'Feet are the most important thing in batsmanship'

Arthur Morris, Australia's oldest living Test cricketer, talks about batting, coaching, self-doubt, the Don, and being mates with Lindsay Hassett

Interview by Steve Cannane
At the age of 91, Arthur Morris is Australia's oldest living Test cricketer and one of only two players left from Bradman's Invincibles of 1948. On that tour he became the first Australian batsman in 20 years to outscore Bradman in a Test series. He was the first Australian to score two centuries on first-class debut. He was also named in Australia's team of the 20th century.
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You scored 196 in the innings that was Don Bradman's last. Not many people remember your innings. Everyone remembers Bradman's duck. Do people come up and ask you about that innings, not knowing your score?
It did occur in business when a fellow came up and didn't know all that much about cricket, but he did know about Bradman's duck. In the conversation something reminded him of that and he said, Bradman got a duck. I said yes, I was there. He said, "Were you? What were you doing over there? Were you on business?" I said, "No, I was up the other end." He said, "Did you get any runs?" I said, "196". Then I stopped a little moment to get the message across. "Run out," I said. "Nobody got me out. I ran myself out."
That team you were part of became the Invincibles - the only Australian team to tour England without losing a match. What made that team so special?
I think it was a very good side. The English side was also a very good one - Hutton and Compton and Bedser - but we were very strong. It was just after the war and we had all the players to click. Neil Harvey was the only one who hadn't been in the services. The others had played the Englishmen in 1946-47 and India in 1947-48 before we went to England.
Did the fans love seeing the Australians?
It was very important that we did play. This was before colour television. Unfortunately a lot of young players today think the game only started when colour television came in. It was very important to the counties that we played three days. We were there for six months and played each county, one or two of them twice. That was a source of money for them. I felt very sorry for Don, because every county wanted him to play, because it meant more people. It wasn't easy. Hotels were pretty average, but we battled on. It was a great tour.
Bradman's biographer, Irving Rosenwater, pointed out that Australia didn't lose any of its first 20 Tests after the war. And he put that statistic down to what he called "an efficiency approaching ruthlessness" and that much of that ruthlessness stemmed from the influence of Don Bradman. Is that a fair assessment in your eyes?
No. Where do they get all these fantasies? Really, I am amazed sometimes when I read of these things. We'd go to play to win. The silly part about this is that sometimes I wish he had been more ruthless and not played extra counties. They wanted him and he didn't want to. Once or twice we played on the third day to keep the game going to get the crowds there, and I'd rather have been back in London than be stuck out in Leeds or whatever.
So you don't buy the argument that Bradman was driven by Bodyline and previous Test matches to grind the English into the dust?
I think there was a bit of that in one or two games. I think there was the memory of his 1938 tour when they got about 11 hundreds, and he broke his ankle bowling. I think that was a little on his mind.
The 1948 tour was the first in 20 years in which an Australian batsman outscored Bradman in the Tests. That batsman was you. You scored three centuries, 700 runs - that tour was a personal triumph for you, wasn't it?
Yes, I enjoyed batting over there. I think the more you play, the better you get.
But you started that tour slowly. Is that a lesson in itself that it's good to have a number of warm-up games on an important tour and it's also important to stick with your players and let them strike a little bit of form?
I think you're right. Well, that happened in those days. Today they can fly everywhere. You get so many more Test matches in small amounts of time. On the tour, Don and I got hundreds in the first match, in Worcester. In fact, I got a century in my first match in South Africa, West Indies and England.
In that world-record chase in Headingley, when Australia chased 404 on the final day on a turning pitch, you and Bradman put on a partnership of 301. Did you give yourself any chance of chasing down that total when you walked out to bat?
I know Don wrote in his diary that he thought we'd be beaten. I was bloody sure we'd be beaten. Lindsay opened, because Sid Barnes had been hurt in the match before. He got out early and then we battled away. I was a bit lucky with a stumping - the ball jumped and hit Godfrey Evans on the chest and bounced back. That showed you what the wicket was like. It turned a lot, but it turned slowly. We were able to penetrate the field because Yardley, their captain - and everybody else - was thinking they would win this match, so he kept the field up.
