Who is the only batsman to have scored more than 100 runs in a session of play in a Test match on three occasions? Who is the cricketer who was described by Ian Chappell as the best Australian batsman against spin bowling? Which Australian player holds the record for consuming the maximum number of cans of beer in a flight from Sydney to London? The answer to all the three questions is Doug Walters (though Rodney Marsh has staked claim to having beaten the record with respect to the third question!)
Walters would be remembered by the followers of the game as an underrated batsman in a star-studded Australian team led by Chappell during the early and mid 1970s. In a side that included such giants as the Chappell brothers, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Marsh, it was easy to remain unobtrusive, even when your performances were absolutely top class.
He toured India once, in 1969-70, as a member of Bill Lawry’s side and scored a century on a minefield of a pitch tackling wth ease, the stuff hurled at him by Bishan Singh Bedi and Erappalli Prasanna, the best spin bowlers of that era.
Hailing from New South Wales, Walters made his Test debut when still a few days short of his 20th birthday against England in December, 1965. On the first day of that match at Brisbane, Walters walked in when Australia were in a spot, having lost four wickets for 125 runs. However, the debutant showed no signs of nerves and shared a 187-run partnership for the fifth wicket with Lawry, before going on to complete his century.
His knock of 155, with 11 boundaries and two sixes, marked him out as the batsman for the future, someone who could be relied upon to save the side in crisis. He followed this with another century (115) in the next match at Melbourne, to show that his first hundred was no flash in the pan.
However, he was conscripted for national duty in 1966, which meant that he had to stay away from Test cricket for two years. He returned to active international cricket in January, 1968, in the third Test of the series against India at Brisbane. India had lost the first two Tests of that series and waged a grim battle to win this match, which they eventually lost by 39 runs.
This match is remembered by the followers of the game in India as “M L Jaisimha’s Test”, for the valiant manner in which the stalwart from Hyderabad batted to score 74 and 101, after literally stepping straight on to the cricket ground from the aircraft that brought him from India as replacement for an injured Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. However, in reality, this game was won for the Aussies by Walters, who followed his knock of 93 in the first innings with an unbeaten 62 in the second, thus helping the hosts to post a total that stayed just out of the reach of the visitors.
Walters became the first batsman to score a double hundred and century in the same Test, when he achieved this feat against the West Indies at Sydney in 1969. This series saw him score a total of 699 runs in the four matches that he played, against an attack comprising Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Gary Sobers and Lance Gibbs.
His exploits with the bat was such that the old timers started comparing him with the legendary Don Bradman. Even the mighty Don was impressed enough to send him a congratulatory cable highlighting the “pleasing manner in which he scored his runs”.
The tour of India in 1969-70 saw Walters in top form. He had an excellent technique to play spin bowlers as he was quick to use his feet to reach the pitch of the ball. He was among the runs in all Tests, except the one at Delhi, where India recorded their lone victory.
In the last match of the series at Madras (present day Chennai), he hit a brilliant 102 on a turning track to help his side reach a first innings total of 258. The significance of this innings would be understood from the fact that no other batsman from his side could even cross the 40-run mark.
The failure on the tour of South Africa in 1970, where he showed a weakness against the shortpitched stuff, proved to be a temporary setback to his career. But he was back among the runs against England in 1971. He was a permanent presence in the Australian playing eleven through the 1970s till he joined the World Series Cricket of Kerry Packer in 1977.
In a poll conducted by a popular cricket magazine to pick up the best counterattacking innings of the twentieth century, Chappell chose the knock played by Walters against New Zealand at Auckland in 1974 where he made an unbeaten 104 off 138 balls, on a damp wicket with plenty of grass.
Other notable innings of his include 103 against England at Perth in December, 1974, where he smashed a six off the last ball of the day to reach his century and 112 against the West Indies on a turner at Port of Spain in 1973, where he counterattacked Gibbs to score hundred runs between lunch and tea intervals.
Walters was recalled to the Australian side when India toured in 1980-81, ostensibly on account of his prowess against spin bowling. Once again, he showed the correct technique to tackle the spinners by scoring heavily. He was unbeaten on 18, when Australia hurtled to a 59-run defeat in the last Test at Sydney, after being set a modest target of 143.
Walters announced his retirement form the game soon thereafter when he was not considered for the tour of England for the Ashes series that followed.
Walters remains an iconic figure in Australian cricket not merely for the runs he made or the manner in which he scored them. He was one of the characters who brought life to the game by his mere presence. Lillee had devoted an entire chapter of his autobiography to this cricketer, who did not believe in physical training nor in healthy eating habits. Two of the numerous stories that do the rounds about him would reveal the reasons why he is held in such high reverence by his teammates and fans.
After Chappell took over as captain, he announced in a team meeting that the doors of his room would be open to any player who wished to approach him with any problem or suggestion till 3 am.Once after a late night of heavy drinking some players led by Lillee were getting back to their room at 2.45 am when Walters stopped in front of Chappell’s room and said that he wanted to talk to the skipper. When he was reminded that it was 2.45 am, Walters coolly said that Chappell had kept a 3 am deadline for talking to him. So Walters knocked and Chappell opened the room. They spoke for 10 minutes after which Walters came out. When he was asked next day by his colleagues as to what he spoke, Walters replied nonchalantly that he had given the captain some suggestions about the game in progress!
On another occasion, Walters overslept after a late night in the bar and missed the team bus to the ground. His absence was noticed about 15 minutes before the start of play. A furious Chappell shouted that if Walters did not make it to the ground when side took the field “he would never play for Australia again”. Fortunately Walters, who woke up after the team bus left, managed to hitch a ride to ground on the pillion of a two wheeler. Chappell, still fuming, ordered him to field at third man.
At the end of the first over, Chappell asked him to move again to third man, which meant trekking from one corner of the ground to another. It was obvious that the skipper meant this as a punishment. After a couple of overs of such intense walking Walters managed to get hold of a bicycle kept by a spectator near the fence and started riding it from one end of ground to the other, during change of overs. The crowd loved it and Chappell soon realised that he had met his match. So he told Walters “Doug, I will let you off if you can promise me that this would not recur”. Walters did not fall for the bait. He replied “You know Ian, I cannot give any such promises!" Even Chappell laughed at that and ended the punishment.
This was Walters, a superb batsman who could be trusted to play the innings of his life during a crisis and a character who brought life to the game.
Walters was in the news recently when Chappell named him as the best player of spin bowling from Australia. He picked Walters and V V S Laxman as the best players of spin bowling he had seen. He made specific reference to the innings of 281 played by Laxman at Kolkata in 2001 where he tackled Shane Warne in a manner that left the master leg-spinner speechless. Chappell wrote that the innings of 102 played by Walters at Madras in 1970 was equally good, particularly the manner in which he attacked the spinners and “battered them into submission”.
Sydney Cricket Ground honoured Walters by naming one of the stands there after him. But the best tribute for this enigmatic yet popular cricketer came from Lillee, who said, “There will never be another like him. I never saw him throw a bat, never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He was so cool”.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)