November 1993 October 13, 2004

In love with Lord's

David Frith
In 1993, David Frith talked with Keith Miller, a man who usually shunned interviews ...

He is surely the greatest allrounder to emerge from Australia, and his glamorous image remains unrivalled in cricket, except perhaps by England's Denis Compton. Now, Keith Miller, wartime pilot, cricketer, journalist, matchless extrovert and social lion, has sat for a portrait which is to be hung in the Long Room at Lord's. David Frith talked with his old hero, a man who usually shuns interviews ...

Keith Miller admires Michael Corkrey's painting © WCM

"I believe you're the man who runs Lord's?" said the elderly MCC member, addressing Lt-Col. John Stephenson, the secretary, by the pavilion door. "No," said the Colonel, with that familiar twinkle in his eye, "I'm not." Then, pointing to Keith Miller alongside him: "He is!"

The statement is true insofar as Miller claims lovingly that "when I walk into Lord's I feel I own it". He has long been an honorary life member of MCC, and the main purpose of his 1993 visit to England (which is about his 40th since he first came in uniform in 1943) is to sit for a portrait commissioned by MCC.

Now, for the last of 15 sittings, he sat in the artist's paint-spattered little studio only a giant six-hit from The Oval, where Miller made his final Test appearance in England, in 1956. By choice, he wore his RAF tie, and first glance at the canvas revealed an inspired touch: background photographs of Miller the batsman and Miller the bowler. The batting photo was the favourite of many a cricket-lover, most notably of the late Australian Prime Minister RG Menzies, who hung it in his study in the 1950s.

There is a link between sitter and artist: Michael Christopher Corkrey (note the initials), 30, lived his early years near the Bedfordshire village of Cranfield, where Miller was based with the RAAF for a time during the war. In tandem with the Miller portrait, Corkrey is working on a painting of Earl Spencer, the brother of the Princess of Wales.

This was Keith Miller's first sitting for any artist, and the artist's first cricket work. Was the restless soul a good sitter? "Oh yes!" This must have been helped by the constant flow of classical music? Did Michael Corkrey think of laying it on? Miller cut in: "I demanded it!" And we then chatted about Neville Cardus, with whom he had such a rapport, and Sir John Barbirolli, the great conductor.

But Lord's is the recurring theme. Although the famous arena struck Miller as a "crummy little ground" at first sight in 1943, when he was also bemused by its pronounced slope, it grew on him. It might also be said that he grew on it, for he began to score heaps of runs there in wartime Services matches, including a century against the National Civil Defence Services in 1944 and three centuries in first-class matches in 1945, two in "Victory Tests" for Australia against England, and an amazing 185 for the Dominions, when one of his seven sixes - as recorded in Wisden - deposited an Eric Hollies delivery onto the roof of the old broadcasting box, above the England dressing-room. At one stage, Miller and Learie Constantine added 117 in 45 minutes.

His three postwar Test matches at Lord's for Australia brought further success with 74 in 1948, 109 in 1953, and 10 wickets in the 1956 victory, when, as many will recall, he tossed the bails into the admiring throng when it was all over, having given them an emperor's wave of the bat as he walked away after his final innings.

But the Test matches of 1946 to 1956 hardly feature in his reminiscences, the memories being foggy and somehow less important than those generated during the dramatic years of war. "Of all the cricket I ever played," he asserts, "the wartime cricket at Lord's is the best and the happiest. There was no niggling. People were just glad to be alive."

KR Miller the Fearsome Fast Bowler also sprang out of the wartime contests at Lord's. Fifty years on, in the Getty box at Lord's last summer, Miller is teasing his old friend Bob Wyatt, the 92-year-old former England captain, whom he dismissed twice in 1943. "I call Bob 'my bunny'. Got him off two paces with my first ball!"

Stan Sismey, the Australian Services wicketkeeper, said that Miller "got quicker as the war went on", recalling Denis Compton's question as he took guard: "What does this chap do?" Sismey could only offer that "he's only a change bowler, but he's a bit quick". The first ball whistled past the startled Compton's nose. The Miller-Compton friendship, of course, became that of blood-brothers, with torrid Ashes battles followed by rousing off-field social pleasures that not even Ian Botham could surpass.

Miller, 74 on Nov 28, is punching out the recollections as fast as those runs often came, cricket overlapping in a blur with the frenzy and emotions of war. There is the time he hopped a lift in an aircraft from RAF Ouston near Newcastle down to Northolt. The humble flight-sergeant's request is met warmly by the RAF officer: "Come on,then, Aussie!" Over Northolt they circled for ages. It was so busy in the sky. Miller felt dizzy. Then they approached the runway - only for a Spitfire to scream in under them to make an emergency landing, its engine overheating after a glycol leak. The officer is soon good-naturedly dismissing the young pilot's apology. Miller meanwhile is clearing his throat and asking how he might find a place called Ruislip. The officer without hesitation offered him a lift: in a staff car no less.

