Ken Archer bats

Ken Archer bats in a Sheffield Shield match in October 1950

© Getty Images

Interview

Archer's other arrows

Australia's oldest Test cricketer nearly became a professional baseball player, was a science teacher, and then went on to be a influential figure in radio

Brydon Coverdale |

Ken Archer is a fascinating man with a refreshing outlook on life. He played five Tests for Australia, captained his state and retired from cricket at 28, yet reckons he played a couple of years too long. He turned down a professional baseball contract with St Louis Browns (now Baltimore Orioles) because he preferred playing sport for the fun of it.

He was a science teacher who switched to a media career and helped reshape the Australian radio industry. He went on to serve as a broadcasting regulator at a time of great upheaval, when the likes of Christopher Skase and Alan Bond were aiming to become Australia's newest media moguls.

And now, in his 90th year, Archer still watches cricket from around the world with great interest and admiration for the professional cricketers of today, while also reflecting fondly and eloquently on the elite amateur period that he loved so much.

Archer was 18 when he made his first-class debut, for Queensland against an England side captained by Wally Hammond, and boasting other legends such as Denis Compton, Len Hutton and Alec Bedser (who together with his twin brother Eric would become a lifelong friend of Archer's). The decade straight after World War II, Archer believes, was the perfect time to play cricket.

"When I started at 18, all of my team-mates and opponents were guys who had been through the war," Archer says. "They understood that there were things more important in life than cricket. So we weren't obsessed by cricket, if that makes sense. We weren't obsessed by money.

"Our dressing rooms were places of comfort and retreat. They weren't cluttered by coaches and psychiatrists and ice baths and gear - because we had to buy our own gear, so it wasn't crowded with gear. The dressing room was our place of retreat, where there was pretty much nobody but the team - and, usually, our opponents, because they were happy days of fraternisation after six o'clock.

"I never had any inclination or desire to play professional sport. But I very much enjoyed it in a recreational sense. I was an amateur, and I was probably a very amateur amateur!"

"We didn't have to rehydrate, we could get straight into the beer. I'm told the poor fellas now have to spend an hour and a half rehydrating before they're allowed a beer. I observed to someone it was hardly worth playing! They were good days. And we had a degree of freedom - as amateurs as distinct from professionals tend to have. Nobody was telling us how to run our lives."

Don't make the mistake of reading into Archer's comments any sort of disdain for modern cricket or the professional sporting era. Quite the contrary. With typical clarity, he explains that he simply considers himself lucky to have played when he did.

"I have great admiration for those people who spend much of their life honing a particular skill - in whatever field it may be," Archer says. "It's simply that for me personally, stuck with an over-active curiosity and a possibly lower-than-average boredom threshold, it never seemed a sustainable option."

And Archer did have the chance of becoming a professional sportsman - a rarity in the early 1950s - though in baseball, not cricket. His father, Percy, had been a fine club cricketer in Brisbane who was renowned for his fielding, and it was a skill passed down to Ken, who spent hours as a child throwing tennis balls at post-and-rail fences and catching the rebounds. It was his version of the Bradman stump-and-tank routine.

As a cricketer, Archer fielded in the covers and became known for his speed, soft hands and strong arm. So when he took up baseball - many cricketers of that era played both sports - he was naturally a dangerous short stop. All he had to do was learn how to ensure the ball didn't bounce out of his mitt. Archer played in the first post-war Claxton Shield - the Australian state baseball tournament - and American scouts were watching.

An Australia team picture from the 1950 Ashes. Archer is fourth from left, middle row; his good mate Arthur Morris second from left, bottom row; Australia's second oldest Test cricketer now, Neil Harvey is first at left, middle row

An Australia team picture from the 1950 Ashes. Archer is fourth from left, middle row; his good mate Arthur Morris second from left, bottom row; Australia's second oldest Test cricketer now, Neil Harvey is first at left, middle row © Getty Images

"One of them was making some representations on behalf of a team called the St Louis Browns," Archer says. "They didn't last a lot longer after that, so it was probably a good decision to knock them back. But they morphed into the Baltimore Orioles."

