Keith Miller 1919-2004 October 11, 2004

'The Australian in excelsis'

Keith Miller: Australian postwar legend © The Cricketer

Keith Miller, the most charismatic Australian cricketer of his generation, has died in a nursing home on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. He was 84, and had been in poor health for some time.

Miller enlivened the postwar years with his brilliant allround play, able to turn a match with an attacking innings, a fiery spell of bowling, or a superb piece of fielding. He is probably best remembered for his new-ball partnership with Ray Lindwall, but it was as a classical batsman that he first made his mark: the photograph (right) of Miller clipping a textbook square-drive adorned the office wall of the cricket-loving Australian prime minister Robert Menzies for many years.

But "Nugget" - so-called because he was Australia's "Golden Boy" - was more than a cricketer: along with his English soulmate Denis Compton he embodied the idea that there was more to life than cricket. Miller, who was named after two pioneer Australian aviators - Keith and Ross Smith - was a fighter pilot himself in the Second World War, and after some extremely close shaves was well aware of the importance of life. It meant that he could occasionally look disengaged on the field: at Southend in 1948, when the "Invincible" Australians were running up the record score of 721 in a day against Essex, Miller stepped away to his first ball and was bowled, since such an unequal contest held little excitement.

This approach hardly endeared him to Don Bradman, the unyielding captain of that 1948 side who, possibly significantly, had not seen action during the war. Some mischievous hair-parting bouncers at the great man during Bradman's valedictory testimonial match at home after the tour probably didn't help either. Miller was initially ludicrously overlooked for Australia's next overseas trip - to South Africa in 1949-50 - although he did eventually go, after an injury to another player and a petition from local fans. But with Bradman by then firmly at the helm of the Australian Board, Miller never did captain Australia, although he was a born leader who impressed for New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield, and would have been a better bet than Ian Johnson, who was persuaded out of retirement when Lindsay Hassett stood down. Miller did have an unusual approach to captaincy, though: he sometimes set his field by telling the other players "Scatter". On another occasion, having omitted to nominate a 12th man, he found himself with 12 players on the field. He observed: "Well, one of you had better bugger off."

Miller: unpredictable allrounder © The Cricketer

Miller started as a batsman, hitting 181 on his first-class debut, for Victoria against Tasmania at Melbourne in 1937-38. And he first made a mark on the international game in 1945, with a sparkling 105 in the first "Victory Test" at Lord's, followed by a stroke-filled 185 there for the Dominions against England at the end of August. Miller made his official Test debut the following year, and went on to play 55 times for Australia, scoring 2958 runs at 36.97, with seven centuries, three of them against England and four against West Indies, whose captain, John Goddard, once sighed, "Give us Keith Miller and we'd beat the world."

Bradman's strong side needed Miller more as a bowler than a batsman, and he ended up with 170 Test wickets, at the excellent average of 22.97. He was the perfect foil to the smooth, skiddy Lindwall: Miller would trundle in off a shortish run, but could send down a thunderbolt himself if he felt like it. Or a legspinner. Or a yorker. Or a bouncer, an overdose of which led to his being booed during the 1948 Trent Bridge Test: Miller simply sat down until the barracking had subsided. What few people realised was that he had trouble with his back throughout that tour - he often pressed an errant disc back into place at the base of his spine before somehow sending down another screamer.

Despite this Miller remained a fearsome proposition as a bowler, grinning down the pitch at the discomfited batsman, and returning to his mark, flicking back his hair, which was on the long side for that short-back-and-sides era. In 1956, on his third and final tour of England, Miller was rising 37 and hoping not to do much bowling. But his pal Lindwall pulled out of the second Test at Lord's, and his replacement Pat Crawford broke down in his fifth over. Miller shouldered the burden, bowling 34.1 overs in the first innings and 36 in the second, and took five wickets both times to set up Australia's 181-run victory, their only one of that Jim Laker-dominated series. Miller had scored 109 in the 1953 Lord's Test, and remains the only man to have his name on both the batting and bowling honours boards in the visitors' dressing-room there.

After his retirement Miller remained in the public eye. The social contacts he'd built up - there were unsubstantiated rumours of a fling with Princess Margaret - made him a living as a journalist and columnist, but he was happiest at the cricket or at the races. Late in life he struck up a friendship with Sir Paul Getty, and the two of them would chat unselfconsciously in the Getty box at Lord's, or at the beautiful Wormsley ground, where the cricket on display - serious but spiced with grins and gins - was exactly the type Miller would have loved to play.

Neville Cardus dubbed Miller "the Australian in excelsis", a notion to which the noted Daily Mail sportswriter Ian Wooldridge heartily subscribed: "By God he was right."

Keith Miller's death was announced shortly after the news filtered through of the demise of the actor Christopher Reeve in America. As Tim de Lisle, the former Wisden editor, pointed out: "The world has lost two Supermen in one day."

Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden Cricinfo.