Most of the truly great cricketers have been unpretentious. They have no need to bang their own drums. They know that the world recognises their talents.
Ray Lindwall was born easygoing and with modesty running through his veins. This, and the attraction of his fast bowling and stylish batting, made him a hero around Sydney and most of Australia in the 1950s. Many of us boys tried to adopt a run-up and delivery like Ray's distinctive flow: a smooth pistoning of the right arm, an acceleration, a thrust of the bowling arm up past the shoulder, then the starburst of delivery - the arm coming through not copybook-high but at 45 degrees, which made it hard not to bowl the late outswinger.
We'd study him in the field. At the end of the over he would slap his cap onto his fair head, usually crookedly, and tug his sweater on, causing his shirt collar to disappear, and that florid countenance would break into a grin as he exchanged quips with the other slipsmen.
What do you suppose would be the reaction of one of today's superstars if a youngster, having been privileged enough to get an autograph, then asked the player for a lift home? Well, over half a century ago I did just this. I knew Lindwall lived a suburb or two away from my parents' place, so I hesitantly asked him.
"Sure," he said. He was usually one of the last to vacate the SCG, for his efforts had dehydrated him somewhat, and he needed a few beers to restore his strength. But the long wait was worthwhile, for here I was, riding in my hero's carriage as we curved round Botany Bay and headed for Carlton, and wishing there would be an engine problem so that I could have more private time with him.
What did that ball do to bowl Everton Weekes? How did he manage to beat Jeff Stollmeyer? Evasiveness from Australian fast bowler. He wanted to free his mind. So he spoke of history - 1770 was when Captain Cook stepped ashore just over there - and geography; or about London, where I was from and he had been (with Bradman's 1948 side). I didn't really care what we discussed. Just being there with him was sensational.
I consequently saw him differently the next day, when he was a distant figure again, gliding in to take some more wickets, with me sitting rigidly up in the old Sheridan Stand. This was now "my friend" Ray.
The dreaded day came when he took his exit from Test cricket, the first genuine fast bowler to have taken 200 Test wickets, recognised by many as the best of all fast bowlers. Cricket suddenly seemed slightly lacking. That unique and beautiful run-up would never be seen again, except in a charity match at The Oval when he was 62 years old and could manage only a stiff five-pace run-up.
|What do you suppose would be the reaction of one of today's superstars if a youngster, having been privileged enough to get an autograph, then asked the player for a lift home? Well, over half a century ago I did just this|
But a consolation was that I got to know him well and saw him often, especially at the Gabba. I even had a chance to say a few words at a testimonial lunch for him, assuring the audience that Lindwall was almost as highly regarded in England as in his homeland. Through all the adulatory speeches that day he looked bashfully down at the table, making the occasional wry remark from the side of his mouth.
It's said that at one function he was approached by one of Australia's leading latter-day fast bowlers, who, having sunk a few drinks, was keen to explain to Lindwall that he, the modern champion, had superior figures, quoting strike-rates and all that business. Those in the vicinity were horrified, but they need not have fretted. Ray waited until the braggadocio subsided before saying, in that adenoidal voice of his, "You're probably right." The younger man had his middle stump knocked out of sight.
Ray's last days were sad. Diabetes cost him a toe, and a loud-mouthed medico had assured him that there was worse to come. One of the penalties was a drastic cut to his beer intake. Three a day was the limit. So how many had he had so far? (Play at the Gabba was just about to start.) "This is my third." Oh dear. "I'll be all right," said my hero. And I could have wept.
There had been a nice piece of completion during the 1980s. The Lord's Taverners held a gala dinner at the London Hilton for Lindwall and his famous new-ball partner Keith Miller. We all sat back and oohed and aahed as the terror twins had Len Hutton and Denis Compton ducking and weaving all over again on the slightly fuzzy black-and-white newsreel. Afterwards, when most of the 750 guests had gone, Ray, as usual, was still there.
"Where are you staying?" I asked. He told me, and I insisted on giving him a lift. It wasn't round the rim of Botany Bay this time, but down Piccadilly. We were both much older now. But if I had changed with the years, he seemed not to have. He still had that gentle drawl and he was still self-effacing. And once again I experienced a thrill running right through me as I sat alongside maybe the greatest of fast bowlers and certainly - beyond the faintest doubt - the nicest of men.
That's how I judge heroes.
David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine