A 1977 portrait of Max Walker © Getty Images
A 1977 portrait of Max Walker © Getty Images

Max Walker, born September 12, 1948, was an excellent bowler in his own right, but due to the presence of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in the Australian attack, he was doomed to play the support role through the 1970s. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the man who bowled off his wrong foot, played Australian Rules Football, was a qualified architect and has now become a bestselling author.

Somebody has to do it mate

Alan McGilvray gasped. The sun had just painted a long red streak across the Georgetown sky before departing for the morrow. After a hard day’s commentating, the veteran broadcaster had returned to the hotel looking for a quiet evening. And that was when he noticed Max Walker walking into the hotel foyer, barefoot, walking on tip toes. A glance at the calves of the fast bowler gave McGilvray the shudders. They were a hideous mess. Blood vessels had burst and gruesome smudges of red had flown and seeped into each other hinting at gory battles that had been played out over the soldiering limbs.

Knee downwards, he was black and blue — a dreadful state. Getting a boot on those feet looked well-nigh impossible, let alone getting those feet into the Test match arena.

The Australian commentator exclaimed, “Max, you can’t possibly play in that condition. You’ll do yourself terrible damage.”

Walker’s response was characteristic of the man. “Somebody has to do it mate.”

And in the second innings of the Bourda Test, he went on to dismiss Rohan Kanhai, Charlie Davis and Deryck Murray, before uprooting the stumps of the hapless Lance Gibbs to blow West Indies away for 109. Keith Stackpole and Ian Redpath knocked off the required 135 to secure the series.

For good measure Walker took five wickets in the first innings of the final Test at Port of Spain.

Walker trusted his legs. He had no reason to do that.

His bowling action prompted the nickname ‘Tangles’. It was a peculiar convoluted run up, with the ball released on the wrong foot. In his own colourful words, ‘it was right arm over left earhole, legs crossed at the point of delivery’. Yet, the wickets kept coming. Walker knew that when the situation demanded, his legs would have to step up.

Much of his career was spent in the support role. On his debut he had run in after Dennis Lillee and fellow debutant Jeff Thomson. Much of the 1970s remained the same, Walker inconspicuous in spite of his huge drooping moustache, his strapping six-foot-three-inch build and a remarkable wrong-footed delivery. As Lillee grew from promising to great, as the wayward Thomson transformed into a terror, Walker ran in first change — a yard slower than the two extraordinarily quick men, but of serious pace himself, often picking up the last men standing after the initial assault, wickets left behind as if debris of destruction.

But when required, he could go that extra yard which seemed to distinguish himself from the men at the top of the bowling analysis. Just as he did in the West Indies in 1972-73. Lillee’s back brought a great career on the verge of an ephemeral end, Thomson was in domestic cricket trying to harness his wild intentions into the perfect weapon, and Bob Massie’s prodigious ability to swing the ball suddenly deserted him, never to return again. And it was Walker who stepped up, capturing 26 wickets in the series, including spells of 6 for 114 at Kingston, 5 for 97 at Bridgetown, 4 for 45 at Georgetown and 5 for 75 at Port of Spain. Jeff Hammond, playing the only Test series he ever would, provided vital support with 15 wickets, but it was Walker who took Australia to a 2-0 win in the series. The stars were either absent, or not yet risen in the Australian cricketing firmament. Hence someone had to do the job.

Max Walker: An excellent fast-medium bowler who was doomed to play the support role

Max Walker bowling off the wrong foot © Getty Images

The third dimension

In many ways, Walker was the latter day Bill Johnston, lending a third dimension to the fearsome Lillee-Thomson attack just as his predecessor had done for the glamorous and destructive pair of Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall. Much unnoticed, he often ran in against the wind, up the hill, with an older ball, on a wicket sucked of its initial spice. He did not mind. The batsmen often relaxed after the barrage of the terrible twins at the top, and fell prey to the apparently innocuous Walker who nevertheless ran in at 140 kilometres per hour and swung it into the batsman in a big, big way. Later in his career he learnt to bowl the out-swinger too, and sometimes produced it just to prove that he could.

When Lillee and Thomson had the dressing room of the 1974-75 England tourists resembling a hastily curved out bunker, Walker actually bowled longer and harder than both of them. In that series, Lillee bowled 182 eight-ball overs in five Tests taking 25 wickets, Thomson 175.1 in five scalping 33 with his ‘blood on the pitch’ threats. Walker played all six, sent down 218.7 overs and dismissed 23 batsmen. When Thomson missed the final Test at Melbourne due to injury, Walker shared the new ball, for the first time in a full year, and produced figures of 42.2-7-143-8.

In spite of that he was reduced to a respected also-ran in the Australian scheme of things. With the gifted Gary Gilmour coming into the scene, he played just three Tests as the West Indians were hammered the following year, performing the duties of the 12th man in the other three.

He remained in the supporting role as Australia enjoyed a supreme peak in Test cricket in the middle of the turbulent decade of 1970s.

