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Painting a Picture

A shley Mallett could spin a ball like few others in Australia’s cricket history.

Now he spins a yarn like few others.

Mallett bowled 39,673 balls in first-class cricket. Now he’s more likely to churn out the odd 100,000 words for his latest book.

He played 38 Tests. His tally this summer will be up to 34 books.

Outstanding South Australian and Test off-spinner Mallett worked his way to the top in a very different era than the one the professionals of today can thrive in.

He had to work for a living, while putting on the baggy green cap for Australia pretty much for the love and honour of it.

Mallett needed to establish a career so when he had to retire from the game he loved – and still loves – he would be set up for a long innings off the field.

Having to skip a Test tour of the West Indies to forge a career as a journalist – a great regret and a boon all at the same time – the master spinner then turned his hand to becoming an author. And a book due for release in November, Great Australian Test Cricket Stories, is certain to turn a few heads.

Mallett is a mild-mannered man. He doesn’t demand attention. As he tried to break into SA’s Sheffield Shield side in 1967-68, he was sitting quietly in a corner chair as 12th man after a day’s play against Victoria. SA wicketkeeper Barry Jarman walked past but suddenly stopped, wheeled around and yelled: “Shut up you rowdy bugger, cut out all the noise.” Amid a roar of laughter, Mallett’s nickname – Rowdy – was born.

Mallett still is quietly spoken. But when he speaks it is worth listening to, just like what he writes is worth reading. He doesn’t mince his words. As he has done as a journalist, Mallett calls it as he sees it.

There’s a chapter called ‘Chuckers? What Chuckers?’, in which Mallett investigates the doosra, the ball bowled to look like an off-spinner that goes the other way.

“When I played, I experimented trying to get such a ball into my repertoire,” he wrote. “However, I discovered the only way to achieve it was to chuck it. Frankly, I have never seen a bowler actually legally bowl a doosra. It has to be thrown.”

When Mallett first saw world record-holding Test wicket-taker Muttiah Muralitharan in action, he thought the doosra wasn’t the only ball he threw. His opinion never wavered.

Mallett had a couple of ambitions from an early age. He was determined to play Test cricket – not only that, to take 100 Test wickets – and become a writer. Only problem was, playing Test cricket in the late 1960s and early ’70s didn’t pay the bills. And trying to establish yourself as a Test player made it almost impossible to set yourself up in a career.

He had a go at it early on, finding work as a 21-year-old cricket professional-cum-groundsman in Ayr, Scotland. Mallett negotiated a weekly column with the Ayr Advertiser, the editor promising him £5. Mallett was rubbing his hands together at the prospect of spending his £110 for a season’s worth of 1500-word articles. At least the £5 note the editor pressed into his hand at the end of his stint was a nice, crisp one!

Within 18 months Mallett, having moved from Perth to Adelaide in a bid to earn not just a Sheffield Shield spot but a Test place, had realised the first part of his dream and had been presented the baggy green. But it soon came down to cricket v work. After establishing himself as Australia’s No. 1 spinner, he stunningly pulled out of the 1973 tour of the West Indies, to get into journalism at Messenger Press at Port Adelaide.

“It was a great learning curve – you taught yourself,” Mallett recalled. “You covered everything, you covered council and parliament, wrote colour and hard news pieces. They called me the sports editor and I was editing stuff (including local junior results) people were writing on dirty little pieces of brown paper while my mates were playing cricket for Australia in the West Indies.”

At least it set Mallett on the road to being a writer. But it doesn’t mean he looks back on his decision with great delight. “That’s my biggest regret, missing that tour,” said Mallett, who was at his prime and believed he could have claimed 30 Test wickets in the West Indies.

Before Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket revolutionised top cricket, it was “terrible … terrible … hopeless” trying to juggle playing cricket and working.

Mallett says the best cricketers in Australia were treated like schoolboys and on the 1972 Ashes tour of England “for the whole tour, about five-and-a-half months, we were paid $2200, that was your amount … I mean you would have got more as a clerk”. At dinner at their hotel in Stoke-on-Trent, Mallett made a stand. “The meal allowance barely covered the entrée,” he said. “So I went down to the fish shop, got fish and chips, came back and plonked it down on the table.”

