On Wednesday morning, I woke to the news that one of my childhood cricketing heroes, Max Walker, had died at the too-young age of 68.
Max was a hero, not so much for his cricketing brilliance – I had Kim Hughes, Dennis Lillee, and Rod Marsh for home-grown genius – but for his unorthodoxy.
He got the moniker ‘Tangles’ for his unique bowling style. A tangle of arms and legs at the bowling crease, he still managed highly effective things with the ball. As the ‘C’mon, Aussie, C’mon’ song would say, ‘Maxie’s playing havoc with the bats’.
Born in Tasmania, the 263rd player to represent his country in Test cricket, Walker played 34 Test Matches, taking 138 Test wickets. There would have been more had Walker not joined World Series Cricket. There were also the 85 VFL games that he played for Melbourne Football Club and the Brownlow vote he chalked up in 1968. A fair all-round sportsman, only a 10-year-old mind could conclude that his feats weren’t altogether remarkable.
There was something about Max Walker that seemed beyond natural ability rather than because of it, and a jovial conviviality that rounded out the package. It made him endearing. The Aerogard ad sure helped as well.
His name had glued to me as a lad because my bowling action was apparently more unconventional than classic. The kids at school started calling me ‘Tangles’. I decided that I’d own it rather than get offended – after all, who minds being compared to a test cricketer in Year 5, even if the likeness is due to an awkward style.
At this age, my world was all about cricket. A cricket ball hung in a stocking from the patio rafters and copped an absolute shellacking. Why the neighbours didn’t complain more is beyond me. Countless hours of strokemanship gave birth to an impeccable forward defensive shot – and very few run-scoring options.
During summer, I’d spend whole sessions of Test Matches in front of the TV with a giant scorebook, painstakingly recording every dot ball, run and wicket. Admittedly, Test cricket back then was more dots than anything else.
Across the road from our home was a park and at the centre, I created a cricket pitch. I mowed it, rolled it, fertilised it, and played imaginary and real matches on that green top. While I pretended to be Lillee, and regularly imitated Jeff Thompson and Bob Willis, it was Max Walker that was a more reasonable aspiration. Lillee, Chappell or Hughes were unattainable, but perhaps a few of us had a shot at being Max Walker.
There was plenty to enjoy about Max. An architect with a penchant for collecting fountain pens and writing long-form (kindred spirit!), he’d go on to enjoy notoriety for his commentating, storytelling, digital media acumen, and humour. His colourful work on Nine’s Wide World of Sport made him much-loved (and oft-imitated by The Twelfth Man).
For all that Max did post-cricket, it was the lovable, humble bloke with the floppy hat and handlebar moustache that was worthy of aspiration.
I still have his book, ‘Tangles’, on my bookshelf. It was given to me on the 26 August 1978. On the inside cover is a note from Dad (in Mum’s handwriting):
Congratulations on a good report. Keep Trying. Love Dad.
In some ways, that’s the simple encouragement I derived from watching Max Walker played cricket. It made me want to keep trying. It gave me hope that while I might be pretty average at this whole cricket thing, some of those seemingly unremarkable players go to the highest level.
That wasn’t just a cricket thought; it was a life thought. Sometimes the unremarkable ones do some pretty good gear. To get beyond average was going to involve a whole lot of trying, but blokes like Tangles inspired me (and many others) to have a crack.
He’s a formative memory that I’ll treasure.