Almanac Books: ‘Neil Harvey: The Last Invincible’ – Ashley Mallett

Publishers Hardie Grant have provided the Footy Almanac with an extract from Ashley Mallett‘s recently released biography Neil Harvey: The Last Invincible. The biography details Harvey’s illustrious career as a Test cricketer, captain, selector  and record breaker. The book will delight all lovers of this great game of cricket. Details for the purchase of the book can be found HERE


This is an edited extract from Neil Harvey: The Last Invincible by Ashley Mallett published by Hardie Grant Books




Wednesday 22 December 1954 dawned clear and bright and was about to flood Sydney’s North Shore in sun-shine I jumped out of bed, woke my brother Nick and – armed with bat and ball – we headed to our Chatswood family backyard, where there was a roughly flattened area of turf, the pitch, and an old fruit box standing on end, the stumps. By the time I had turned nine years of age I was hooked on cricket. The 1954 copy of Wisden, which my grandfather had given me for my birthday, covered the previous season’s first-class cricket throughout the world. It included the 1953 Ashes series in which Australia were pipped at the post, losing the final Test at The Oval, due to some excellent spin bowling by Jim Laker and Tony Lock. I read and re-read the descriptions of the Tests and county matches until the pages became a little brittle. The words resonated and stuck in my memory. I formed a great affection for those players, such as Neil Harvey, Keith Miller, Richie Benaud, Alan Davidson, Ron Archer and Ian Craig. Amazingly, Craig was just seventeen when picked to go on that tour. He hadn’t even reached the age where he could go into a pub with the rest of the team. When the likes of Lindsay Hassett, Miller and company alighted from the team bus – or the coach, as the English preferred – to quench their thirst at the odd welcoming inn, Craig was left on the bus, no doubt learning about English life from the bus driver, who was sworn to remain on duty as sober as a judge. Craig fascinated the schoolboys of Sydney for he was only a few years older than us. Fancy a boy of seventeen playing Test cricket.


On 2 June 1953 Craig had stood among thousands of Londoners, lining the streets, to watch the newly crowned monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, being taken back to Buckingham Palace from Westminster Abbey in an altogether different coach, the mag-nificent Gold State Coach. A perfect complement to this grand occasion, the coach, built by Samuel Butler in 1762, had been used at the coronation of every British monarch since King George IV in 1821. Drawn by eight horses, the coach, with its precious cargo within, rumbled along the streets of London with the new Queen waving graciously throughout the journey.


After bowling for an hour to my brother in the backyard it was off to breakfast, shower and to dress up in my Sunday best: shorts, shirt, tie, jacket and long socks. Granddad, whom we always called ‘Pop’, was dressed in a grey suit, shirt and tie. He always wore a grey felt hat, which complemented his outfit perfectly. Pop was taking me to the Sydney Cricket Ground to watch the last day’s play of the Second Test match against England. This was the first time I had seen a big match.


I had however, like Craig, seen the Queen. The clothes I was wearing to the cricket were the ones Mum had bought especially for me to wear in February 1954, also to the SCG, when my school, Chatswood Primary, went to stand about with thousands of other children from dozens of Sydney schools holding Australian flags to wave frantically as Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh drove past in an open-topped black limousine, one of the first events of the Sydney leg of their royal tour that year. I remember the smell of freshly mown grass – the sheer lushness of the turf upon which we stood. To me this was sacred ground, for the likes of WG Grace, Victor Trumper, Don Bradman, Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall and indeed Neil Harvey had performed so heroically on it. In those days you could not simply wander on to the ground before a big game of cricket began, during any breaks or, indeed, after stumps were drawn.


The day we saw the Queen was different. We walked onto the SCG in our droves, lined up in precision file and waited in the blazing sun for a couple of hours before the royal couple’s limousine appeared. I remember seeing the little flag fluttering at the front of the vehicle looking like a miniature Royal Standard, flown only when the Queen is present. As hundreds of schoolchildren frantically waved our Australian flags, the royal limousine sped past and it was over. I managed a fleeting glimpse of the royal couple, but to be honest, it was something of an anticlimax.


I was hoping to see a little more of the cricketers on my second day at the SCG than I did the royal couple on my first. I was so excited I gulped my food, giving rise to a quiet reprimand from my mother. ‘Now, Ash. Don’t scoff your food. Won’t do when you are dining at Buckingham Palace with the Queen.’ I caught Pop’s eye.


