Almanac Cricket: Reading, Writing and Rowdy

John Pilger says journalists can measure their effectiveness by the size of their enemies.


Not sure that is quite what Ashley “Rowdy” Mallett had in mind when he entered the fourth estate but he did manage to instantly upset Ian Chappell.


It was the summer of 1975-76 and Mallett had started working for Messenger Newspapers which was Rupert’s weekly suburban giveaway in Adelaide.


He also was writing for Cricketer magazine and it was in this periodical that Mallett had the scoop that he was hanging up the boots at the end of the season along with team-mates Terry Jenner and Ian Chappell.


“Ian and TJ were both pretty pissed off I had announced their retirements,” says Mallett reflecting on the episode.


“Ian was trying to get a better deal for the players and so didn’t want to tip his hand and so I had to hurriedly make a few corrections and denials.”


If truth is a defence then he was vindicated at season’s end.  Chappelli ended his first-class career and took a job as captain-coach of North Melbourne, while Jenner played one more game for South Australia before being suspended for misbehaving in grade matches and decided he had had enough.


It was Mallett who continued playing. Despite writing his own retirement headline he kept bowling his door openers until the end of 1980-81 ending with 693 first class wickets. His best was 8/59 against Pakistan at Adelaide in 1972.


It had taken a while to find his feet at international level due in part to captain Bill Lawry’s apparent indifference to the craft.


“Lawry wasn’t au fait with spinners,” says Mallett, “He worked for Malleys and I think he thought spin was something to do with whitegoods.”


“If you went for more than four an over he never bowled you again.”


Chappell was different.


“He empowered you – you could set your own field and he would listen to suggestion. If it was ridiculous he would say ‘maybe one day we will try that but now …’ He wouldn’t instruct you how to bowl ever. He might say we need a wicket.”


“I remember once against England it was a draw but a good game. Both made big scores and he came up and said, ‘how do you think things are going?’ and I said, ‘Oh OK’ and he said, ‘so do I’ and he walked away. He was really only doing it to give the batsmen the shits.”


Mallett went on three Ashes tours and performed well on the subcontinent. At retirement only Hugh Trumble (141) had taken more finger-spin Test wickets than Mallett (132).


He did it all while looking, according to team-mate Barry Curtin, like a lawn bowler not a Test cricketer.


But playing Test cricket completed only half of his youthful ambition.


Mallett left school at 15 and on the way out his form master asked what he was going to do?


When told the teenager had accepted a job in the bank, the teacher asked if that was his life time ambition.


Mallett said no and added that he was going to play Test cricket and become a good writer.


In a moment of old-school bluntness, the teacher replied, “good luck because you are bloody hopeless at English.”


Mallett isn’t the first journalist to struggle with spelling and grammar but he had a couple of precious assets – he listened and he was curious.


As cricket took him around the world he used both to learn about people and places. He loved history, archaeology, and the places they visited on tour.


To teach himself to write he read Dickens. While he enjoyed it, he found the prose heavy with description.


“There was no television in that time and so everything had to be imagined. I think if he was alive now he would write differently because you can picture things. I learnt from reading Dickens that I don’t want to do it that way.”


When he started writing Mallett adopted the theory that he wrote down what sounded right to him.


With the patience and application of a spinner he also just kept at it.


His works now total almost two dozen including biographies of cricket greats (Trumper, Grimmett) contemporaries (Chappell, Walters, Thomson) the SACA and decorated military Doctor Don Beard, change room talisman Barry “Nuggett” Rees and the Aboriginal side that toured England in 1868.


His most recent publication is a gathering of stories. Although titled “Great Australian Test Cricket Stories” it less a collection of test match moments and more a recording of the thoughts and actions of a curious mind and an open ear.


Mike Sexton’s book Chappell’s Last Stand is out now. More details HERE

About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.


  1. Hi Michael,
    Good story mate. I have a brief recollection of Mallett playing cricket.
    I’ve got a few of is books.
    I have your book about Neil Sachse. A great read.
    Emotional in parts, inspirational in others.
    Well done.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Following SA in the 70s – gee we were blessed. I’ve got a copy of Spin Out on my “read one day” pile, maybe I should get to it pronto.

    Thanks for the reminder Mike. And I’ll have to get your book (which you were too modest to mention)

Leave a Comment