We were not aware at that stage that we had any chance of winning, during the morning session. It was only after lunch that we got at it.
Is it true that Bradman was having trouble with Denis Compton's bowling, so you decided to hit him out of the attack?
Yes, Don was having trouble picking his wrong'un a couple of times. He did come to me at one stage after lunch and said his back wasn't going too well. When Compton - who was a good bowler but not a regular bowler - and playing him defensively made him a better bowler - came on, I decided to go after him. It didn't matter where he pitched them, I hit him. He wasn't able to bowl a good length at me, because I was covering him, back and forward. I was very disappointed at [Jack] Fingleton writing that Bradman was very unlucky to have Compton bowl four poor overs, because I made them poor. Anyway, that put us on the road to the fact that we'd gain a draw, at least. But from then on we just kept the pressure on and saw that we were going to win it.
"I would hate it if Cricket Australia or Cricket New South Wales could ring me up because I am employed by the cricket authorities and say, 'You will be here at 3'o'clock or such and such a thing'"
You used to hit over the top a bit and Bradman didn't like that, did he? Did he ever tell you to stop hitting the ball in the air?
No, never. In fact he said to me one day - and this is why I get cranky about coaches - "I don't know how you do it, but keep doing it." It means I played so differently from the way he played. In our day you had players of different physiques and they played differently. There were no coaches to tell them to perhaps end up looking like a lot of sausages coming out of a machine, all doing the same thing.
I believe in coaches teaching the fundamentals to youngsters. But cricket doesn't have a place for coaches. You have to have them in football for positions, playing. In cricket, there's no case when a bloke is bowling 100mph and drops one short for a coach to say, "Don't hook that. There's a bloke out on the field." Your little computer in your head tells you what to do. If you see kids with a lot of ability, don't coach them. Let them develop their own cricket, because they will learn to bat by watching better players play. Bradman, McCabe, Trumper had no coaches. It started when the big money came in. Then you started having coaches for everything.
Didn't you and senior players like Lindwall play a kind of coaching role to younger ones coming in, like Richie Benaud?
Very little. If they asked a question, then that's all. When you get into bad habits you can ask another player, what am I doing wrong here? But you don't need a coach to tell you that you must put your foot there or do that. I think Ian Chappell was right when he said he used coaches to get to the ground.
I would never get involved in coaching or go tell a player that this is what I think you should do. Sometimes I could say, please use your back leg a bit more, or use your feet a bit more instead of getting defensive, use your back foot to get into defence, or don't put your front foot down, because once you put your weight on the front foot, you're stuck there. Feet are the most important thing in batsmanship. It goes for everything - football, boxing. If your feet are in the right spot, you're a good player.
Do you think many modern batsmen tend to lunge on the front foot too early?
I think so. I've been seeing it, particularly in opening batsmanship. It is a very good defensive but it doesn't win games. McCabe never played forward in his life and he was the fastest batsman I saw. People tend to say, "Oh, he's on the back foot", but I found most of the players on the back foot are very fast scorers.
On the 1948 tour you dined with Douglas Jardine, the English captain during the Bodyline series, probably the most loathed English cricketer ever to come to Australia.
He was a most charming man. A different person when on the field to when he was off the field. It's often been said that Bill O'Reilly and Bradman were two different types of people, but they had immense admiration for each other on the cricket field and they were great for Australia. You can have a team of different people, which you do have, but when you're playing for your country or your team, you do the best you can, but you don't have to love them.
In those days you travelled to England by ship. What was it like for players getting to know one another on the ship?
Very important, I think. We didn't have to hug each other, which is good because we didn't have all these deodorants you have these days. If I had put my arm around Bill O'Reilly I wouldn't be here talking to you today. I'd have been dead many years ago.