Mallett may not have been an Ian Chappell or Dennis Lillee when it came to standing up for what was right but he called it as he saw it. As if missing tours and having to retire early – before coming back – because of work commitments was not costly enough, as a spin bowler in an era in which pace bowling was becoming predominant, Mallett often didn’t get a fair go from the selectors. When he said what he thought of his treatment, he compounded his problems by being too honest. “On three occasions I got six wickets in a previous Test and got dropped,” he recalled, admitting his candid responses to journalists at the time were not helpful in the long run.

Despite all that, Mallett claimed 132 wickets in 38 Tests at an average of 29.8. His first-class figures are outstanding – 693 wickets at 26.2 in 183 matches.

So if he could have played cricket these days, full-time, how many Test wickets could he have taken? “With the way they play spin bowling these days, I reckon I would have taken heaps,” he says with a smile.

Considering his stop-start career, his harsh treatment at the hands of selectors – and his first Test captain – and considering he was the slow man in the hurly-burly of the ’70s, Mallett is an unlikely hero.

Renowned Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh noted on CricInfo: “Quiet, gangling, short-sighted, Ashley Mallett looked like a book-keeper at a bikers’ convention in the Australian XIs of the 1970s.” Mallett “wasn’t all that wrapped” in the description but he admits, “yes, it’s a good quote”.

“Well I’ve written something about him,” he declares, pointing to his Great Australian Test Cricket Stories. Discussing the merits of writers and commentators of the game, he notes: “Among the moderns, Mark Nicholas stands out, so too Michael Atherton, Malcolm Knox and Gideon Haigh, whose rather scholarly approach describing cricket is highly-sought by academics and laymen alike.” He looks up from what he’s been reading. “Touche.”

There’s much more to Mallett than meets the eye. He is one of the great characters of the game. And, while he may have been quieter than some of his team-mates, Rowdy maintains he did get a word in with the world’s No. 1 Test team of the mid 1970s. “It was a good mix of people,” he said. “It was a different era. Chappelli was always holding the floor. When he was waiting to go in to bat he would be telling stories and carrying on, that was his way of coping with nerves and pressure. Other blokes wouldn’t say boo. Some blokes would stay in the same seat … very superstitious, cricketers. Except Dougy Walters. He wouldn’t even watch the cricket. He would be sitting around having a cup of tea and a smoke.”

Dashing batsman Walters, not a renowned trainer, famously shocked his team-mates when he declared he needed some practice, picked up a dart, threw it at the board in the dressing room and announced he was “loose”.

Mallett is a wonderful character himself – great company, self-effacing, generous to a fault and a laugh a minute. And he doesn’t mind laughing at himself, which is just as well. Because, for an outstanding Test cricketer, he is – always has been – remarkably clumsy.

Standing in the gully with the ball flying from edges found by express pacemen Lillee and Jeff Thomson he could catch anything, with either hand, throwing himself to the left or right, leaping high, crouching low.

He is reminded of the time in the early ’80s he was smoking as he typed one of his insightful cricket features for the Sunday Mail and the cigarette – as it invariably seemed to do – found its way into the waste paper basket next to his desk. The paper caught alight, Rowdy jumped from the desk, stomping his size 12 shoe in the bin, his foot becoming stuck. He tried to shake the bin off, falling to the ground in a heap. And a colleague calmly walked up and poured her cup of tea on the flames, dousing them.

The crowd cheered at the MCG as he pulled off another miracle catch. In the office at the Sunday Mail his colleagues also cheered – among the uproarious laughter.

The story sparks another memory. “I worked for Woolworths in Perth and I had a pipe and I used to empty the pipe into the bin … we had to vacate the room that day,” he said, poker-faced.

Australian Test cricket icon Richie Benaud’s widow Daphne recalled how, ‘we did used to laugh, Richie and I, watching Rowdy run to the boundary, arms and legs going everywhere … he’s so clumsy. And at breakfast somehow the sugar would end up in the salt – it would be a disaster but it was always very funny’.

Mallett said he became such a good catcher because he had played a lot of baseball in his younger days. “Most of my best catches were left-handed … I used to hold the glove in my left hand,” he said. “A bit like Bradman … I used to throw a golf ball at a wall and you almost get to a point where you anticipate where the ball is without even looking at the bloody thing.”

