The first book I read from cover to cover was written by an Australian. His name was Keith Miller, and he was the greatest all-round cricketer his country has produced. After he retired from the game in 1956, Miller published a sporting autobiography, called Cricket Crossfire, which was reprinted by an Indian publisher who managed to send some copies to the town in the Himalayan foothills where I grew up. A full decade after Miller had quit playing cricket, what may have been the last copy of his book circulating in India was bought by my father in a store in Dehradun’s Rajpur Road and handed over to me.
When I read Cricket Crossfire as a boy, two things struck me: first, Miller’s ambivalent feelings about his captain, Don Bradman, and, second, the affection that Miller displayed towards India and Indians. The author acknowledged that Bradman was the greatest cricketer of his age, yet he felt that as a person, Bradman was single-minded and even selfish. The Indians he played against, however, Miller warmed to both as sportsmen and as human beings. I seem to remember, from a distance of more than half a century, that Miller’s book contained brief but fond portraits of Mushtaq Ali, CS Nayudu, Vinoo Mankad and Vijay Merchant.
I must have read Cricket Crossfire in 1967 or 1968. It was around the same time that I began reading Jack Fingleton’s articles in the now defunct Sport & Pastime magazine, published out of what was then called Madras by what is still Kasturi & Sons. Fingleton had played with (and under) Bradman a decade before Miller did; and, as I was to discover later through a reading of his books, he too held Bradman to be both the greatest cricketer of his time and a not particularly likeable character.
Voices on the radio
Around the time I first read Miller and Fingleton, I also first heard Australian voices coming into my house. In the late 1960s, there were no televisions in Indian homes, so cricket-mad lads like myself had to follow the game in print and on the radio. I suppose I might have heard snatches of the 1967-’68 Indian tour of Australia (when we lost four-nil), although I have much clearer memories of the following winter when the West Indies toured Down Under. I was supporting the visitors who were led by a cricketer even greater than the Don, Garfield Sobers. So I was disappointed by their three-one loss to the hosts in the Tests, although this was tempered by the always engaging commentary on ABC, as represented by the effervescent Alan McGilvray and the wise and reflective Lindsay Hassett.
Winters in Dehradun were freezing cold, and it took an effort of the will to get up at 5 am in December or January, to huddle next to our Philips set, the volume turned low so as not to wake up the rest of the household, the teeth chattering and the feet shaking, partly due to the chill but mostly due to the excitement of what was being described to me by McGilvray and Hassett and their colleagues.
All through the 1970s, my winters were joyously filled with tours of Australia by England, the West Indies, Pakistan and India, heard live as the matches were played, and read about with leisure in the next day’s newspaper and in the sports magazines that came into our house (although Sport & Pastime died in the late Sixties, Sportsweek of Bombay had arrived to fill its place). As I grew older and began to buy books myself, I also read the works of the aforementioned Jack Fingleton and of Ray Robinson, who, while he had not played the game at the same level as Miller or Fingleton, had a greater sense of style.
The Packer years
The favourite Australians of my boyhood and youth were cricket writers and cricket commentators. I was already into my twenties when I saw Australian cricketers for the first time in the flesh, in a Test match played in Bangalore in 1979. However, this was a side depleted by the cheque-book by Kerry Packer. The 1980s passed without my seeing Australians play Test cricket, which was probably just as well, for although a compromise with Packer had been forged, even a full-strength team was not particularly competitive in that decade. Fortunately, in the 1990s and the 2000s top-class Australian sides did play several Tests in the city I now called home, Bangalore, and for these contests I was always present at the ground, soaking in the batsmanship of Ponting and the Waugh brothers, the bowling of McGrath and Warne, and the wicket-keeping of Healy and Gilchrist.
Drawing on a lifetime of reading about, listening to, and watching cricketers from that country, I present for debate an all-time Australian Test eleven. This, in batting order, reads: 1. Victor Trumper 2. Arthur Morris 3. Don Bradman 4. Steve Smith 5. Allan Border 6. Keith Miller 7. Adam Gilchrist 8. Shane Warne 9. Dennis Lillee 10. Bill O’Reilly 11. Glenn McGrath.
I suspect the most controversial choices would be of the openers. What is known as “recency bias” might lead many cricket fans to choose Mark Taylor and Matthew Hayden, whose prolific run-scoring has been captured for posterity by television and can be viewed again and again on YouTube. However, Trumper occupies a special place in Australian cricketing memory and folklore, as witness the writings on him of (among others) Jack Fingleton and Gideon Haigh. Like Trumper, Arthur Morris was a magnificent attacking batsman whose mastery of spin and pace alike is abundantly attested to by his team-mates and opponents. In my eleven, at any rate, Morris gets the nod ahead of his fellow left-handers, Taylor and Hayden.
Let me seek some more controversy. Who shall captain this eleven? While Bradman is the obvious choice, I would myself go for Allan Border. The Don led sides so staggeringly gifted in all departments that they would have won anyway. On the other hand, Border guided Australia out of one of its worst periods in cricket history. He was, by all accounts, far better at nurturing young players and building team spirit. In a fantasy contest between this team and a West Indian All-Time Eleven led by Frank Worrell, I would trust Border over Bradman any day.
Let me end this tribute to Australian cricketers by quoting an Englishman. This is John Arlott, himself the least parochial of cricket writers. After the 1948 tour of England, Arlott wrote a short but very perceptive essay on the way the Australians played cricket. The essay began with a set of questions: “Why are the Australian cricketers different? Why is a Test match against Australia different from a Test match against any other country? And why do we feel that it is different?” Arlott went on to describe matches he had read about or watched, in which some special characteristics of Australian cricketers were manifested.
Arlott ended his essay by saying that, whenever an English team played in an Ashes Test, it was “faced with Australian batting, bowling, fielding, captaincy – and “Australianism” means single-minded determination to win – to win within the laws but, if necessary, to the last limit within them. It means that where the ‘impossible’ is within the realm of what the human body can do, there are Australians who believe that they can do it – and who have succeeded often enough to make us wonder if anything is impossible to them. It means that they have never lost a match – particularly a Test match – until the last run is scored or their last wicket has fallen”.
This was written from the perspective of an Englishman. Yet it entirely resonates with Indians who have watched their own team play Australians at cricket. The Test series that is soon to begin Down Under shall surely provide further confirmation of the truth in Arlott’s remarks from 70 years ago.
Ramachandra Guha’s The Commonwealth of Cricket has just been published.
This article first appeared in the Telegraph.
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