Chris Harms is John ‘Darky’ Harms’s cousin. He sent him this reply.
Woe is me. I can’t write to save myself. But I do need to save myself, somehow, from being a twisted old offie. So I must write. I must gather the loose thoughts of my fading mind and weave them into something; some explanation, rationalisation, justification, confession.
Your splendid story reminded me of how many times I have dreamt about the last few balls I bowled after my injury kicked in on the first day of a Shield match on the MCG. (Note: on the MCG, Dark. I am older than you by plenty and that’s what we old-timers used to say.) On that day, whenever it was (a quarter of a century ago at least) my past crept up on me.
Not dreams, really. Nightmares. Which I was nearly over.
I blame the footage of John Howard’s miserable off spin on the news a decade ago for rekindling them.
I had once talked at length to John Howard, then our future prime minister, when he sent his young son to my cricket camp at Cranbrook. Talk about a cricket tragic and a tragic offie. When I saw that footage, I realised that one day I had to show my son Oscar that I wasn’t a John Howard and could still shot-put a straight break up the other end.
Like you know mate, I am an old Dad, and, doing the numbers on how old you will be when your son wants to really get into cricket, and get a thousand throw-downs a week and expects you to drop punt the Size 3 footy in Under 13s to the 50-metre line against the breeze on the frosty Barossa Oval at 7.45 in the morning of a grudge-match against Nuri…..you’ll realize you’re a living fossil.
I failed Latin in Year 8, although I use it more appropriately now. And I have felt all my life that I failed often as an offie!
What is the Genesis of an offie?
Here is mine.
It all started at boarding school in Melbourne. Luther College. Out among the orchards.
As a primary school boy in short pants and a spray on white T-shirt, I would often dream of becoming the Gary Sobers of the Riverina.
At Luther, I had a gullible captain who would let me open the bowling with my slippery innies; then, after a short break in the gully, I would return to bowl leggies if the track was fairly flat or off spinners if it was dry and keeping low – all a la Garfield St John. This was followed by attempting to hit 20 off every over, left-handed, with a technique copied from black and white highlights of the great man.
Years later I worked with, drank with, and played rounds of golf with the finest cricketer the world has ever seen in my role as Director of Australian Sports Camps. But that’s another story. Gary was a gentleman then, and now.
When I entered PE-teacher training as an 18 year old, I boldly went down to Melbourne Cricket Club’s spring pre-season. Having terrorised schoolboys with bouncers and inswinging yorkers like Froggy Thompson (with whom I later played at Ringwood CC) , I was quickly put in the seconds net for the first week . I proceeded to pull a thigh muscle in the first half hour of pre-season at Albert Park with the temperature topping a dozen degrees. What is it about Harmses Dark?.We fall apart.
We should have been built like the Harmes. I would have played decent cricket until I was 50 with a body like Wayne.
In the second week, injured and already doubting I was quick enough, while warming up I decided to amuse myself by bowling my Sobers variety of Kerry Skull O’Keefe – Richie Benaud leggies and my ever reliable Lance Gibbs – Ashley Mallett loopy offies. I could mimic them all.
It gave the seconds and thirds players a laugh, and while I was going alternate overs of wrist and finger spin (never mix them), I heard the unmistakeable laugh and voice of Max Walker behind me, talking Melbourne football and stories of West Indian cricketers.
Max being Max introduced himself to the seconds net and proceeded to bowl a good 15 clicks an hour faster than I had ever bowled downhill, with the breeze off 19 yards at the college nets. Humbling!
A few minutes later, the practice captain and Max invited me into the firsts net to bowl the offies to a couple of state players! They had doubts about their straight-breaker in the ones and he was running late for practice. After the first ball, I confided in Max that I bowled the lot at school. He smiled. He bowled a few , watched a few more of my delivers that actually turned and bounced thanks to the juicy September wickets and then said to me through that perma-smile, “Son, I think you have a bit of Lance Gibbs in you.”
