected of his peers (he believed in fielders “scattering”, remember?). He pondered for a while before coming up with a solution: “Oh, I don’t know, laddie. There is a hole over there. That will do for you.”

So Simpson filled the “hole” — in other words, he stood at first slip. He caught Neil Harvey in the first innings and Jeff Hallebone and Henry Lambert in the second. He soon became a specialist.

However, our anecdote is from earlier that season, and probably provides the reason for Simpson’s omission. New South Wales had an incredible batting line-up that season. The top seven had all played Test cricket at some point, which meant that Simpson — later one of the greatest openers of all time — could find a spot only at nine. In other words, he was a leg-spinner who could bat a bit.

Ken Archer opted to bat on a bone-dry pitch on that day at The Gabba. Miller gave the new ball to Ray Lindwall and Jack Clark — and summoned Richie Benaud in the sixth over.

Benaud recalls his surprised exclamation in Benaud: On Reflection: “But Nugget, the ball’s still new!” It was another thing for a finger-spinner, but was the new ball not supposed to be difficult to grip for wrist-spinners?

But Miller was adamant: “Don’t worry about that. It’ll soon be old. Just think about the field you want.”

But Benaud was obviously worried. The reluctance showed on the face of the man whom history would remember as one of its greatest captains. So Miller persisted: “It’s all right. It’ll spin like a top for an hour. We’ve got a great chance to bowl them out.”

Spin like a top it did: Benaud took the first 5 wickets to fall, all before lunch on Day One. Miller had read the pitch correctly.

Meanwhile, Miller had replaced Lindwall at the other end after the latter’s spell — with Simpson. Simpson was obviously elated at being ‘promoted’ of Miller himself. Simpson sent down three eight-ball overs of leg-breaks.

Now Miller approached Simpson: “Why am I yet to see your excellent wrong ’un?”

“I seemed to have lost it for the time being,” was the feeble response Simpson came up with.

When it came to handling his boys, Miller could be as blunt as they made them: “In that case you can piss off until you find it.”

Ken Archer and Peter Burge then slammed hundreds. Simpson was kept out of action for long. He did take two wickets in the end, but did not impress. The match petered out to a draw. As if to prove Miller right, Queensland leg-spinner Brian Flynn took 8 for 148 and 3 for 92.

Simpson was made to return to the nets. He was dropped after a severe pasting by South Australia. He had to bowl the googly at Miller again and again till the captain was impressed. He finally came back after missing 3 matches and over two months, against Western Australia at Sydney.

How did Simpson fare on return? Western Australia were bowled out for 181 in the second innings. Even Benaud (3 for 68) was easily outdone by Simpson (5 for 37). Four of Simpson’s victims were bowled.

Brief scores: 

Queensland 354 (Ken Archer 118, Peter Burge 103; Richie Benaud 5 for 88) and 374 for 8 decl. (Ken Archer 64, Ken Mackay 47, Ernie Toovey 73, Jim Bratchford 54, Don Tallon 54*; Arthur Fagan 3 for 49) drew with New South Wales 422 (Arthur Morris 171, Richie Benaud 158; Brian Flynn 8 for 148) and 164 for 5 (Bobby Simpson 58*; Brian Flynn 3 for 92).