The statue of Dennis Lillee at the Melbourne Cricket Ground
© Getty Images

Feature

Idol worship

A guided tour of Australia's iconic cricket statues

Adam Collins |

"Meet you at the Miller."

It's a phrase that has been texted between my mates scores of times over the last dozen years. It is second nature to the extent that it's hard to remember a time before the Miller was a meeting point, and before former greats scattered the perimeter of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. That familiarity - not "the Keith Miller statue", always "the Miller".

Twenty years ago there were no cricketers exalted in sculpture at Australia's Test venues. Now that figure is 16, with nothing to suggest that the bronze contagion won't continue in a bid to celebrate the game's greats.

The Don and DK
Australia has perpetually vexing discussions surrounding national identity, but there has never been any ambiguity when it comes to the reverence for our sporting venues. This is especially true of cricket. No matter where you watch Australia play, the site is invariably deemed sacred.

Given this veneration it is little wonder the MCG is where the enchantment with sculpture began. "It's not part of Melbourne, it is Melbourne," wrote Jarrod Kimber of the MCG. A living museum as much as a sporting theatre; a venue where if you spend enough time, you learn. It gets into your brain and into your blood.

Australia has perpetually vexing discussions surrounding national identity, but there has never been any ambiguity when it comes to the reverence for our sporting venues

Melbourne got its enthusiasm for the craft in part from Lord's, which installed a WG Grace statue back in 2000. The Melbourne Cricket Club, fraternal to Marylebone, saw an opportunity to start their own project when they were demolishing a Members Stand that had stood since 1928. The logic: if some history was being lost, it would need to be replaced in some other way.

"It's in the MCC's DNA about how we celebrate history," says the club's General Manager of Heritage, Scott Butler.

When a commercial sponsor was forthcoming they had themselves a winner, and the Parade of Champions was born.

Renowned sculptor Louis Laumen was handed the responsibility. He had built the Grace figure at Lord's, and a Victor Trumper that had been displayed on loan at the MCG. He was also a Melbourne native and up for the challenge.

Of the initial ten works, four cricketers would round the MCG's circumference, alongside greats from Australian Rules Football and track and field. Each would sit on a platform two metres above ground level, bronzes standing one and a half times the size of the depicted cricketer, so they could be spotted above crowds. The scale was intentional, in keeping with the aura of the massive coliseum.

Basil Sellers (far left), sculptor Cathy Weiszmann (third from left), and Rod Cavalier (third from right) at the unveiling of a statue of rugby player Dally Messenger

Basil Sellers (far left), sculptor Cathy Weiszmann (third from left), and Rod Cavalier (third from right) at the unveiling of a statue of rugby player Dally Messenger © Getty Images

The selection panel, comprising the MCC committee and senior figures from the media, decided from the outset that those honoured need not be from Victoria. The ground, they agreed, was a national treasure; not just one owned by the state. They settled on Bill Ponsford, Miller, and Dennis Lillee, in addition to the most celebrated of them all, Don Bradman.

He would go first, that much was clear. Where there wasn't agreement, however, was in just how the Don would appear. "I suggested their choice wouldn't work," recalls Laumen. "They wanted to show his pull shot, but it would have put the bat right in front of his face."

Laumen instead pushed for Bradman raising his bat to mark a milestone as he had done so routinely. "Bradman wasn't just another player. It had to show something with the relationship with the public, so him saluting the crowd made more sense to create that aura. I wanted to distinguish him from the others."

And that's how Bradman looked, baggy green in hand, when unveiled on September 2002.

With the shirt buttons undone to the navel and collar perched up, Richie in bronze, felt the man himself, was a triumph

There was no disputing the imagery when Lillee rounded out the Parade four years later. The MCC knew, Laumen knew, anyone who knew anything of Lillee knew. It had to be that famous action; so graceful, so perfect, back arched, ball alongside his right ear, ready to be slung and swung.

It is the work Laumen speaks most glowingly of. "I finally cracked the secret of portraying figures in action," he says. "It came together with great ease and freedom, with little interference. I was trusted to just get on with it, and it was well received."

It was also the catalyst for so much that came next.

