In the company of a legend
Sydney, New South Wales
It's been a giddy few weeks out here during this Ashes series - innings victories, record-breaking partnerships, calamitous collapses and the urn retained by England for the first time in almost 25 years.
The thrills and spills have been wonderful, but at times it's been hard to keep the heroics in perspective. Which is why, this Sunday, I find myself in a small room at the Australia Club in the centre of Sydney, sitting opposite an avuncular 88-year-old Ashes legend by the name of Arthur Morris.
If you don't know who Arthur is, you're going to enjoy meeting him. In five series against England, three of them victorious, he scored 2,080 runs at an average of 50.74 with eight centuries. Only three Australians have a better average against England. The principal among them, Don Bradman, was Arthur's best mate.
He was playing grade cricket against adults at the age of 12, and on his first-class debut aged 18 he scored centuries in both innings - the first man in history to do so. All of which makes it somewhat surprising to hear that in his first two Tests, when he scored just two and five, he was "scared as hell".
"It was quite something ," he says. "When I walked out, I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?
"I think I've got an inferiority complex. It probably comes from growing up in the country where you think everyone in the city must be so superior in every way to us country fellas.
"I would smoke a cigarette before going out to bat. It was the thing to do in those days, from looking at the movies - the drama of it, standing on the balcony, drawing on a cigarette and saying, 'Ah, what shall I do today?'"
Never has self-doubt been less appropriate. Arthur announced himself in Ashes cricket with 503 runs in the first series after the World War II, averaging 71 and scoring centuries at Melbourne and Adelaide, but it was during Australia's 1948 tour to England that he secured his place in the pantheon.
These were the Invincibles, arguably the greatest side in cricketing history, unbeaten in 31 first-class tour fixtures, feted by royalty, watched by record-breaking crowds, 4-0 victors in the Ashes series and heroes to a nation for ever more.
Morris averaged 87 on the 1948 "Invincibles" tour to England
The tour lasted 144 days. They played on 112 of them. At five weeks, the boat journey to England alone lasted longer than most modern tours.
"Now that really is living," chuckles Arthur. "Somebody asked me one day, how did you keep fit on the ship? I said to him, 'Well, we'd get up at 9 o'clock and have breakfast, and then I'd wander up on deck and read for a while, and then the bar would open at 12 o'clock so we'd have a few drinks, and then we'd have a snooze for a few hours in the afternoon, and when you woke up you'd put your black tie on for the first cocktail party of the evening...'
"We'd have about three weeks on arrival before we really started playing, so you'd play a bit of squash, practise as much as you could. It was a long tour, so you didn't want to be in the shape to run 100 yards at the start of it."
Morris, a short, left-handed opener, was series top scorer, pulling and lofting his way to 696 runs at an average of 87 in Tests, the only player on either side to score three centuries. "A menacing bouncer colliding with Morris' bat," wrote journalist Ray Robinson, "was like a rocky fist against an iron jaw."
"We had huge crowds everywhere, mainly because Don Bradman was the big star," says Arthur, still in tip-top shape as he approaches his tenth decade. "We were just the supporting actors. And so we should be, because he was a great player and a great man.
"It was a marvellous series - it was hard going, because playing six days a week wasn't easy. We had a very good team, and England had some great players too - Hutton, Compton, Edrich, Evans, Bedser. We were able to be a little bit better, and we did very well. The more you play the better you become."
Morris had the best seat in the house as Bradman went for a duck in his final Test innings
Arthur's modesty tells a fraction of the tale. The team's finest hour came during the fourth Test at Headingley. Set 404 to win from just 345 minutes on the final day, they were expected to capitulate by lunch.
"Don wrote in his book, 'I fear we will be beaten tomorrow', and I thought that was an understatement," remembers Morris. "My feeling was, 'I'm bloody sure we're going to get beaten tomorrow!' It was a dry wicket, and the ball was starting to turn a bit."
When Bradman joined his young team-mate at the crease, English golden boy Denis Compton bowling his tweakers, 347 were needed in 257 minutes.
"Don wasn't picking his wrong 'un. Jack Crapp dropped him at slip off a very difficult chance, but I was determined to get at Denis. After lunch I really got after him, and drove him off the back foot, lofted. I gave him a bit of a thump, a bit more than Don at that stage. But I had to get him out of the way, so we did.
"We really battled on the first morning, and we thought after lunch, there might be a chance we can draw this. We got on top, and suddenly there was this thought: we could win this. And that's how it happened.
"It's just one of those things. We were both on top of our games, we had a bit of luck early, and their captain had to keep his field up because he was going for a win. So if you got one through the field it was four."
Bradman suffered a fibrositis attack. Morris had to shield him from the strike. Despite that the pair added 167 during the afternoon session. By tea Morris was on 150, his side 288-1. When he was eventually dismissed for 182, the partnership of 301 in 217 minutes had taken Australia to within 46 runs of victory.
"It was a battle all the way through," recalls Morris. "It's never been done before or since, to get 400 on the last day to win a Test match."
He beams at the memory. "I think it was the best I ever batted, and it gave me a great thrill, because when everybody believes at the start of play that you must be beaten, you do too. The English movie people were there, so I thought, let's see how this looks. But I've never seen one second of it - I think they got it and destroyed it!"
It took me a little time to track Arthur down - four weeks, in fact. There were old phone numbers, dead ends, out-of-date addresses and shrugged shoulders. Even Cricket Australia had no idea where he was.
Then last week, during a trip to National Sports Museum at the MCG made possible by the early finish to the fourth Test, I spotted a glass case containing his bat, whites and pad from the '48 tour. A plea to the manager led to a word with the archivist and a number for a retirement complex two hours outside Sydney. Seldom has a little wait and effort seemed so worthwhile.