That officer is Wing Commander "Laddie" Lucas, a legendary much-decorated airman, golfer, author and MP. "I idolise him," says Miller, proving that even heroes sometimes have heroes.

Many years later the cricketer repaid the officer for his kind gesture by welcoming him into a gathering at Lord's which included Lord Carrington, John Major, Denis Compton, Peter May, Paul Getty, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie and others of distinction.

Keith Miller tosses the bails into the admiring throng after his final Test at Lord's in 1956 © WCM
It is turning into a merry revel of namedropping. Miller used to play golf with another wartime hero, Douglas 'Tin Legs' Bader, and 'Gubby' Allen. Their last round is played only a couple of days before Bader died, and Keith, revealing himself as an old softie after all, kept the golf-ball. Then there was Hughie Edwards, later Governor of Western Australia, who, like Leonard Cheshire and Guy Gibson of the Dambusters Squadron, won a VC, DSO and DFC. They became great mates, and Edwards willed Miller his wristwatch, which will in time be presented to the War Museum in Canberra, where Edwards' medals are on display.

In cricket, Miller only ever had one hero, Bill Ponsford, and claims to have read only one book right through: MA Noble's The Game's the Thing. He therefore refuses to make comparisons between cricketers. "They're out of my era, so I could only say, for instance, that Ray Lindwall was the best fast bowler of my time."

He remains deeply amused by Gubby Allen's dismissal "handled the ball" in a 1945 friendly at Lord's between the RAAF and the South of England. Not many people, he says, know the exact circumstances of that incident: "I was fielding near where the Warner Stand is now. Gubby played the ball from Mick Roper into the base of the stumps. In those days the bail only had to be dislodged. Well, it came out of the groove and just rested on top of the stump, and Gubby just tossed the ball back. Mick appealed - for bowled. But the umpire, Archie Fowler, gave him out for handling the ball! Gubby stormed off, and our captain, Keith Carmody, yelled out to me to call him back. But Gubby is fuming! 'I will not!' he barked. It still rankled with him 40 years later!"

What about that crash-landing? "Well, one of the engines caught fire, but I managed to hit the right button to extinguish it. But the starboard motor is finished, so I had to land on just the one engine." He had once read in Flight magazine about an experienced Australian flyer who tried three times to land on only one engine before perishing in the fourth attempt. Consequently, when Miller, despite a changing wind, touched down, going much too fast, he yelled "Button up!" to his navigator and collapsed the undercarriage ("I'm down, I thought, and I'm staying down!"), belly-landing the aeroplane and writing it off. An hour or so later he joined in a soccer match, this Aussie Rules star, but his nervous system suddenly gave way and he collapsed. Worse, he had suffered spine damage, which was to hamper him throughout his cricketing days.

Some of his missions were to destroy V1 and V2 launch-sites across the North Sea. Once, he landed his Mosquito - after a raid on Schleswig-Holstein - with an explosive drop-tank still partially attached to the wingtip. Miraculously, it dropped off without a murmur as he touched down.

Although losing many friends, Keith Miller had what might be termed a charmed war, never more so than when he went off to Dulwich one Sunday to play cricket, the padre having told him he needn't bother with a leave-pass. When he returned to Bournemouth he found the town barricaded off after a German raid. A Focke-Wulf had bombed and strafed, and a church spire had collapsed onto the Carlton pub (where the Bournemouth Echo offices now stand), killing eight of his mates. Cricket had saved Flight Sgt Miller's life, though, in the absence of a leave-pass listing, he was posted as missing until he strolled back.

But no story, he feels, is more touching than that of Graham Williams, the South Australian allrounder, who was a prisoner of-war in Germany for four years, teaching blinded German bombing victims, most of them children, how to read braille. Only a few days after his VE-Day release, Williams found himself going out to bat before a full house at Lord's in a "Victory Test".

"He was given," Miller recalls, "a great ovation that compares with anything ever given Bradman, Lillee or Richards. But it was not the sort of clapping and cheering that greets a hundred. This is different. Everyone stood up. They all knew about Graham's captivity. He was a big fella, but he was gaunt from his experience, and he just walked round for a while as if in a trance."

Miller on the attack © Getty Images

Although in something of a daze, Williams scored 53, having already captured the wickets of Hutton and Hammond. Miller made a small matter of 105 for the Australians.

Now he remembers Clive Calvert, from Sydney, who scored a century for the RAAF against a West Indies XI at Birmingham in 1944 and was killed that winter, aged 21, flying near the Danish coast. And Miller recalls Keith Carmody playing at Lord's only days before being shot down and captured off the Dutch coast.

Carmody was skipper when Miller first dropped his bag in a very cramped Lord's dressing-room. He was talking to someone who happened to be blocking Miller's way. Twice Miller tried to get past. Eventually he shoved him gently aside, saying, "Scuse me, sport!" "Oh, I'm so sorry," said the visitor, who was none other than the great and influential Sir Pelham Warner.

