August 10, 2013

The games people play

Cricketers who could also swing a club or a foot or two

Denis Compton (right) plays against Chelsea at Highbury © Getty Images

Denis Compton
In the years immediately following World War II, with the Don nearing retirement and Neil Harvey a pup, Compton was one of the best batsmen in the world. And so he published a book entitled How To Play Association Football, an instructional tome about the things he'd learned playing left wing for Arsenal. In 54 games he scored 15 goals and helped the Gunners to a 2-0 win over Liverpool in the 1950 FA Cup. Over roughly the same period he played 78 Tests for England and scored 5087 runs at 50.06.

WG Grace
Hard to imagine the great six-foot-three wombat-bearded Englishman flying over the jumps on a hot lap, but before he was known as "The Doctor", Grace was a champion 400m hurdler. A naturally athletic man, Grace trained for cricket and athletics by running around with the beagles on fox hunts. Aged 18 he scored 224 not out for England in a game against Surrey, leaving halfway through to win an England quarter-mile hurdle championship at Crystal Palace.

Don Bradman
After a decade of dismantling Test bowling attacks and racking up batting numbers like an incredible Abacus with arms, the Don decided to take up competitive squash and promptly won the 1939 South Australian squash championship. He was also excellent at billiards, competitive at tennis, and even as he went into his 80s often "broke his age" at Adelaide's Kooyonga Golf Club. And all because he used to whack a golf ball against a corrugated iron water tank with a cricket stump. Kids, your lesson is clear: get out and start whackin'.

Ricky Ponting
Some people are just naturally good. Ponting's on drives and pull shots, with their perfect mix of balance and power and timing, were truly things of beauty. Hitting a golf ball requires these things and more. Ponting plays irregularly yet still plays to a handicap of 0. Greg Chappell played a round with Ponting and Ernie Els and remarked on the similarity of their ball striking. Another South African, Gary Player, reckons Ponting could be a pro golfer. Mark Taylor tells a story of a game they played at England's Belfry golf course, a month-old layout destined for the European Tour. On his first sight of the course, Ponting shot 2-under, including a double-bogey on 16.

Keith Miller
As if being a tall, athletic, well-built type who looked like a cross between Errol Flynn and Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller wasn't enough. As if being a cricketer who could fling the leather at serious speeds and belt the cover off it batting No. 5 for Australia was not enough. As if flying Mosquito fighter-bombers against the Jerries was not enough. As if having a tough Aussie name like Keith wasn't enough. With all these pluses to his name "Nugget" Miller still had to go out and play 50 Australian Rules football games for St Kilda and represent the Big V of Victoria. The bastard.

Simon O'Donnell
If Miller was considered the "Australian in Excelsis" - meaning he was an all-Aussie tub-thumping big-hitter who flung the cherry hard while looking fit and cool - O'Donnell could perhaps be described as the Poor Man's Victorian in Excelsis. Tall and strong, before he became a household name for whacking the ball long and straight out of the MCG and perfecting the emerging dark art of the "slower ball", O'Donnell played 24 games for St Kilda at full-forward and kicked 18 goals.

Eric Tindill (wk and captain)
Before he died aged 99 in 2010, Eric William Thomas "Snowy" Tindill was the world's oldest living Test cricketer. Born in December of 1910, Tindill played Test cricket for New Zealand and rugby for the All Blacks, making him the only person to do so. As a cricketer he was a wicketkeeper who caught the Don cheaply in Adelaide in 1938, the only time Bradman played against New Zealand. As a rugby player he played 16 matches for New Zealand in the inside backs. He even played soccer for Wellington. On retirement he umpired one cricket Test match, refereed one rugby Test, and founded the Wellington table tennis association.

Eddie Barlow
Bespectacled and chubby, strong and combative, Eddie "Bunter" Barlow bowled fast-medium left-arm swingers and thrashed the ball about like a dervish, scoring 603 runs on his first tour of Australia, including a century on debut and a double-century. In the winter months he played in the centres for the mighty rugby province of Transvaal, turning out against the All Blacks and the British Lions.

Ray Lindwall
One of the finest fast bowlers of all time and the best of his generation, Lindwall also played 31 games for the St George Dragons between 1940 and 1946, scoring two tries and kicking 115 goals. Though overshadowed in rugby league by his brilliant brother Jack, Lindwall was described in 1942 as the best fullback in the game. After being flown back from a cricket tour of India to contest the 1946 grand final against Balmain, Lindwall needed to land a conversion from the sideline to win the match. Alas, he missed, and Saints lost 13-12. And Lindwall had played his last game for the Dragons.

Brian McKechnie
Most famous in cricket circles for blocking Trevor Chappell's underarm delivery in 1981-82, McKechnie was better known across the ditch as a five-eighth and fullback who played 26 games for the All Blacks. Shares dual international status with Jeff "Goldie" Wilson (though neither played Test cricket), who would have earned a gig in this list had he been better at cricket and/or belted Chappell's grubber. But Wilson did not, so McKechnie gets the nod. And good day to you, Brian, if you're reading. We are all still very sorry.

Max Walker
A ruckman and defender, the tall and lean Walker played for Melbourne from 1967 to 1972, booting 23 goals. Legend has it (and in the case of "Tangles" Walker, these legends can be found in his books about hypnotising chickens and such like) that in his first game his opponent greeted him by saying, "Well, aren't you the ugliest skinny bastard I've ever seen." Not put out, Walker played 85 games for Melbourne before finding success with Victorian cricket and going on to bowl left-arm fast-medium off the wrong foot for Australia, playing 38 Tests and capturing 138 wickets. Good on him.

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here