I must have thought he was serious. Forty years later I blame Max for turning me into an offie.
I should have listened to my Dad, and that is another story.
I went home that night knowing that in my own Lutheran mind that my leggies were the best, my quicks second-best and my offies stone motherless last. I usually saved the offies for long training sessions when I got tired after two hours in the nets waiting to be called up for a bat. (Dark, why do we all-rounders always get asked to bat once the sun is behind the eucalypts and the quicks are trying to impress the selectors with one last over of shameless over-stepping).
Max seemed so genuine. I was a baby and he was a Test player who played with and against Gibbs and Mallett!
Anyway, following a month of one and a half hour trips (each way) in my ‘64 VW Bug to Albert Park from Croydon, I decided to try my luck out at the local club Ringwood and worked my way up from the fifths to the seconds as a quick and a part -time off spinner. I could have held down a spot in the middle order, or even opening. Things were ticking along.
During this time, I had one lesson from Frank Tyson who had played with some of the great off-spinners. He showed me a seam arm-ball.
Off-spinners are generally students of the game, quietly ambitious, often intelligent: we are always looking for tips. (Look at Gideon – but Dark, you are the exception.)
Long before Murali came along I had tried to find out as much as I could about Jack Iverson’s flicked leg-spinner (Thanks Gideon for your book) and Sonny Ramadhin’s bag of tricks. As you know he could bowl offies and leggies with virtually the same action.
Several months later, I saw that Richie Benaud was playing golf in a pro-am down the road at Croydon Golf Club where I played. Here was a golden opportunity. I had more front than Myers in those days. I went down to watch him. There was a delay on both the fourth and fifth tees and since I had found his golf ball in the rough a few holes earlier, and had given him a few yardages to the flag, I figured he might give me something.
I asked him if he had played against Ramadhin.
Richie is a complete gentleman and gave me two short tutorials on not only Ramadhin’s leggie-doosra, but Ian Johnson’s slider arm-ball. I hardly stayed to watch another hole. Boyishly, I rushed to the nets to try them out. The Ramadhin is not easy.
A decade later, I came close to perfecting them, but only had the courage to use them in grade cricket against nine, ten and jack. What was I waiting for?
Frank Tyson was a good coach and along with John Harmer (not you, Dark) my PE lecturer, they pioneered the biomechanics of batting and bowling. Many years later, following retirement, I worked with Frank around Australia on the cricket camps. We became friends and along with the two other Victorian fast bowling friends, Froggy and Allan Connolly we would talk cricket, musicals and opera. I think they just liked my beautiful wife Kirsti. Yes, these great fast bowlers loved good singing and Froggy would have to be in the grand final for the most knowledgeable Australian man on Opera…let alone Australian Test player. I don’t think too many present day players would match these three in many departments outside cricket. (That’s another story)
Around this time I also remember taking another big step. I jumped on the 8.33 Ringwood train and went to watch the Indians play on the MCG. I went very early to watch Prasanna and Bedi bowl in the nets. I could see Prasana had a wonderful stock offie, a dipping toppie and a slider that acted like an outswinger and swerved away low. You couldn’t pick it. An offies’ dream. From behind the fence, I asked him how he held the slider arm ball.
Without saying much, he just balanced the ball on the top on the bent second finger and seemed to flick it out like a flying saucer. In my final year as an offie in 1985 before I got injured and retired, I had perfected it…nearly a decade after first seeing it. I bowled it every second ball in practice between PE lessons until I could do it blindfolded. It took me at least 1000 hours, a decade of frustration to master, but it was worth it. I got half my last 50 wickets for Glenelg (in my last grade season) with the Prasanna slider. I didn’t even bowl it in the state nets. I would save it for grade games. However at first class level, I never had the confidence to bowl it! I didn’t know that that summer would be my last.
