Driven by natural gifts

Published : Jul 04, 2009 00:00 IST



Colin Milburn brought a refreshing breath of aggression back into a virtually moribund county game. Spectators flocked to the Wantage Road county ground to see his innings. He was the darling of the crowd and he seldom disappointed his fans, writes Frank Tyson.

Slumped in a corner of the Benson and Hedges hospitality tent, he resembled a large pile of old clothes. A can of Foster’s Lager in one hand, he had a glazed look of stupefaction in his unseeing eyes and was completely oblivious to the mafficking going all around him in the wake of England’s recently completed Test victory over Australia at Lord’s.

Tony, the manager of the sponsors, B & H, looked around him in panic, desperately seeking a victim on to whom he could delegate what promised to be a particularly unpleasant duty. I edged away from the anonymous and amorphous heap of clothes, but it was no use, and Tony pursued me, finally putting the question, “Can you see that “Ollie” gets back to his hotel, Typhoon?”.

I became the reluctant volunteer and got him as far as another generous soul who offered to drive him the last few metres to his lodgings. That was the last I saw of Colin Milburn of Northamptonshire and England — probably one of the most naturally gifted cricketers I have ever seen.

He was, even in those early days, irreparably damaged, lacking as he did his left eye, the legacy of a car accident in one of the many lovely winding country lanes which criss-cross his adopted county of Northamptonshire — for Milburn between pub and pub.

“Ollie” was built on Falstaffian lines. Belay there. The lines of Sir Toby Belch! Eighteen stones in weight and a rotund 5ft. 9in. in the beam. His provenance was impeccable, built on the same gargantuan lines as that of his father Jack: a professional for Burnopfield in the Tyneside Senior League and a batsman whose batting methods were solidly based on the principles of destroying distant house roofs.

This by no means implies that neither Ollie’s nor Jack’s technique had its roots in the crudities of the cross-bat. One could travel many a mile in the northern leagues or county cricket before discovering a straighter blade than Milburn’s on the drive.

What therefore distinguished this giant Geordie from his cricketing contemporaries?

Firstly, Milburn was precocious beyond his years and was opening the innings with bat and ball for his minor county, Durham, by the time he was 13. His reflexes were razor sharp and many were the batsmen who, after stumbling forward out of the crease, found themselves run out by a short-leg fieldsman who had the ball back in the wicketkeeper’s gloves with the speed of light. He could catch swallows at slip — and hook the fastest bouncer before it had travelled a third of the way down the pitch.

Crucially, he brought a refreshing breath of aggression back into a virtually moribund county game. Spectators flocked to the Wantage Road county ground to see a Milburn innings. He was the darling of the crowd and he seldom disappointed his fans. His unforgettable innings included a 94 (in 2 ½ hours) on debut at Old Trafford in 1966 against a West Indian attack that included Hall, Griffith, the great Sobers and Gibbs. This after England had followed on 317 runs in arrears.

Milburn played in only eight more Tests, scoring two centuries — one against the West Indies at Lord’s in 1966 and the other in his final Test in Pakistan in 1969. In fact, for the tour of Pakistan he was not initially selected.

Milburn’s most spectacular innings, however, was the 243 for Western Australia against Queensland at the ’Gabba (1968-69) —181 of which came in the two hours between lunch and tea. However, for me, Milburn’s best knock came in the Lord’s Test of 1968. He only compiled 83, but these runs came on a ‘green top’, still with its ‘ridge’ very much in evidence and the Aussie fast bowlers making the ball fly in every direction. Under these adverse conditions Milburn stopped the good balls and hit the bad balls to the boundary. He peppered the former Mound Stand with pulls, hooks and cuts which had its inhabitants ducking for cover like frightened rabbits. It was a consummate display of controlled hitting which was ended, incongruously, by a spinner, Gleeson, on a fast bowler’s pitch!

With such skills at his disposal one might have expected Milburn’s statistical record to have been better than it was. But Ollie only toured on three occasions: once to East Africa with the MCC, and on two senior trips to the West Indies in 1967-68 and Pakistan in 1968-69. At home he scored 1000 runs in a season six times, but restricted his double centuries to his appearances with Northampton and his guest outings with Western Australia.