Did he seriously consider taking up the offer of heading to America on a professional baseball contract?

"Not seriously, no, because I never had any inclination or desire to play professional sport," he says. "There wasn't very much of it, and I didn't see myself as particularly well cut out to be a professional sportsman. But I very much enjoyed it in a recreational sense. I was an amateur, and I was probably a very amateur amateur!"

Neil Harvey also played in that same Claxton Shield and, like Archer, was renowned for his fielding. Now, they find themselves Australia's two oldest living Test cricketers. Archer was born in January 1928, Harvey in October of the same year. The country's third-oldest Test cricketer, Colin McDonald, was born in the November.

"I didn't anticipate longevity - it's been thrust upon me," Archer says. "I say g'day to Neil every now and again. I certainly ring him on his birthday and remind him he's as old as me again! And I've always got on very well with CC McDonald. I give him a call or two a year."

"Suddenly Lindwall was on my side, and my brother emerged as a world-class new-ball bowler. And suddenly I became a much, much better captain"

Alan Davidson is another semi-regular correspondent. And those four men, along with John Rutherford in Western Australia, are the only remaining Australian Test cricketers born in the 1920s. Such is the passage of time. Archer particularly misses Arthur Morris, his opening partner in all five of his Tests. For the last eight years of Morris' life, the two men and their wives were practically neighbours on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

"We got to lunch fairly frequently," Archer says. "I'd had a long, long friendship with Arthur, who was a lovely human being. I still miss him. Arthur was a wise, sage man. I keep having questions I'd like to pose to him.

"Let me share an Arthur 'wisdom' with you. We were at lunch not that long before he died, and something came up - we were talking about the stupid things that cricket teams discuss when they're having a rainy day. And I said, 'Do you remember I always used to say I've got a young brother who's better than me?' And he said 'I always knew you to be an honest man and a good judge of a cricketer!' I took that as a compliment."

That younger brother, and his only sibling, was Ron Archer, a fine allrounder who played 19 Tests but had his career ended at age 23 by a serious knee injury suffered when his spikes caught in the matting during a Test in Karachi. Ron had been recommended to succeed Ian Johnson as captain for the upcoming tour of South Africa; instead, Ian Craig became the youngest Test captain in Australia's history.

Ron died in 2007, at the age of 73. He was five and a half years younger than Ken, but nevertheless, there was always backyard cricket in the Archer household when they were young. "During the shortages of World War II the backyard had to be devoted to vegetable-growing," Archer says, "so that made the games of tip-and-run even more fascinating."

Archer (left) walks out with Graeme Hole in the Sydney Test against West Indies in 1951

Archer (left) walks out with Graeme Hole in the Sydney Test against West Indies in 1951 © PA Photos/Getty Images

When Ken graduated into Queensland's side as a teenager, he learnt quickly that the Sheffield Shield was the toughest cricket competition anywhere in the world. By the time he was picked for his Test debut, at the age of 22, he felt he had already handled the world's best bowlers.

"It was exciting but it wasn't all that traumatic, because probably the highest standard of cricket back in that era was the Sheffield Shield," he says. "Not to denigrate the other nations, but that particular Australian team of that era was fairly dominant, and living in Queensland it meant I had to play against them.

"If you'd learnt to survive Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller and Bill Johnston, what the oppositions had wasn't all that scary. I knew Alec Bedser was good enough to get me out, but I also knew he couldn't hurt me.

"I've always said Ray Lindwall taught me to bat, or at least he taught me to be a bit more defensive. There's a name - isn't it funny how some names from the past hang on and others don't? Ray was the dominant fast bowler in the world until into the 1950s, and he's been very much forgotten."

Archer has good reason to remember Lindwall, and not only as a state opponent. Made captain of Queensland at a young age, Archer felt he was not particularly successful in the role - until Lindwall moved to Queensland. Then the old cricketing adage that bowlers win matches came true.