He had the hint of a smile on his face and he gave a little chuckle. In those days Chatswood was a sprawling suburb, ever growing, eventually into the seeming metropolis it has become today. Our family home was in Hawthorn Avenue, near the Lane Cove River, which ran alongside the Chatswood Golf Links, at the time a terrific playground for the adventurous young. Dad drove us to Chatswood railway station and the train took us over Luna Park, across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and into Central (or might it have been Wynyard station?). Pop hailed a taxi and we were driven to the SCG in style. Well, I had suspected that this day’s outing was a double-edged affair – a pre-Christmas present and Pop taking me to the Test match to see a famous Australian victory. We chatted all the way. Pop had a great sense of fun. ‘You are in for a treat today, Ash. The Australians should win. Why, Harvey could just about score the runs himself.’ By the time we walked through the Members’ Entrance – Pop had been a spectator at big matches at the SCG since Trumper first played there in the 1890s – fans were scurrying to grab the best vantage point, but Pop and I stopped at the nets, which in those days were part of Sydney No 2 Ground. There the players from both sides were going through last-minute preparations. ‘Look at Harvey,’ Pop said with a smile. ‘He’s in for a great day.’ I managed to identify a few luminaries: Australia’s acting captain, Arthur Morris, stood speaking with Alan Davidson and Graeme Hole. Sir Donald Bradman was in earnest conversa-tion with Richie Benaud, all enjoying Harvey blazing away in the background SCG nets.


‘Ash, I’ve never seen footwork as nimble and swift as Harvey’s.


Well, perhaps not since the glory days of Bradman … and Trumper before him,’ Pop enthused. On the England side, Frank Tyson and Brian Statham were limbering up. Neither bowler was flat out, but to a nine-year-old boy, they were mighty fast.


Peter May, who had scored a brilliant 104 the previous day, with elegant ease, was batting against Tyson, Statham and Alec Bedser, who was dropped from the first Test, and he presented all comers with the straightest of straight bats. England captain Len Hutton and the wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans stood chatting. I could not keep my eyes off the scene. It was somehow magical: a touch of cricketing heaven. To me these Test players were veritable gods from Olympus. As the players gradually filed from the nets, Pop and I settled down on a bench seat right on the pickets in front of the MA Noble Stand. Mum had packed us a meal, including her specialty and my favourite: lemon sandwiches. For those unfamiliar with my mother’s sandwiches, they were thinly sliced lemon on a thinly spread bed

of butter. I didn’t have to share them at cricket afternoon teas, for no-one came near them, but they were my favourite.


The food, a bottle of lemonade and a longneck of stout (Pop loved a shandy on a hot day) were safely stashed away in his Gladstone bag. Pop’s Gladstone bag was his pride and joy. He had had it for years and he kept the ox-hide skin of this little portmanteau suitcase highly polished. His gold initials, AGW – Alexander Garnaut West – were faded but still visible on the side of the bag. I was more interested in the contents.


I didn’t ask Pop whether Mum had included the funny little peaked cap that went with my grey suit. Harvey, who Pop said rarely batted in a cap, was his favourite and he was soon to become mine. His rich dark hair seemed to enjoy a life of its own when he played a drive or a cut, and it was all as plain as day to an impressionable youngster when you saw him at close quarters flaying the bowling in the nets.


‘They won’t get it so easy in the middle,’ Pop warned.


Harvey was the man of the moment. He was in the peak of form, having belted the Englishmen to the tune of 162 in the previous game, the First Test at the Gabba. Australia hit 601 for the loss of eight wickets and Ian Johnson’s men won handsomely by an innings. On this last day of the Second Test, Australia had got itself into a winning position. Only 151 runs were required on this final day, with eight wickets in hand, and a win was expected by the Australian team and almost everybody at the ground that morning.

Surely a formality, I thought. But neither the Australian team nor the fans could expect the brilliant pace bowling of Frank Tyson and Brian Statham.


They called Tyson ‘Typhoon’ and indeed, he bowled like the wind. Jim Burke lost his castle early, then in walked Graeme Hole. He took guard, looked about the field, but there was nothing confident about him. Hole was like a baby bird frozen to a fencing wire in the middle of a hailstorm. Tyson moved in with huge strides.

There was menace in every step. His first ball to Hole was a yorker. Hole, with his high back-lift, was too late and the ball took out the middle stump, causing it to cartwheel dangerously towards theEngland ’keeper Godfrey Evans, standing 40 metres back from the stumps.