In the fifth Test, at The Oval, Compton came in and Lindwall bowled him a short one. Compton hooked with him with all his force, and I had just been moved by Bradman five metres near the umpire. After I took the catch, and if I hadn't I'd have been in hospital, I said, "Why did you move me?" He said, "I remember in 1938, Compton hooked down that line from Ernie McCormick." I said, "God, you've got a memory like an elephant." Years later I had lunch with Bradman and said to him, "Remember that time you moved me at The Oval and I caught Compton?" He said, "I remember it well, but you don't," He said it happened at Lord's. I could still see the gasometer in the background where I caught it. I said, "No, it was at The Oval." He said, "No, I'll bet you £100 it was at Lord's. I thought, gee I need the money but he's always so right, and I could still see the gasometer. Then we go down to £50 and I can see the gasometer starting to fade in the background. We finally got down to £10. And then I got a cheque in the mail. I showed it to Tiger O'Reilly and he said, "You have to frame it." I don't know what he meant by that but I needed the money so I cashed it. I was right.
What about the differences in pay between now and then? Did you make any money out of the 1948 tour?
No, we had enough to get by for drinks and so on. It was like having expenses really, and virtually like playing as an amateur. I wouldn't like it today, frankly. I wouldn't like it instead of having a job out in the business world. I would hate it if Cricket Australia or Cricket New South Wales could ring me up because I am employed by the cricket authorities and say, "You will be here at 3'o'clock or such and such a thing". I am pleased that I played at a time when I wasn't under that pressure to come and practice at a particular time.
What was your pre-match routine? I've heard a few rumours that you relied on a few beers to relax the nerves.
I did often. Not late nights, but a few beers to get to sleep, because if you've got any imagination and you're thinking about going out the next day opening for Australia, it tends to get in your mind.
Your mother and father separated quite early on in your life. What influence did that have on you?
I don't know. It must have had some influence on me. Made me very shy, I think. It took a while for me to overcome that. My father was keen on sport and I played good football, rugby union for St George and in the army and Combined services. Johnny Wallace, a top centre in the 1930s, said I was the best five-eighth in Australia. I accepted that and enjoyed it.
Marriage breakdowns were unusual back then and also for fathers to get custody of a son. Was that hard for you and your father?
Hard to tell. I think break-ups are very upsetting to a child, and I was an only child. My mother was English. I think she took one look at Dungog when the old man was sent there and went back to Bondi. I loved Dungog - you could play all day long, cricket, football, tennis. It was upsetting of course, but he accepted it. He was among children all day long and his influence was tremendous. He was a schoolteacher, a bit pedantic, not the sort you get terribly close to, but he looked after me tremendously well.
I've been told he had very high hopes for you as a cricketer, and asked the St George's coach when you moved to Sydney to look after you as a 14-year-old, because he thought you were destined to play for Australia.
My father said, "My son will play for Australia." The captain, who was 17, said, "Mr Morris, if your son plays for Australia, you can kiss my arse." And the old man never came up to watch me play after that.
"We didn't have to hug each other, which is good because we didn't have all these deodorants you have these days. If I had put my arm around Bill O'Reilly I wouldn't be here talking to you today. I'd have been dead many years ago"
At that club you came under the influence of Bill O'Reilly, the man Bradman said was the best bowler he ever faced. What was it like meeting Tiger for the first time?
Oh, great. I fielded at slips to him. He had just come back from South Africa and he came on to bowl. I had never seen anything like it: fast spin, he cut his legspinner, but his wrong'un was superb and it bounced. It was a good side we played against. I think he got 6 for 28 or something. I took a couple of catches. Shane Warne is a great legspinner but if you look at Tiger's wickets to number of runs, it will be half of Warne's. I've never seen a better bowler. But I think Shane's the best orthodox legspinner I have seen.
O'Reilly was the man who turned you into an opening batsman. Tell us how he did that.
I was batting in the middle order. I had had my first grade match at the age of 15. I bowled offspin and batted last. Alec Marks got about 187 and took me for a lot but kindly gave me his wicket. I got 20-odd runs batting last, and he said to me, "Son, you are going to be a good batsman, give the bowling away." I was bowling quite often until Tiger really took over. We had a very good bowling side.