"If you'd learnt to survive Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller and Bill Johnston, what the oppositions had wasn't all that scary. I knew Alec Bedser was good enough to get me out, but I also knew he couldn't hurt me"

"Suddenly Lindwall was on my side, and my brother emerged as a world-class new-ball bowler, and a fella called Jim Bratchford, who had a couple of years' experience, was a handy third seamer. And suddenly I became a much, much better captain.

"Stuart Surridge is probably still regarded as the best captain there has ever been in county cricket, and there were four clear reasons for that: they were called Bedser, Loader, Laker and Lock. I don't think Stuart had to do much but hand the ball over."

Still, all that preparation at state level didn't translate into a long Test career for Archer. He debuted against England at the MCG in December 1950, and scored 26 and 46, then 48 in the next Test, in Sydney. In each of his five Tests he made starts but never went on to the big score that might have led to an extended run in the team.

During these years Archer was a science teacher in Brisbane, but he saw little chance for advancement in that field, and while still playing for Queensland he took up a job with the radio station 4BC. The year was 1954, and television was to arrive in Australia two years from then, in time for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. With no background in radio, Archer was objective enough to see where the industry needed to go.

"A lot of radio back then was based on the big piece of furniture with the speaker in the corner of the lounge room, with the family gathering around it to listen to serials and amateur hours and talent quests and things of that nature. Pretty obviously television was certain to assume that role in the households, which it did very quickly.

Archer's brother Ron was the better known cricketer of the two

Archer's brother Ron was the better known cricketer of the two © Getty Images

"So radio had to change into something much more personal. Rather than being a group medium, it had to become a much more personal medium. Fortunately, transistors were invented around that time, so that enabled the miniaturisation of receivers, which made that personalisation possible. Anyway, it's all gone now because you can listen on your wristwatch, can't you?"

Information and music were the two new streams that Archer helped deliver to radio to help the industry survive. In the process, he was made CEO of one of Australia's major radio groups, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Network, and moved to Sydney. After retirement from that position, he was appointed vice-chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal.

"That's my national service, I call it. We were under-resourced and overworked. It was also the time when all the young entrepreneurs were just moving into media. We had the Holmes-à-Courts, the Bonds and the Elliotts and the Skases, everybody doing battle with the Murdochs and the Packers and the established broadcasters. It was a time of very big change. So I had a busy five years playing regulator.

"Afterwards there were certain ministers and prime ministers from both sides of politics who were urging me to stay on and trying to get me to take on the ABC. Happily I was a little too intelligent for that. I'd had enough of all that."

Such were the challenges that kept this overactive curiosity and lower-than-average boredom threshold satisfied.

"Thanks to Mr Foxtel, I find myself watching Test matches, even if they're between India and Sri Lanka, with rather more interest than I watch the short form"

"Cricket was an important part of my life, the first 28 years of my life. But I'm also proud that I've moved on and taken on some other challenges that are maybe at least as difficult as playing cricket."

Nowadays, Archer lives alone (his wife, Marion, has been in care since late last year) and still enjoys watching cricket, though he finds T20 boring - "I don't think there's any subtlety in it whatever" - and one-day cricket interesting only if it remains a close contest. But Test cricket? That he will watch, whoever is playing.

"Thanks to Mr Foxtel, I find myself watching Test matches, even if they're between India and Sri Lanka, with rather more interest than I watch the short form. I'm impressed by the talent that India has at its disposal. They've got a queue of players there you couldn't jump over. They brought a kid in a while back who I'd never heard of and he made 300 - and now he's gone again!"

Archer never quite managed a Karun Nair-like triple-hundred during his brief Test career; in fact, he didn't make a half-century in any of his nine innings opening the batting for Australia. But now, 67 years on from his Test debut, he is the country's oldest living Test cricketer.

"It's an interesting world we live in," Archer says. "Out there in the big wide world, I'm still pinned as an ex-cricketer. And I've been 'ex' for a long time!"

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

 

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