Milburn was his own worst enemy and seldom paid attention to minor fitness considerations such as diet. Lunch for the players at home matches was laid on in the County Hotel on the opposite side of the ground to the Northants pavilion. It usually took the shape of a cooked meal — a hot dish, two vegies and a boiled pudding. There were always plenty of fried chips and second helpings. Ollie always did the repast justice and sometimes went back for thirds. Looking at his meal, I was never sure as to whether the giant Geordie was going to eat the meal or jump over it! Not surprisingly, Milburn put on the ‘avoir du poids’ as the season wore on — but it never seemed to worry him and he remained the Happy Warrior and the same prolific scorer with a laugh for both opponent and fellow player alike. Laugh and grow fat was Ollie’s motto.

His day of reckoning caught up with Milburn on May 23, 1969, when his joviality was abruptly cut short by a car accident. He made a gallant attempt at a renaissance four years later, but it was all in vain and his physical limitations forcibly reminded him of the French proverb: “Dans le royaume des aveugles le borgne est roi”, or “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. With cricket on the threshold of its ‘One-Day’ popularity, I was left to muse: “What if Milburn had been allowed to develop his hitting talents in the last five years of his natural gifts?”

But this is all surmise and Ollie’s talents were fatally flawed. He loved his pint and men who would drink it with him too much. Often his unconventional streak led him into unworthy behaviour, especially if he could latch on to a fellow traveller. He and feisty characters like Ian Botham could drink a bar dry before wrecking what modern politicians would nowadays call “its infrastructure”.

I have seen evidence of their post-licensed hours! What made such players delightfully unpredictable on the cricket field was their complete disregard for doing things according to Hoyle on it. Both liked a flutter on the roulette gaming tables and Milburn was a well-known figure on the Northampton Club circuit. Indeed Ollie managed to gamble away a five-figure benefit raised for him by admirers in a Nation-wide appeal. He also made quick work of a financial partnership with an ex-Northampton soccer player.

But the cricket fans loved him: they could empathise with the unlikeliness of his cricket. It was impossible not to love him — to adore his power hitting and his stroke play. Milburn was a marketer’s dream. He loved cricket. He liked the beverage which was frequently used to promote the sport.

Perhaps he would have been more at home in the modern game in which beer and cricket have become uneasy bedfellows. This was very much the case in the instance of the Aussie all-rounder Andrew Symonds. He has been the stormy petrel of Oz cricket, choosing to ignore calls to team meetings, tasting the forbidden beer and staying out beyond curfew hours — in a word not subscribing to the discipline of the new Australian regime.

As far as sponsoring cricket, the promotion of the game and drink are inextricably linked. But playing cricket with a clear head does not tolerate befuddled thinking and laborious calculations, and especially in games such as Twenty20 and One-day Internationals requiring immediate and rapid umpiring decisions, skill and alcohol, however, are not mutually exclusive.

Denis Compton once turned up to a Scarborough Festival game in full evening dress, indicative of none-too-abstemious on the previous fun night! At Scarborough a good time was had by all at the St. Nicholas night club. On one memorable morning, play started with Bill Edrich’s vision so impaired by the previous evening’s function that he had to be led out to the wicket area to discover it. This did not prevent his scoring an excellent 50 in double quick time — a clear indication that his skill was far from diminished by his indulgences of the previous evening. This is far from an apologia for alcohol and no doubt a player improves his performances in the absence of booze.

The question is: at what stage are skills adversely affected by over-indulgence? And at what juncture does a beer or two act as a relaxant for a highly strung cricketer? When has he had too much? Sportsmen must handle such stimulants with great care for their association is strewn with tragedy.

Northamptonshire and England opener Bakewell had barely begun his Test career in 1936, when an uncontrolled motor accident smashed his arm and prevented his ever playing again for England. His driver, in the accident, Reg Northway, was killed. Bakewell did well to score one Test century and 14,000 first-class runs. He had what Milburn lacked: an inner demonic and nationalistic force which motivated and impelled him to greater efforts. Milburn remained driven by his natural gifts and his innate talents. What he might have become is anyone’s guess. I can only look back on Ollie at Lord’s and wonder with his companions in the Benson and Hedges Marquee when they said, “He could not possibly have been a Test Cricketer, could he?” But he was — naturally. It seemed that he was pre-destined to die in a pub car park. And he fulfilled his destiny.

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