Almanac Cricket History: Ashley Mallett

 

 

 

A few months ago I received, from Hardie Grant publicist Kirstie Grant, a copy of Ashley Mallett’s biography of Neil Harvey The Last Invincible. I immediately flicked through in the way you do when you’re a bit short of time. After reading Alan Davidson’s foreword, I dipped into Mallett’s opening words and before I knew it I was reading the delightful personal introduction (do yourself a favour) in its entirety. It’s sort of about R.N. Harvey’s lone hand of 92 not out in a losing Australian chase against England in the 1954-55 Ashes series, but really about Ashley being nine years old and falling in love with cricket.

 

 

 

 

I didn’t know much about that Harvey innings or many of the other innings of the great left-hander. For some reason, I don’t have chapter and verse memory of Harvey’s time in the Test side, nor am I aware of many anecdotes. Most of what I do know comes from another off-spinner, G.C.J.D. Haigh, from his history The Summer Game, one of his very best books I reckon.

 

Had I read Gideon’s book as a twelve year old, I would (still) remember every detail – and, being a Haigh book, it is by definition mega-researched and full of the colour and detail that nourishes and satisfies. But alas, I was well into my fourth decade when I turned its pages.

 

Of Harvey, I knew he played at the Brunswick Street Oval for his home suburb, Fitzroy, and that he’d grown up in Argyle Street which runs pretty much between Nicholson Street on the Carlton border and Brunswick Street itself. For a couple of years I lived just around the corner, near the Museum, so I know where that classic boys with Neil Harvey laneway cricket photo was taken.

 

 

Neil Harvey returns to the Argyle Street laneway in Fitzroy. circa1950

 

 

I’ve walked on those cobblestones, probably with a few Carlton draughts in me, wandering home from watching footy at The Rose. They were great nights, however occasional, but also might go part of the way to explaining the failure to recall every story.

 

“I must get back to this book,” I thought. And put it on the pile of books next to my desk – which are just the tomes of 2021. Best intentions.

 

As host of the occasional lunch, during which someone far more interesting than us regulars are interviewed, I thought I’d invite the author along – to talk about everything from tweaking to writing. He would be an excellent guest. So I rang Kirstie and suggested the event. I waited for the summer, and a suitable moment to get things moving.

 

But then, I heard the sad news. Ashley Mallett had died at the age of 76. And in the same week, Alan Davidson. Very, very sad, and totally unexpected.

 

Ashley Mallett was the Australian spinner of my childhood. He was part of a squad of tweakers from whom the Chappells picked – according to the needs of the Test. The others were Terry Jenner and Kerry O’Keeffe. But Mallett was the influential one.

 

Not that eleven year olds like me were interested in spin bowling in the very early days. When asked what we bowled, every single one of us said, “Pace,” although the more confident of junior cricketers said, “Genuine pace.” We all imitated D.K. Lillee’s cobra, having watched the highlights each evening from England in 1972. The super-athletes at school did their Thommo impersonations, slinging and pinging them like the lithest javelin-thrower you could imagine. We mimicked O’Keeffe’s whirring rotations – but only for laughs. We tried to toss them up like TJ, flicking the compo off the end of the little finger.

 

But in the Under 12s around Toowoomba, no-one was doing an Ashley Mallett.

 

It was a time, 1974, when in the mind of the keen young primary school student, cricketers were not complex individuals. The idea that A.P. Sheahan was a little different to J.R. Thomson was not something which was part of our understanding. Cricketers were cricketers. All one type. So A.A. Mallett was lumped in with the Chappells, and Dougie, and D.K. and Bacchus and Tangles and all of the machismos who came from the tribe of the unbuttoned shirt and the dangly chain.

 

At that stage we didn’t know that his team-mates called him Rowdy, or that he didn’t represent a cigarette or beer company but was a public servant moving towards journalism and writing. We’d seen him take some sharp chances in the gully (as unlikely as that may seem) and the only anecdote we’d heard was that he was prone to stand on his own hand when bending down to field even the gentlest shot.

 

He didn’t play every Test during that era but he featured regularly. I recall writing his figures into my ABC Cricket Book especially during 1974-75 against the touring Englishmen – a series which I do remember chapter and verse. And again against the West Indies in 1975-76.

 

Mallett 4/21 in the second innings.

 

 

I have a strong memory of those summers when high pressures baked the Australian continent. Salad sandwiches for lunch and watermelon, and flopping on the bean bag for the afternoon session. After the break the cricket changed. The outfield was shimmering on the TV coverage, and the pacemen were not as keen as they’d been at 11. The game would become more sedate. Less exciting. The ball would be thrown to Ashley Mallett to bowl a dozen tight overs, keeping his cards close to his chest. Guile was trumps.