Ray Lindwall once bowled four overs and took two for none. After four overs, Tiger said, "Give us a bowl, son". And Ray said, "But Mr O'Reilly, I got two for none." O'Reilly said, "I can get them quicker." Which he could. A wonderful character and a wonderful captain, Bill. He could have been captain of Australia, but everybody wanted batsmen as captains.
One day he said, "You're opening, son", so I opened. At that time I was opening for my school, but it was wonderful that he took that decision for me.
And just a few years later you were opening the batting for New South Wales as an 18-year-old. How did it feel that day to turn up at the SCG?
I got a hundred in the first innings but I didn't bat well.
It's strange you say that, because you were the first person in the world to score two first-class hundreds in your first game.
I batted much better in the second innings. I really felt that I wanted to prove my point. Queensland had a very good bowler called [John] Ellis, and I made about three or four attempts to hook him. But it might have been good, because they flew away to the off side for four fours, and I don't know what it looked like from the outside. They might have said, "What a good square-cutter this boy is." But then I concentrated in the second innings. So that's why I got two hundreds - I wanted to prove I was better than I was in the first innings.
Is it true that you made those two hundreds with a bat borrowed from the St George club?
Oh yes. We were too poor, those days. My father was a school teacher and didn't have money. A prominent Australian, Doc Evatt [leader of the Australian Labor Party from 1951 to 1960], very kindly bought me a bat after the match. I still have the letter. He wrote, "You go down to McCabe's and choose yourself a bat." That's the only bat I owned then, apart from having kids' bats. He was a cricket enthusiast. Robert Menzies too.
Were there times during the war when you thought you won't get to play for Australia?
Oh sure. There were times when it looked like the war would go one forever. I was playing a lot of football at the time, against top-line rugby union, rugby league players. Then I was sent to Finch Haven, where the Americans were, so there was no cricket. We played softball with the Americans - underarm stuff. In fact I ran into Ray Lindwall, who was on his way to one of the other islands. He took a marvelous catch in the deep. The Americans we were playing with were ecstatic.
So after the war Test cricket resumed and you were picked for Australia. You described that as scaring the hell out of you. Why was that?
I had a little doubt there. I was always out to prove myself, I suppose. A little bit of self-doubt helps. It really makes you concentrate. If you think you're the best and you go out there and start throwing your bat at everything then you're back in the pavilion very early. I was nervous when opening. Most of us are. I asked Bob Menzies and Neville Wran, "Do you get nervous when you speak?" Both of them said yes.
One of your team-mates in your first Test match was Lindsay Hassett. He became a great mate of yours. What are your memories of Lindsay Hassett?
Wonderful character. I was vice-captain to him for 25 matches. I got along very well with him. He was a very nice, delightful young man.
Did he ever do anything to wind you up? What about the time you played the Prime Minister's XI game
Oh yes, I am furious about it. I had retired after my first wife died, and I hadn't played cricket for a while. The English boys came out [in 1958-59] and they played the Prime Minister's XI in Canberra. Hassett was also chosen. I had bought a bat, a beautiful bat I had a great loving regard for. As I was going out, Hassett had to go in to bat. He said, "I haven't got a bat." I said, "Well, here's mine." I think he had had a couple of gin and tonics, so I thought there's no way he'd be able to do any damage to this bat. So off he went.
I'm standing next to the prime minister, Bob Menzies, who loved Hassett. And he said, "Isn't that typical?" I said, "What happened?" And he said, "Hassett's just got out and he's given his bat to a little boy in the crowd." I remember the words I said. "Pig's arse, that's my bat!" He gave my bat away to this bloody kid! And the prime minister's saying how typical of him, what a wonderful character, what a gesture to see this international give his bat to this little boy. And I had to even sign it when the kid came in. If the team hadn't been there, I'd have hit him on the head with the bat and run out with it.
This interview was first published in ABC's Conversations series of interviews. Click here to listen to it.