Back to the formative years. Once in the firsts at Ringwood alongside Froggy and the 17 year old man-child Rod McCurdy (with whom I would later play in SA), I bluffed my way along for a few years until I fluked a few 5-fors and 7 for 20-odd against Northcote. It was a sticky, the only sticky I ever played on. I had found heaven in Northcote. (Your home suburb, Dark) Froggy kept coming up after each wicket laughing and declaring that he wouldn’t take any wickets up the other end so that I could do a Jim Laker. Ex-Test players have no idea how easy they can mess with little offies’ minds. That winter care of an Age District Cricketer award of $1000 of Trent Nathan clothes, I fluked my way into the State Squad and thought I was in the Big Show of the VCA! I was yet to play against the best. I also had a strong dream around my Easter birthday that year. The dream involved me playing cricket on a Sunday against England on the Adelaide Oval with the bells of St Peters chiming. I remember telling my father who laughed and told me to be humble.
I was a Victorian.
Later that winter, amazingly, I got a call from South Australia to take my Lance Gibbs Loopies and wannabe Gus Gilmour(ish) batting to the City of Churches.
I remember meeting Neil Dansie and Les Favell in the bowels of the MCG after state training. They already had Sleep, May, Dolman and Inverarity but it seemed easier than kicking out Higgs and captain Bright. They offered some mentoring from the great Ashley Mallett and a free house in Henley Beach with some `72 Barossa Reds in the old cellar. That was good enough for me, besides I was getting smashed in the dark old indoor nets by my VCA mates that winter.
Not long after, I found myself on a bus sitting next to Joel Garner on the way to a warm-up game in Toowoomba (the one you and Jo were at Dark). I prayed for rain. It rained. Lutheran prayers are answered some times. Three weeks before I’d been injured by Rodney Hogg. I wasn’t facing him in the nets; rather, I was his setter in a volleyball game. Rodney had decided in his fast-bowling, ex-Collingwood footballer arrogance to use me as a step-ladder and spike the ball straight into Hooksey’s face at the net. He did it and I crashed into the floor with two broken ribs in the back. Offies would never dream of doing something like that to a quick.
I managed to avoid bowling in the nets, had my wife sew elastic onto some Clarke rubber foam for a chest and back guard, and gave the excuse that I had to attend some parent-teacher nights and do some marking before we left for Brisbane. Hoggy thought it was a great joke for the little offie to struggle while bowling. Quicks always want to see claret on the popping crease and love to see batsman in pain. He never missed the chance to give me a slap on the back every chance he came within two yards of me.
But I got away with doing nothing for two weeks. It is amazing how easy it is to be anonymous when you have the freshly minted gold of J. Garner holding court in the nets. No one notices the offie about to play his first game. (Later on in my career, that changed. You have nowhere to hide when your form falls away and the Croweaters starting losing again. You become a big as Big Bird when you arrive at a ground and it is a green top. Suddenly they realize what a good waiter you are.
Anyway, I got on the plane without taking any year 10 Geography to mark. J. Inverarity, with whom I roomed that tour, brought his.
As an offie, you live in constant feaar that your last wicket was just that. So when I was thrown the ball by Hookesy early in the innings at the Gabba, I was genuinely surprised by his confidence in me. With Joel Garner terrorising the Queenslanders up the other end…and having been luckily rained out in Toowoomba, and having hardly bowled a ball in the warm-up, and still a little sore, I thought that this may be my first and last game and I had nothing to lose.
Waiting for my turn to bowl to Broad and Wessels, I remember running through the long sessions that I used to have bowling to my brother Tim. Tim copied G. S. Chappell (many did of course), who was next into bat. I took the wicket of Broad, caught and bowled, in my first over. 1 for 1. All I could do was laugh. Joel was trampolining the ball around their throats as I waited for the next over and a chance to bowl to Wessels or the imperious South Australian G.S.
