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Hero, headliner, heartthrob

Perhaps cricket's first pin-up, Miller's game was marked by flair, devil-may-care insouciance, and awareness always that it was all just a game

David Frith
Keith Miller, January 12, 1946

Keith Miller: cricket's Errol Flynn  •  PA Photos

There has never been a more glamorous cricketer than Keith Miller: not even Imran Khan. Miller's entry into the field generated every kind of symptom of crowd excitement. His stride was that of the catwalk. His sleek hair anticipated Elvis by some years. And his flashing smile showed admirers and adversaries alike that he was delighted to be there, privileged to be enjoying himself in the cause of entertainment. He was looking forward to swinging his bat, banging down a bouncer, or plucking a catch out of nowhere. From being bewitched by Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn some nights on the big silver screen, we watched Keith Miller, their cricketing personification, on sunlit days at the Sydney Cricket Ground. And just as it was futile to aspire to be a Cooper (whose voice was so like Miller's) or a Flynn (whose grin was like his, and whose swordplay seemed the Hollywood equivalent of Miller's strokeplay), so it was only a foolish boy who aspired to emulate the dashing Miller.
Miller was a cricketer of moods, ever responsive to a challenge but bored by stalemate, sometimes impatient, keen to make things happen, chivalrous in both victory and adversity. He was one of those players whom it would be wrong to judge by statistics, impressive though his were. He was strikingly Australian in physique and in his friendly openness; insouciant, modest, never forgetting a name (unless, sometimes, when addressing one of his four sons). But as Len Hutton, one of his greatest adversaries, cautioned, it was not wise to hit Keith for four: better to run him away for singles. Hutton was forever bewitched by Miller's unpredictability. In one over there might be a wicked bouncer off three paces, an innocuous half-volley, and then a googly. He never bothered measuring out a run-up.
Though Miller was born in Sunshine, Victoria, and in the late 1930s he was both star cricketer and Aussie Rules footballer in Melbourne, home for most of his life was Sydney. Born on November 28, 1919, Keith Ross Miller was named after the Smith brothers, who had then recently completed their epic flight from England to Australia. He attended Melbourne High School, where former Test captain WM Woodfull taught. Miller was later to claim unashamedly that he had only ever read one book in his life: MA Noble's The Game's the Thing. His early ambitions were directed towards the racetrack, but in his teens Miller shot up to six feet, and instead of becoming a jockey he reverted to a compulsive pursuit of punting. How the British papers loved those pictures of him at Ascot, complete with top hat and tailcoat.
There was just time, before hostilities began in 1939, for Miller to make his first-class debut, and a spectacular entrance it was. In February 1938, when he was only 18, he hit 181 for Victoria against Tasmania at the MCG. His outstanding potential was emphasised with a further century against Don Bradman's South Australia (with cunning old spinner Clarrie Grimmett bowling). But when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force he had bowled no more than 56 balls in first-class cricket. It was not until he burst onto the scene at Lord's in the matches played by the Australian Services XI towards the end of the war and in the "Victory Test matches" of 1945 that his power with the bat and his potential for rattling batsmen with raw pace and sharp bounce off a short run-up were fully revealed.
"What does this chap bowl?" England's Denis Compton enquired of the Australian Services wicketkeeper Stan Sismey. The keeper thought him a change bowler who might be a bit quick. Flight Sergeant (later Flying Officer) Miller's first ball, released after a short gallop, a shimmy of the shoulder, and a fast sweep of the arm, whistled past Compton's head - the first of many such deliveries to somebody who became a great friend. Nor would spectators ever forget Miller's hurricane innings of 185 for The Dominions, during which a blow into the highest reaches of the Lord's pavilion narrowly missed commentator Rex Alston.
When Ashes cricket was resumed in 1946, Miller - drawn to Sydney by employment first as a liquor salesman and then with the Sun newspaper - was among the Australians who, aided by timely heavy rain mixed with tropical sun, destroyed England by an innings and 332 runs in Brisbane. Having begun his Test career earlier that year in the fiasco against New Zealand, when Australia won on a wet Wellington pitch in one and a half days, he marked his debut against England with 79, batting at No. 5, and then taking 7 for 60 with a certain reluctance on that treacherous surface. While Bradman urged him on, he winced every time one of his slowed-down full-length balls crashed into Bill Edrich's ribs or knocked Cyril Washbrook's cap off or inflicted another bruise on 43-year-old Wally Hammond. Miller could not free his mind of the fact that these fellows had so recently been in uniform on the same side as him.
