May 15, 2016

Colin Milburn's summer of '66

Fifty years ago, with the whole of England gripped by football fever, cricket fans were falling for the unlikely charms of an 18-stone slogger

Milburn (right) with Geoff Boycott at Lord's in 1966. Milburn smashed 126 in an exciting draw © PA Photos

When Colin Milburn first arrived at Northamptonshire in 1960, the staff got him joining in on long-distance training runs. Just 18 years old, and already giving Warwick Armstrong unhealthy competition for the title of cricket's largest ever player, he knew he wasn't built to run a long way. After half a mile, with his new team-mates already dots in the distance, Milburn thumbed to a passing milk float and hitched a ride: "We sailed past the rest of the boys a bit further up the road."

A man of enormous character and even bigger appetite, Milburn lit up a rather grey era for English cricket. In the 1960s, while the mini-skirt took off, English cricket was still refusing to expose its ankles. Cricket was dull. So dull that the Daily Mail ran a national survey to find ways to make it more exciting, and in 1966 a rule was introduced that in 12 of each county's Championship matches the first innings would be restricted to 65 overs. The authorities wanted more entertainment on the first day, and this was perfect for Milburn - a heavy-hitting batsman who brought a sense of adventure at the top of the innings.

Milburn had passed 1000 first-class runs in three successive seasons from 1963 as part of an exciting Northamptonshire side. Despite this, England hadn't come calling. Two things were holding him back: a natural English allergy to hard-hitting batsmen - "I've always been a slogger, and my father was a slogger before me," he said in 1966 - and his size. Milburn said he weighed 17 and a half stone - but it's likely he was upwards of that. Sports cartoonist Rob Ulyett said Milburn was "so amply proportioned that he can even bring about a very total eclipse of MC Cowdrey if he happens to pass in front of him".

It seemed impossible not to fall for Milburn's charms: the attacking, fearless batsman with the backside big enough to split his trousers, and a mouth that wouldn't have been out of place in a comedy club

Sometimes, though, all that really matters is the weight of runs. And in the summer of '66, Milburn was scoring plenty of those. He hit 130 against Derbyshire in early May - "full of brilliant hooks and drives," reported the Times - and a week later he scored another century against Sussex at Hove (the Times: "It is to be hoped that this attacking cricketer will continue gladdening the hearts of all who enjoy attacking batsmanship."). By this time he had been called up for the MCC's game against the touring West Indies, where he made 64 against a full-strength attack of Wes Hall, Lance Gibbs, Charlie Griffith and Garry Sobers, bravely punishing anything that was short. That was followed by 171 against Leicestershire, with England selector Alec Bedser watching. His reward: a Test debut at Old Trafford.

These were not good times for the England team. The previous summer they had been beaten in a home series by South Africa for the first time in 30 years. In the winter they had won only one of their eight Tests in Australia and New Zealand, and now they were facing a ferocious West Indies team, led by Garry Sobers. Little was expected of England. Milburn, though, was there to have some fun.

The first Test showcased the essence of Milburn: comedy and drama. Run out for a duck after his opening partner Eric Russell sent him back (Milburn didn't really do turning circles, and Lance Gibbs had time to run in from cover point, pick up the ball, and remove the bails himself), he also twice split his trousers as they protested against the unnecessary burden being placed on them.

Milburn commentating for the BBC in 1969, the year he lost sight in his left eye after a car accident © Hulton Archive

Then the drama, and a rich demonstration of his talent. Following on, Milburn took England down in flames by blasting 94 from 136 balls. He'd reached 94 with a six off Gibbs, then fell the next ball, swiping across the line. England lost by an innings, but by top-scoring, Milburn had shown he had the technique and temperament - hooking the West Indies quicks in front of his nose - to play at international level.

In the second Test, at Lord's, a first-innings lead for England was blown apart by Sobers' and his cousin David Holford's unbeaten sixth-wicket stand of 274 - during which Milburn's elephant-in-a-duck-pond gracelessness in the field was exposed on several occasions. England were set 284 to win in four hours, reduced to three by rain.

Tom Graveney, playing for England for the first time in three years, had taken Milburn aside the previous evening and told him to keep his attacking style, with a caveat: "It is just that you cannot slog every ball in a Test match." Milburn heeded his advice: he slogged every other ball instead. But as Milburn was going for victory, England lost Geoff Boycott, Ken Barrington, Colin Cowdrey and Jim Parks early, to leave them 67 for 4 and with a match to save rather than win.

Still Milburn blazed away, as Graveney held up the other end. The Times was impressed: "His shirt breaking out of his trousers and his frame out of his shirt, a contented expression on his face and a sweet middle to his bat, he hooked and cut with gathering power."