I watched G. Chappell moving about the crease so confidently. He seemed to own the stage like Joel. I consciously imagined that I was just bowling to my brother whose style really did resemble Greg. After a few blurry 85k balls were launched that he (amazingly) just defended, I gambled on chucking an exaggerated top spinner. The ball came back in slow motion. Caught and bowled! 2 for 1.
All I can remember is taking off on a lap of honour around the whole square, with Hooksey laughing his head off. I ran like those soccer players who have just netted two in two minutes No one was going to catch up with me before I had celebrated myself. I should have retired on the spot and gone off to play golf for the rest of my life.
Yes, Dark, your memory is good, we won in three days, the best three days of my cricket life as an offie and then I started rooming with Joel.
A few weeks later, I found myself bouncing in to bowl Gibbs-style to Mr Botham batting for England. Beefy decided I couldn’t bowl and starting smashing me so hard that I wasn’t game to follow through. Several other spinners I bumped into that summer said that bowling spin to Viv generated the same feeling. This was my first lesson with an international with greater skill and an ego that could crush an offie. Botham just had to look at you while he was backing up at your end, and you realized he had already seen so much of your meagre off spin in the nets from the likes Geoff Miller and Eddie Hemmings, let alone all the hacks in County cricket. It was bread and butter. No, it was slaughter. I remember your brother David, Dark, and Stolly and some other boarders from Immanuel College (where I worked) sitting on the fence at square leg. David said that one sweep came at them so hard the bal just got bigger as it approached. Amazingly I got him several overs later. My winter dream in Melbourne had come true. I had been bowling to Tavare when the bells were chiming. I wonder if Channel 9 keeps the old tapes from long-forgotten, insignificant first-class games.
That is one moment I shall never forget.
After a I took a few wickets and the bells had stopped, I looked up to see the kids had collected hundreds of West End plastic cups (probably drank most of them) and had stuck them in the southern fence declaring “CHARMS FOR TEST”. I grabbed my seagull feather, which I used to mark my fielding position in the outfield, swapped with a teammate and tried to get close enough to share the moment with my teenage friends.
My offies had been tested but I was yet to be really examined thoroughly.
It came to a head when we flew to Perth.
I will never forget the feeling of anxiety, the sweaty right hand, (not the left one), the pathetic pounding heart, the sudden sensation of shin soreness, the tight neck, the dry throat, the tingling temples – all part of being an offie – pushing up the hill into the Fremantle Doctor against R.W. Marsh and K.J. Hughes. They started by letting me get to half a dozen overs for only a dozen runs. Then they had an unusual mid-pitch meeting in the middle of about my seventh over. I remember them laughing. They proceeded to collar me to where ever they wanted to. As every offie knows, it isn’t a good feeling to have a gun batsman leaving the crease before you deliver the ball.
I got to about the fifth ball of the worst over of my life and I walked forward and consulted Hooksey who, standing in slips, was not even taking his hands off his knees as the ball was played. Not a good sign.
My plan was to use an approach that had once worked against David.
In a grade game not long before, he had taken 60 off 6 overs when I and an East Torrens dodgy medium pacer had met him in one of those moods. More than half of 60 were off me. He was playing me like he often did in the nets. He was the quintessential flat-track bully. The best in Australia in favourable conditions. On that day, I had consulted Greg Quinn, our keeper, and swore to him that if Hookesy left the crease one more time before I released the ball, I would throw the f…..n Kookaburra at his head. He did take off, the very next delivery… and I will never forget the feeling of watching an international batsman falling flat on his backside three metres out of the crease having ducked the ball (no helmet) , throwing his new scoop bat out to cover and swearing, all at the same time. Quinny got such a shock , he fumbled the ball, it fell forward, he picked the ball up, looked at me, looked at David, and finally, after I screamed out stump him, he took the bails off.
For a split second, I felt like Hoggy: I knew what it was like to deck some bloke in the nets for the fun of it.
