| Driving like a champion
Before a phenomenon called Garfield Sobers emerged on the cricket scene, most cricket lovers would have named Keith Miller as the greatest all-rounder the game had ever seen. They would have toyed with the names of Jack Gregory and Learie Constantine but would have finally voted for Miller. His death at 84 on October 11 is something to be mourned in an era when cricketers have become models and idols. Keith Miller was a matinee idol without ever wanting to be one.
He was tall and handsome with long and wavy hair. He was a charismatic figure even in a team that had Don Bradman. He seldom wore a cap even in the hot Australian sun. He was moody and loved a challenge. If things were too easy, Miller was not interested. His killer instinct was aroused only when the opposition was strong, or the pitch was playing up, or his team was in trouble. In the 1948 English tour, when his team put up a mammoth 721 in one day against Essex, Miller was out first ball. One version of the incident said that, padded up, he had been playing cards with his mates. When his turn came to bat, he had just picked up a hand. He said, 'I will be right back.' And so he was.
Yet in the Leeds test of the same series when Australia was three wickets down for 68 (including that of Bradman) and 428 runs behind, Miller held the innings together. Playing like a champion, he protected the young Neil Harvey, playing his first test innings, to get a hundred. Harvey later recalled that during a crucial period of their partnership when Jim Laker was troubling him, Miller farmed the bowling with such precision that Harvey hardly got to face Laker. Miller scored 58 but it was his innings that was more remembered. Miller had no nerves. Waiting to go in for his first ever test innings against England, Miller dozed off till the clapping woke him up and he realized it was his turn to go out to the middle.
His bowling was quick and he had a lovely high action. He often did not measure his run up and bowled using his shoulders. He could be menacing even with the old ball. Fast bowlers hunt in pairs and Miller's name is forever linked with that of Ray Lindwall. After World War II, Miller and Lindwall were the scourge of English batsmen among whom were Denis Compton and Len Hutton. Miller and Lindwall loved to bowl to them and both of them counted Compton as their closest friend. It was their bowling which to a large extent made Bradman's 1948 side invincible.
As a bowler, Lindwall was a class apart and Miller was happy to play second fiddle, always bowling into the wind. But he invariably rose to the occasion when Lindwall was absent. For the better part of the first test match in the 1948 series, Lindwall was unable to bowl, having sustained a groin injury. Miller bowled 378 balls (including 44 overs in the second innings) and took seven wickets. Bradman did not miss the absence of Lindwall in that test. As a bowler, Miller was unpredictable. He was capable during a particular spell of intense fast bowling of producing a perfectly well-pitched googly. His swing was varied and well-controlled. His bouncers often soared over the batsmen's heads but he could, when he wanted, rear the ball into the batsman's body from just short of good length. He was a creature of moods but he rose to great heights when he bowled to someone of the class of Compton and Hutton. Lesser mortals did not stir the genius in him.
Even if he had not been the great batsman and bowler he was, he would have walked into any Australian side on the basis of his fielding alone. He was outstanding anywhere in the field but was superlative at second slip. He had a safe pair of hands and had incredible anticipation. Going against all conventional wisdom about slip fielding, he did not bend low and came down very late, almost after the ball had been delivered. The catches he took were unbelievable: he would sometimes fly almost parallel to the ground. The crowds loved his fielding and so did Miller.
Wherever Miller played, he struck an immediate rapport with the spectators. The latter loved the characteristic Miller gestures: the holding of his white handkerchief by its two corners and letting it flutter to check the direction of the wind before using it to mop up the perspiration; the almost regal toss of the head to settle his mane and then the use of the left hand to put it down; the flourish with which he rolled over after taking a particularly sharp chance in the slips. Once in a match Miller came out to bat at number three when every one in the ground had waited expectantly for the Don to appear. Miller went through an elaborate show of apology to the crowd, to their absolute delight. Miller was the Peter Pan, full of exuberance and youthful vitality.
In his approach to the game, Miller was the opposite of Bradman. John Arlott noted with great perspicacity that Bradman was a public figure who took very seriously his duties as a public figure. But Miller, once he discovered he was a public figure, continued to be Keith Miller. He remained forever the schoolboy's hero and it was not surprising that Bradman's young son adored Miller while Bradman as a captain tried to tame the hero. The Bradman-Miller relationship was inevitably fraught with tension. There was an enormous amount of mutual respect, Bradman recognized Miller's talents and Miller knew that there had never been a batsman like his captain. But the moulding of their characters, and therefore their approaches to the game, were very different. Miller harked back to the golden age of cricket to Victor Trumper and Archie MacLaren; Bradman carried the game forward to where it became more scientific, disciplined and more professional.
Contemporary cricket perhaps has no space for a character like Miller. Yet he would have excelled, such were his talents and his technique, in today's version of the game. But he would have found it too strait-laced and boring. He was not one of cricket's number-crunchers, measuring out his genius through statistics. He was a hero from cricket's great chivalrous age.