The Richie
Basil Sellers. Titan of Australian business. Sporting franchise owner and benefactor. Art collector and sponsor. A philanthropist who played basketball for South Australia, and whose brother played cricket for Australia. A migrant too, moving from India as a boy.

Sculptor Louis Laumen said of his statue of Lillee:

Sculptor Louis Laumen said of his statue of Lillee: "I finally cracked the secret of portraying figures in action" © Getty Images

He was at the MCG when Lillee was unveiled on that December day in 2006. "A bloody hot one," he recalled in January. "I saw this magnificent sculpture and I couldn't believe it. I know Dennis very well, and I saw him with that long wavy hair, still looking a menace."

A capable cricketer himself, Sellers wanted to engage with the piece further. "I strode out 22 yards and stood up the other end and pretended I was actually batting to look up and see this terrifying figure staring down at me. I thought, 'Oh shit, that's good. We are going to have to do some more of these.'

"It was the Eureka moment."

Idea planted, Sellers phoned then SCG Trust Chairman and cricket historian Rodney Cavalier to say that he wanted to install ten sculptures around the SCG. "I agreed instantly," recalls Cavalier. "This place carries so many hopes and aspirations of Australians. Essentially everyone remembers the first time they came here. In the cricket world, it is more famous than the opera house."

There was no disputing the imagery when Lillee rounded out the Parade four years later. It had to be that famous action; so graceful, so perfect, back arched, ball alongside his right ear, ready to be slung and swung

And they were away.

Like in Melbourne, four of the ten sculptures (later expanded to 11) would feature cricketers, one each representing one of four periods: pre-World War One, between wars, post-war, and the modern era. The remainder, also in keeping with the Melbourne project, would honour footballers from the various codes played at the SCG.

With Sellers' generosity, Cavalier's clout and their common passion, it was a fearsome committee of two. They selected the players, decided how they would be depicted, where they would stand and when they would be unveiled. "Now, all that went swimmingly," says Cavalier. "But how on earth do you get a sculpture done? We didn't have a clue. And at that point, enter Henry Mulholland."

A nine-time Archibald Prize finalist and prominent art critic, Mulholland rounded out the team as art director, commissioning Terrance Plowright and Cathy Weiszmann to sculpt. They specifically picked two artists, unlike Melbourne. "There was a bit of a sameness about them," argues Sellers of the MCG works. A "weakness", according to Cavalier. They also wanted their works to be less imposing, more intimate. "Melbourne's were too high above the ground and a bit away from the touchy-feely thing," says Sellers. "Ours are deliberately down for the people to play on, rock on," adds Cavalier.

The Benauds at the Richie: John Benaud and his wife Lyndsay at left, Richie Benaud's wife Daphne (bending), and his son Jeffrey and his wife

The Benauds at the Richie: John Benaud and his wife Lyndsay at left, Richie Benaud's wife Daphne (bending), and his son Jeffrey and his wife © Getty Images

Richie Benaud, they decided, had to be the first - another close friend of Sellers, and his neighbour in France. It set in place a rule for this project: no sculpture for players already commemorated at the ground. In other words, no Bradman.

"There's a Bradman Statue at Bowral, Adelaide and Melbourne and there are Bradman Stands all over the place, and there was at that time nothing about Richie," Cavalier says. Trumper was ruled out too. There was to be a grandstand in his name in December 2008.

Plowright is a relative of the former Australian batsman and Sheffield Shield legend Alan Kippax, and had been to the SCG as a boy to see Benaud play. He was handed a challenge for the depiction, in that his subject wouldn't be playing a stroke or bowling a legbreak. Instead, he would be standing, waiting. A reflection of Benaud the skipper. Trawling through photographs, Plowright decided to show Benaud at the top of his mark, ball in his right hand, tweaking the field with his left.

The figure sits behind the Ladies' Stand in the exact spot where Benaud used to park his car during his playing days. Along with the shirt buttons undone to the navel and collar perched up, Richie in bronze, felt the man himself, was a triumph.