So, did he remember dropping any? “In Bill Lawry’s last game at Adelaide Oval and he gave me one over in the second dig,” said Mallett, who was not enamored with the Australian captain of the time. Lawry didn’t give Mallett’s early career much of kick-start, preferring pacemen to slow bowlers.

With Ashley Mallett, there’s always another story. “I was coaching (young SA off-spinner) Tim May and we were at Adelaide Oval,” Mallett recalled. “The Poms were out here and they were playing SA and (England Test offie) John Emburey was being rested and I asked if he could have a chat to Tim, who was on the cusp of coming into the side. The first thing Embers said was, ‘I don’t try to get a wicket for the first four overs’. And then ‘if I get hit for a four, I put a man back on the fence’, all this sort of stuff … it was quite negative.

“I said, ‘well, if you had played under Bill Lawry, John, you mightn’t have got any wickets at all’. I said, ‘once up in Brisbane I got four overs in three spells. It’s very hard to get a wicket’.”

Off-spin great Ashley Mallett shows his style against England at The Oval in Australia’s 1975 Ashes win.

When Ian Chappell took over from Lawry as Aussie skipper, things turned for Mallett. Given plenty of overs and encouraged to attack, it was under Chappell Mallett took his Test best 8/59 against Pakistan at Adelaide Oval in 1972-73. Chappell also made his highest score in Australia’s crushing win, with a stunning 196.

In the early ’70s Chappell and Mallett took to writing books. Chappelli penned Tigers Among The Lions on the 1972 Ashes tour, Passing Tests on the Paksitan Tests and Windies tour of 1973 and My World of Cricket, while Mallett wrote the autobiographical Rowdy.

Mallett isn’t overly fond of his first book, which he wrote while compiling local sporting results at the start of his journalistic career. But you have to start somewhere and he has written quite a few he’s proud of now – notably Scarlet: Clarrie Grimmett – Test Cricketer, Trumper, the Illustrated Biography and The Diggers’ Doctor: The Fortunate Life of Col. Donald Beard.

There also wasn’t instant success when he started as a general reporter at The News, Adelaide’s afternoon newspaper, after retiring from cricket for the last time in 1981. His first assignment was to head out to Cheltenham Cemetery, which had been targeted by vandals. He recalled: “The line which caused quite a stir was ‘Cheltenham Cemetery has a skeleton staff of seven’.”

In the chief-of-staff office, hardened newspaper veterans Geoff Jones and Doug Steele reacted with horror. “ ‘How the f… did this get in the paper?’ It got through two editions … we had four editions in those days.”

As a reporter, Mallett wanted to learn how to write fast – although he was determined to stick to his own style of storytelling. That he has learned to write quickly cannot be argued, considering he is now up to 34 books. The improvement is still continuing.

“I enjoy writing for Cricinfo and I write the odd article for The Advertiser,” said Mallett, who was chief cricket writer for The News in the mid 1980s but enjoys writing his books more than the hurly-burly of daily newspapers.

“I had written a few books and then I thought, well it’s about time I started to actually do them properly and not just get the thing out. It was like my early writing in articles, I would write a story and wouldn’t do another draft or anything. I would just write it and send it off and they would print it … or they wouldn’t print it. So I think I came to the stage where I needed to rein it in and get it right and get it really working well. Because often I would look at my story in a magazine and I’d say, ‘jeez, this should be better than that’. I always think something can be improved. Always. Even the Gettysburg Address could be better.”

Mallett, having found “the love of my life”, is engaged to be married to Patsy.

His writing improvement has continued since he met her four years ago. “She’s good at picking things up and she’s very encouraging.”

Mallett has always been a student of the game he loves and he has learned from great cricket writers like Neville Cardus and John Arlott. He loves to quote this quote of Arlott: “He played that cut so late, it’s positively posthumous.”

One of Mallett’s favourite lines from his stories is the first in his successful book The Diggers’ Doctor, which tells the remarkable story of long-serving SACA medical officer Donald Beard, who courageously tended to soldiers in combat in Korea and Vietnam.

“As the Diggers fixed bayonets and steeled themselves for the coming battle, the cold breath of oblivion swept down the Kapyong Valley,” Mallett wrote of a critical battle in the Korean War.