He stroked the first of his seven Test centuries in the Adelaide match, and after a moderate series against India he took a prominent part in the never-to-be-forgotten 1948 tour of England, when Bradman's dream of completing his final tour without losing a match was duly fulfilled. And that series is remembered as much as anything for the fiery Lindwall-Miller opening attack, energised as it was by the nonsensical 55-overs new-ball regulation. Miller's cascade of bumpers at Trent Bridge in the first Test worked the spectators into a frenzy, still mindful as they were of the authorities' punishment of their own Notts fast-bowling favourites, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, 15 years earlier. It was probably the only time in his life that the popular Miller was booed and jeered. He merely laughed, rolled his sleeve up and bucked into his next delivery. In terrible light, his bosom friend Compton fell into his stumps, having scored 184. The two were soon sharing a drink.
Miller's damaged back prevented him from bowling in the Lord's Test, and he took only 13 wickets in that series while Ray Lindwall and Bill Johnston took 27 apiece. But Miller's animated presence always placed him centre stage.
A rebellious, mischievous and sometimes contrary streak about Miller's psyche often belied a sentimental nature. This was the man who diverted his aircraft miles off course after a bombing raid so that he could get an aerial view of Beethoven's birthplace
Miller's relationship with Bradman was unusual. In the fullness of time he wrote and uttered much praise for his Test captain. But he was one of those close to The Don who were irritated by aspects of his nature. The 1948ers were mainly new boys, who demonstrated an almost humble respect for their 39-year-old skipper. Not Miller. He unceremoniously tossed the ball back to his captain, saying he thought he'd already made it clear that his back was too painful.
In Bradman's final season Miller mischievously bounced him, causing the most highly worshipped of cricketers to fend for his life. When the Australia side to tour South Africa in 1949-50 was announced, the name of the world's No. 1 allrounder, KR Miller, was missing. Whenever the matter came up in later years Bradman would calmly state that he was only one of the selectors.
Miller was flown to South Africa when Johnston was injured in a car accident, and although his Test performances were unexceptional, the spectators, who had heard so much about him, were at least belatedly satisfied. Then came the 1950-51 Ashes series, for which he warmed up with 214 for New South Wales against the touring team. For him the Test series sprang to life in the third Test, when he got his name on the afternoon newspaper placards with a dazzling catch at slip to dismiss Washbrook, to go with the wickets of Hutton, Reg Simpson and Compton (0). This was followed by one of his more cautious centuries as Australia built a big lead off an injury-ridden England attack. Mystery bowler Jack Iverson stole the closing honours with 6 for 27, but Miller was rehabilitated, a fact celebrated with 99 in the next Test, at which point a Doug Wright googly and his own bat synchronously crashed into the stumps. Again that toss of the head and broad smile.
The slap of the bat onto the turf as he late-cut was a trademark shot, as distinctively Miller's as the bold off-drive or the slightly awkward full-stretch defensive, when his hair would splash over his forehead. He (we as well) was fortunate in that his grandest stroke, the stand-up cut-drive, was captured for all time by the camera in 1950. The picture graced the office wall of Australia's cricket-loving prime minister Robert Menzies, who said that contemplating it "refreshed" him.
Australia's domination of world cricket continued through home series against West Indies and South Africa, with Miller returning a century here and a five-for there, always seemingly the core of the side. Arthur Morris, Lindsay Hassett and Neil Harvey usually preceded him to the crease, and Lindwall and he automatically took the new ball, supported by Johnston's whippy left-arm. But Miller was never to escape the back pain, and bowled less than the others, though he still took key wickets and catches at slip.
He became captain of New South Wales in 1952-53, and the Sheffield Shield was won by his adopted state three times in the four years in which he was leader. Later in life he reflected ruefully that despite those honours there wasn't even "a bit of graffiti" bearing his name at the SCG - though the MCC honoured him in 1993 by commissioning an oil portrait of him for the Long Room at Lord's.
Miller was never entrusted with the captaincy of Australia. The Australian board have always preferred the "safe" captain, the establishment man. Miller was incurably outspoken and unpredictable. Hassett's successor was Ian Johnson, and only when Johnson was forced from the field in the West Indies in 1955 was Miller permitted to act as Test captain. In that short span he brought a dynamism to proceedings that spotlighted what Australia might have forsaken.
