Listen when a legend speaks

A statue of Neil Harvey now stands in Yarra Park. Unveiled on Friday, it is the fourth in the MCC’s Avenue of Legends. Lis Johnson’s bronze depiction of the dazzling, deft-footed left-hander joins those of Shane Warne, Norm Smith and John Coleman. It’s a fitting tribute to a great cricketer.
Nanjing Night Net

Just how great was at risk of being lost in the mists of time, and distracted from by other issues. For Harvey’s greatness had, in later times, been blurred by his natural inclination to give non-workshopped answers when asked about contemporary cricket. He came to be characterised as a human headline.

He didn’t always like what he saw during Australia’s world-beating years of the last two decades and when his opinion was sought he gave it: gun-barrel straight. But the perception of Harvey, by a generation of Australian cricketers, as an embittered yesterday’s man is a less than comprehensive judgment.

I recall him speaking to me about this during the Melbourne Ashes Test of 1998. He expressed frustration that he felt like the only person in the nation prepared to put his name to what he saw as obvious. He believed, among other things, that the Australians of the time had very little opposition and were a somewhat ungracious bunch.

And he was right in that he wasn’t alone in that latter view. As he was also right in that few others were brave enough to express it; certainly with his level of straight forwardness. Sometimes it requires a CV of Harvey’s stature for kicking against the wind to carry legitimacy. A couple of years later, then Australian cricket boss, Mal Speed, acknowledged the high volume of complaints being received about player conduct through that period. But, inevitably, such expression remained a minority view. We love nothing more than winners and those Australian teams won heavily, and often. Our cricket was surfing on a high tide of public euphoria.

Notwithstanding his credentials, Harvey became a target. The modern players didn’t like him. He felt lonely and, I suspect, vulnerable in his honesty. But still he wouldn’t refrain from answering questions straight up.

Happily, the chief executive of the Australian Cricketers’ Association, Paul Marsh, attended Friday’s unveiling. Players both present and recent past must be big enough to seek to understand Harvey, and to appreciate him. He played the game in a different time and has lived through much change.

And this much must be clear to even his keenest detractor: he was one of the greatest cricketers this country has produced.

It would do well for those who haven’t forgiven him to study his record. If they did, they would surely see that this wasn’t some envious old has-been with little claim to relevance.

They would quickly find, for example, a piece written by Ashley Mallett on ESPN Cricinfo in 2012. Perhaps Australia’s finest off-spin bowler, Mallett played a lot of cricket with Greg Chappell, widely regarded as second-to-Bradman among Australian batsmen.

In selecting the best five players he had seen, Mallett nominated Gary Sobers, Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards and Barry Richards. And with them he chose Harvey. Not only that, he implied he regarded the dapper left-hander as the best of them.

He wrote: “I have never seen the equal of Harvey’s batting and I’ve seen most of the great batsmen of the past 50-odd years … his average is less than those of some who played for Australia recently, but Harvey batted against some of the greatest bowlers to bestride the Test stage: South Africa’s Neil Adcock, Peter Heine and Hugh Tayfield; England’s Alec Bedser, Frank Tyson, Brian Statham, Tony Lock and Jim Laker; and the West Indians Sobers, Wes Hall, Alf Valentine and Sonny Ramadhin.”

With 21 hundreds from 79 Tests, Harvey scored centuries at a frequency just below Chappell’s (24 from 87), but above Ricky Ponting’s (41 from 167). Harvey usually came in at the fall of the first wicket, which Chappell rarely did. He also, at times, had to contend with uncovered pitches; never an issue for the generation which followed.

It’s fatuous, as well as odious, to attempt comparisons. The point is that, at worst, Harvey runs Chappell and Ponting close among Australian post-war batsmen. And like those two, Harvey was a superb fieldsman. Bill Lawry, who spoke in his honour at the statue unveiling, says Harvey is the best fielder he’s seen.

Lawry’s maiden Test century – 130 at Lord’s in 1961 – was achieved in Harvey’s only Test as captain. “The Phantom” also experienced his leadership playing for Victoria in the mid-1950s. He speaks in glowing terms of Harvey the leader, placing him with the best under whom he played.

The man who remains the youngest Australian to score a Test century, and the baby of Bradman’s Invincibles, is now 85. That there can be grandeur in old age was evident in Harvey’s still-assertive, but humble, bearing on Friday.

The Harvey statue can now be enjoyed for evermore, but the man himself is to be appreciated in the here and now.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.