Hooked by the Miller's tale
Robert Kitson reveals his unhealthy obsession with Derbyshire's off-spinning allrounder turned selector and raconteur
Those were the days, my friends, when England possessed a bearded spinner who could genuinely bat, bowl and field. How to explain my perverse attraction to all things 'Dusty' Miller? I have tried before to articulate it in print and succeeded only in painting a picture of deluded youth. My Dad was a Quantocks boy, organically reared on Harold Gimblett and Arthur Wellard. Me? I grew up in a Hampshire village, miles away from the crooked spire of blessed Chesterfield. And yet it was the cricketing men of Derbyshire who burrowed into my soul.
They may have been bottom of the Championship table consistently in the early 1970s but they did have Bob Taylor, whose blue gloves gave him an edge over Alan Knott for us connoisseurs, and an up-and-coming youngster of whom much was expected. This, remember, was late 1973 when Ian Botham had not quite emerged and England were conspicuously short of boy wonders. By the time Viv and Beefy arrived on the scene, it was already far too late And so the madness began. I had a rabbit called Kallicharran but only because I could not say Venkataraghavan. There was a second rabbit too, which I confidently christened Dusty. Inevitably it died within days.
I gradually became aware that Derbyshire were not quite the crack professional force I had fondly imagined. As John Wright recalled in his entertaining autobiography, Derbyshire were hardly a glamour county. When Mike Hendrick broke down they had to carry him off on a door because the club did not have a stretcher.
Around that time the club had a senior official whose nickname was 'Slightly', 'Totally' or 'Absolutely' depending on what time of the day it was. Undeterred, I persuaded Dad to drive me north to see the hallowed turf on which my heroes strode. We stood in silence on the wet outfield at Ilkeston. My blurred picture of Heanor, taken through barbed wire while sitting on Dad's shoulders, remains a classic of the anorak genre.
Soon enough, though, Geoff began to repay my blind faith. He made his England debut at the end of the roasting summer of 1976 and toured each winter with satisfying regularity. Little did either of us know that it would take him until May 1984 to score his maiden first-class century. It was even possible to giggle along with the tongue-in-cheek match reports from India: "When Miller passes 70 an agonising hush descends on the stadium. At 80 stiff drinks are required. At 90 tiles begin to fall from nearby rooftops. At this point the tension starts to get to him ..."
But he could bat. And bowl. And field. I trekked to Taunton once to see Derbyshire play a one-day game. Before my disbelieving eyes Botham hit Miller for five successive fours en route to a blistering hundred. When Derbyshire batted, Geoff did exactly the same to Both and finished unbeaten on 80-odd in a perfectly paced run chase.
Jim Laker once described a late cut of his in a televised game at Chesterfield as reminiscent of Peter May. And then there was his famous catch from Chris Tavaré's juggled deflection which won England the Melbourne Test in 1982-83. Back at home I celebrated by digging out my photo of Geoff's sponsored car, taken surreptitiously in the Southampton car park. The word 'stalker' was less commonly used in those days.
Adulthood hits us all eventually. I ventured shyly into sportswriting and found myself required to phone Geoff, by now with Essex, for a couple of bland quotes to publicise the forthcoming weekend's Sunday league fixtures. It did not make for Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff. Me: "Er, how's life in Essex?" Geoff: "I'm living in digs in Braintree." Me: "Oh. Are the pitches turning any more than at Derby?" Geoff: "Pigs might fly." I gently replaced the receiver and sat there in stunned silence, waist-deep in shattered illusions.
It could all have ended there. I could have thrown away the yellowing cuttings, the benefit tie, the lookalike wristbands and the Dusty videos. By the time he retired Geoff's record was not as good as either of us would have liked. Thirty-four Tests, in which he averaged 25.80 with the bat and took 60 wickets at 30.98, does not merit obvious hero worship.
The confidence to match his talent was not always evident and a bad back - the result of a car crash as a teenager - did not help. But then word arrived that Geoff was carving out an alternative career as one of the funniest after-dinner speakers on the circuit, his self-deprecating act based around his own mediocrity as a cricketer. For reasons I still cannot entirely comprehend, he has also become an England selector. Duncan Fletcher and Michael Vaughan may have helped mastermind England's Ashes success last year but I think we all know who was really behind it.
This season, of course, Geoff and David Graveney have allegedly been the wise men behind the successful elevation of Monty Panesar and Chris Read. If true, it is another feather in Geoff's multi-dimensional cap and fresh justification for those of us who still pluck at the hem of the great man's garment. Growing old alongside a schoolboy hero can be depressing. Thirty-three years on, Geoff still makes me smile.
Robert Kitson is rugby union correspondent of The Guardian
This article was first published in the November issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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