Keith Miller, recently named one of Australia's five greatest players, was more than just a cricketer, he was a real-life superhero.
Keith Miller was more than just a cricketer for Australia
Jack London, the American author, once wrote: "Darn the wheel of the world. Why must it continually turn over? Where is the reverse gear?"
This nostalgic heart has been wishing for such a gear in recent days, any device that could transport you to the past, thanks to TheSydney Morning Herald. The newspaper has been running extracts from a new book, which names five of the greatest players to wear the Baggy Green, as picked by more than 120 Australian cricketers.
Included in that list is a childhood hero, a man larger than life, a Second World War veteran who would be among the first names on any connoisseur's list of all time greats. Keith Miller is now a member of the Elysium XI, but he remains in our midst.
It was Jack Fingleton who introduced me to this real-life superhero, as I graduated from the days of comic books and fiction to the words of Neville Cardus, John Arlott and the fascinating world of cricket literature.
The late Fingleton, a former Australian cricketer and later a prominent political commentator, had named Miller among three of the game's geniuses; the others were Sir Garfield Sobers, the West Indies great, and India's Salim Durrani. And those words were the start of a fascination with Miller.
The Australian may not have the statistics of some modern day greats, but he was the best all-rounder by numbers when he called it a day.
There was more to Miller than just numbers though.
"Outstanding as he was at cricket, the game was for him only a part of living life as a man might do," wrote Arlott.
He was a nonconformist and irreverent; he was a rebel, a star and a bon vivant. Miller once arrived for a domestic match still wearing the tuxedo from the previous night's festivities. Captain of his team, he just asked his fielders to "scatter" and took seven wickets for 12.
During the Second World War, after duelling with enemy planes in his Mosquito, he made an unauthorised detour over Bonn in Germany because it was the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Asked once about how he dealt with the pressures of cricket, Miller replied: "Pressure, I'll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your [backside], playing cricket is not."
Enlisting with the Royal Australian Air Force in 1941, Miller had many near-death experiences as a pilot and once belly-landed a plane with just one functional engine; he walked away from the burning wreckage saying: "Nearly stumps drawn that time, gents".
That was Miller the man. "He played as he fought the war," Ashley Mallet, the former Australia cricketer, said "by impulse and mood. He loved tradition, but hated convention."
Cardus described Miller as "the Australian in excelsis", yet he would have struggled to meet the standards of "Australianism" as defined by Arlott. He loved a contest more than a win and that was the reason for his initial fallout with Sir Don Bradman.
On a dangerously damp pitch at the Gabba in 1946, Miller nearly decapitated Englishman Bill Edrich with a couple of his quickest deliveries. He slowed down after that and Bradman was obviously not pleased.
"Bowl fast, Keith," Bradman urged. "They're harder to play when you bowl fast."
"This guy survived the war, Don," said Miller before tossing the ball back at his captain. "I'm not going to kill him with a cricket ball."
At another time, in 1948, when Australia hammered Essex, the English county side, for 721 runs on a single day, Miller arrived at the crease at two for 364. He refused to take a guard and allowed himself to be bowled first ball. Turning to the wicketkeeper, he said: "Thank God that's over."
That was Miller the cricketer, one who cared nothing for numbers and yet nothing on a cricket field was beyond him.