Our Cricket Heroes – Colin MilburnDave Wilson |
Our Cricket Heroes – Colin Milburn
Two things endeared “Ollie” to me – his larger-than-life on the field persona, thrashing the best bowling in cavalier fashion to all parts of the ground, which encouraged us kids (I was twelve when he had his accident) to go for six every shot (mostly into neighbour’s gardens, resulting in the introduction of the six-and-out rule for a garden shot); and the fact that when he died, it was in the car park of a pub in my home town, the North Briton, which I had frequented on a number of occasions myself. I confess I had not thought of him in quite some time until then, but I remembered then how much he had meant to me, and lots of other cricket fans besides.
Colin Milburn was born in Consett, Co. Durham on 23 October 1941 and was raised in nearby Burnopfield. Colin was always going to be a big hitter – his father Jack was himself a useful league cricketer who batted in similar fashion to the way his son would in years to come. Young Colin impressed in cricket right from the off, and in later years his childhood friend turned Sun journalist John Hobbs recalled how a nine-year-old Colin had scored 340 runs in a day during a park game, returning to add 200 more the next day. He didn’t play much cricket at school, but at sixteen he was good enough to represent the village side, though was never allowed to develop a big head, as evidenced when he scored a century in a local league game only to get out to a bad shot. On returning to the dressing room to tumultuous applause he was brought down to earth with a bump when his father Jack gave him a rollicking for getting out to such a soft shot.
Outgrowing the local village cricket scene and needing to up his game, he transferred to the neighbouring Chester-le-Street team to play in a more senior league, a move which did not sit well with his followers back in Burnopfield. Although he struggled initially, he was soon making runs (and taking wickets), as illustrated by his return against Horden (156 not out and seven for two). That level of form was enough to get the attention of the Durham county selection committee and he was chosen, still only 17, to represent the then-minor county against the touring Indians. A magnificent century, fashioned against the likes of Desai, Nadkarni and Borde was witnessed by ex-England keeper George Duckworth, who saw to it that he got a mention in the following year’s Wisden.
Warwickshire became interested and, as his mother Bertha wanted him to wear a white collar (not just on the cricket field) he instigated interviews for student teacher positions at local schools, although these were not too successful (ever the playboy, he was too distracted by the female students). It was actually Warwickshire’s interest which alerted Northants, as secretary Ken Turner heard a radio broadcast wherein a Warwickshire official was singing Milburn’s praises as a hot prospect. In the end, Northants offered ten shillings more per week more and that was enough to turn the 18-year-old Colin’s head. He was able to further his mother’s teaching aspirations for him while with Northants, and actually taught at the same school as Frank “Typhoon” Tyson – teaching Religious Instruction, of all subjects. Other early jobs he half-heartedly attempted included working with a stockbroker (where he claimed to have spent most of his time mowing the lawn), a couple of accounting positions and a warehousing job – but as he said “Hard work never really appealed to me”.
His county cricketing career began with a year’s qualification in the Second XI, during which he made a staggering 201 not out from a team total of 256-8d. A second century saw him promoted to the first team in May 1961 and he was in and out for a year until finally cementing his place in July 1962. His maiden County Championship century followed shortly thereafter, 102 out of 182 all out vs Derbyshire, although in typical mercurial fashion this was preceeded by a duck in the first innings. He was quick out of the blocks in 1963, with a century in the second championship game, but had to wait until Northants faced the touring West Indians for his next ton, in which match he also had 88 in the second innings. This form was enough to get him a place on the MCC tour of East Africa where, during one of the games he hit, in typically swashbuckling fashion, the first five balls of an over for six, only to be caught on the boundary off the sixth!
Although that 1963 season saw him amass 1500 runs it was at the low average of 29 (53 innings with zero not outs), and he did not really begin to make waves until 1966, when he finished with an average of almost 50. At the start of that year, Bob Barber had declared himself unavailable for Tests, further opening the window of opportunity for Milburn which he grasped immediately with a run of good form, culminating in a terrific career-best 171 against Leicestershire, and with England selector Alec Bedser in attendance the deal was sealed – Milburn was named to the England side for the first Test against West Indies at Old Trafford. His first innings ended early and embarrassingly when he called for an impossible run, leaving himself run out by a long way. He redeemed himself in the second however, hitting Griffith and Hall for a solid 94, although he enhanced his reputation as being overly portly in splitting his pants not once but twice during the game!
But his batting continued to shine, as he hit a sparkling ton in 82 minutes for Northants between the first and second Tests, eventually scoring 113 out of 157. In the second Test he again failed in the first innings, lbw to Wes Hall for six, but in the second innings he scored his maiden Test century as England gamely chased a target of 284. He failed in both innings of the third Test, but then batted heroically for Northants against the tourists – he made 55 in the first innings and then, going in late in the second innings due to injury, hit the winning six. He was pushed down the order to number three in the fourth Test, which he was not comfortable with, and had to retire hurt in the first innings after taking a ball from Wes Hall on the elbow. Despite batting gamely in the second innings with 42, he found himself dropped for the fifth Test, even though he lead the aggregates and was second only to Tom Graveney in the averages. Alec Bedser defended the decision by saying “We wanted a fielding side, that is the main reason we have chosen like this. Milburn is unlucky, but if people want to play for England they have got to think about these things”. In other words, lose weight or lose your place – in addition to the trouser-splitting incidents, he had also embarrassed himself during the second Test at Lord’s when he fell on his backside while fielding.
