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Cricketers reflect on their lives and times

Max Walker

'It was a privilege to bowl up the hill into the breeze'

The former Australia bowler had a three-prong attack: to qualify as an architect, and play football and cricket. He did all of that and more

Interview by Brydon Coverdale

September 12, 2011

Comments: 9 | Text size: A | A

Australian fast bowler Max Walker, January 1, 1977
Max Walker: the architect who bowled "right-arm over left earhole" © Getty Images
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I was the son of a publican and a master builder. He ran the Empire Hotel in North Hobart. His name was Max, too. Big Max.

I was good at football and cricket at school. My dad said, son, be an architect, and I came to Melbourne passionate about becoming an architect.

Norm Smith personally came and signed me up to the Melbourne Football Club. The fact that I then played cricket for Melbourne Cricket Club - the footy club didn't like it that much.

I thought I could bat. My last two knocks for the North Hobart Cricket Club were 117 and 119, batting at three, at about the age of 17. The footy club brought me across and Melbourne Cricket Club had about six Sheffield Shield batsmen, guys like Paul Sheahan and Graeme Watson, so I batted 10 in my first district match. I barely got a hit at the Albert Ground. We were four or five down for about 380 every Saturday afternoon. But they didn't have a bowler. I had this weird action where I was able to winkle a few guys out.

I bowled right-arm over left earhole, legs crossed at the point of delivery.

My first baggy green came to the MCG in a parcel, prior to the Pakistan match in '72-73. This parcel had a blazer, a tie, two jumpers and a cap in it. When I came back to the dressing room, all my gear had been moved. Dougie Walters was playing cards and smoking a cigarette, and I said, "Dougie, where's my gear?" He said, "How many Test matches have you played for Australia?" I said this one would be my first. He said, "Well, I've been using that locker now for a couple of series, it's mine." I said, "But still, where's my gear?" He said, "Well, you can start by having a look in the dunny."

In 1973, I was the only bloke in the team in the West Indies with a camera. That was a legacy from studying architecture. I love photography. When I went to India last time, I took 3900 shots over three cameras in 14 days.

It was a privilege to bowl up the hill, into the breeze, with an old ball on a flat wicket, after Lillee and Thommo. The batsmen had a sense of relief that it's been 160kph, now it's down to 140kph. There were no helmets, and at 160kph Thommo had no idea where they were going, so what chance did a batsman have?

It wasn't a conscious decision to give up footy. It evolved that way. My three-prong attack was to study architecture at RMIT, play footy and cricket. My final-year architecture thesis was due when I got back from a tour of the West Indies. I wanted to qualify, so I shelved footy at the ripe old age of 22 and never got back.

We used to have to get special leave without pay in order to go away on cricket tours. Everyone got paid for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day, but because I was playing two Test matches and I applied for leave, I got docked for all those days. My colleagues were down on the fence, getting paid to sit there and watch me! We were only getting $400 to play in the match. I smile now when I look at those numbers.

I practised as an architect for 10 years. I qualified in 1973 with a fellowship diploma of architecture. World Series Cricket gave me the freedom to go out and pursue architecture.

It would have been nice to play Sheffield Shield for Tasmania. But Tasmania didn't have a Shield team at the time. It's all very well now. The last few years, I jokingly say my little brother Ricky was captain of Australia. But back then when I did it, there was a psychological brick wall, almost, in the middle of Bass Strait. Almost like, how dare you think you can go to the mainland and do well? Now there are some fabulous success stories out of Tasmania.

The big inswinger was my staple. They perhaps don't swing it as much these days because they play so much of the condensed version, and you can go for a wide very easily if the ball swings more than a little bit. They take the risk out, go across the seam and are more likely to change up and down in pace.

In England the cat-gut is about half a gauge heavier than it is here in Australia, so in the first two weeks over there you'd lose a lot of skin off the fingers. You'd have to dip them in friar's balsam to try and heal it. It was not a good look, this tacky brown liquid. I remember shaking hands with the Queen at Lord's and she had the white silk gloves on, and I almost dragged the glove off her hand when I let go.

Are we just, by sheer emphasis, killing off Test cricket? Maybe Test cricket needs to be shaped from a financial template. Why not bring it in to four days? You could have the same number of overs and then have a daytime session and a night-time session, like the tennis.