Gillespie's ubiquitous mullet was a must, as was the imposing front-on action, at the exact point of release. The artist Ken Martin said he wanted to display "the dynamism and energy" of the fast bowler

"I knew it was from a photograph," Benaud later said. "I was at the far end of the ground, about to bowl, and I was trying to get Normy O'Neill into another position." He said Plowright had chosen "brilliantly", for not only did he recall the moment, but it subtly portrayed that he was a shrewd leader.

"Richie was one for subtle gestures," said his brother John Benaud, a Test cricketer turned national selector. "You always needed to keep watching him because he could make a gesture anytime."

When Benaud passed away two years ago, it was where floral tributes and television crews gravitated. In barely over seven years it had already left a lasting mark.

The McCabe Only once during their discussions were Sellers and Cavalier split: on which player would represent the interwar period. The former favoured Stan McCabe; the latter Charlie Macartney. Sellers prevailed, but that was the easy bit.

The statue of Stan McCabe that celebrates his iconic Bodyline series-opening innings wears a pink scarf to mark Jane McGrath Day in 2016

The statue of Stan McCabe that celebrates his iconic Bodyline series-opening innings wears a pink scarf to mark Jane McGrath Day in 2016 © Getty Images

The pair wanted the sculpture to depict McCabe's unbeaten 187 in defiance of Bodyline to open that fateful series in Sydney. Hooking and prospering when others couldn't so much as survive, McCabe uncorked the innings that defines his career. But, as Mulholland recalls, the challenge was to get the eyes, hands, feet, ball and bat all in concert. They needed help. Who better than Stephen Rodger Waugh?

Until then Cavalier was so hands-on that he volunteered himself as the model when giving instruction on stances. But he wouldn't in this instance. "I've never had a ball coming to me at the speed of Larwood, then hook it for four," he says. "Stephen has. We needed that credibility." Then for authenticity, Cavalier asked the Bradman Museum, where Sellers is a founder, for some equipment of the time. In turn, they received Bradman's pads, boots and gloves from the period. "Stephen touching them lovingly, fondling them, was a beautiful moment to see," remembers Cavalier.

Opened to the public in January 2010, six months shy of what would have been McCabe's 100th birthday, it remains Sellers' favourite. Just as importantly, no one has questioned the accuracy of the pose.

"It's 300 kilos that statue, it's pretty life-like for when I played" Shane Warne on the statue outside the MCG that depicts him bowling

Waugh too found himself in bronze a year on, on the afternoon he became the third man to reach 10,000 Test runs: the innings in which he made a last-ball century against England in January 2003. Bat in the air and red handkerchief peeking out of its left pocket, it stands about 50 metres from McCabe. Two men with more in common than most for courage at the crease - a young Waugh was described by the great Bill O'Reilly as McCabe reincarnate - now brought together in bronze for perpetuity.

There is a fifth cricket sculpture inside the SCG, celebrating the famed heckling of Stephen "Yabba" Gascoigne. Designed by Weiszmann for the opening of the Trumper Stand, it was meant to be a replacement for the Yabba Hill that the stand took the place of.

"A fantastic little ensemble," Mulholland says of the work. "The peanuts, the newspaper, the jacket, the beer bottles, the Gladstone bag. There is so much more to that elegant sculpture than you see with him peering over the fence."

With the SCG project reaching completion, Sellers says it is "one of the very best" he has ever been involved in across his illustrious life. "You only have to watch people's responses to them," adds Mulholland. "They adore them, and that speaks volumes."

Steve Waugh's statue marked the 10,000 Test runs milestone he reached in 2003

Steve Waugh's statue marked the 10,000 Test runs milestone he reached in 2003 © Getty Images

As for who comes next, there are no immediate plans. But Sellers predicts Steven Smith might find himself erected out the back of the Members Stand one day if he keeps going the way he is.

Dizzy and Boof
With the job all but done in Sydney, Sellers wanted to take it home to Adelaide, where he had spent his formative years. Adelaide was also where his brother Rex played Shield cricket on the way to a baggy green in Calcutta in 1964 before becoming a long-term South Australia Cricket Association committeeman.

It was also where he played club cricket alongside Ian McLachlan, SACA president, who he called in 2009 to say that he would donate a comparable sum of money to the A$1 million he had invested in Sydney, for an Adelaide run.

