Almanac Books: ‘Neil Harvey – The Last Invincible’

 

 

 

 

 

Neil Harvey played his last Test against England at the SCG in February 1963 just eleven months before I watched my first Test when Bob Simpson’s team played South Africa at the MCG.

 

As a wide-eyed ten year old on debut at the G, I celebrated Australia’s win even though I was much saddened when local Geelong boy Ian Redpath – also on his Test debut and opening with Bill Lawry – had his off stump titled backwards on 97 by the bespectacled, personally troubled Rhodesian Joe Partridge.

 

But back to Harvey, Ashley Mallett’s recent book Neil Harvey – The Last Invincible is a fine body of work about a significant historical figure in Australian cricket which should appeal to all cricket lovers. Well, particularly I suppose those of a certain age like myself.

 

Given my opening sentence and given how Dad and my older brothers always spoke so effusively about this cricketing maestro with all the shots, the nimble footwork and the rocket like throw in the field – yet one I had never laid eyes on – Harvey always held a certain fascination for me.

 

Mallett gives us a consolidated account of Harvey’s cricket career from his young days as a VCA District player with Fitzroy who then debuts as a 19 year old with ‘the Invincibles’ in 1948. We are then taken on a cricketing journey with 6149 Test runs at 48.4 over the next 15 years touring six cricket playing countries – England, South Africa, West Indies, India, New Zealand and Australia.

 

And while the detail is thorough, it is not without many colourful anecdotes as most sporting yarns tend to be.

 

For instance, Harvey chuckles when he hears Ian Craig being introduced to the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth at Lords in 1953 after struggling for runs early in the tour.

 

Queen: “This your first England tour Ian?”

 

Craig: “Yes ma’am, and if I don’t get some runs pretty soon it will be my last!”

 

One key underlying strength of the narrative is how the author not only tells the stories on the scoreboards, but also, through his one-on-one interviews with his subject, he gives us a direct and, at times, warts and all insight into how Harvey is feeling both on and off the field.

 

For instance there is Harvey’s disappointment at being overlooked to succeed Ian Johnson as Test captain,

 

“I was pretty pissed off about it. I felt I had earned the captaincy and to know that I had been overlooked hurt me deeply.”

 

And his mixed feelings years later about World Series Cricket and player match payments,

 

“I hated every minute of WSC and yet now, when I look back, I probably would have been among the players to accept a contract. Then the players got a better deal financially however this better financial deal has grown into something so ridiculous that it has gotten way out of hand. Today the players are paid far too much. And the IPL is simply ludicrous.”

 

The other strength of the narrative, in this reviewer’s opinion at least, is how easy it is to read. I knocked it over in two sittings. While a COVID lockdown explains that in part, Mallett’s reader friendly writing style is the other part.

 

One example of this is how he employs a clever structural technique to incorporate testimonies from a multitude of carefully selected past players both from Australia and other countries.

 

They even appear on shaded coloured paper between chapters thereby breaking up the book’s visual appearance and stimulating the reader’s attention by providing different authorial voices for the reader to listen to.

 

And these testimonies are from some serious heavy hitters, such as former South African Test batsman Graeme Pollock (pardon the pun),

 

“My first hero was Neil Harvey. In those days teams hardly had any left-handers (Pollock was a left-hander) so he was quite special. He was a smallish guy but he used his feet very nicely. He went down the wicket, got on top of the ball and scored his runs quickly. Batsmen who stand out have always been those who’ve taken it to the bowlers – those are the guys who turn games in a couple of hours.”

 

In particular, one common theme of these contributions is the admiration the various writers had for Harvey’s footwork and his strength playing spinners although Harvey himself notes with some self-deprecation,

 

“I never picked the wrist spinners very well. I always thought if you got to the pitch of the ball it didn’t matter.”

 

Like some others, it is more than a little unfortunate that my own impressions of Harvey in more recent years were of a grumpy old curmudgeon who seemed to be eternally unhappy about modern cricket.

 

This is certainly a shame as, while I feel it is a not unreasonable view, it should never distract cricket aficionados both now and in the future from Harvey’s massive contribution to Australian cricket. If nothing else, Ashley Mallett’s work clearly shows why this is the case.

 

Almanac readers should also note a separate review on the book by my colleague Smokie Dawson filed on 1 September. It is well worth a read. You can read Smokie’s review HERE.

 

 

 

The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE

 

 

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About Roger Lowrey

Roger Lowrey is a Geelong based writer who lists his special interests as reading, writing, horse racing, Roman history and AEC electoral boundaries. Some of his friends think he is a little eccentric.

Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Thanks for the review RDL. I’m looking forward to putting this book on my list to read. My dad took me to the MCG many times to watch cricket. I remember looking forward to seeing Harvey bat in the Ashes series 62/63 (?). He didn’t make many runs that day but what I remember is, maybe the second or third ball he faced, the sound of ball on bat as he smacked it to the boundary for four. It was the first time I’d heard that sweet sound, a sound you only hear at the ground, and a sound that lives on.

  2. Roger Lowrey says

    Thanks Col.

    I hadn’t been to the MCG in person for a while a few years ago when I went one day to see Ricky Ponting’s team. After a watchful first ten minutes of play Ponting, who had been at the crease overnight, played an absolute cracker of a cover drive that went like a bullet to the boundary.

    But the sound of bat on ball was like a gun blast. I had forgotten all about it watching TV but both the vision and the audio of Ponting’s cover drive that morning live on in my memory.

    RDL

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