 

It was around the time of the 1977 tour to England that some of us realised that, while the good Lord had given us certain talents, His plan was to keep most of us humble. We had to face the reality that continuing to pursue stardom as opening bowlers was going to take more than the water from Lourdes. And the penny dropped. When half-decent players were smacking me back over my head off my long run-up, I thought I might as well get smacked back over my head off a short run-up.

 

I was effectively a slow-medium off-spinner off an opening bowler’s run-up, so I decided to reinvent myself.

 

I found my inspiration in A.A. Mallett.

 

And I’m glad I did. You can have your cobra and your huge leap into the bowling crease. I took to copying A.A. Mallett’s clasps hands (in prayer?) and chicken-wing elbows, his angled run, and the arm coming over in front of the umpire’s nose as he bowled to right-handers. The swivel on the front foot. The drift away. The quicker one to the left-hander.

 

But then A.A. Mallett disappeared from our view – for the most unlikely reason. Those of us who lived Up The Bush, beyond the broadcast-reach of metropolitan Channel 9, were automatically ABC-ACB families. The Packer Circus, as we called it, was not in our consciousness and our heroes were lost to us. Mallett was one of them.

 

The story goes that Mallett rang I.M. Chappell and asked to put in a good word for him with Kerry Packer. Mallett was keen to earn in half a year what he had previously earnt in half a career.

 

Mallett later wrote:

 

For two days I sweated it out, then Chappelli got back to me: “Kerry’s willing to give you a contract, but only if you agree to fly to Sydney and bowl against him for one over. If you get him out twice in the six balls, he will make an offer for your services.” I did not hesitate: “Chappelli, tell Mr Packer to get f*****!”

 

 

Chappell continued to do his best. Packer had the same regard for straight-breaking off-spinners as he had for the ATO. But Chappell pushed. But got the contract anyway.

 

At the same time Mallett was receiving an offer to play for Australia – from Don Bradman. Mallett regretted not taking it.

 

When the cricket world came back together, he was at the end of his career. His final Test was at Lord’s in 1980 – the Centenary Test or remembered as the K.J. Hughes Test. Mallett, by then 35, snuck one through D.I. Gower, not a bad final Test wicket.

 

 

[Just beyond the 20 minute mark – but worth watching Kim Hughes while you’re here]

 

 

Having started playing in Perth, he moved to South Australia, along with Terry Jenner. Mallett impressed as an accurate and thoughtful offie who could not only play a role, but could take advantage of suitable conditions and influence a game. He toured England in 1968 making his Test debut in the Test at The Oval when Deadly Derek Underwood bowled England to victory. He took a few wickets and made 43 not out (in the first innings), which was to be his highest Test score.

 

He built a reputation as a world-class off-spinner on the difficult tour of India in 1969-70, playing an important role in Australia’s 3-1 series win. He bowled over after over in the heat. In the First Test at Mumbai (then Bombay) his wickets included legendary off-spinner Erapalli Prasanna. He took 6/64 in the Australians’ loss at Delhi. Then bowled Australia to victory at Chennai with 5/91 and 5/53. He took 28 wickets at better than 20 – and was a factor in the successful series.

 

India was the temple of spin-bowling at that time. The gurus like Prasanna and Bedi observed and theorised, contemplated and experimented, developing their artistry and their relationship with the cricket ball. Mallett won their respect – and he maintained it.

 

Reflecting years later, Prasanna explained that Mallett was one of the best – because he understood the need to deceive.

 

Watch Prasanna on Mallett  HERE

 

Until Nathan Lyon, Mallett (along with Hugh Trumble) was Australia’s most successful off-spinner, playing 38 Tests and taking 132 wickets. He played in many winning sides.

 

His career is outlined at Cricinfo:

 

https://www.espncricinfo.com/player/ashley-mallett-6472  (cricinfo profile)

 

https://www.espncricinfo.com/player/ashley-mallett-6472/bowling-batting-stats (intro to his stats)

 

During his time as a cricketer in Adelaide he moved into day-to-day journalism. He also began his long career as an author. A list of his books, which feature many stories of his contemporaries can be found.

 

https://www.bookdepository.com/author/Ashley-Mallett

 

Ashley Mallett influenced many cricketers, especially those who for some reason chose to bowl slow finger-spinners on hard Australian wickets. One of my first questions at lunch would have been: “Why do we do this to ourselves?”

 

Vale Ashley Mallett.

 

 

 

Read an extract from the Harvey biography and purchase the book HERE.

 

Read more from John Harms HERE

 

Read Chris Harms on the troubles of an off-spin bowler in his piece O Me Miserum: the Genesis and Revelations of an offie

 

 

 

Some other stuff:

 

 

Some footage of A.A. Mallett in these highlights.