Three goals to choose from

Walker hailed from West Hobart, Tasmania, and grew up playing Australian Rules Football and cricket at school. His father, a publican and builder, advised him to become an architect. This became Walker’s third target. He migrated to Melbourne to take up the profession. At that time he seemed to possess some batting talent as well, as he scored hundreds in his last two games for North Hobart Cricket Club.

On coming to Melbourne, he worked as a maintenance man at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and a scoreboard operator, but his football skills were to make waves first. He was personally signed up by the legendary Norm Smith, and made his football debut for Melbourne in 1967. He even got a vote for the Brownlow medal in 1968, a season that saw him kick 14 goals.

It was in 1969 that he played his first Sheffield Shield match for Victoria, opening the bowling with Jeff Thomson. And for three years both sports were given almost equal importance. However, he did not play football after the 1972 season.

The decision had more to do with the circumstances than deliberation. Walker made his Test debut in late 1972 against Pakistan and went on the tour to West Indies that followed. By the time he returned to Australia, the football season was about to start and his thesis for the architecture degree was also due for submission. He had to find time to complete his course-work and football had to make way. Nevertheless, he played an impressive six seasons, scoring 23 goals in 85 matches.

The sacrifice was not without its fruits. Walker qualified as an architect in 1973 with a fellowship diploma. By then he was an established Test player.

Test debut

A wonderful start to the 1972-73 season, with a spate of wickets against Queensland, the visiting Pakistanis, Western Australia and New South Wales, catapulted Walker to Test cricket. Australian cricket was still searching for a stable pace attack. It had been a decade since Alan Davidson had departed from the international scene, and Graham McKenzie, the man who had carried the country’s fast bowling virtually alone, was approaching the twilight of his career.

Walker received his Baggy Green cap, blazer and two jumpers just before the start of the Test match against Pakistan at the MCG. After collecting the coveted parcel, he came back into the dressing room to find that his gear had been removed from the locker. Doug Walters sat in the room, smoking and playing cards. When the confused youngster asked him about the vanished kit, Walters asked, “How many Tests have you played for Australia?” Being informed by the debutant that it would be his first, Walters told him, “I’ve been using that locker now for a couple of series, it’s mine.” When the troubled young man again asked about the whereabouts of the gear, the senior Test cricketer helpfully replied: “Well, you can start by having a look in the dunny.”

It turned out to be an extraordinary Test match. Australia piled up 441 for 5 before declaring. Pakistan replied strongly and suddenly the greenhorn was looking at a total of 300 for 1. He managed to take a couple of wickets before Pakistan declared at 574 for eight. Paul Sheahan and John Benaud slammed aggressive hundreds and Greg Chappell forced the pace. Australia totalled 425 in their second innings, batting into the fifth day. After that, three Pakistan batsmen, including Zaheer Abbas and Mushtaq Mohammad were run out. Walker accounted for Sadiq Mohammad, Asif Iqbal and Wasim Bari. The inexperience of the visiting side told on them heavily and they were bundled for 200 with an hour to spare. It was not a bad first Test for the young Walker.

However, the final Test of the series at Sydney, Walker’s second Test match, turned out to be sensational and made him a regular in the side. Requiring 159 to win in the final innings, Pakistan finished the fourth day at 48 for 2, with Zaheer Abbas and Majid Khan looking strong. Early on the fifth morning, Walker swung one back into Majid to trap him leg before. Lillee got rid of Zaheer and Mushtaq. And then, in a spectacular spell of accurate swing bowling, Walker picked up the last five wickets for just three runs in 30 balls. His final figures were 6 for 15 from 16 eight-ball overs.

Hence, when Lillee discovered during the West Indian tour that his lower vertebrae had been fractured at three places, Walker smoothly stepped up as the spearhead and bowled Australia to a series win.

The West Indies trip was also significant in another way. Having been a student of architecture, Walker was an enthusiastic photographer, and it turned out that he was the only one carrying a camera among the Australians. He clicked around 4,000 pictures in 14 days. It served him in good stead when he returned to the Caribbean six years later. With 40 rolls, he more or less played the role of the official photographer of the World Series Cricket tour of 1978-79.

Packer comes wooing

After success at home against England in 1974-75 and West Indies the following year, it was Dennis Lillee who coaxed the World Series Cricket (WSC) recruiting officers to send out feelers to Walker. The fast-medium bowler from Hobart was already being wooed by Tasmania for their inaugural Sheffield Shield campaign in 1977-78. At the same time, he was approached by Kerry Packer’s astute generals.

Max Walker: An excellent fast-medium bowler who was doomed to play the support role

Max Walker (centre) leaps with joy after bowling Derek Underwood (left) in the sixth Ashes Test at Melbourne in 1975 © Getty Images

It was in March 1977, a day after flattening Tony Greig’s leg and middle stumps while picking up four wickets in the first innings of the Centenary Test, that Walker found that he had passed up a Tasmanian future amounting to $75,000 over three years. However, he stuck to the Packer world, signing on the dotted line barelya month later.