The last Test of that 1948 tour was also Bradman's final Test match. As every cricket follower knows, he needed to score just four to end his career with a Test average of over 100. Morris had the best view in the house.
"Years later I was at a luncheon, talking to a chap who didn't know much about cricket. He started talking about how Bradman got a duck in his last match. So I said, 'Yes, I was there.' And he says, 'Really? What were you doing over there?' And I said, 'I was up the other end.'
"He went, '"Oh. Did you make any runs?' I said, 'Yup - 196'. And I thought I'd emphasise it, so I added, 'Run out'. The fact of Don getting the duck was the big thing. If I'd got 450 I don't think people would have realised I was playing.
"When Don had arrived at the crease, the English players had all gathered round and sung 'For he's a jolly good fellow', and it was all very nice.
"I don't think anybody knew what that duck meant. I'm not sure Don knew. He got two very good balls. The wicket was doing a bit, obviously, nice and juicy for Eric Hollies, and he bowled a leg-spinner and then a wrong 'un right on the right spot, and he bowled Don.
"There was silence, complete silence. I think if it happened today, the greatest player out like that, poor old Eric wouldn't have got more than 20m before they'd all have tackled him and jumped on his back, and the place would have gone mad. But there was just silence. Although I think I did hear one voice say, 'Jolly well bowled, Eric'."
Bradman was a constant in Morris's life - childhood hero, team captain, lifelong friend.
"I'll never forget the first time I met him. My family lived in Dungog, a little town of 2,500 people. He was travelling through, and had a little afternoon tea laid on for him," he says.
"I'm eight years old, walking round in no shoes or socks, a kid in the country. My father, a schoolteacher, was mad-keen on cricket. He said to me, "Arthur, meet Mr Don Bradman'.
"And my first words were, 'I'm pleased to meet you, Mr Bradman'. There I was, a child - never in a million years would I dream that I would play under him as captain."
As a baggy green stalwart, Morris enjoyed opening with Sid Barnes. But he loved batting
with Bradman. In partnership the pair averaged 108, two boys from the backwoods putting the world's best bowlers to the sword.
"We must have liked each other, because neither of us ran the other bloke out!" he smiles. "There was none of this going up and down the pitch talking to one another - we just left each other alone. Occasionally you might say something. Like, 'help'!"
He laughs again, and looks out of the window across to the Opera House and naval dockyards at Woolloomooloo.
Morris is an admirer of England captain Andrew Strauss
"Don was everybody's idol," he continues. "To play with him was a wonderful experience; he was a great captain, a good friend, a person you could rely on. I had great admiration for him.
"He was a very private person - a very shy person too. He would come down to the pub with us for a couple of drinks after the day's play, but there wasn't really much he could do. He used to get 100 letters a day, at least, and he would answer the lot of them.
"He had this great belief that he wanted to represent Australia on the cricket field, and he wanted to be somebody who would be remembered and admired. Maybe it comes from our old days, but we wanted to prove that we're equal to everybody else, that we're good, decent people, and that's the way he was."
Morris could find cricket a difficult sport. "We'd go out to the middle as openers, Sid and I, and we'd discuss what we were going to do, but it was a nerve-wracking thing. Particularly when you get out for a duck, and you have to walk all the way back out again, and you're waiting for them to clap but nobody does, and you can see them all thinking, 'What an idiot this bloke is...' You can feel all those little stabs coming at you from everywhere."
But he also enjoyed himself immensely. The stories from those tours are legion - the adoration of a public starved of fun and frivolity by the preceding wars, trips to shows and nightclubs, the team bus stopping so often at pubs that its average speed was reported to be 16kph.
"Occasionally, as I was single, I might take a girl out for dinner or something... They never came off my tab, of course - they probably came off the captain or the vice-captain's tag, but anyway..."
It was on a trip to London's Victoria Palace theatre during the Ashes tour of 1953 that Morris first noticed a young English showgirl named Valerie Hudson, a dancer with the Crazy Gang vaudeville show.
After a hurried courtship, the pair married. Valerie, just a few years after moving to Australia with her new husband, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She tried to keep the illness secret to prevent it distracting Morris from his cricketing career but failed. Her decline and death hastened his retirement at the age of just 33.
"I would have liked to have captained Australia regularly, but it wasn't to be," he shrugs cheerily. "I was vice-captain to Lindsay Hassett for five seasons, and we were a good team. I never lost a game as vice-captain."
He can even laugh at the way he was sacked as skipper of New South Wales, informed by local pressmen rather than the committee, supposedly given the boot for the crime of being "too genial".
"I know there were a couple of selectors who didn't like me," he says, chuckling again. "One of them certainly thought there was something of a stink about me. He said, 'Morris wears these suede shoes, and he even wears his jacket with a cut up the back or something'. He probably thought I spoke with an English accent, and that would have been absolute disaster."
Morris was named in both Australia's Team of the Century and the country's Cricket Hall of Fame. As he sees me to the door, we discuss the series in progress and the prognosis for this week's fifth Test at the nearby SCG.
"The English side is one of the best sides I've seen," he says. "I think they're well run, the captain I admire very much - his attitude, his control of the game and the team. They've bowled well, they've fielded well and they've batted well. That's not to knock our fellas - they're a good side, but they've run into a really top one."
Frank Tyson called Morris "one of cricket's patricians... endowed with a genteel equanimity, without seeming aloof or less than cordial and friendly". John Arlott, doyen of Test Match Special, said he was, "one of the best-liked cricketers of all time - charming, philosophical and relaxed".
As I wave farewell at the door, I find myself smiling in silent agreement.
You can hear the full interview between Tom and Arthur on Test Match Special during lunch on the second day of the fifth Test - and it is available to download via the TMS podcasts page.