The batting side tumbled against this relentless attack. Only Harvey stood apart. He hooked, cut and drove with ease. Tyson was easily the quickest bowler I had seen, and would remain so until Australia’s Jeff Thomson happened upon the scene two decades later.


Tyson had blistering pace; remember too, there were no helmets in those days. If you were a hooker, you had to get your head inside the line of the ball. Harvey’s innings was simply magnificent; breathtaking, in fact. Pop reckoned Harvey’s red-blooded batting that day was as good as any of Trumper’s epic innings on the SCG, which he had seen at the turn of the century. We had a marvellous view from our seats on the pickets, especially of a ruddy-faced Englishman in the outfield, Colin Cowdrey, standing just a yard or two away. Quite incredibly almost fourteen years to the day later, Cowdrey would become my first Test wicket – and Harvey would be one of the selectors who had included me in the team.


Pop and I were so enjoying Harvey’s knock, but the main concern was that he was running out of partners. Richie Benaud scrapped for fifty-three minutes for just 12 runs, then played an inglorious slog at England’s medium-paced off-spinner, Bob Appleyard. The ball soared high into the afternoon sunlight; Tyson took the ball comfortably, running in from mid-wicket to accept it mid-pitch. Ron Archer and Alan Davidson both departed early.


I’ll never forget the last man in – Bill Johnston. In particular, his bat. He wandered to the middle to meet with Harvey with the score standing at a sorry 9/145. Australia needed 78 runs to win. Johnston had a bat so heavily bandaged, so tattered and torn, it looked as though it had somehow survived – just – the spinning blades of a chaffcutter. With clever manipulation of the strike, Harvey continued his assault on the England attack and the last pair had taken their partnership to 40 before Johnston tickled one down the leg side and Evans took a fine tumbling catch. England had won the match by 38 runs. Harvey remained undefeated on 92. Pop and I sat at the pickets in disbelief. We felt cheated: Harvey had been thoroughly let down by his teammates, none of whom had made more than 16.


Another boy who would go on to play for Australia was also there that day. John Inverarity and his father had travelled across the country from Perth to be in attendance for the whole five days. They were having quite the trip: next was the Davis Cup finals at White City, after Christmas, where the Americans, led by Tony Trabert and Vic Seixas, beat the Australians, who included Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, before journeying to Melbourne for the Third Test in the new year. ‘I have some vivid memories,’ Inverarity recalled, one of which we share. ‘I shall never forget Bill Johnston coming in to bat last with a big part of the inside edge of his bat missing. Probably a centimetre deep and five inches long.’ Some eighteen months later the Malletts moved from Sydney to Perth.

Two years after that I first bowled to Inverarity, when he was playing for Scotch College and I was a member of the WA State Schoolboys side. Ten years later, in 1968, Inver and I were selected in the Australian touring side in England. Remarkably, the first Ashes Test at Old Trafford that year was the next time either of us attended a Test match.


But back to the summer of 1954/55. Neil Harvey had become my hero. I yearned to have wavy black hair and bat left-handed like this dynamic stroke-maker (and to bowl fast like Typhoon Tyson). A day at the cricket where players on opposite sides put on a masterclass of the highest order can so inspire a boy.


When the match ended Pop and I sat for a while and contemplated what might have been. Pop poured himself a shandy; I sipped lemonade.


Rather than being despondent about Australia losing, I felt a very different mix of emotions – privilege and excitement among them. Mainly I thought of how one day I might play on this famous ground in a Test match. There was something special about the place. It was almost as if the ghosts of the great past players were welcoming you to watch a Test match for the first time on the hallowed turf. They were friendly ghosts. Pop then packed up his Gladstone bag and we left the pickets.


Already the sprinklers had the centre square awash. I distinctly heard the occasional pop of a champagne cork emanate from the England dressing-room as Pop led me through the crowd, down the back of the members’ stand in the walkway between its back wall and the SCG nets, through the little members’ gate, onto Driver Avenue and beyond, until we found a taxi opposite Kippax Lake. People walked slowly.


All the talk was about Australia’s lamentable batting – apart from Harvey’s unconquered 92. Most people meandered, as if without purpose, their heads bowed.


Pop held his head high and strode along the pavement proudly.


My heart soared, for I had wings on my feet.



Details to purchase the book can be found HERE


The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in the coming weeks. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order right now HERE


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  1. Wonderfully well-written and captures the magic of Test cricket foe a young boy.
    Even the wonder of the contents of his Pop’s Gladstone bag.

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