"I saw these athletic-looking blokes kneeling on their surf-boards and paddling out, and then turning round and coming back on a big wave. I couldn't even get on the surf-board"
Colin Milburn on his experience surfing in South Africa

This was no Brigadier Block to save a Test, this was Corporal Carnage. He waited on 96 for 15 minutes, before smashing Gibbs - again - for an enormous six, and England fans ran onto the pitch to mob him. He finished unbeaten on 126 from 170 balls, with the Test saved and the Times giddily reporting that "Milburn hoos boundaries over the wicketkeeper's head with more glee than shame."

Milburn made just 19 runs in the third Test - a heavy defeat - and there was a month to wait until the fourth match because England was in full football World Cup mode in July. But he had made a strong impression. The Evening News ran an article headlined: "England need more Milburns." Players with a bit of derring-do, with freedom, with, well, a bit of Sobers about them.

He was also interviewed by the Cricketer magazine in July, in which he displayed his natural self-deprecation. He told tales of surfing in South Africa ("I saw these athletic-looking blokes kneeling on their surf-boards and paddling out, and then turning round and coming back on a big wave, so I thought I'd give it a go. I couldn't even get on the surf-board. Every time I tried, it capsized"); of water-skiing ("When it came to pulling him up out of the water the speed boat was as unequal to the task as his trousers were at Old Trafford"); of burning his genitals with a new-fangled deodorant spray ("Milburn leapt across the dressing-room to one of the capacious wash-basins, turned on both taps and simply sat in the basin while the water swirled round the more pertinent parts of his person"); of failing his driving test after incensing a bus driver ("the bus driver stopped his bus in the middle of Northampton, climbed out, and threatened to punch the examiner on the nose").

It seemed impossible not to fall for Milburn's charms: the attacking, fearless batsman with the backside big enough to split his trousers and a mouth that wouldn't have been out of place in a comedy club. But some took against him; those who preferred their cricketers with their upper lips stiffened regarded him as a bit of a clown. England's selectors were also having their doubts: there were, of course, concerns over his size, but more pertinently, his fielding was continuing to let him down.

England's rotund, carefree, boundary-busting hero only played nine Tests © PA Photos

But they stuck with him for the fourth Test, another dispiriting affair as England folded in on themselves to lose by an innings. Milburn, pushed down to No. 3 to make way for the returning Bob Barber, was forced to leave the field without scoring in the first innings after being hit on the elbow by Hall. It was, according to John Woodcock, "the fastest piece of bowling seen in a Test match since 1963". Milburn returned later, using his one good arm to block out an unbeaten 29. In the second innings he came in at No. 7 and hit a rapid 42, once again lobbing Gibbs for six, this time over the pavilion at square leg.

That, though, was that for the summer. His fielding problems had become too much for the selectors. Despite leading England's run-scoring charts for the summer at the time, Milburn was left out of the squad for the fifth Test. "Milburn could have been dropped only with great reluctance," wrote the Times. "His spirited batting and jovial appearance will be missed - but if he wants to regain his place he may have to reduce his figure - or become an expert in the slips."

Back with Northamptonshire, Milburn responded to the snub in his own way: the day before the final Test, he smashed a vengeful 203 out of a first-wicket partnership of 293 with Roger Prideaux against Essex at Clacton-on-Sea. He reached his hundred before lunch and added a further 103 runs in the afternoon session, clubbing four sixes and 22 fours. He was, of course, caught on the long-on boundary, his final act of the season.

Milburn played only five more Tests for England. There was no tour that winter in which to push his claim, but even in an era of strong opening batsmen, it is still a paltry amount. His final innings for England was a masterful 139 against Pakistan on a slow pitch in Karachi in 1969, a match that was infamously abandoned on the third day after a riot. Milburn had shown he could bat properly, and at the age of 27 his international future again looked bright.

Just two months later, he was involved in a car crash and lost the sight in his left eye. His spirits remained undimmed but his batting was never the same. He returned to first-class cricket four years later for two seasons, but there would be no hundreds to celebrate. He retired in 1974, aged 32.

This shouldn't be a mournful tale of what ifs, though. Milburn wouldn't have wanted it that way. He would always have 1966: Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst may have stolen sporting headlines, and Sobers the cricketing headlines, but that summer, Milburn was England's carefree, milk-float-riding, boundary-busting hero, his trousers forever straining under the effort of cheerfully swatting Gibbs, Hall and Griffith into the stands.

Daniel Brigham is a sportswriter and editor. @dan_brigham

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