October 18, 2014

The 'baby Invincible' who always stood tall

The great Australian batsman always did justice to his precociousness and reputation for being adept in all conditions

Neil Harvey was one of the finest left-handers in his time and arguably the best Australian batsman since Don Bradman © Getty Images

With a gleam in his eye and a skip in his step, Neil Harvey pounced on the ball like a cat nailing a mouse.

Harvey danced yards down the wicket to get to the pitch of the ball from the slow bowlers, yet he was never out stumped in Test cricket despite having batted against some of the finest spinners of any era. Arguably the best Australian batsman since Don Bradman, Harvey played 79 Tests, hitting 6149 runs at 48.41, with 21 hundreds and a highest score of 205.

He scored his first Test century (153) against India in the Melbourne Test of 1947-48. From the outset of the 1948 tour, 19-year-old Harvey absorbed as much information as he could from old campaigners like Arthur Morris, Lindsay Hassett, Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall and Bill Johnston.

However, he struggled to come to terms with the slow, seaming English tracks. After four matches he was averaging seven and he felt he needed some wise counsel. Hesitant to approach Bradman, he asked his room-mate, fellow Victorian Sam Loxton if he would talk to the Don.

Sam sidled up to his captain and asked, "George [curiously he always called Bradman "George"], what's young Harvey doing wrong?" Bradman looked Loxton straight in the eye and said matter-of-factly, "Sam, you go and tell your little mate that if he doesn't hit the ball in the air he can't get out."

Soon runs started to flow for Harvey; an unbeaten 76 against Lancashire and he was on his way. Then Sid Barnes got injured and Harvey was picked to bat at No. 5 in the Leeds Test. Three quick wickets fell - Morris (6), Hassett (13) and Bradman (33) - before Harvey strode to the crease.

"Keith Miller was in at the time and he told me he would take to the bowling," Harvey said. "First ball from [Jim] Laker, he clubbed straight over my head for six and I thought, 'How good is this, might not be as tough as I thought.'"

In 90 minutes, Harvey and Miller hit 121, the youngster getting more confident, especially against Laker, whose turn worried him early on, and when Miller fell for 58, Harvey was joined by Loxton, who took over the assault. Their partnership of 105 came in a hurricane 95 minutes, with Loxton, who smashed five sixes, falling seven runs short of a century, and Harvey going on to score his first hundred against England.

In South Africa in 1949-50 he hit 660 runs in the five Tests at a Bradman-like average of 132, which included an extraordinary unbeaten 151 in Durban. Bowled out for just 75 on a treacherous Kingsmead wicket, Australia were set a target of 336. Harvey was the key. He used his twinkling footwork to hammer Hugh Tayfield and Tufty Mann, ensuring a wonderful comeback victory.

"My first ball was quick and moved late from leg stump to a little outside off and I thought, 'Hey that's a beauty!' Harv moved back and across and hit the ball like a rocket in front of point for four"
Alan Davidson

Harvey starred in the first Test match I ever witnessed. My granddad took me along to the second Test of the 1954-55 Ashes hoping I'd see an Australian win. After all, England were defending a shade over 200 runs.

And victory might have been achieved but for a man named Frank Tyson. This, after getting battered to the tune of 1 for 160 off 29 overs in Brisbane a few weeks before. "Typhoon" Tyson bowled on this last day with the wind behind him to take 6 for 85 in 18.4 overs of unrelenting hostility. All the while the "pocket dynamo" that was Harvey hooked, pulled, cut and drove in a magnificent display of aggression. One hook for six went away to where we sat in front of the Noble Stand and bounced over the fence and into the visitors' dressing room. Les Favell's 16 was the next-best score, and when the ninth wicket fell, Australia needed 78, and in strolled the perennial No. 11, Bill Johnston, carrying his trusty heavily bandaged bat. Harvey met big Bill with a cheery, "Let's go for them, mate".

Big Bill hung in there while Harvey cut loose and they put on 39 before Johnston tickled one down the leg side and Godfrey Evans did the rest. Australia all out 184, Harvey not out 92, England won by 38 runs.

At least there was some light relief during the match. As Jim Burke's laborious 44 neared its end in the first dig, Yabba, the SCG's most famous barracker, yelled from the outer: "Hey Burkey, you are so like a statue, I wish I was a pigeon."

Harvey's batting delighted the likes of Yabba and thousands of fans worldwide. Not only did he conquer all manner of spinners, including Laker, Tony Lock, Sonny Ramadhin and Subhash Gupte, he succeeded against some of the greatest fast bowlers to walk the Test stage; bowlers like England's Tyson, Statham, Alec Bedser and Fred Trueman, South Africa's Peter Heine and Neil Adcock; West Indians Wes Hall and Garry Sobers.

In the wake of the retirements of Ian Johnson and Miller, the Australian selectors surprisingly chose 22-year-old New South Wales captain Ian Craig to lead the national team ahead of Harvey and Richie Benaud. In 1956-57, ahead of the South African tour later in the year, two Sheffield Shield captains, Harvey (Victoria) and Craig (NSW) met on the field for the toss, which Craig won and asked Victoria to bat.

Minutes before the toss, Victorian opening batsman Colin McDonald deflected a ball into his face in the nets and as Craig and Harvey were about to toss, Harvey asked Craig for a gentleman's agreement to allow a substitute for McDonald. Craig refused, citing the importance of the match.

Alan Davidson, the Australia and NSW allrounder, noted a rare angry reaction from Harvey, who came out to bat wearing the look of a man going to war.

"Harv smashed us all over the place," Davidson said. "We started the match at 11am and at 2pm Victoria had already scored 200 and I took the second new ball. My first ball was quick and moved late from leg stump to a little outside off and I thought, 'Hey that's a beauty!' Harv moved back and across and hit the ball like a rocket in front of point for four. In fact, it was hit with such power the ball struck the pickets and rebounded 10 metres back into the playing area. Neil's 209 was a brilliant knock. I rate Neil the best batsman in any of the Australian teams in which I played."

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Harvey was one of six brothers. His father Horace taught them all to play the game and they trained on the cobbled laneway next to the family home in Fitzroy. Neil's elder brother Merv played one Test for Australia, while Mick and Ray both played for Victoria. And all six Harvey brothers (including Brian and Harold) played for Fitzroy in Victorian district cricket.

Most of the brothers played baseball and Neil was twice named in the All-Australian baseball team. He had a brilliant fast arm and he could field anywhere, from the covers to the slips.

Many believe Harvey would have made a fabulous Test captain. He led the side once at Lord's in 1961 when Benaud withdrew through injury, Harvey's men won the Test.

Harvey was a Test selector for 12 years, and in 1980, while playing in a golf four at Pennant Hills with Ian Chappell, Brian Taber and Graeme Watson, Harvey told Chappelli that it was he who convinced his fellow selectors that the time had come for Bill Lawry to go and Ian Chappell to take over.

"Don [Bradman] wasn't too keen on the idea and he believed that Ian wasn't the right bloke for the job, but Chappelli became the captain and Don was wrong," Harvey said.

As a youngster, South Africa's champion batsman Graeme Pollock was inspired by Harvey's cricket and he remained his hero, proving that even heroes have heroes.

The year 2014 has been a sad one for the Harvey family when Harvey lost his beloved wife, Barbara, recently.

The "baby" of Don Bradman's Invincibles turned 86 the other day. Among the well-wishers were fellow 1948 player Arthur Morris, Davidson and Ken Archer. Neil Harvey is greatly admired as a cricketer and a bloke throughout the cricketing firmament.

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor

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