July 25, 2011

Max of all trades

When he's not laughing at a famous caricature of himself, former Australia bowler Max Walker is writing books, doing charity work and developing iPhone apps

Remember the time when Max Walker hijacked the Channel Nine commentary box? He'd been sacked from the commentary team and wanted his job back, so he sneaked in and held Richie Benaud hostage. You know, big Max. Like the hamburger. Remember that?

If you don't, that's probably because you didn't grow up in Australia in the 1980s. To a generation of young cricket followers, Max Walker wasn't the fast bowler who was the perfect foil for Lillee and Thomson. No, he was the slightly unhinged character in Billy Birmingham's hilarious 12th Man series*.

Yeeess, that version of Max was a man with an eye for a bowler's run-up - "left foot first, then the right, then the left again" - who would do anything to get back into the commentary team, although bribing Benaud with copies of his new book didn't seem to work. And like the rest of the 12th Man commentators, he doesn't mind dropping a few f-words.

The impersonation has been so enduring that Walker, who has been out of the commentary business for two decades, still gets stopped in the street by 12th Man fans. He's 62 and his hair is now silver, but when we meet at a café in Melbourne, on a cold, wintry morning, his face lights up at the mention of the 12th Man.

"When I go and speak now at all sorts of conferences, later in the night there's always a better Maxie Walker than me," he says in a deep Tasmanian drawl. "Billy Birmingham's legendary for basically being able to verbally kneecap any of a number of Australia's characters, particularly in the commentary box. I don't think Ian Chappell is that enamoured with him, and Richie is becoming less enamoured with him. But Bill Lawry, Tony Greig, myself and others enjoyed it.

"The first time I heard it, I was driving down the Doncaster freeway. I put the cassette in, and I had two of my three boys in the back seat - they were under 10. I just looked in the mirror as Richie Benaud dropped out the first audio bomb, and the boys were saying 'Dad, what are you listening to?'

"I think Bill Lawry might have suffered the same sort of fate. He took it home to his wife and two daughters, picked up a clean shirt, got on the Ansett plane, and we took off commentating. He came back home to his wife, who said, 'William, where did you get this thing!'"

In a subsequent album, Max is so desperate to win his job back that when he learns he is competing with Ken Sutcliffe, his Wide World of Sports co-host, for a commentary gig, he knocks Ken out and stuffs him in a closet to tip the scales in his own favour. Kenny, the Male Model from Mudgee, still got the job.

A pessimist would view the impersonation as character assassination. But Walker is no pessimist. In any case, the 12th Man helped Walker out of one of his darkest times, when his younger sister Lexie died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 38. Seeking to lift the spirits of his mother, Dulcie, Max came up with a novel method.

"I was driving down the Doncaster freeway. I put the cassette in, and I had two of my three boys in the back seat - they were under 10. I just looked in the mirror as Richie Benaud dropped out the first audio bomb, and the boys were saying 'Dad, what are you listening to?'"
Max Walker on the first time he heard his 12th man character

"My sister died and my Mum was really distant, as you do - you don't expect your offspring to die before you. I thought I was bulletproof up until that stage. I just said, 'Mum, have a listen to this', not quite thinking, and well, she just broke down laughing. I thought, wow, this is crazy! She became a fan."

On the subject of family, Walker is content in the knowledge that the decision to stop commentating with Richie and the boys was his own. In the early 1990s, after the first half of his career was spent on the road, he declared that his wife and children had to come first.

"'You want your job back, Maxie' is a very memorable line in that particular disc," Walker says. "But Test cricket probably cost me one marriage. To be standing at third man or fine leg on another side of the planet over so many years - there's a cost there. I remarried and our first daughter was born. Then I had to seriously make a choice on whether I continued to travel the world as a commentator.

"You didn't have to be a visionary to see where that was going to end, if I spent long spaces of time on another continent. So I had to make a choice as to whether it was commentary or not. I chose at least to be in Australia and host Wide World of Sports and the Sunday Footy Show." It's a decision he doesn't regret.

Walker seems to have few regrets about anything he's done. He has tried his hand at just about everything over the years, succeeding in more fields than most others would. He grew up in Hobart but was enticed to Victoria in the late 1960s to play VFL football for Melbourne under the legendary coach Norm Smith. Walker managed 85 matches at the highest level, but within six years he had too much else going on in his life to continue as a league ruckman.

Test cricket had taken over his life and he was finishing a degree in architecture, a career he pursued for a decade. After retirement he was a bestselling author, TV host and cricket commentator. This year he was given an Order of Australia for his philanthropic work, and now, the latest twist in his career path has taken him into the digital age.

Walker still writes the manuscripts for his books by hand, using a fountain pen, but as we chat, his eyes keep glancing down at his iPhone. Together with the former Channel Nine weatherman Rob Gell and a few others, Walker has formed the bhive Group, a company that specialises in media streaming and digital technology.

To listen to Walker, the larrikin fast bowler from the 1970s, talk about building apps and QR codes is about as incongruous as seeing Benaud in a jacket in a colour other than cream, bone, white, off-white, ivory or beige.

"We just won an award for the Brighton Grammar School," Walker says. "We've created an app where you don't have to write your lunch order on a brown paper bag and put $5 in it any more. You can do it on the iPhone. The teacher streams media out to the parents. That's won an award from Apple."

There are a handful of former players of Walker's era who have embraced the digital era - Rodney Hogg, for example, is a natural on Twitter, with his sometimes unconventional thoughts. But Walker is on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and has his own website. It's not something he would have anticipated 10 years ago.

"About 1998, when Wide World of Sports and the Footy Show came to an end for me, I couldn't type," he says. "When I started architecture, it was a very aesthetic, creative, an almost art process, where lettering and thick line were how you expressed yourself on the paper. It was almost a no-no if you got somebody who could type notes onto a set of working drawings.

"It's been amazing to step out of a bottle of ink on to an iPad. There's no better time than right now to embrace this fabulous sandpit of technology. Because intuitively, at the touch of a finger, most of it is possible. [With] 300,000-plus apps you can find stuff for anything. They're not going to cost you much, but they will make creativity so much easier."

Creativity is what Walker prides himself on the most. He's a keen photographer and has already decided that his next book will be a combination of text and DVD slideshow. Whenever it comes out, Benaud could be getting a copy in the mail.

*contains strong language

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo