Ian Meckiff after he was named in the squad for the first Test against South Africa

Ian Meckiff had the misfortune of being born with a semi-disjointed shoulder. He managed 18 Tests before he was forced to wave his career goodbye

© Associated Press
3

The Banished

Bowler non grata

The game turfed Ian Meckiff out in his prime. More than 50 years on, he still doesn't have a bad word to say about it

Brydon Coverdale |

Some cricketers are lucky enough to leave the game on their own terms. Others get the dreaded tap on the shoulder. Still more slip back to domestic cricket and fade slowly. Occasionally, injury forces the issue.

Ian Meckiff fits none of these categories. Nearly 51 years ago, Meckiff's career crumbled in the space of one over. One very long, very public over. In the middle of the Gabba, in the middle of a Test against South Africa, in front of shocked spectators and team-mates, Meckiff was no-balled for throwing by square-leg umpire Colin Egar, again, again and again.

There was a tap on Meckiff's slumped shoulders from selector Jack Ryder after the match, to confirm what he already knew. His career was over. That had been plain to Meckiff after his captain, Richie Benaud, chose not to give him a second over. Not even from Egar's end.

"When you start playing cricket as a kid, all you want to do is play Test cricket," Meckiff says. "When you get there it's fantastic, and you give everything purely and simply to play for Australia or Victoria.

"All of a sudden it's taken away from you completely. I was told [after the match] that I wouldn't even be able to play for Victoria interstate, only in Melbourne. My first love was cricket, and that was all taken away."

As a bowler, Meckiff was persona non grata. As a man, he was anything but.

He has more reason than most ex-cricketers to view the game with bitterness, but he remains fond of cricket and concentrates on what it gave him, not what it took away

More than half a century has passed; Meckiff is now 79. His phone number is unlisted, but when his wife Lorraine calls him in from the garden on a winter morning, he has no qualms taking a call from a journalist. An interview? Certainly, he says, be happy to. As long as it doesn't interrupt his golfing schedule.

A few days later, with a welcoming smile, he opens the door to his home in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs. It must be all that golf, but he looks fit and healthy, and friendly too. If it hurts him to recall his no-balling, it doesn't show. He has more reason than most ex-cricketers to view the game with bitterness, but he remains fond of cricket and concentrates on what it gave him, not what it took away.

The first thing you see as you enter his home is a framed copy of arguably cricket's most famous photograph. It shows the end of the 1960 tied Test, the West Indians celebrating as Joe Solomon's throw hits the stumps, Lindsay Kline running to the bowler's end, looking around to see if his partner has made his ground.

His partner has not. Meckiff lunged but was beaten by Solomon's throw, resulting in the first Test tie, on the same ground where, three years later, he would again be at the centre of history, only this time at the wrong end of it. But nobody can take the tied Test moment away from Meckiff. The reunion in 2000, when Australia's West Indian opponents returned to the Gabba, is a particularly fond memory.

One of his team-mates from that match, Colin McDonald, lives around the corner. Sometimes when he's out for a walk, Meckiff pops in to see his old mate. They go to the Boxing Day Test every year. Meckiff and Kline remain close friends too. Every year former Australia wicketkeeper Barry Jarman hosts the two on his houseboat in South Australia, before they adjourn to the Adelaide Test.

At Adelaide Oval, they make sure before the first ball is bowled they are in the bar. The bar is named after umpire Egar, and until his death in 2008, Egar used to have a drink there with Meckiff. They caught up regularly when Egar visited Melbourne to play at the Victoria Golf Club, where Meckiff is a member.

"He said to me, you would have no problem whatsoever with today's ruling," Meckiff says. "He wasn't very happy with the whole thing when they changed the rule."

Living history: Meckiff poses next to the famous photograph of the 1960 tied Test, where he was the last man out

Living history: Meckiff poses next to the famous photograph of the 1960 tied Test, where he was the last man out © Brydon Coverdale

In 2004, doubts over Muttiah Muralitharan's action when bowling his doosra brought biomechanical testing into the public eye. An ICC study found that some past bowlers considered to have unquestionably clean actions occasionally flexed their elbows beyond the limit.

The new theory was that it was humanly impossible to bowl without straightening the elbow at all. The ICC rewrote its regulations to allow straightening by up to 15 degrees. The days of umpires no-balling for throwing were also all but over. Instead, a player would be reported for a suspect action and then have it scientifically tested.

Meckiff was at the MCG in 1995 when Murali was no-balled by Darrell Hair.

