You have to imagine the scene. It was in May of 1945, in London. Germany had fallen the previous month. Little by little, normal life was just starting to right itself, and that included playing cricket at Lord’s. On this fine autumn day, the first of the Victory Tests was to be played – five encounters between the top cricketing men of the armed services of both Australia and England. Sitting in the players’ pavilion, the dashing Australian pilot Flying Officer Keith Miller was enjoying the sunshine and watching as one of his own, with bat in hand, slowly made his way out of the pavilion and onto the ground proper to take his spot at the crease. His name was Graham Williams, a former South Australian Sheffield Shield player who’d been shot down in the Middle East five years earlier, and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. He’d been liberated only two weeks earlier, had lost an enormous amount of weight, and an article had appeared in The Times that very morning, detailing his story and that he would be playing.
Miller, now 76, and sitting at the kitchen table of his Newport home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, takes up the story, choosing his words carefully so as to get the feel right. ‘So he started to walk out. I can see him now, his back straight, looking all around at Lord’s – it was made to hold 28,000 but there were 30,000 there that day. Lots were sitting on the grass. Naturally, as he walked out, people began to whisper to each other, “P-O-W”, “shot down”, “released two weeks ago” and that sort of thing.’
‘And as he walked out everyone quietly stood and started this clap … clap … clap … Now I have heard people clapping at Lord’s many times. I’ve heard applause for wonderful batting and bowling from great players. But this was an applause with a difference. It was muffled and ongoing. Everybody stayed standing as he walked and continued this beautiful, hushed applause.’
‘And I can see him walking out there, his head going from side to side, looking around him, saying, “Where am I? Can this be true?” Poor feller, had lost quite a bit of weight …’
Quickly now, before he loses a little control, Miller finishes the story.
‘I often think what a marvellous piece of music that kind of applause would make … Beethoven could have put it to something stunning.’
And then Miller reaches for his handkerchief, wipes his eyes, and falls silent for a full two minutes at the memory. It was the moment he remembers perhaps best from that whole time – on the cusp as it was between his war days and his even more legendary days wearing the baggy green cap of Australia.
Not that the former didn’t have an enormous effect on the latter.
‘It changed me,’ he says simply. ‘All the death and the injuries and all the terrible things that go with a war. It means that when you come back, well … you don’t want to muck around, you want to live it to the fullest.’
In terms of the effect the war might have had on his approach to cricket, a reply he once gave when asked why he never seemed to get too excited upon the taking of a crucial wicket, sets the tone: ‘I guess you don’t do those sort of things when you’ve known what it’s like to have a Messerschmitt up your arse.’
*Extract from The Best Ever Australian Sports Writing (A 200 Year Collection) edited by David Headon