A second later, I was looking for cover over near the square leg umpire whom I had run to and started lobbying to make sure it was a stumping and not an ugly run out. He paused and gave David out . Hooksey picked up his bat and was looking to brain me. The other umpire also gave him out. My card was marked.
Hookesy bowled me beamers and bouncers for the next few weeks in training. He followed me into every net. Decades later, I bumped into him at the Melbourne airport and it was the first story to surface. We both laughed. He said he would have done the same thing to me.
I should have bottled that moment. I should have retained that aggressive feeling as an offie for my first class career. I should have ignored Hookesy’s response to my plan to beam K Hughes with a perfectly placed 110 kmh ball going straight into Kevin Wrights gloves.
Life as an offie might have been different.
I wanted to play the next game and after David warned me I would be dropped if I went through with the hand to head stumping, I went conservative and tried to bowl a quicker Yardley offie. It didn’t work.
The next few balls scorched their way to the boundary and I was off, sent to fine leg and not asked to bowl for the rest of the game. I suspect my card was marked again.
Bowling offies is always about bluff. I remember going back to grade cricket quickly forgetting the Perth trip and bluffing my way with my Heinz baked beans variety of off spin around the parks of Adelaide. It was a walk in the park compared to bowling to K. Hughes and friends.
My theory in grade cricket was simple. When you went half an hour without taking wicket, you just starting toying. With a 3/6 field you’d implore the batsman to sweep you or on-drive you. If a nervous batter played and missed you brought out all the pathetic lines like “you couldn’t hit me with a surf board, I have seen better batters in a Jetty Road fish’n’chips shop”, anything to get the batsman to play you and not the pathetic straight breaks you were bowling on a road of a wicket. “Haven’t you got a sweep shop…try a lap shot…come on…dance down the track and hit me”….One ball might sail over your head for 6 , the next one often went mistimed to a catcher on the leg-side. No need to say much except point to the boundary and say “next”.
The trick for an offie is to feel that once you have the ball in your hand, that you bowl like a creative accountant; you bowl 35 plus straight overs, you sledge, you bluff, you ask some brave and earnest soul to stay at forward short leg all afternoon, never flinching , and have your best fieldsmen just behind square at 45 ready for the top edged sweep, and the other gun to go 10 inside the fence at square leg to catch the full bore sweep. Eureka, the offie is hard to get away and you’ll end up with a tidy 5 or 6 for and a big thirst.
For the remainder of the leg side, Hugh Tayfield (the great South African) had the next two best fieldsman at short mid wicket 12 from the bat and a straight short mid-on again 12 to 15 from the bat for a drop-kicked drive. The other one you moved in and out from cow-corner and deep long on, always talking out aloud like S.K. Warne used to, playing with batters’ anxieties, for after all , anyone can play an offie on a good wicket with a ruler.
On the off side , you only need a cover point and wide-ish mid off. You dare them to work a ball pitching on the stumps and spinning a few inches to the leg….you dare them to cut or off drive. Your third player on the off side either goes to into slip, if you are going to bowl an arm ball in the over or to silly point if you are going to chuck (it can’t be bowled) a top-spinner to crowd and intimidate a new batsman. The plan is to starve them and humiliate them before they realise your bowling is a bluff. If the track is turning you may even bring the slip to leg slip, making sure the deep square leg is forward of the umpire.
If the track is putty, it is just a matter of turning up and firing the off breaks in at 90 clicks like Laker and Underwood would!
Of course it’s not bluff against left-hand batsman, where you actually have a chance; where so many possibilities open up.
After my first season in first class cricket, I realised that as an offie you had to really rip the ball in Australia and develop a lot of top spin. It is hard to dismiss good batsman on a granite track.
Ashley Mallett came down to coach Tim May and me several times. Tim and I were in and out of the side for several summers. It was always a bit disheartening to watch Rowdy bowl better off one step, wobbling on dodgy hips, than we could in our prime. He was a classic offie.
