80 Days Until The Ashes…
Rafiq Copeland takes a look back at an Ashes legend who rivalled Bradman in many ways.
A few years ago now, I was sitting in an art history class looking at a slide of ‘The Footballer’ by Sydney Nolan. The lecturer mused out loud that the player in the painting must have been an imagined figure, as the red, yellow and black colours on his football jersey did not match any of the teams in the old Victorian Football League. I couldn’t resist putting my hand up. Actually those were the colours of the St Kilda Football Club before World War Two – they changed them when the German flag went out of fashion. Nolan was a St Kilda supporter and the player in the painting was not made up at all – he was Sydney Nolan’s favorite player, Keith Miller.
Keith Miller was a football hero, war hero, ladies’ man, man’s man and most of all a legendary cricketer. He is an icon of cricket – and his personality made him an icon outside of the game as well. He was the sort of man you get the feeling would have been a legend no matter what he turned his hand to. His nickname was ‘Nugget’ – the golden boy.
As a teenager in the 1930s Miller was a student at Melbourne High School where he was lucky enough to come into contact with the current Australian test captain Bob Woodfull. Cricket really was an amateur sport in those days and when Woodfull wasn’t touring England or playing Shefield Shield he made his living as a maths teacher. Woodfull apparently didn’t think much of Miller as a student – giving him zero in a geometry test which resulted in him repeating the year – but he did rate him as a cricketer. In 1936 Woodfull wrote in the school magazine that Miller had ‘test possibilities’. He was right.
After making both his Shefield Shield and Victorian Football League debuts in 1939 Miller looked to have a pretty bright future as an athlete – but of course the world had more serious activities in mind for young men in those brutal years. As a soldier Miller was typically troublesome. He repeatedly faced disciplinary hearings for insubordination – including threatening to punch his commanding officer. Once whilst returning from a flying a mission over Europe Miller broke formation, disappeared and arrived at the airbase late – apparently he had decided to fly home over Bonn because he wanted to see Beethoven’s birthplace. Nonetheless his RAAF career seems to have been well respected. Just to survive as an airman in those years is a testament to his character. Famously when interviewed years later by Michael Parkinson Miller answered a question about pressure on the cricket field by saying ‘pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not.’ It was in a makeshift Australian Services side that Miller made his debut against England at Lords in 1945 – he made a century.
Over the next few years Keith Miller would establish himself as one of the greatest allrounders ever to play the game. He made his Ashes (and Test) debut in Brisbane in 1946, scoring 79 in Australia’s single innings and taking 9 for 77 in the match. Miller finished his first Ashes series as Australia’s second highest run scorer (behind only Bradman) and second highest wicket taker – not a bad start. He played his cricket with typical abandon. There is a story that Miller once missed the beginning of an Ashes test match in England. When he eventually arrived at the ground just after play had started he was wearing a dinner suit and was still drunk from the night before. According to the story Miller changed into his whites, went out to bat and put in a man of the match performance. No wonder Bradman hated him.
The animosity between Bradman and Miller is famous – and made more so by the fact that they were stand out stars in that star-studded team known as The Invincibles. The two future members of the Australian team of the century were completely different in personality. Bradman’s intense competitiveness and social awkwardness contrasted with Miller’s almost lack of interest in winning and instant popularity with everyone he met. There is no prize for guessing which of the two is rumored to have had an affair with Princess Margret. Or who it was that admitted giving up his wicket early so as to make it to the nearby racetrack to place a bet. Or who showed up to a 1953 tour match in a hearse after hitching a lift to the ground. Once when he was captaining New South Wales, Keith Miller had his twelfth man dress as a flight attendant and spend the drinks break handing out cigars, combs and mirrors. It was a typical Miller joke.
Miller was undoubtedly one of the great allrounders the game has ever produced. But there is a question – usually raised by hardnosed cricketers of the Bradman variety – over whether Miller could have been better if his attitude was improved. Perhaps if he quit messing around and took the game a little more seriously he could have been even greater than he was? I think the truth is quite the opposite. I think it was exactly Miller’s lack of seriousness – his love of the contest rather than his love of victory, his larrikin spirit rather than his hard edge – which made him great.
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