His peculiarities as NSW captain sometimes compromised his reputation. "One of you **** off, then!" he called out when one of his players whispered that he hadn't appointed a 12th man and they had one too many in the field. "Scatter!" he cried whenever the youngsters looked to him for directions in the field. And he often arrived late. Once, in 1955, he forgot to collect Peter Philpott, so he swung the car around as if it were a free-flying Mosquito, roared back to the North Shore to get his young team-mate, and eventually screeched into the SCG players' car park as the umpires were taking the field. Miller had hardly slept that night, having been celebrating the birth of another son. His head was hurting. He even forgot to put his socks on. South Australia were bowled out before lunch for 27, a record Shield low, Miller 7 for 12, though he would struggle forever afterwards to recall either his figures or the names of his victims.
His second tour of England, in 1953, when England memorably regained the Ashes at The Oval, found Miller in an ageing side in which some immature allrounders were finding things difficult on damp, unprotected pitches. He had a mediocre series, apart from a greatly relished century that set up Australia's second innings in the pulsating "Watson-Bailey" drawn match at Lord's, a ground that, with his wartime matches in mind, Miller always insisted was his spiritual home.
When Hutton's conquering 1954-55 side toured Australia, Miller's powers seemed to be on the wane. He was forced to miss the second Test - "Tyson's match" - in Sydney because of fluid in the knee. And yet while his highest score in the series was only 49 in Brisbane, twice with the ball he stamped his name on a match, even though both were lost. On the first morning in Melbourne, the England batsmen found him almost unplayable. His spell was 3 for 5 in nine eight-ball overs, eight of them maidens. Then in Adelaide, when England needed 94 to secure the Ashes, Miller got rid of Hutton in his first over, Edrich in his second, and Colin Cowdrey in his third, causing Hutton to shake his head slowly and say, "The booger's done us." Compton could only protest: "Hang on, Len, I haven't batted yet!" When Miller dived to catch Peter May in the covers it was 49 for 4 and Englishmen everywhere were chewing their fingernails. But the tumble had damaged Miller's shoulder, and England got home. Such was the power and swagger of Miller's personality that until that injury - even though England's target was small - it was not Hutton alone who feared that all was lost.
Miller was 35 and nursing repetitive physical problems when he had his best series. On Australia's maiden tour of the West Indies he scored three Test centuries and took 20 wickets. It was almost as if he wanted to make absolutely sure that he would go to England for a third tour, a hope secured by a good 1955-56 domestic season, when he averaged 70 with the bat and 14 with the ball.
The 1956 venture was one that Australia has ever since wished to forget. Confronted by Jim Laker (46 wickets), Miller was as bewildered as anybody, most notably at Old Trafford, where 19 of Laker's wickets were harvested. At Lord's, Miller had done his favourite ground proud, with 10 wickets to put Australia one-up. It was the tourists' only victory of the series, but the Australian hero, object of as much female as male adulation, stamped that match flamboyantly as his own. As the players left the field, he lifted the bails from the umpire's pocket and tossed them as souvenirs into the mass of applauding spectators.
Miller's final Test was as unsatisfactory as his first in Wellington 11 years previously. In Karachi, Pakistan won their inaugural Test against Australia, only 95 runs being eked out of the matting surface on the first day, when Australia went down for 80. Soon after retirement Miller returned to Pakistan to play in a flood-relief match, pointedly upholding his country's pride after several current Test players had declined to go.
He turned out for Nottinghamshire while in England in 1959, and scored 62 and 102 not out against Cambridge University.
Of all the women in his life, the one who mattered most by far was Margaret Wagner, the tolerant "Peggie" from Boston, Massachusetts, whom he met on his journey to Britain during the war. They married in 1946, and it was a source of shock and sadness to their friends when the two separated early in the new century after so many years together. Peggie died in 2003, and Keith, having returned at last to Melbourne, then married a friend of long standing. The following year saw him at the MCG - confined to a wheelchair - unveiling a statue of himself as a bowler. Appropriately the statue is larger than life.
A rebellious, mischievous and sometimes contrary streak about Miller's psyche often belied a sentimental nature. This was the man who diverted his aircraft miles off course after a bombing raid so that he could get an aerial view of Beethoven's birthplace; the man who would terrify one batsman after another through the afternoon only to spend the evening humming classics with the delicate and sensitive Neville Cardus; the man who, having listened to his captain, Johnson, firing up the Australians in the dressing room by pledging to regain the initiative tomorrow with his offspin, would retort: "Ten-to-one says you won't!" This was the man who once hit the first ball of the day for six in a Test match, and who, when confronted by Dennis Lillee, fuming at what Miller had just written about him, just laughed and said to the younger man, "Don't take any notice of that. I'm paid good money to write all that s***."
The more striking a young man's elan and image, the tougher it must be to endure the privations of the later years. In this, Keith Miller was surely cricket's Dorian Gray.

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2004