 
 
"We were the best team in the world for a period, under Ian Chappell. Thommo and Lillee and Marsh and Walters and the two Chappells, Ian Redpath, Stackpole, Mallett - gee whiz. For a Tasmanian to sit in the dressing room and look around at that - wow"
 

I didn't learn to bowl an outswinger until I was about 27. There were no coaching manuals around. I only bowled the outswinger for show. It wasn't to take wickets - just to show that I could. It was a bit like the knuckle ball. The first time I bowled the knuckle ball, which I learnt from a baseball player, I got hit for six. What I didn't realise was that you've got to be able to bowl a 140kph bouncer with the same grip.

Alan Connolly was a great mentor. He introduced me to reverse-swing before the 1973 series. They talk about Imran Khan and others, but Alan Connolly, almost by default, became aware of reverse-swing with Ray Jordon behind the stumps one day in a Shield match. He said to load up one side with perspiration and saliva, and once the ball was porous, like a rag doll, it becomes heavier. I had great success in the West Indies on the back of that information. I took 26 wickets there, which stood for nearly 30 years as a record, until McGrath broke it.

Of the best batsmen I bowled to, Viv Richards stood out. He hit the ball so hard, and images of him dancing down the wicket, hitting Jeff Thomson through the covers on a half-volley - you're not allowed to be able to do that stuff! Greg Chappell hit him in the head once and we all knew where the next one was going, it didn't matter where Greg bowled it. And it did, it went about 30 rows back over deep midwicket. He was incredible.

I loved the Centenary Test match. It was like a soap opera over five days. We were bowled out for 138, [Rick] McCosker's jaw got broken, and then we bowled them out for 95 the next day. I got four, and I was certain I was going to get five. I got Tony Greig's wicket, middle and leg stump, through the gate.

Against a good player, you might only get one or two chances in an innings. Once you've shown him what you're going to do, it's all over, you have to come up with something else.

All of the talent base was walking out the back door, symbolically speaking, to sign up with Kerry Packer. We were just asking for a rise in pay. The attitude from the incumbent board then was: there are 50 or 60 other guys who would give their right arm to play for Australia. It's just that they weren't as good as Lillee and Marsh and Chappell. The amount of emotion that charged that time was quite tumultuous.

We were the best team in the world for a period, under Ian Chappell. Thommo and Lillee and Marsh and Walters and the two Chappells, Ian Redpath, Stackpole, Mallett - gee whiz. For a Tasmanian to sit in the dressing room and look around at that - wow.

When I played against Lawrence Rowe for the first time, it was Jamaica v Australia, and this bloke had made 200 and 100 in his first Test. He had some trouble with his eyes later on, but at that stage he was the best player I'd ever seen. He made a hundred against us in that match. He batted off stump and was just a very elegant player.

I think Australia's fast-bowling stocks are still pretty low, for what they could be. I don't know what the reason is there, whether there was a sense of vulnerability from the selection table down. Perhaps the bowlers didn't feel secure and they were always going to be playing for their next game instead of trying to do strategically the best thing for the team, and they were trying to bowl wicket balls all the time.


Max Walker shakes hands with the Queen, England v Australia, 2nd Test, Lord's, 1st day, July 31, 1975
"I almost dragged the glove off her hand when I let go" © Getty Images
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There were so many great moments in the Centenary match. [Rod] Marshy scored a hundred and I was in the middle when he scored it. Kerry O'Keeffe opened in the second innings, Hookesy's five fours, we met the Queen, and then to match the history of Charlie Bannerman's team a century earlier, winning by 45 runs. And then there was Walters trying to make McCosker laugh with a mouthful of piano wire while he was drinking champagne through a straw out of a beer glass. That was a great match.

There's a lot of insight being tabled at the moment about the game in this country, because of performances, and rightly so. But if it is all revealed by players and ex-players and administrators then I think we miss an opportunity. I would like to see more minds that aren't cricketers. There's a tendency to think, he's a legend, and he's a legend, so they ought to know. But that's not necessarily the case in life.

If a ten-year-old kid today grows up and in eight years' time believes, wham, bam, thank you very much, you've got to score off every ball, and you've got to hit across the line - not everyone is going to be Adam Gilchrist.