It was as a confirmed WSC man that he toured England for the 1977 Ashes. The team was weighed down by other thoughts. Australia lost 3-0, and Walker’s 14 wickets came at an expensive 39.35 apiece. That was to be the last time he played Test cricket. His final outing at The Oval brought him just one wicket, but he did sign off with a hard hitting 78 not out. It was made from just 84 balls with 10 fours — his highest score and only half-century in Test cricket.

Walker’s Test career thus amounted to 34 matches in which he captured 138 wickets at 27.47 with six five-wicket hauls. With the bat, he did not score often but managed a reasonably decent average of 19.53 for his 586 runs — the final unbeaten innings providing a valuable boost to his batting numbers.

The first Packer season

Walker’s decision to join the Packer circus was well thought out. While turning out for Australia he had to avail leave without pay from his employers. His colleagues could sit around the ground, watching him in action, all the while getting paid for Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year. And all that Walker earned was $400 for playing the Test match, the holiday money docked by his employers because of the leave of absence. It was not really the ideal way to pursue a career in cricket.

The tussle between traditional and commercial cricket had reached a breaking point. A few days after returning from the England tour, Walker’s doorbell rang. Wife Tina answered it to find Victorian leg-spinner Jim Higgs standing there, shrouded in darkness. Walker, the pace bowler cum architect, was expecting Higgs. He had planned to call and take a look at some of his technical drawings for a civil engineering class. Walker asked him to make himself at home and take a look at whatever he wanted. An uncomfortable Higgs requested him to turn off the lights. “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to be here. The Victorian Cricket Association reckons we shouldn’t talk to you blokes.”

Those days were full of suspicion, clandestine meetings and cloak and dagger operations.

By November 1977, Walker had quit his full-time job of architecture partnership. When he returned from England, his next assignment was to design a planter’s box. Suddenly pro-cricket seemed extremely attractive. Walker did not want to do a planterbox he had often designed before. With the money guaranteed by Packer he did not need to. He revelled in the financial security and gleefully gave up his job.

He enjoyed a good time in the first edition of the World Series, capturing 26 wickets at 23.76, topping the list of wicket-takers along with Andy Roberts. In the sixth and final Supertest at VFL Park Melbourne, he and Lillee captured five wickets apiece in the second innings to bowl WSC Australians to a tense 41-run win over WSC World XI.

Max Walker: An excellent fast-medium bowler who was doomed to play the support role

Max Walker in the role of Channel Nine commentator during England’s 1986-87 tour of Australia © Getty Images

End of career

He was not as successful when the series was played again in 1978-79, and appeared in just one Supertest in Australia and picking up two expensive wickets.

Nevertheless, Walker did join the WSC Australians on their West Indian odyssey. He had a good outing in the second one-day game at Sabina Park, capturing 2 for 15 from his nine overs and then adding 12 tension-filled runs with Jeff Thomson to win it for the Australians by one wicket. However, with Gary Gilmour, Len Pascoe and Mick Malone in the fray along with Lillee and Thomson, he found it difficult to get into the playing eleven. He was reduced to being a perpetual twelfth man.

By this time, the world of pro-cricket no longer looked as rosy. “You had to believe in yourself, that you’d got the contract for a reason. I think I’d accepted that the one-day stuff was the way it was going to be for me, but after a while I couldn’t even get in there. I probably did put on a few pounds and weighed a bit more than I would have if I’d been playing day in day out. Eventually, I guess, I could probably see the finish line.  I was almost looking forward to a time when my livelihood didn’t depend on me needing to get a century or take five wickets every day.”

When he was made twelfth-man for the fourth straight Supertest, he carried his camera to the ground, becoming the official photographer of the tour.

After the chasm created by WSC had been bridged, Walker remained successful in the Sheffield Shield, but with Len Pascoe and Rodney Hogg bowling with Lillee and Thomson in the Australian team, he was no longer required in the Test side. He did play a couple of three nation Benson and Hedges one-day tournaments, appearing in six matches in all, being economical all through, but capturing just three wickets. At the end of the 1980-81 season, he retired from all forms of cricket.

His One-Day International (ODI) career was brief, 20 wickets from 17 matches. Yet he did have his moments. Especially memorable was the 1975 World Cup semi-final, when along with Gary Gilmour he bowled England out for 93.

Post-cricketing days

Walker found his new vocation as a presenter in television and radio, He hosted Nine Network’s Nine’s Wide World of Sports right through to 1999 when it was eventually taken off the air. He also broadcasted Channel Nine’s cricket matches between 1986 and 1991. However, having suffered one failed marriage due to constant travel during his playing days, he gave up his commentating jobin favour of family life.

The other identity of Walker is that of a popular writer of books of anecdotes, each bearing curious titles — How to Kiss a Crocodile and How to Puzzle a Python being just two examples. He has also established himself as a motivational speaker and has numerous other business interests.

Apart from that, Walker is also an avid collector of fountain pens and even today he writes his manuscripts in long hand.

In June 2011, Walker was named a Member of the Order of Australia.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)