The heavy deeds of 'Ollie' Milburn

Updated: May 23, 2019, 08:55 IST | Clayton Murzello

Remembering the entertaining England batsman, whose Test match career ended after a road accident on this day 50 years ago

The heavy deeds of 'Ollie' Milburn
England's Colin Milburn in full cry against the West Indies in the English summer of 1966. PIC/Getty Images

Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was not the only cricketer of his time to lose an eye in a road accident. His Northamptonshire and England opponent Colin Milburn lost one as well-his left-when the car he was driving collided with a truck near the county 50 years to the date.

Earlier that day, Milburn had the satisfaction of being in the Northamptonshire team which beat Garry Sobers's 1969 West Indian tourists by 65 runs.

Milburn was a big man-18 stone (114 kgs) for most of his career and earned the nickname Ollie after comedian Oliver of Laurel and Hardy fame. Obduracy was not one of his cricketing virtues. Belting the ball far and wide came naturally to him and it didn't matter if the bowlers happened to be Wes Hall or Charlie Griffith.

One of his early noteworthy knocks was a 101 in 210 minutes (7x4, 2x6) for Durham against India in 1959, as a 17-year-old. That was a season before his debut for Northants and his hard-hitting skills were not lost on the 1963 West Indies team led by Frank Worrell. When asked about young Milburn by the media, Worrell merely said he was a player for the future. But he knew that Milburn was ready for international cricket and, had he been picked by England then, the West Indies would have had to cope with his punitive blade and would perhaps not have won that series 3-1.

Milburn made his debut when the West Indies toured England next in 1966. He had the most inauspicious start to his international career by getting run out for a duck. But, in the second innings, he courageously took on the West Indies bowlers and scored 94 before being bowled by spinner Lance Gibbs while going for another crowd- loving shot.

The next Test at Lord's saw him get his maiden hundred for England. When he got to his match-saving century, four English supporters emerged from the seats in front of the famous Lord's Tavern to lift beefy Milburn in appreciation of his innings, which included 17 fours and three sixes (all hook shots). Their effort was not all that successful considering Milburn's weight and he just smiled.

Often during his career Milburn had to endure the term slogger to describe his batsmanship. Wisden of 1991 said nothing could have been further from the truth. What really mattered for cricket fans was the entertainment he provided them.

He didn't get many runs against India and Pakistan in the English summer of 1967 and in his two Tests during the 1968 Ashes, the best he could come up with was 83 on a damp Lord's pitch. His weight was an issue with the selectors and he could never get the same satisfaction while being on the weighing scale as he got at the wicket with his audacious strokeplay.

Milburn's cavalier batting earned him a contract with Western Australia (WA) and he made a good impression in his debut 1966- 67 season (571 runs in eight Sheffield Shield games) including a 100 in 77 minutes against South Australia.

While in Australia, he made yet another unsuccessful attempt in weight reduction. "I had to make a real effort to get my weight down and so, presumably, improve my mobility in the field. But Australian hospitality being what it is, and Milburn's will- power being what it is, the outcome was that I was back in England at just the same tonnage as I had left the country," Milburn wrote in his autobiography, aptly titled Largely Cricket.

On his return from Australia in the 1968- 69 season which was highlighted by his 243 (234 mins, 38x4, 4x6) for WA against Queensland, he joined his England teammates for the third Test against Pakistan at Karachi and smashed a 100 in 163 balls. The game was abandoned due to rioting and that was the last of Milburn's nine Tests in an England cap.

Two months later, he was lost to international cricket as a result of the accident. His damaged- beyond- repair left eye was removed while his friend Dennis Breakwell got away with a few cuts on his face. Milburn, who was fined 10 pounds by the magistrate for "driving without due care," announced his retirement in 1971. However, he returned to the county circuit in 1973 but the absence of his left eye was too much of a handicap. Indeed, he was lost to cricket.

While regretting how short Milburn's international career was, EW Swanton, the much celebrated English cricket writer, brought up another Northamptonshire batsman, whose career was cut short after a road accident: Fred Bakewell, who played six Tests for England in the 1930s. "Their stays were all too brief and the memories of their skill correspondingly the more precious," wrote Swanton.

At the height of his cricket prowess, Milburn even indulged in some pop singing at night clubs, something that fetched him 1,000 pounds a week.

But he gave it up in 1967 to continue his cricketing ambitions because he said, "The game of cricket... is more important to me than Fort Knox or the Bank of England." Milburn earned his post-playing living as a tour operator and an occasional summarise for Test Match Special. He suffered a fatal heart attack in February 1990 in the car park of a pub in Newton Aycliffe, departing to the pavilion once and for all aged only 48.

mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello

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