October 2005

Arts & Letters

Big hitter, huge heart

By Ramachandra Guha
Keith Miller, and the struggle to capture him on paper

One of the first books I owned was Keith Miller’s Cricket Crossfire. My father found it in a shop in Delhi and brought it home to the small sub-Himalayan town where we lived. I read the book, then read it again. What charmed me most was its conspicuous internationalism. Where the memoirs of English cricketers tended to the parochial, Miller wrote with warmth about cricketers from other lands. The narrative was leavened by a sharp wit, made more appealing by the fact that it was often directed at the narrator himself.

Growing up, talking cricket with friends far older than myself, I found that they shared my appreciation of Miller, the cricketer and the man. Unlike me, some had even seen him play when he came out with the Australian Services team of 1945. In England that side had spread joy and cheer, the games they played signalling the end of death and brutality. In India, too, these Australian soldiers-turned-cricketers received a rapturous welcome. They were friendly and approachable, not vulgar like the American GIs or stand-offish like the British tommies. And they played good cricket.

The man who made the most powerful impression was Miller. He played some terrific attacking innings – one, in Calcutta, featured four successive sixes off the great slow left-armer Vinoo Mankad – and mixed easily with the natives. Then there was his appearance. I recall, 50 years on, discussing Miller with the Madras critic T. G. Vaidyanathan, a sort of Indian Clive James, a man with a magpie mind, and a comparably original (not to say eccentric) authority on literature and film. TGV had watched the Australians play at Chepauk in 1945 and the memory never left him. “Miller was the best looking cricketer ever,” he told me. It was as much to do with how he conducted himself as how he looked. Others might have more classical features, said TGV, but none had Miller’s bearing.

Miller himself had a deep affection for the people of the subcontinent. One of his closest friends in cricket was Indian opener Syed Mushtaq Ali, a dashing dresser who, like Miller, played with a glorious unconcern for the record books. In 1976 Miller accepted an invitation to play a series of matches in Pakistan, organised as part of the centenary celebrations of the birth of the nation’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. His friends thought he was daft, for it was 20 years since he had last picked up a bat. Miller told them that four current Australian cricketers had been invited and that all had refused, for the terms were not attractive enough. Their action compelled him to go and play in Pakistan – and for free. Miller was the first foreign cricketer I was taught to admire.

So it was with interest that I picked up Roland Perry’s new biography entitled Miller’s Luck (Random House, 520pp; $49.95). Now, every autobiography is a pre-emptive strike against a future biographer. When one’s subject has laid his life out before the world, how does one begin to contend with or transcend it? Perry’s method is to reproduce the core ideas and best stories in Cricket Crossfire and render them in his own words. Of his early ambitions of becoming a jockey, Miller wrote:

Between the age of sixteen and seventeen I grew more than a foot. Strange, because near my home was the Caulfield Racecourse, and I used to go there watching the horses and jockeys and dream of becoming a famous jockey.

This, in Perry’s less than economical prose, becomes:

The boy’s lack of growth caused his head to turn to another sport for which he thought he was destined: horseracing. The Caulfield track was a manageable bike ride away from his home and school. He spent many an early morning watching through the mist as the strappers and the jockeys put their sleek and graceful charges through their paces. Keith liked the rhythmic sound of galloping steeds in hard work-outs that saw their nostrils belch steam. Even the mixed stable odours of hay, sweat, leather and manure were heady to him. These intrepid riders, with their colourful race-day gear and even more colourful language, made their size an advantage in one of the few sports where it was better to be tiny. Keith related to them. He admired them. They were his local heroes. He even badgered his father into
letting him have riding lessons …

Cricket Crossfire was first published by Oldbourne Press in 1956. Six years later there was an Indian edition. The book has been out of print for four decades, and it was at least 20 years since I had last read it myself. Yet when I picked up Perry’s book, I felt instantly and repeatedly forced to write in the margins “stolen from CC” or, by way of variation, “straight out of CC”. Perry spends pages elaborating on Miller’s thesis that his carefree cricketing style was a consequence of his wartime brushes with death. When writing of his cricketing rivals and colleagues, Perry mimics Miller’s opinions while substituting, for his subject’s taut style, his own overheated prose. Conversations are invented, thoughts imputed, motives intuited – without any directions as to their source or provenance. And so while Cricket Crossfire ran to some 170 pages, this updated and inferior version is three times as long.

The embroidering of tales is an ancient cricketing tradition; think of the collected works of Neville Cardus, Miller’s old mate. Unfortunately Perry lacks Cardus’s humour, or sense of style, or understanding of character and context. At one point he talks of Miller having “an extended purple patch with the bat”. In the cricketer’s case the patch lasted a couple of weeks. For his biographer it extends through 520 pages. Settings are invariably “idyllic” and careers “burgeoning”; male voices are naturally “mellifluous” and female voices “honeyed”.

When dealing with Miller the cricketer, Perry’s prose is reminiscent of the school stories of the old Boy’s Own Paper. “It was Miller’s kind of game. He batted with belligerence in a crisis, bowled with venom, and fought always to win. Yet he could not care less whether Australia won or lost.” When dealing with Miller the romancer, Perry’s model of choice is Mills and Boon. “If anything their love had been accentuated by being apart. It had been tested and survived, while many more such relationships in war failed than succeeded. She admired his compassion. Manliness, warmth, humour and strong personality. He admired her femininity, warmth, charm and character.”

If nothing else, this book offers decisive proof of the death of the publisher’s editor. In successive paragraphs we hear of Miller’s “characteristic erect back” and of how “he characteristically tugged at his sleeve”. A sentence on page 297 says “it didn’t take rocket science to learn” (how to play mystery spinner Jack Iverson); another seven pages later says “it didn’t need Mensa Club members to work out” (how to play that other mystery spinner Sonny Ramadhin).