"I know him very well," said Sellers of McLachlan. Some six decades by the latter's estimation. "Ian is in very much the same mould as Rodney Cavalier, a strong man and wants to get things done his way. We pretty much had the whole system down pat by the time we got to Adelaide."

One Queenslander commemorated in statue is Eddie Gilbert, the indigenous fast bowler who Bradman said was the fastest he had faced

The rules from Sydney were applied. First, icons already recognised with stands and gates would be left out. So, that took out Clarrie Grimmett, Victor Richardson, and the two legendary Chappell brothers. It also struck off Bradman again because there was already a sculpture of him in Adelaide Oval, 80 metres away from the eastern entrance in the adjoining parklands. More in line with the size of those in Melbourne, it portrays a lavish cover drive. Robert Hannaford was commissioned by Adelaide City Council to erect the work on the first anniversary of Bradman's death, in 2002. According to McLachlan, it is an "absolutely world class" piece of work.

The Adelaide team considered many cricketers but settled on two recently retired locals: Jason Gillespie and Darren Lehmann. "They're close as possible to where the old cricket nets were," says McLachlan. "They're exactly 22 yards apart, [so] it is where Gillespie would have bowled at Lehmann."

Gillespie's ubiquitous mullet was a must, as was the imposing front-on action, at the exact point of release. The artist Ken Martin said during the 2010 opening ceremony that he wanted to display "the dynamism and energy" of the fast bowler. "To capture all those elements of movement, dance, and energy."

The dead spit of: Lehmann admires his likeness at the unveiling, in 2012

The dead spit of: Lehmann admires his likeness at the unveiling, in 2012 © Getty Images

Lehmann, unveiled 14 months later, is in punisher mode, clobbering the ball back over the bowler's head with his back knee all but touching the surface. As many as 10,000 members can be found indulging on the grass at the outdoor bar during a Test match day, Dizzy and Boof among them. "The fabric of this ground is added to monumentally," says McLachlan. "There's always been the old scoreboard and the trees, but these are vital now."

Next was George Giffen, the 19th-century allrounder who lent his name to the Members Stand before it was replaced in 2010. Similar to Fred "The Demon" Spofforth in Sydney, Giffen is holding a ball rather than bowling it, furious in focus. "He has been recreated with the same steely-eyed determination," said artist Judith Rolevink.

When a Clem Hill statue is unveiled in mid-2017, looking out to the River Torrens, it will mark the conclusion of Sellers' project. "I have done my 11 at the SCG, that's the same as 11 in a cricket team. I am very proud of them and those in Adelaide."

The Warnie
Once Sydney had its go, Melbourne was bound to saddle up again. It's how these two cities work, trading glancing blows. Where the SCG chiefs saw the MCG's works as too big, they in turn were criticised for going small. "It diminishes something of their visual impact," said Laumen of Sydney, for instance.

Twenty years ago there were no cricketers exalted in sculpture at Australia's Test venues. Now that figure is 16, with nothing to suggest that the bronze contagion won't continue caption:

It didn't take long for the Melbourne Cricket Club to receive the sponsorship funds to begin the six-part Avenue of Legends running from the Members Entrance towards Jolimont train station. Shane Warne had retired since the original Parade went up, and as a man synonymous with Victorian cricket he was the obvious first choice.

Laumen was again given the job, but this time it was less gratifying. "It was probably the most difficult commission," he recalls. "Warne is such a near-contemporary figure, there was a lot of push and pull on that job."

Laumen was used to a "fair bit of direction" in the earlier stanza - notwithstanding the success he had in getting his way with the choice of pose for Bradman - but on this occasion he felt a more officious tug. "I felt my confidence was a little undermined along the way, so I was a bit disappointed with what I did to be perfectly frank."

Tougher still was grappling with Warne's image. The moment selected was a striking one from the field: Warne in his lyrical curl with the delivery that claimed his 700th wicket on Boxing Day in 2006. But that was an era when Warne had packed on some pounds, and Laumen knew how touchy Warne was about his weight - he had stormed out of a press conference in 1997 when a journalist had asked whether he would rather look like his Madame Tussauds model than how he did that day, and six years later he admitted to taking a diuretic to improve his appearance.

