Gideon Haigh, in The Weekend Australian, 7 October 2018
Today, the world’s best batsman is a 29-year-old multi-millionaire with a sizeable portfolio of premium Sydney real estate — he also, of course, languishes under a year’s ban from cricket. Sixty-five years ago, by contrast, the world’s best batsman shared a bedroom with his younger brother. That summer of 1952-53, Neil Harvey had a season even more prolific than Steve Smith’s last: 834 runs in five Tests against South Africa and 1659 runs in 16 first-class matches, a total exceeded only by Donald Bradman.
Between times, Harvey returned to the upstairs bedroom he occupied with Brian, four years his junior. Horace and Elsie Harvey did not even own their cramped terrace with the concrete back yard at 198 Argyle Street, Fitzroy; it belonged to Life Savers, at whose factory Horace was caretaker.
Neil, who turns 90 on Monday, has in his bones a forgotten Australia. The area that today votes Greens and skews hipster was in those days an industrial suburb of factories, railyards, gasholders, slums and a general poverty so dire that the newly formed Brotherhood of St Laurence chose to base itself there.
Luckier than many, the Harveys were frugal, unostentatious and, as Methodists, abstemious. Neil inherited their temperance, eschewing alcohol until he was nearly 30; their thrift, becoming a scrupulous saver; and above all their household’s love of sport.
All six Harvey boys played at least first-grade cricket, Neil and brother Merv going on to play for Australia, while their sister Rita was uncomplainingly enlisted as scorer for Horace’s local club, Felix Socials, in the North Suburban Cricket Association.
The cobblestone lane in which the boys learned the game with a cut-down bat, a tennis ball and a deal box for stumps was for decades afterwards a local landmark. “We had a lot of fun,” says Harvey. “Made our own fun. One of the great things about large families — you make your life together.”
Not that Fitzroy was homogenously Anglo even then; it was already acknowledging influences from the Mediterranean and Ireland: Neil’s brother Clarence was known as Mick for being born on St Patrick’s Day.
There was an indigenous population as well, and Harvey’s boyhood hero was Doug Nicholls, lay preacher, secretary of the Australian Aborigines League and another abstainer, who played basketball with the local boys between starring on the wing for Fitzroy Football Club on Saturdays.
“I suppose I was conscious of it (Nicholls’s heritage), but it was more that he treated everyone alike,” Harvey says.
“He was a great advocate of getting people together and playing sport. He did a fantastic job at that and I was just so proud to be part of it.” Harvey emulated Nicholls by joining the Lions, playing in the reserves. Aged 14, he also played full-forward in the XVIII of the Collingwood Technical College, kicking 112 goals in 10 games; teammates Len Fitzgerald, in the centre, and Harold Shillinglaw, at centre half forward, both went on to the VFL.
But Harvey was by then more interested in the Lions’ co-tenant at Brunswick Street Oval, the Fitzroy Cricket Club, where he and his brothers would pile up more than 25,000 runs in nearly 800 games.
As the only left-hander among them, he already stood out; he quickly proved the most precocious. Starting the 1941-42 season in the Fifths, Harvey finished it in the Thirds. Still batting in short pants, he compiled 101 and 141 not out in the competition final.
These formative seasons were the basis of everything that followed. Harvey’s coaches, Joe Plant and Arthur Liddicut, were two old salts who exhorted him to come down the wicket to slow bowling — the same skill for which English cricket writer Neville Cardus would call him “the Cavalier on Swift Feet”.
In those days the Australian cricket team didn’t feel so far away either. On his first night at training, 12-year-old Harvey was introduced to Morris Sievers, barely coming up to the Australian pace bowler’s waistband.
Within three years they were playing together in Fitzroy’s Firsts and working together at West Melbourne power station, where Harvey was apprenticed to the Melbourne City Council’s electrical supply division as a fitter and turner.
Sievers would be there to shake Harvey’s hand when the 19-year-old was chosen for Australia. At the time, Harvey still did not possess his own bat, having to borrow one from Fitzroy’s club kit.
Bradman’s postwar Australian team was heavily weighted towards pre-war players desperate to make up for years forgone. Yet Harvey was so extravagantly gifted that his maiden Test was his 12th first-class match.
His second Test, against India, was on the Melbourne Cricket Ground, at its uncompromising vastest — no moribund drop-in pitch and no roped-off boundaries then. Harvey remembers the cry of his partner Ray Lindwall when, on 95, he drove into untenanted space: “Run five! Run five!”
One for the stattos: has anyone else reached a Test hundred with an all-run five, unassisted by overthrows?
Actually, it’s easy to come up with remarkable statistics for Harvey. He averaged a neat 50 in first-class cricket over 16 years and nearly 60 in the first innings of Test matches, and spread his 21 Test hundreds across 16 grounds.
What’s harder to convey is the crackling alacrity he lent a sometimes staid era from the moment he made his Ashes debut in 1948. “What’s going on, Nugget?” Harvey said to his partner Keith Miller when they met in the middle at Headingley, with Australia three for 68 chasing England’s 496. “Let’s get into ’em.” Which he did, orchestrating Australia’s fightback with 112 in 183 balls.
Standing only 171cm in size 6 boots, Harvey batted dashingly, fielded nimbly and exuded competitive spirit, good humour and good health. “His cricket,” said Bradman, “used to flow.”
Above all, Harvey was a true cricketer’s cricketer. “You have to get close to the pulse of Australian cricket to appreciate its debt to Harvey,” noted the gnomic cricket writer Ray Robinson late in the player’s career. “Everyone has been inspired by this trim, alert, candid, battle-wise man of action, whose sportsmanlike outlook, from his first brisk step into the field to his last stride out of the gate, makes cricket a game worth playing … and watching.”