"I came from Melbourne," reflects Miller, "where crowds at the MCG were close to 100,000, so I was amazed at how cramped Lord's seemed. But it grew and grew on me." So much so, in fact, that he now produced a wodge of notes about the old ground which would have filled most of this magazine.

"I walk into Lord's and I know them all - the girls in the shop and on the switchboard and the fellas on the gate, and the printers too. The ground's changed all right, but the atmosphere's still there. It's small but comfortable. It's kind of intimate. The MCG's so vast. You can walk round it but you wouldn't meet too many people you'd know."

He rates the Sydney ground, as it used to be, Hill and all, with its cushy outfield, as the best to play on; but the best for atmosphere, he insists, is Lord's. "Don Bradman and I actually agree on that!"

If there should be any doubt as to how pleased Keith Miller was to be back in England for each of his three postwar Test tours, his first two innings, at Worcester and Leicester, on the 1948 and 1953 tours brought him 50 not out, 202 not out, 220 not out, and 42, while in 1956 his first knock, at Leicester, was 281 not out: a total of 795 runs for once out - and that a run-out!

The batsman, immortalised in that upright photograph used as a comfort in times of stress by Bob Menzies (it suggested for him, the glories of ancient Athens), was tall, animated, usually elegant, the outline topped by flopping, shiny, dark hair. The slips fielder was inert, chatty, then swiftly acrobatic. The bowler was electrifying in his hostility, but prone to the mischievous grin. This, he knew, was always meant to be a joyful game, far removed from the grim realities of life.

He was getting fed up sitting in this chair. The artist was almost at the end of his long labour. It spurred another tale, about his return to peacetime Melbourne: "The big boss, who had been sitting on his bum throughout the war, said he had a nice job for me down in Yarraville. I said 'No thanks!' So he sent me up to the personnel officer, who told me I'd been away long enough and it was about time I got in and did some work! I told him to stick it."

He joined his mate Sid Barnes in a job in Sydney, selling liquor. "No good - hard to stay sober! Then Dick Whitington got me a job at the Sun in Sydney."

His wife, Boston-born Peggy, had sailed to Sydney during the 1946-47 Test series, and listened silently while the captain of the Port Line vessel complained at the table about "that fellow Miller" who kept bowling bumpers at Hutton, who had had an arm badly injured during the war. Peggy, noted for her tolerance, didn't let on.

It is his determination not to leave his young wife alone in a strange country that prompted him to turn down an offer to play league cricket in Rawtenstall - though he must have signed some paper or other, for a representative of the club confronted him during the 1948 Lord's Test. Miller referred the matter to Plum Warner, who replied, "Is that so, Keith? Well, we have judges, KCs and solicitors sitting out there among the members. Take your pick. Which do you prefer?" One of the legal gents dealt with the claim during the tea interval, and £50 settled it.

In 1977, readers of an Australian newspaper voted him the most popular player, the one they would most have liked to have seen back in his prime for the Centenary Test match. (Don Bradman was second.) Lord's habitues might not have expressed themselves any differently.

And now it really was time to go. He reached not for a bat but for his aluminium stick, and we made for the car. I was to drop him off in Lambeth for a cup of something with the girl driver who used to see him and the rest of the boys off into the sinister night at RAF Great Massingham, Norfolk half-a-century ago.

"I was hospitalised and homebound for months and months before coming over this time, you know. I wasn't very well. I looked like something out of Belsen or Buchenwald. But I've built myself up and I feel 10 times better now."

A quick tale about his jockey mate Scobie Breasley; a thought for John Arlott (who once wrote that Keith Miller seemed to be "busy living life in case he ran out of it"); emphasis on the most admired of his thousands of friends - Laddie Lucas, Jim Swanton, John Woodcock, and the late Billy Griffith ("He was at Arnhem, you know"); and while conceding that it will be good to see Sydney again (besides a wife and four sons, he has, at the last count, seven grandchildren -one half-Thai) he makes brusque response to a final pair of questions. Australian republicanism? "Next question?" The Australian flag? "Next question?!"

Sydney may be home, and he did captain NSW for years, but while there are Miller Rooms at the MCG and The Oval, and now a painting of him at Lord's, there is nothing commemorative about him at the SCG. "Not even," as he puts it, "a bit of graffiti!"

Flight Driver Jean Slater not for the first time had wondered if she would ever see "Dusty" again. But now, in 1993, within autumn shadow of the Imperial War Museum, the sparkle shone in the Aussie airman's eyes, and he looked and sounded like Gary Cooper once more, though the years had slowed the Errol Flynn swagger.

The symbolism of Lord's as a tribal meeting-place for England and Australia is spelt out by the Australian wartime Prime Minister John Curtin. His words are quoted in the 1945 Wisden: "Lord's is to Australia what it is to this country," he told a City of London gathering. "We are defending the City of London and those 22 yards of turf which we hope will be used time and time again, so that the Motherland and Australia can decide whether the six-ball over is better than the eight-ball over."

Time moves on. But what a popular Governor-General of Australia Keith Ross Miller MBE would have made.