 

 

Interview on ‘Just Havin’ a Crack’

 

 

 

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About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au. He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.

Comments

  1. Kirstie Armiger-Grant says

    Brilliant.

  2. Bernard Whimpress says

    Lovely piece, JTH
    Can you believe that on at least a dozen occasions – especially when I was curator of the Adelaide Oval Museum – I have been asked, ‘Are you Ashley Mallett?’ I could never see the resemblance aside from the fact that we were both over six feet tall. I’d be flattered if he was ever asked, ‘Are you Bernard Whimpress?’ Eventually, in answer to the question. I came up with, ‘Nah, I was a better off-spin bowler.’
    Just recently I’ve written fairly straight obits on Ashley and Russell Ebert for the next ASSH Bulletin. Ashley was treated badly by selectors early in his career, partly because Bill Lawry didn’t rate offies – despite him taking 28 wickets on the 69-70 Indian tour. When he took 8 for 59 against Pakistan in 1972 I think he was at his peak and had surpassed Gibbs and Prasanna as the world’s leading off-spinner. If he hadn’t stood out of Test cricket to pursue his journalism and then with Packer he would have had another 40 Tests and between 250 and 300 Test wickets. It was wonderful watching him in concert with Jenner for SA – sadly, they only played one Test together – and especially bowling into the south-westerlies which came between the Smith and Creswell Stands, drifting the ball away from the right-handers before spinning it sharply back.

  3. JTH thank you having done quite a few kids coaching clinics with,Rowdy found him to be a fascinating person to chat cricket with and always learnt something every single time
    ( awesome highlights as well geez,John Edrich was a good batsman ) RIP Ashley Mallett

  4. Peter Flynn says

    Bravo Harmy.

    Superb descriptions of the time and of the cricketers of that time.

    Endlessly fascinating.

  5. What is it about this era of Australian cricket which sees men of a certain age romanticize so?

  6. citrus bob says

    A beautiful delicate piece on a delicate man JTH> Thank You. AAM was a wonderful fielder in the gully as well.
    Smokie- because the likes of Harms, Flynn, Rulebook are romantics at heart and these guys were their boyhood heroes. How about you?

  7. Thanks All.

    Rulebook, I never met him. But I hear from many people that he had time for others. The interviews I’ve listened to in recent times suggest a very self-deprecating, dry wit.

    BJW, I’m not surprised by the mistaken identity. Tall, skinny, cricket, Adelaide. Narrows it down to three: you, Rowdy and the barman at the Prospect Bowls Club.

    Cheers PJF. Can’t believe I’ve never made this inquiry: what did you bowl? Best figures? Best figures in highest grade?

    Smoke, I feel like, of all the things I.M. Chappell and his brother could do, their greatest achievement was to slow down time so that we really can remember those magnificent years, and could appreciate them at the time. Something held us.

  8. Peter Crossing says

    Lovely article John.
    Ashley Mallett. Very good offie. Also took some great catches in the gully. Wrote a book about Trumper, and now Harvey. He was a nice guy.
    Mallett gave a very warm tribute at Barry Jarman’s life celebration.
    Mallett was playing for Prospect at the time of the fateful India/South Africa Tour in 1969/70. On his return he spoke about the tour at a club tea. Three stories I remember. Eric Freeman defending the Australian rooms from invading Indian protestors, Mallett raiding a hotel kitchen in the dead of night in the hope of finding something palatable (enough said) and Bill Lawry’s disparaging comments concerning his bowling.

    I was at the Adelaide Oval on the day of Dennis Lillee’s Test debut in 1971. Geoffrey Boycott was run out at the bowler’s end. He dropped his bat, put his hands on his hips and glared in some incredulity at the umpire. Mallett and Greg Chappell ran to Boycott and one of them picked up is bat and handed to Boycott while the other gestured towards the player’s gate. I know Test cricket is a cauldron and am sure words were exchanged but somehow, to me, it has always seemed a less hawkish event than other similar happenings, for example, the send-off accorded to Daniel Vettori by Brad Haddin in the ODI World Cup final of a few years ago. This may say something about me or the in-your-face TV cameras that bring everything into the lounge room.

  9. Yes, I am very much the same, Citrus.

  10. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    1972/73 Shield averages

    AA Mallett 319.1 eight ball overs, 89 maidens, 893 runs, 49 wickets, Ave 18.22

    I’ve loved him ever since.

  11. Place and time bursts into life, Harmsy.
    Magnificent. Thank you.

  12. Enjoyable read. Maybe could have played more bar the great fast bowlers of the era

  13. Bernard Whimpress says

    ‘Skinny, me?’ Not an adjective that’s ever been applied to me before. At my lightest over the last eighteen months – 88kg. Must be the dark jackets I often wear.