The prose is careless in times of joy and of woe. In a single paragraph we learn that Miller was “shocked by the sad news” of the death of a colleague, then “stunned by the news” of the death of another. Rare indeed is the interesting nugget, one being that in Miller’s maiden first-class match he ran out Don Bradman, one of only four times The Don was out this way in 338 dismissals. Rarer still is the inspired line. The first I noted appeared on page 303, when it is said of the West Indian side featuring the three Ws (Worrell, Weekes, Walcott) and the two little spinners (Ramadhin and Alf Valentine) that “they were never a website, but should have been: www.ramadhin.valentine”.

The most original section deals with my own bailiwick: the Indian subcontinent. It is here that Perry most obviously departs from Cricket Crossfire, as well as from the facts of geography and cricketing history. Kipling’s Lahore, capital of the Punjab, is placed in the North West Frontier Province. We hear of an “upright” Indian batsman named “Vijay Singh”, unknown to the record books. Perry writes that “Miller [was] suffering all the way with Delhi Belly”, which is what Australian tourists nowadays expect to catch but something Miller himself gave no sign of being a victim of. Perry also claims that Miller was an unwilling visitor to the subcontinent, and that India made him “listless”. More dangerously, he insinuates that Indian cricketers were cheaters who would not, or could not, play the game “in the spirit that England did”.

In making this case, Perry singles out one cricketer in particular: Vijay Merchant (presumably the same person as “Vijay Singh”, now out of disguise, and now also rather less than upright). As captain, we are told, Merchant “stretched the rules to an unacceptable point”, while as a batsman he was “in apparent collusion with the umpires”, being “lbw at least five times and caught behind four or even five times” in a single innings without being given out. Having done his numbers, Perry reaches for the nearest cliche: “His nine lives earned him the sobriquet for the match of ‘Cat’.” Later he claims that Merchant’s absence from India’s 1947–48 tour of Australia “did not draw crocodile tears from Miller or Hassett”. They apparently “had vivid memories of his negativity on the field”.

There are no attributions for these assertions, which are flagrantly in violation of the record. At one point in Cricket Crossfire, Miller calls Merchant “one of the greatest batsmen I have seen”. At another he pointedly contrasts Merchant’s decency of character with Bradman’s churlishness. “On the way to England in 1948,” writes Miller, “we put in at Bombay, but Bradman did not go ashore to see Vijay Merchant, one of the finest cricketers and sportsmen India has produced. The great Indian opening batsman had to swallow his pride and come aboard the ship.” That one word – sportsmen – annuls all the innuendos Perry throws Merchant’s way.

Far from making him listless, India energised and enchanted Miller. Among his favourite places was Bombay’s Brabourne Stadium, “a wonderful ground with a grand, enthusiastic crowd”. Were he a less modest man he would have added: enthusiastic for his own skills in particular. In the 60 years since he first came India has seen Neil Harvey and Alan Davidson, Doug Walters and Norm O’Neill, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and the Waugh twins. But for the Indian cricket fan, no Aussie has or can come anywhere near Keith Ross Miller. My own favourite Miller story is set in India on his last visit as a player in 1956, when he had to sit out the Madras Test because of injury. When Vijay Manjrekar played two late cuts down to the pavilion, Miller turned to the man sitting next to him, S. K. Gurunathan of The Hindu, and said: “Those were lovely shots. I wish I was bowling to him.”

In keeping with the climate of the times, Cricket Crossfire was discreet about Miller’s lovelife. Perry’s book, despite its alluring subtitle – The Life and Loves of Keith Miller, Australia’s Greatest All-Rounder – treats the theme in a curiously disembodied manner. There are references to “Miller’s philandering”, to black eyes given by possessive husbands, to “lingering goodbyes” after nights spent with unnamed ladies. However, it is only with Miller’s retirement from cricket that any concrete relationships are mentioned: these with a mistress who was a model and with a woman Miller married towards the end of his life, after divorcing his wife of 56 years.

A biographer, the British critic Desmond McCarthy once said, is “an artist under oath”. This indeed is the most difficult of literary genres. The biographer must have the energy of a historian, the discipline of a craftsman, and the insight into psychology and character of a novelist. Works such as David Remnick’s King of the World (on Muhammad Ali) or Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (on the famous racehorse) display these qualities in good measure. Both are attentive to the technical-ities of the sport they write about, yet able to locate its practice and practitioners in the social history of the time. These books rest on a solid bedrock of facts – many new, some forgotten – and shape those facts into a credible narrative. They present the whole in elegant and accessible prose.

Roland Perry’s biography fails on all counts. Those looking for stories of romance will be disappointed, and those looking for a deeper analysis of Miller the cricketer will be more disappointed still. The matches Miller played, the hundreds he hit and the wickets he took are dutifully itemised. No attempt is made to judge him against other Australian all-rounders past and present: Warwick Armstrong, Jack Gregory, Richie Benaud, Adam Gilchrist. Also missed is the opportunity to assess Miller against multi-faceted cricketers from other lands. As if anticipating this criticism, Perry offers up a couple of bored paragraphs, almost as an afterthought, comparing Garry Sobers’s career statistics with Miller’s.

The used books site abebooks.com tells me 31 copies of Cricket Crossfire are up for sale. Those interested in Miller the character should grab one fast. Those interested in what he meant to cricket, or to Australia, might wish to read Ray Robinson’s essay “Touch of a Hero” from his 1950 book From the Boundary. Were I a less law-abiding man, I would advise the reader to borrow Perry’s biography from the nearest library and snip out its photographs, the best bits in this memorably unmemorable book.

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