The MCG has been the axle of my life now for 40-plus years. I started life as an apprentice painter, as a student of architecture, and painted the 40,000 seats there and worked in the old scoreboard, which is now the Jack Fingleton scoreboard at Manuka Oval. I ran the total on that, painted the seats, then was a commentator on cricket and football on TV and radio.

I go to the MCG so much even these days, to speak at conferences or launches. It's great to be able to look out the window and unlock a filing cabinet of memories.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (September 13, 2011, 13:23 GMT)

Only the memories lingered since I saw Max Walker bowled in the 4th Test at Bourda in 1973. We called him "Tangle Foot" Walker in Guyana, because of his action. I remembered him as a giant man. It was April that year, and I was studying for my GCE A Levels in June. But I could not resist getting a season ticket, seat K16 in the South B stand at Bourda. I had almost a full view of the Aussie's dressing room. My eyes were transfixed on these Australians, on and off the field, as I rooted for West Indies. But "Tangle Foot" Walker mesmerised all of us in the country. It is so nice to hear about this giant, in more ways than one, once again. Happy 63rd, sir!

Posted by Gizza on (September 13, 2011, 12:24 GMT)

@Amit, I think he didn't talk much about India and Pakistan because he didn't play much against them. Actually go to Cricinfo's Statsguru and you will realise he didn't play one Test match against India. You have to remember he was a good bowler but not a very good bowler. He wasn't a Lillee or Thomson so he must have been dropped from the team a fair few times (or maybe it was just WSC if someone could correct if I'm wrong). I don't think he has a narrow view of the cricketing world. Obviously he didn't talk about South Africa too because again he didn't play against them.

Posted by AB99 on (September 13, 2011, 9:20 GMT)

He is the original Glenn McGrath and Glenn is the duplicate Max Walker - just that they were in different eras ... One of the best fast bowlers from Australia to hold his ground with Thommo and Lillee ...

Posted by   on (September 13, 2011, 8:11 GMT)

Enjoyed reading this but got a feeling that Max is from an era when there was a very one-world view of things in which countries like India, Pakistan etc did not exist. Maybe I am wrong, but felt that people like Max have very little appreciation about what constitutes the biggest constituency of the game today.

Posted by jazzfreak on (September 13, 2011, 5:40 GMT)

This is a wonderful piece of history thru the eyes of a multifaceted, talented man who also bowled for Australia alongside Lillee and Thommo Rarely does Oz produce a personality of such intelligence and skill SuperWalker !

Posted by AvidFanDownUnder on (September 12, 2011, 11:12 GMT)

He is one of the nicest, funniest and obviously hard working character I have ever seen - congratulations big fella on your 63rd.

Posted by Trapper439 on (September 12, 2011, 10:57 GMT)

"In England the cat-gut is about half a gauge heavier". Sorry, but I just don't understand that reference. Is he saying that he lost skin off his fingers because the seam was higher on English cricket balls? Oh, and apparently it's his birthday today. Happy 63rd, Max.

Posted by toomanychiefs on (September 12, 2011, 8:03 GMT)

What a character - to this day, Max is full of life and Australian cricket could certainly do with more personalities like him. Had the pleasure of meeting him last year and he is a very generous and helpful person. His commentary was also much more genuine and interesting than the likes of Ian Healy and some others such as Brad Hogg that dish up rubbish in the box....

Posted by johnathonjosephs on (September 12, 2011, 7:37 GMT)

If anything I got out of this piece, its that handlebar/cowbay mustaches were the fad back then and Viv Richards was an amazing batsman. "Greg Chappell hit him in the head once and we all knew where the next one was going, it didn't matter where Greg bowled it. And it did, it went about 30 rows back over deep midwicket." Whadda aplayer

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Brydon CoverdaleClose
Brydon Coverdale Assistant Editor Possibly the only person to win a headline-writing award for a title with the word "heifers" in it, Brydon decided agricultural journalism wasn't for him when he took up his position with ESPNcricinfo in Melbourne. His cricketing career peaked with an unbeaten 85 in the seconds for a small team in rural Victoria on a day when they could not scrounge up 11 players and Brydon, tragically, ran out of partners to help him reach his century. He is also a compulsive TV game-show contestant and has appeared on half a dozen shows in Australia.

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