In my second last game as an offie for SA, I had one other moment as a tragic finger spinner. It is amazing how you quickly forget the 1 for 100’s off 30 bland overs in the heat. With 3 wickets for not many against Tasmania, I was surprised to be thrown the ball (by Rob Zadow who was our comrade captain with Hooksey on Test duty) for the last few overs to get the final wicket for a victory on the last day in the last half hour. I reasoned that as Zads was a top accountant, he knew what he was doing.
As an offie, you very really get asked to knock over the tail and get good figures, let alone have 6 balls to get a win. For some strange reason, I remember having the same feeling as my first game and thinking this number 10 for Tasmania is no Greg Chappell and probably far more nervous thinking about getting out to an offie than I was bouncing in to get him caught close in by short leg or silly point. No anxiety, no fear, no doubt, I didn’t even remember that I was an offie, just run the movie of a good ball, looping, drifting then spitting from off stump to the leg bail …press play…catch goes to Sam Parkinson at short leg. It worked. We won.
From memory I returned home after a few long neck West Ends in the rooms to my young wife, you Dark and Smudge to celebrate with Tassie Champers followed by Coopers Pale and an old Barossa Shiraz from under the stairs at Byron Street. Life was good for an offie-allrounder that evening, and better for sharing it with the Roley Hyatt of Glenelg (yes, you Dark) and the Bevan Congdon (Smudge) of Adelaide. Only practising offies and off cutter bowlers know.
That was the last time I walked off the ground having bowled offies with intent and freedom…thinking I was an offie who belonged on that stage. In the following weeks, I got an injury that put me out of cricket for good. It didn’t matter. In my first game and in one of my last games, I felt like I was in the Big Show!
Back to Ashley. I’m all over the place here. This writing caper is harder that spinning it on the WACA Dark. Over the last year or so, three long decades after we stopped playing, we catch up for a Coopers and talk all things off spin. Ashley lives up in the Barossa Hills and I live on the Valley floor. Perhaps a suitable metaphor for our first class ranking. The Barossa is kind to old offies and a good resting place for long philosophical discussions over a quick Coopers or slow red. When listening to Rowdy, the game gets easier and I go away wanting to play again! I find myself rediscovering the five varieties of balls I once attempted to master. I find myself coaching people who weren’t even born when I played, and who certainly didn’t see R Hyatt or A Mallett bowl offies. You simply give a Tangles smile when a player asks, “Can you show me how to bowl off spin?”
We dream of coming back into an era of being able to deliver 24 incidentally-tidy balls in 20/20 cricket for fortune,vfame and what looks like a lot of fun. We dream of opening the bowling. We deconstruct Lyon and Agar. We view the game of cricket through the lens as an offie. We throw around the ideas on top spinners, doosra’s, sliders, chucked balls and even field placings that no captain would understand – except Ray Illingworth. Coopers coasters are picked up and spun at different angles. You talk a different language to the young soaks at the end of the bar checking Facebook on their smart phones and handing over their hard-earnt money to betting agencies and other crooks.
My 12 year-old son Oscar is dreaming cricket now.
As a Dad in his 60th year, I hope he listens to me and sticks to his dream of being a Shane Warner allrounder. I get much joy from teaching the S. Warne craft of leg spin: sliders, flippers, toppies, zooters, and wrongs’uns. It is cathartic to break down the front foot shot to the 6 s’s…Stance, Swing ,Step ,Stabilize, Shoulders Straight…Punch the ball. Keep still as you hit, be a bit arrogant. I am teaching Oscar to bat in the middle order with freedom and flair. His game will have the added advantage of Colour TV, You-Tube tutorials, he pulls his phone out of his school bag to record his own fledgling technique.
He won’t be an offie.
He won’t be an accountant or a software designer. Life wasn’t meant to be that hard.
All the best with young Theo and his cricketing sisters, Dark. I remember those Byron Street days very fondly.