Keith Miller’s ode to a Mann out of time

In the scrapbook Daphne ­Greenwood Mann kept after her husband Tufty's premature death, there is a letter from Keith Miller, the rakish ­Australian all-rounder. The two played against each other when Lindsay Hassett brought his 1949/50 Australian cricketers to South Africa and Miller wrote Mann's widow an emotionally cumbersome, strangely touching private obituary.

Addressed to "My dear Mrs Tufty", and badly typed on Sporting Life writing paper, Miller negotiates his way awkwardly around what he wants to say. His grief – and guilt – is almost palpable.

"It's a letter I've always wanted to write, but I thought it would wait until brighter days, which I hope are sunnier than these last couple of years have been to you. No one need me tell you what I thought of Tufty. He was nature's gentleman, a man respected by all from the highbrow to the lowbrow. I remember when I was over there with the Australian team that Sunday morning we had, drinking, I think, German beer. It was a happy day. Little did we know then the sorry days ahead."

Norman "Tufty" Mann was a slow left-arm spinner with a touch of Dickensian miserliness about him. He played 19 Tests for South Africa after World War II, going to England in 1947 and 1951. His bowling was flat, careful and cunning, an impression accentuated by the fact that he wore small, round spectacles. He was never a great spinner of the ball, but was consistently difficult to get away. He probably initiated the tradition of holding finger-spinning South Africans, running through Hugh Tayfield to Nicky Boje and Paul Harris. He would have played more for South Africa, but died in 1952 aged 32.

History has not been kind to Mann; indeed, it has not been kind to many South African cricketers of old. Aubrey Faulkner, who gassed himself in a Fulham boarding house in 1932, was a fine all-rounder who pioneered the idea of cricket academies; Jimmy Sinclair, the swashbuckling all-rounder and for many the founding father of South African cricket, died obscurely in Yeoville in 1913, aged 36.

Shading into tragicomedy is the story of Bob Crisp, the World War II tank commander and another ghostly presence in the underworld of the forgotten. Crisp was a larger-than-life Lothario, who went in for mink farming and wrote leaders for an East Anglian daily newspaper after cricket. He ended up in Crete, surrounded by a group of adoring Greek woman, going in search of a quack cure for his cancer.

Blighted landscape
Mann's story takes place mainly in softer hues. Joining the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment in Potchefstroom during the war, he was captured at Gazala in North Africa and interred in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. During the chaos following the collapse of Benito Mussolini's regime, he and a Durban railwayman made a dash for it. Mann was to spend 20 months running from the Germans in a pocket of northeast Italy close to Venice. By day, he lived in a pigsty, hiding behind a false wall; sometimes he hid in reeds, freezing. By night, he was taught Italian by the Italian peasant family who befriended him. Mann ploughed his way through the classics, reading William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.

 He lived on polenta and beans, consoling himself with memories of his newly-married wife.

One of his thin pleasures while avoiding capture was to smoke homemade cigarettes, using whatever he could scrounge from the blighted landscape for tobacco. His son, Chris, a poet based at Grahamstown's Institute for the Study of English in Africa, says the cancer entered his father's lungs first.

"He was also plagued by bouts of malaria," says Chris, which in all probability was caught in the often flooded estuary of the Po river where Mann hid through the war's final years.

He was eventually rescued by Popski's Army, an international band of Allied adventurers. He returned to South Africa skin and bone, suffering from post-traumatic stress. In the months following his return, his wife would keep finding apples and slices of bread secreted away in strange places throughout the house.

Miller's letter is not only interesting for what remains unspoken, the unsaid that hovers between the words, it is the fact that it has been relegated in the family scrapbook to an envelope of incidental items at the back. This might be due to no more than chance, but it is surely significant that Miller's letter, dated September 30 1955, was sent a full three years after Tufty's death. In what is really a perfectly preserved shrine to Mann's memory, Miller's letter has been relegated. It is there, but hidden, the annoying late arrival too precious to destroy.

Born a year apart (Miller in 1919, Mann in 1920) at first glance, the two appear to be polar opposites. Miller was born in Sunshine, Victoria; Mann was born in Brakpan on the East Rand. Miller was an inveterate gambler and a serial womaniser; Mann was chastely monogamous, his worst sins being his love of a cigarette and the occasional beer. Miller was reflexively anti-authoritarian, once being disciplined while flying for the Royal Australian Airforce when stationed in England – for rushing up to London to see a concert by violinist Yehudi Menuhin without permission. Any thought of the one-fingered salute appears to be anathema to Mann. Letting his hair down meant belting the Glamorgan bowlers to all corners of the ground in a quick-fire innings of 97 in 55 minutes on the 1947 tour.

For all their superficial differences, Mann and Miller were also members of a brotherhood. They had not only played international cricket, but also fought in the war, and it made them doubly bound. (Miller, who flew Mosquitos, once justified his insouciance on the field by saying that once you had experienced a Messerschmidt "flying up your arse", then everything else paled into insignificance.)

Their camaraderie is the true sub-text of Miller's amazingly pained, amazingly generous letter. There is also the poignance of Miller's obvious admiration, of how much Mann was the man Miller might have wanted to be, but could somehow never become.

"Without boring you any more," he writes later in the letter, "I'd just like you to know that my thoughts are often over there with you, wondering how you are getting on. I sincerely hope that you are well and the children as well, and if they can be anywhere near as good a citizen as Tufty, their father, then they will reflect great credit on their country. He was the one chap who will always live in my mind as a great man."

In his will, Mann bequeathed £200 each to Angelina Armoroli (née Ferro) and Cesare Zagato, the Italians who took him in when he was on the run. Zagato was employed as a foreman on the farm on which Tufty and his mate took refuge and the family guided Tufty through the classics, teaching him the language. Had they been discovered harbouring a fugitive, they would have been shot.

The Manns have remained friendly with her ever since, Angelina naming her daughter Normanna after Norman. Normanna's son, Alberto, is great friends with Chris and Julia's son, Luke; both Alberto and Luke live in London.

One cannot but be moved by Tufty's quietly forceful decency, captured so haltingly by Miller. The word, really, is his chivalry, a notion so strange that it might almost have come from a different moral universe. As an item summarising his life in the family scrapbook reads: "So shines a good life in a naughty world." The use of the word "naughty" is quaintly destabilising. Not a "bad world" or an "evil world", not an indifferent world, either. Just a naughty one.

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