Australian Cricket’s Modern ‘Lord of the Rings’ Saga

Ever since Keith ‘Nugget’ Miller retired from test cricket in 1956, Australia has searched for a replacement to fill the outstanding all-rounder’s shoes.

To call Miller’s career (and life) ‘flamboyant’ seems a bit trite. World War II fighter pilot, journalist & man-about-town bon vivant, the Victorian scored a little under 3,000 runs in tests (7 centuries, top score 147, averaging a shade under 37). His right-arm fast bowling was even more valuable to Australia (170 wickets at 22.97 with best figures of 7/60). The versatile sports star also found time to play 50 games for St Kilda in the VFL & represented both Victoria & NSW in the triennial national football carnival.

After Miller exited the test arena, Australian cricket embarked on a seemingly never-ending quest to find another (genuine test standard) all-rounder. The mantle seemed likely to fall on Richie Benaud at one stage. Early on, Benaud’s batting appeared more promising than his bowling as he struggled to perfect the leg-spinner’s art. Later Benaud’s concentration on his bowling and on captaincy paid dividends – to the detriment of his batting, as his 24.45 overall test average illustrates. Benaud’s teammate, Alan Davidson, a superb left-arm fast-medium bowler, was more than a handy batsmen usually batting at 8, but his increasingly heavy workload with the ball (especially after Lindwall & Miller retired) took the edge off his batting performances.

Through the sixties the Australian cricket establishment watched with envy as Barbados’ Garfield Sobers developed into one of the greatest ever all-rounders for the West Indies. Similarly South Africa produced Mike Proctor, a test class all-rounder whose country’s Apartheid policy restricted his opportunities to just seven test matches and so denied him the chance to demonstrate the breadth of his all-round game at the highest level.

Players who Australia typically tried in the role at the time included Ken ‘Slasher’ Mackay & Tom Veivers – handy cricketers with both bat & bowl, but not likely to dominate a test match with either. Australia’s forte seemed more to incline towards specialist batsmen who could turn their hand occasionally to spin like Bob Cowper, or frontline bowlers capable of a weighty contribution with the bat from time to time, like Ray Lindwall or more recently Mitchell Johnson.

The emergence in the late seventies/early eighties of four great all-rounders on the international scene – Ian Botham (Eng.), Richard Hadlee (NZ), Imran Khan (Pak.) & Kapil Dev (Ind.) – was an added spur for Australia to find a genuine all-rounder. The success of these four emphasised to the Australia authorities the benefit of a more balanced team with an all-rounder to strengthen both the batting & bowling when required.

A combination of the difficulty in finding a competent replacement for Rod Marsh & the lack of success in finding a genuine all-rounder (& the desperation it engendered in Australian cricket), might account for the attempt in the early eighties to plant Wayne ‘Flipper’ Phillips into the role of an “all-rounder of sorts”, a batsman-wicketkeeper (long before it become standard practice that a keeper had to also be an accomplished batsman in his own right). With Phillips himself talking it up, the reality that his keeping was not up to the accepted mark did nothing for his batting confidence & that was the end of Flipper’s international career.

Steve Waugh was the next “new great hope” for the role. Waugh was elevated very early to the Australian XI after a handful of state games. Waugh was retained in the Australian side despite struggling with the bat for the best part of four years before his first (breakthrough) century for Australia (177x v England in 1989) on the promise of his budding all-rounder credentials and handy medium pace bowling (especially effective in ODIs). His progress to test-quality batsman, his recurring back problems and the traditional reluctance of batting captains to bowl themselves, saw him bowl much less frequently, and eventually rarely, for the latter part of his test career.

Through the 1990s up to the present time, Australia has continued with its “Holy Grail” like search for a genuine test all-rounder. Again, other countries have provided some of the impetus for Australia’s persistence. Dan Vettori, Chris Cairns, Shaun Pollock, Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, Ravi Ashwin & especially, Jacques Kallis, have all had test success with bat & ball in recent years.

The experiment has continued with Andrew Symons, Andrew MacDonald, Shane Watson & James Faulkner all being tried in the role – with mostly mixed success at best. Steve Smith at the onset of his first class career was thought more likely to be a test leg-spinner in the making, until he found his batting compass & soon after ascended to the captaincy of the national team. Currently, the hopes of those advocating the virtue of all-rounders in the Australian test & limited over sides lie with the likes of Mitch Marsh & Glenn Maxwell.

Postscript – The vain hope for privacy by the famous in a sports crazy nation: Five or six years back I happened upon SR Waugh in his civilian clobber at Patonga (NSW Central Coast) where both Steve & Mark have holiday homes. He was attaching the family fish-and-chips, freshly purchased from Patonga’s foremost (and only) fish & chips shop, to the back of his somewhat tatty old bike. Steve was displaying his best AB “Captain Cranky” face (I imagine the cumulative effects of recognition saturation in a tiny country town was taking its toll). His whole demeanour silently screamed “No one talk to me!!!” I kept walking.

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Comments

  1. Keiran Croker says

    Mitch Marsh’s batting seems limited. Maxwell has absolutely no game awareness.
    If Henriques gets fit he may still be a chance and Stoinis has promise, though I’ve not seen his bowling.