Heavy ball: Warne captured in the act of taking his 700th Test wicket

Heavy ball: Warne captured in the act of taking his 700th Test wicket © Getty Images

"Shane is a charming guy but I think he's pretty vain," Laumen says of the experience, having met him for measurements during the development process. Of the sculptor's original mock-up, "the one complaint was that he looks a bit too slim. So I was thinking that these are the guys who are paying me, I've got to please them, even at the expense of pissing off Shane Warne. So I went with that."

As it turned out, Warne laughed it off. "It's 300 kilos, that statue, it's pretty life-like for when I played," he joked. "It's a very good likeness, and I'm very proud." The top bosses at the MCC are grateful for it too, highlighting the volume of tourists who come to the ground to get a picture with Warne in icon form.

With Laumen unavailable after finishing with Warne, Lis Johnson was entrusted with the Neil Harvey figure, showcased in January 2014. Where Lehmann in Adelaide looks every bit the blaster, Harvey's cover drive in contrast is tall and tranquil. "It truly is the finale for my cricketing career," the emotional Harvey said when accepting the honour. "I'm so thankful."

"I strode out 22 yards and stood up the other end and pretended I was actually batting to look up and see this terrifying figure staring down at me. I thought, 'Oh shit, that's good' Basil Sellers, who was instrumental in installing cricket sculptures at the SCG

Punter and Boonie
While mainland cities take credit for the proliferation of sculptures, it was in Hobart that David Boon was cast in bronze in November 2002, the same year Bradman went up in Melbourne and Adelaide.

The Boon, assembled by the late Stephen Walker, features him after thrashing a six down the ground. Present is the handlebar moustache, as he leans back on connection with the ball.

Initially, the figure was the centre point of Tasmania's Field of Fame exhibition, with plaques affixed on silhouettes of fielders around Boon. In 2015 he was shifted, now atop a plinth, to the rear of the new Ricky Ponting Stand's concourse, to stand alongside that other Tasmanian champion when his own statue was inaugurated.

Tassie's finest: Punter and Boonie at Bellerive Oval

Tassie's finest: Punter and Boonie at Bellerive Oval © Getty Images

For Ponting, the choice of pose was as obvious as it had been for Lillee. "It seems like every cricket card or magazine I pick up has got me playing one shot, a pull shot," he said, approving the likeness. Unmistakable as well: those bulging forearms, emphasised with the bat swing almost directly in front of his eye (drawing comparisons to Darth Vader with a lightsaber).

The effort to celebrate local legends who have gone on to play for Australia is repeated at the WACA Ground in Perth. While they don't yet have sculptures, they do have a meticulous museum and drinking fountains, which remind patrons that it is the same water that Justin Langer and Damien Martyn grew up drinking. Across the river at the new multipurpose stadium that will host Tests as well, the state government has said it will commission sculptures if re-elected.

Meanwhile, one Queenslander commemorated in statue is Eddie Gilbert, the indigenous fast bowler who Bradman said was the fastest he had faced. But few see Pauline Clayton's pulsating sculpture, lying ten kilometres from the Gabba, across the Brisbane River at Allan Border Field. More are likely to sight artist Ron Hurley's abstract monument, erected next to the Gabba in 1997 to represent Gilbert's speed. Any nod to history might help what has now become the nation's most soulless international venue, a point of frustration for those who remember the peaceful Ficus trees before the redevelopment struck the Gabba in the 1990s.

So people will keep meeting at the Miller or the Don or the Warnie or the Richie. And each time they do, they will be invited to stop and think about what came before

Sellers says that he is "disappointed with other wealthy people and philanthropists" who haven't made similar investments at the WACA and the Gabba. A thinly veiled challenge, perhaps. And it is he who deserves a final word - after all, it was Sellers' vision that fuelled the passion for so many of the statues around various Australian grounds.

"It gives me huge satisfaction that millions of people have gone and had a look," Sellers concludes, "and will enjoy the sculptures for hopefully centuries to come."

So people will keep meeting at the Miller or the Don or the Warnie or the Richie. And each time they do, they will be invited to stop and think about what came before. For a game so charged by history, that cannot be a bad thing.

Adam Collins is an Australian cricket writer and broadcaster

 

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