Nonetheless, Colin was much aggrieved at this demotion, as he was then the current holder of Northants single season record for catches with 43. When the fifth Test was underway, Milburn was busy thumbing his nose at the slectors by scoring 203 out of 293 against Essex. In the next game he broke his finger against Yorkshire and that was the end of his summer and any chance at 2,000 runs. The News of the World seized on his Test demotion and enlisted Milburn to spearhead a dieting series in the newspaper. Milburn’s weight was always an issue, more so for other people than for Colin, who considered his fighting weight to be 18st 5lbs, and he recounted that the first time he met Colin Cowdrey, himself no stranger to fighting to keep the pounds off, Cowdrey pressed a roll of diet charts into his hands!
The winter of 1966-67 was spent playing for Western Australia, after initial overtures made the previous summer by Bobby Simpson, who was in England to cover the West Indies series. Again his weight attracted attention, and in one game Barry Jarman actually advised him to take up smoking to help shed pounds; needless to say, this advice was not taken! Starting slowly, his fifth game produced the fastest century seen in post-war Australian cricket (77 minutes) – though he was dropped on the boundary at nought, he went on to crack 129 out of 149. Watching in the crowd was Don Bradman, and Milburn admitted to being uncharacteristically nervous on meeting the great man.
The English summer started out very wet in 1967 and Milburn took a while to get going, with five ducks in the first few weeks. Nonetheless, his form for Western Australia the previous winter was enough to see him selected for the MCC game against the touring Indians, and he top-scored in the first innings with 52 out of 66, fielding well at mid-of and extra cover. He was left out of the first Test in favour of Edrich and Boycott, which he considered was at the insistence of the captain, Brian Close, whom he felt thought Colin too much of a liability in the field. In the event, Boycott took all day scoring 106 and, despite hitting out the next day to reach 264* he was dropped for the second Test (though Edrich, with one and 22, retained his place!). Even so, Milburn was not selected for the second Test as Barrington was moved up to open with Edrich.
Milburn scored his first century of the season around this time and, with Edrich failing again in the second Test, coupled with an eye-catching fielding display by Milburn against Glamorgan (and renewed efforts to shed pounds), Milburn was recalled for the third and final Test against India. He scored 40 in the first innings, then 15 in the second, although England won easily in only three days, and he was subsequently selected for the upcoming opening Test against Pakistan. His luck took a turn for the worst when he was struck hard on the thumb by Basil D’Oliveira in a county match and, opening in the Test with Eric Russell, he had an unhappy time making only three and 32. He also had a costly drop in the field a allowing Hanif, at that time on 51, to go on and make 187*.
Dropped yet again from the Test side he responded with a crackling 141, including a ton in only 78 minutes, an innings described by EW Swanton as one of “peculiar power”. He was subsequently selected to tour the West Indies that winter and on top of that he was honored as one of Wisden‘s five Cricketers of the Year, being singled out as a crowd-puller. His upcoming tour was the deciding factor in his decision to attend a fat farm for two weeks in October 1967, during which he lost a creditable 29lbs in only twelve days, though in subsequent weeks his weight quietly crept back up to his fighting level. He started slowly on tour in the West Indies, with innings of 5, 0, 15 and 4 and was overlooked in favour of Edrich for the Tests, finishing with one ton and a fifty in fifteen innings.
His 1968 season in England started a little slowly, but a 90 for Northants against the Australians followed by a couple of centuries saw him picked for the second Ashes Test, when he played well with 83 out of 132 while batting at number three, enough to earn him Batsman of the Match honours, an innings which a watching Frank Tyson considered his best ever. Another stint in Australia followed, highlighted by a scintillating 243 which included 181 in the two-hour period between lunch and tea; Milburn said in his autobiography that his own favourite innings was against Derbyshire in 1962 where he went in at 23 for four, scoring a century with no sightscreen at one end, however as his book was published before his big innings in Perth he may have changed his mind later. While in Australia, he received the call once more from England, being greeted as a potential saviour at the airport by the team forming a guard of honour; he played in the final Test at Karachi and hammered the Pakistani bowlers for 139 – it would turn out to be his final Test innings.
A 158 for Northants in mid-May would be his last hurrah in high-level cricket ? driving home on 23 May 1969, his Austin 1800 collided with a truck and he was thrown through the windscreen, losing his left eye. After the accident, he would often have to console hospital visitors who were upset by the extent of his injuries! He attempted an ill-advised comeback in 1973 and 1974, but with 670 runs at only 17 he served only to lower his career average. Although he tried his hand at radio broadcasting, following his earlier foray into the entertainment industry as a singer, along with TV appearances with Eamonn Andrews and Dave Allen, he didn’t really capitalize on his popularity and eventually moved back to Co. Durham. Although he was “a bit of a lad” with the ladies when a youngster, he never married.
And so to 28 February 1990 – Milburn suffered a fatal heart attack in the car park of a pub in Aycliffe, and the jovial big hitter was dead at only 48. Few players with such a short Test career have touched so many cricket fans, including Wisden editor Matthew Engel, who penned a heart-felt celebration of the big man in his 1984 collection of essays, Cricket Heroes. Durham’s cricketing home includes the Milburn Lounge, a fitting tribute to a larger-than-life character who spent many a happy hour in such places. That voracious appetite for alcohol and fatty foods meant that throughout his career he was never able to shake off concerns over and criticism of his weight, but what he lacked in on-field delicacy he more than made up for with reflexes; you can’t hold a record number of catches fielding close-in without razor-sharp reflexes. His weight was neatly parodied in the title of his autobiography, Largely Cricket, which fittingly is just like the man himself – naive and jovial!