  14. Keiran Croker says

    Thanks jth. Nice piece.

    I only recently completed reading Rowdy’s book Thwack just before he died. Buried in amongst anecdotes from across the decades of games he’d played in and reflections on great players or characters, were about four autobiographical chapters. Very self effacing though no lack of belief in his abilities, and great anecdotes of how his love for the game evolved.

    I’m assuming there is no definitive biography of Ashley’s life and career. Perhaps a project there for an enterprising writer?

  15. Agree with all these comments and love the article. What about those great times when India played Bedi, Prasanna, Venkataraghavan and Chandrasekhar??? May not have all the spelling right, but man, I remember that, 2 or 3 overs of medium pace from some batsmen or Madan Lal, then into it. Goodness knows how many 8 ball overs those blokes would get into a day, contrast with today’s time wasting proceedings.

  16. Daryl Schramm says

    All of the above.

  17. Superb JTH. Really enjoyed the trip down memory lane. I never knew that AA Mallett wrote much at all let alone the Harvey book.

    Loved the highlights package at the end.

  18. Shane Johnson says

    Wonderful nostalgic read thanks John. Prompted to me to get all my ABC crickets books out and from the 69 tour to SA in my handwriting in the back from the 1st test in Cape Town won by the Proteas by 171 runs
    AA Mallett 55.1 overs, 16 maidens, 5 for 126….yes 441 deliveries.
    Provided 19 and 5 with the willow
    Didnt play another test on tour after his 6 for……J W Gleeson preferred

  19. Ta John.

    I recall reading ‘Rowdy’s’ book when I was a kid. He spoke about the lengthy journey of the 1969-70 summer to India, then South Africa. The fact he bowled so well in India, then picked up a 5-for in the opening defeat in South Africa prior to being left out of the final three tests said something about how he was treated. My memory of the disastrous South African tour of 1970 is very faint it wasn’t on TV, but a 4-0 defeat did not auger well for the 1970’s.

    Anyhow ‘Rowdy’ bounced back, being a valuable member of Chappelli’s team. He also played in winning South Australian Sheffield Shield sides,most notably the triumphant team of 1975-76.That summer he put on a ‘performance’ when Victoria’s Alan Hurst bounced him at the Adelaide Oval. ‘Rowdy’s’ bat was thrown, he walked away from the wicket, Chappelli had a few words to say. It all ended up with South Australia beating Victoria by 2 wickets on their way to a Sheffield Shield.

    Vale ‘Rowdy’ Mallett.

    Glen!

  20. Thanks Peter. Not sure where I read the story of the Indian tor conditions – and the Bill Lawry letter to the Board reporting on the appalling conditions.

    I’m not a fan of the graceless send-off.

    That’s a big Shield season Swish – and to do it on the Adelaide track. Mike Sexton’s book on the Shield win with I. Chappell as the central character is excellent.

    Thanks ER and Raj.

    Bernard, good tactic. Obviously works.

  21. Fine tribute at so many levels JTH. One that struck me was the mimicry of adolescence – particularly before video, YouTube, and coaching systems.
    We all had a fine repertoire of bowling actions. I was more a TJ follower (on and off the pitch sadly). But when the floated leggier were landing on the wicketkeeper’s head there was always the Ashley offie fallback. At least it would land before being despatched.
    Same with golf. I had the Bob Shearer swing as my mainstay (another sad loss). But kept a Randall Vines; Ian Stanley and Billy Dunk for emergencies. Later developed a particularly loopy Roger Davis that worked off tees, but broke my wrists on hard fairways when attempting his chunky iron divots.
    The key was that we only saw them in real time and not on frame-by-frame slow motion video that allowed us to see how they made those quirky actions work. That’s my excuse anyway.
    Vale’ Rowdy and Bob.

  22. Luke Reynolds says

    Lovely tribute JTH. As someone who grew up in the Border era, the Chappell era and it’s players still had mystique, mainly from the senior players at the cricket club who loved talking the exploits of Ian, Greg, Dennis, Rodney, Thommo & co. As a young offie myself was always interested in Mallett. My interest heightened when in 1993 I bought Mallett’s book “Clarrie Grimmett The Bradman of Spin”. A wonderful book I’ve read several times. Have enjoyed his writing ever since. A sad loss, Vale Rowdy.

  23. Great read
    Just too young for Mallet though got his Ardmona Cricket Card from 1980/81

    Was a very good writer for Australian Cricket Magazine and wrote a lot on his love of spin bowling.

    Just got his book on Neil Harvey for Christmas and liked his books on Doug Walters and Jeff Thomson

  24. A fine tribute well told, JTH

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