  2. Ashton Agar has good form with the bat, not sure if his bowling is Test standard.

  3. Peter Warrington says

    Graeme Watson

    We should stop looking I reckon. Part timers and bowlers who bat a bit has worked pretty well

    Great piece on one of my fave topics

    Mo Matthews

  4. Peter Warrington says

    And cumulative pact- Benaud Davo slash and Johnny Martin worth 3 bowlers and 3 batsmen. Prototype ODi selection

  5. Yes the list of ‘all rounders’ is almost endless. Phil Carlson, Shaun Graf who was a one off test 12thh man, and played a few ODI’s must not be left off the list. At different times both Peter Sleep and Tony Dodemaide were considered possible all rounder options. Of course there were Ian Harvey and Shane Lee in the ODI side.

    Like Peter i much prefer we have bowlers who bat a bit, Johnson, Reiffel, Bichel, with batsmen who are handy part time bowlers, like the Waugh twins, Doug Walters, etc.

    Glen!

  6. Dave Brown says

    I think the prototype has changed over the years too – Doug Walters being important in this. Bowled in about half of the test innings he played including 12 of his first 13 and averaged around 6 overs per innings in which he bowled at an average of 29. He batted at 48. When Steve Waugh came on the scene he was tagged as the new Doug Walters. Jacques Kallis has changed expectations of all rounders now just as Shane Warne changed expectations of leg spinners (& spinners more broadly) and Gilchrist changed expectations of keepers. Mitch Marsh, or anyone else on the Australian scene at the moment, is no Jacques Kallis. But while the batting and the bowling are going ok he can make a useful contribution. However, much as with Bevan if we expect all rounders to be consistently good at both all of the time we are bound to be disappointed.

  7. yep. much prefer someone who gets occasional tons and 5-fors than 30 every time and 1-20 off 20. We tried to turn Watto from the former to the latter. Dunno.

    I do think the specialisation in one discipline make sit almost impossible to excel, consistently, in the other. Many of our young batsmen bowl a lot when they join the team – product differentiation. Then it falls off – Chappelli, Stacky, Dougie, S Waugh, Blewett. G Chappell however liked to bowl himself, as did Simmo.

    The other question would be do we want Imran/Miller with a 37/22 split, Flintoff/Watson with a pair of 33’s, Or Sobers/Kallis with 55/35? Obviously Kallis is better than Watson but I would prefer Imran/Miller to either, as it’s so hard to get someone to average 22 with the ball – if they are also making regular tons, you basically have an extra player.

    Then the hard question can be… what do you do with that?

    6-1-4 can work pretty good, if the 1 bats well enough. And the 4 are good enough. etc etc etc

  8. I think an important point re Miller only having batting average of 37 is the increasing bowling load for Aust in years they had an ordinary or underperforming attack, eg, 1953-56. His FC batt. ave was nearly 49 by contrast.

  9. There will never be another Keith Miller.

    I reckon SR Waugh had the potential to be one of the great all-rounders had his body held up. In his early years, his bowling was very very good.

  10. I’m happy to see chaps like Starc and Pattinson make regular contributions down the order. Starc has a test 90 to his credit
    Not sure if Smith has the capacity to bowl much on top of his batting and captaincy duties. Similarily unsure how much bowling Warner can be called upon for.Voges is not really an option in this equation.
    Haven’t seen much of Nevill. I know he batted well in Adelaide but has only had the one brie tses innings since then. if he can do as well as Haddin and Healy he’ll be good.

    Glen!

  11. Scott McIntyre says

    I agree with Smokie, that there will never be another Keith Miller. Miller was a near one-off in terms of ability. Genuine all-rounders who could be picked for a national team as either a pure bowler or pure batsman are as rare as hen’s teeth. They barely exist in the history of Test cricket. If another Keith Miller comes along – a cricketer good enough to bat in the top 4 or 5 and open the bowling at express speed – you won’t have to put any work into finding him. He will announce himself.

    In re: all rounders generally, it always disappoints me when young players get to the top and then begin to neglect the second string to their bow. Steve Smith was probably never going to be a top-class leg spinner, but it saddens me to see that he is probably going to let his bowling wither and die on the vine. Ditto Cam White before him. On the flip side, I always thought that Shane Warne should have applied himself far more with his batting. With the ability he had, his final Test average of 17-odd did not do his talent justice.

    Selection-wise, I don’t know how Mitch Marsh gets a game. His hard-handed, one-dimensional batting is not top 6 material, and he is not a frontline bowler. There are 2 players available for selection who clearly knock Marsh into a cocked hat on talent – Faulkner and Maxwell. They each possess talent of a higher order than Marsh. Maxwell seems to have temperamental issues in longer form cricket, but these aren’t going to be corrected by him not playing. Faulkner, the selectors are on record as saying, needs more form in first class cricket, which strikes me as a nonsensical reason not to pick him, if they think he is good enough. Dave Warner didn’t need a hundred Shield games behind him to get a game for Australia.

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