"I had a few journos who came around to get me to comment, but I just kept well out of the way," Meckiff says. "You've got to be sympathetic when you see it happen because you know what it's like to be out there. You're very lonely. You've got ten team-mates around you but you're still very lonely."

Of course, Hair's no-balling did not end Murali's career; far from it. In part, his unusual action had to do with a right arm that couldn't straighten. Meckiff was born with a similar peculiarity.

"I was semi-disjointed in my shoulder. Bill Mitchell, who was one of the great sporting masseurs, he used to take my shoulder out of its socket and massage it that way. Plus I was born with a slightly bent left arm. Sometimes those things do show up a little bit more on film."

The 2004 rewriting of the laws helped bowlers remain in the game; in 1960, a tweak made it easier to eliminate so-called chuckers from the sport. Until then, the rule's wording was ambiguous, and a different phrasing in the Australian playing conditions led to more confusion.

An ICC meeting in July 1960 decreed that a ball was illegal if "the bowling arm having been bent at the elbow, whether the wrist is backward of the elbow or not, is suddenly straightened immediately prior to the instant of the delivery". It had come to this because through the previous decade, bowlers with suspect actions had been playing largely unchecked, umpires lacking administrators' support to act. "[T]he result of this equivocation was that, by the late 1950s, there was a host of bowlers with actions of arguable purity," Gideon Haigh wrote in The Summer Game.

The South African fast bowler Geoff Griffin was no-balled 11 times during the 1960 Lord's Test, which would be his last. In 1961, Australia toured England and a truce was agreed: bowlers would not be called during tour matches before the first Test, but they would be reported to the MCC. Come the Tests, though, umpires were empowered to call them.

Had Meckiff made that tour, he might have suffered a similar fate to Griffin, or at least been pulled from the team before the first Test. Instead, an Achilles injury ruled him out. He did not play for Australia again until that Gabba Test against South Africa.

In the meantime, Meckiff bowled on at state level, topping the Sheffield Shield wicket list in 1962-63. Twice that season his action was no-balled, first at Adelaide Oval by umpire Jack Kierse, and then by Bill Priem in Brisbane. Oddly, both were isolated deliveries.

"I still find it a bit strange, because I bowled something like 30 or 40 overs in the games, and to pick one ball out seemed very strange," Meckiff says. "You would've thought they would have called more than one if they were going to do it."

Next time, they would.

"I was semi-disjointed in my shoulder. Bill Mitchell, who was one of the great sporting masseurs, used to take my shoulder out of its socket and massage it that way"

By the start of the 1963-64 season, Australia's selectors were looking for an in-form fast bowler. Alan Davidson had retired and a replacement was needed for the home series against South Africa. Meckiff was the logical choice; he had started the season with 11 wickets in two matches.

But it was not straightforward. Because the focus on illegal actions had grown, there were concerns that if he toured England in 1964, all hell could break loose. The Australian board was not unified; Clem Jones, a board member from Queensland, formally objected to Meckiff's selection for the first Test against South Africa.

"There were a couple of interstate board members who wanted me not selected," Meckiff says. "But they were told the board only had a say when the team was going overseas, and had no say in Australia. They were told it was up to the selectors."

Meckiff believes there was dissent among the selectors - Don Bradman, Jack Ryder and Dudley Seddon. Australia's captain, Benaud, noted that at a Government House cocktail reception for the teams before the Brisbane Test, the three selectors stayed apart, appearing not to speak to each other, which was unusual.

"Somewhere along the line they'd had a disagreement," Meckiff says. "I think it might have been a 2-1 decision."

Egar and Meckiff ran into each other at the bar the night before the Test. They generally got on well; in Adelaide earlier that year, they had won a lawn bowls competition together, and Egar had brought the trophy to Brisbane to give to Meckiff. He told Meckiff it was good to see him back, and wished him well.

But when Meckiff ran in from the Vulture Street End to bowl his first over, Egar, from square leg, called no-balls from the second, third, fifth and ninth deliveries of the eight-ball over. The crowd was shocked. So were the players. Meckiff started to realise his career was over - and so did his team-mates.

"I remember Richie coming to me after about the fourth or fifth ball and he said, 'We've got a bit of a problem,'" Meckiff says. "I more or less said, 'I don't think you need to tell me.' I could see people like Bill Lawry and Normie O'Neill, they were quite shocked. They were in a bad way. They took it worse than what I did, I think."

Death knell: A dejected Meckiff stares at the pitch after being no-balled at the Gabba

Death knell: A dejected Meckiff stares at the pitch after being no-balled at the Gabba © PA Photos

After the match, selectors Ryder and Bradman each had a long talk with Meckiff. Ryder, a Victorian, told Meckiff his options were to retire or play only Victoria's home games, the worry being he might be no-balled elsewhere. He retired from all cricket, never so much as playing a club game again.