There is a memorable photograph of Sir Robert Menzies in the Australian dressing-room in December 1954: he had come to congratulate Harvey on a scintillating unbeaten 92 to bring Australia within an ace of victory in a Sydney Test that had long looked lost.
Menzies is all double-breasted bulk, cigar and homburg in his left hand; Harvey, lean and sun-bronzed, has a towel round him. Their right hands clasp meatily; about both men there is a breezy unselfconsciousness and intergenerational affinity.
It is not, of course, an entirely faithful reading of the era or its social mobility, even in cricket. Harvey saved carefully for his first car, a four-door wire metal MG, and his first home, which he built on a block of land in Heidelberg after marrying in January 1954.
But three years later, at the age where Steve Smith is today a property magnate, Harvey was struggling. He was captain of Victoria and in line for the top job, but his former skipper Lindsay Hassett was winding up the sports store where Harvey worked, and opportunities allowing him time off for cricket suddenly were scarce.
Job offers came from Sydney, as they once had for his mate Miller, and he decided quickly: “Got a couple of kids, gotta feed them, better up sticks.”
Harvey joined the firm John Dynon & Co, which sold crockery and cutlery to hotels, and employed several sportsmen including boxer Fred Henneberry and North Sydney wing Ken Irvine.
In starting to play for NSW, however, Harvey let his preferment for the Australian captaincy slip, behind first the youthful Ian Craig, then the suave Richie Benaud. Nor did he receive support from the Victorian Cricket Association: “I don’t really know why. I think they took a dim view of the fact that I moved.” He settled for being the staunchest deputy he could be.
Once in a while you hear it said that Miller or Shane Warne was the best captain Australia never had. The title may more properly belong to Harvey, even though he did serve in the role for a single Test, leading Australia to a stirring victory at Lord’s in 1961 when Benaud was injured.
“Hundred per cent record,” Harvey notes.
Perhaps the Australian Board of Control was worried about his lack of polish. Hassett (Geelong College), Ian Johnson (Wesley College) and Craig (North Sydney High and Sydney University) had the graces; Harvey (Falconer Street Central School) had no airs.
Perhaps they were concerned by Harvey’s trenchancy. When they applied to the Australian Board of Control for permission to write about the 1962-63 Ashes series, interestingly, Benaud was approved and Harvey refused.
Harvey had a last word of sorts when he marked his retirement with some newspaper articles scathing of the negativity of England’s captain Ted Dexter. Those who associate Harvey with astringent criticism of modern players might be reassured to know that he was just as caustic about his contemporaries.
Retirement? To Harvey it was no big deal. Where players today agonise privately and sometimes publicly about the right and proper circumstances of farewell, Harvey’s decision followed a brief interior monologue. A fifth tour of England beckoned, and Harvey made 154 in his penultimate Test, and 231 not out in his last Sheffield Shield innings.
“I felt as though I could’ve made the effort, and I obviously had something left,” he says. “But I thought: ‘Oh, I’ve had a go’.” Coincidentally, Harvey’s teammate and close friend Alan Davidson had reached the same conclusion, and they bowed out in the same Sydney Test. Not for more than 20 years, when Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh also chose the same Sydney Test to retire, did Australian cricket sustain such a loss at a single stroke.
Today, Harvey wishes others were similarly decisive. As an Australian selector from 1967 to 1979, he set many careers in motion, including those of Chappell, Lillee, and Marsh, not to mention Jeff Thomson, Kim Hughes and Allan Border. But he also felt the need to curtail a few, including Bill Lawry’s as captain in January 1971.
“Old Phantom, he didn’t like it,” recalls Harvey. “And I’ve criticised people since for playing too long. I used to have a go at Allan Border about it, for instance. Some blokes, they don’t want advice like that. They don’t want to be told their time’s up.”
Time might not be felt to be on the side of a 90-year-old either, but who knows what the fates have in store? Harvey has been a widower for four years, the last surviving Invincible for three, and knows longevity owes as much to luck as genes. In June 1969, Harvey’s boyhood roommate Brian fell from a ladder while working for the State Electricity Commission and was electrocuted as he grabbed hold of a live wire. He was 37.
Sport, however, offers continuity, even a semblance of immortality. Harvey’s grandson David represented the Western Force in Super Rugby, played Sevens for Australia and four Tests for Brazil; his great-nephews Robert and Anthony were star Australian rules footballers for St Kilda and Norwood; his great-niece Kirby Short maintains the blood tie with cricket as captain of the Queensland Fire and Brisbane Heat.
Short’s first sport was softball, at which her mother Pauline represented Australia; Harvey, joining her grandfather Mick, did not watch her play cricket until November 2009 at North Sydney Oval. Since then, he’s pleased to see she has gravitated towards the top of the order. “Mick would be proud of her continuing the family tradition,” he says.
At the oval on Brunswick Street that the Harveys first trod in the mid-1920s, meanwhile, tenants Edinburgh CC, recently named Victoria’s best community club, will field 28 junior sides from under-10s to under-18s this weekend. That takes Harvey back.
“It was one of the great cricket grounds in Melbourne,” he remembers. “They had a beautiful wicket.” For all that’s changed, some things are being held on to and others re-created; I report that the club has raised the money to replace the turf pitches dug up when Fitzroy moved to Doncaster in 1986.
“Oh,” says Harvey, “that’s fantastic news.” And he beams.