"I was only 27 [after the match], and there was a tour of England coming up," Meckiff says. "Even if that was my swansong... there was still a fair bit of cricket left for me. But I wanted to make a clean sweep of it all. If I even played district cricket, you could find some umpire who wants to get his name in the paper. It just wasn't worth it."

The public nature of Meckiff's exile made things difficult for his family. At the time, he was married and a father of two (later to become a father of four). His oldest son Wayne had to change schools because of the teasing he received about his father being a chucker.

"I think they took it worse than I did," Meckiff says. "My wife is the one who really took it hard. She knew what it meant to me, and from the family point of view it was difficult. The oldest boy, we had to take him away from one school because kids were ragging him about it."

There was also the nagging question of whether Meckiff had been set up and made an example of in the fight against questionable actions. Had Bradman leaned on Egar and put him up to it? Were there people who knew pre-match that Meckiff would be called?

"There were a lot of people who said they'd heard things," Meckiff says. "One guy, a fairly prominent businessman in Melbourne, told me he'd heard rumours that it was a put-up thing. He'd heard it in the high-up circles. He'd heard it was put up so I wouldn't go to England.

"But nothing has ever come out. I thought when Bradman passed away, Egar may have said something. When Egar passed away, I thought something may come out. But nothing has happened. To me it's a great mystery. I don't think it will ever come out. In a lot of ways I hope it doesn't."

The only glimmer of light shed on the issue in later years was by Egar. Prior to the 1963-64 season the Australian board sent a director to speak to umpires in each state to embolden them to call suspect actions. The director delivering that message to Egar and his colleagues in Adelaide was Bradman.

"The unfortunate thing for me was that, at the time, I was the only experienced senior umpire who was umpiring Test cricket," Egar told the Age in 2003. "I realised the responsibility I had if the law was to be interpreted as the cricket authorities of the time wanted it to be."

Meckiff (far left) with Lindsay Kline, Wes Hall and Joe Solomon - the four protagonists at the climax of the tied Test - during a reunion at the Gabba in 2000

Meckiff (far left) with Lindsay Kline, Wes Hall and Joe Solomon - the four protagonists at the climax of the tied Test - during a reunion at the Gabba in 2000 © Getty Images

And so Meckiff was lost to cricket, at least in an official capacity. He did some commentary during a long working life in the radio industry, and his last job before retirement was in sales for Boyer Sports Media, a company that provided signage and video-screen advertising at major sports grounds. It meant Meckiff travelled the country, going to matches again.

He loved the sport - still does. In his older age he travelled with what he called a "geriatric Australian team" to Hong Kong. And although the chance to be part of an Ashes tour was missed, he did play in England - once, many years after his retirement.

"I went away with a group of people and we played village cricket," Meckiff says. "I played one game there, so at least I can say I bowled in England!"

Although he jokes about it, missing out on an Ashes tour is a lingering frustration. Of course, an English umpire might have no-balled him. But when his old mates Jarman and Kline reminisce about it, it hurts just a little.

"I think that's something that I really wanted to do that I missed out on," Meckiff says. "That's one of the few things that I really feel sorry about.

"But I always look at it that I was happy and lucky enough to play one Test. There's a lot of people who've said they'd do anything to play one Test match and get a baggy green."

In his garage, a prized baggy green is mounted behind glass, on the wall. An Australia blazer sits below, surrounded by a few caps from club or state level. More than 50 years on, Meckiff is not often beset by thoughts of his exit, except here, among the physical evidence.

"I've just been trying to clean out my garage," he says. "I've got some memorabilia and I found a lot of cuttings, which brought a lot of it back. But generally no, I don't think much about it. I think about cricket quite a bit and the fun we had. People still call me 'Chucker', some of my mates."

Of course they do. Meckiff is inextricably linked to the debate, and always will be. These days he rarely casts his mind back to those minutes at the Gabba. And when he can rise every morning and see a photo in which he was a key part in one of Test cricket's greatest moments, why would he?

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

 

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  • POSTED BY Indra Anandasabapathy on | November 21, 2014, 23:50 GMT

    Great write up, Brian. Thanks. Sad though because it should have been sorted out before at State level.

  • POSTED BY William on | November 21, 2014, 20:43 GMT

    Great article. A lot of modern sports persons could learn much from Mr Meckiff's humility and honesty.

  • POSTED BY Rhidian on | November 21, 2014, 16:00 GMT

    Great article - sounds a lovely man. Thanks.