He enjoyed bringing to life Victor Trumper, Australian batting great of the Golden Age of Cricket in the early 1900s.

“When Trumper strode onto the green sward of his beloved SCG, the crowd rose in standing ovation,” he wrote. “Even the blades of grass seemed to bow respectfully in the wake of the great man and, in a gentle breeze, the grass became a rolling sea of green – nature’s own version of a Mexican Wave.”

Mallett loves to paint a picture.

And he’s actually taking it a step further now. He’s taking to canvas with strokes of which the great Trumper would have been proud. He and Patsy are learning to paint and his works, from Trumper, to WG Grace, to a sailing ship being tossed in the high seas, are impressive.

As for his books, the best may still be to come.

He is working on the story of St Francis House, Semaphore, which housed dozens of Aboriginal boys and teenagers from the Stolen Generation from the Northern Territory between 1946-59. Inspirationally, many of these boys rose to high achievement in Australian politics, activism and sport.

“It’s the best story I’ve come across,” Mallett said. “It’s a good, positive story not just for the Aboriginal community but for the community at large, especially young Australians – they should know this story.”

Mallett, who told the tale of the 1868 Aboriginal tour of England in the acclaimed The Black Lords of Summer, was asked to write the book by one of the St Francis boys, Vincent Copley, who has played a key role in the reclamation and protection of Australian indigenous cultural heritage.

“Vince told me it’s a positive story,” Mallett said. “Here’s a group of people who are good role models for young people – they showed what a good work ethic could do. They learnt a good work ethic at the home, especially under Father Percy Smith. But some of the wardens were quite cruel – they got beltings from some of them. There’s certainly some sadness. I think our kids today are a little bit ignorant what happened when the First Fleet arrived and since and there is still not proper equality with the indigenous people.”

Copley lobbied for the 1967 referendum in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census. Mallett says it is unbelievable Aborigines had not been counted before then. “Well, 1967’s just yesterday, really,” he said. Copley has recently been to Canberra for the 50th anniversary of the referendum.

“Vince played footy at Port Adelaide and Fitzroy and he befriended Doug Nicholls – later Sir Douglas – at Fitzroy,” Mallett said. “They became really good mates.

“When Doug was Governor of South Australia he rang Vince one day and he said, ‘Vince, I can’t go to work today, can you stand in for me?’ ‘Yeah, alright.’ He said, ‘I want you to host a couple of guests who are coming to dinner’.

“It happened to be the Queen and the Duke. So Vince was Governor for a day. Not only Governor for a day but taking the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to dinner.”

Harold Thomas, the remarkable artist who designed the Aboriginal flag, also had been sent to St Francis House but he has been proving elusive. “I flew to Darwin to try to find him and it’s proving hard … he lives in Humpty Doo (40km from Darwin) … I think he wanted to write his own story. I’ve got a chapter on trying to find him.”

Leading activist, soccer star, coach and administrator Charlie Perkins, Central District SANFL 200-gamer and Magarey Medal runner-up Sonny Morey, track-and-field and rugby league star Wally McArthur and triple Port Adelaide SANFL premiership player Richie Bray also were among the St Francis boys.

What a great story they make.

The turning point in the story of Ashley Mallett the cricketer was his move to Adelaide 50 years ago. “It was the best thing I did,” he said. “I’m glad I stayed, too, because I wouldn’t have met Patsy otherwise.”

Mallett loved bowling on Adelaide Oval. “I remember Hawkey (former Test medium-pacer Neil Hawke) saying to me, ‘you’ve really got to mix your pace here because it doesn’t turn’. But coming from Perth, where you had to really spin it to get anything out of the wicket, there was bounce and turn … ‘what’s he talking about?’ ”

He may have had to settle for fish and chips rather than a silver-service meal at the finest hotels on Australia’s 1972 tour of England but he remains “glad I played in my era”. “We didn’t get paid a lot but we played in a bloody good side and we played good cricket,” he said. “We played as much cricket … we played plenty of grade cricket and Shield cricket.”

Back then, Mallett said some of the Shield clashes were better than Test matches. And the rivalries between the States were fierce. “I remember Don Bradman saying to me one day, ‘why is Dennis (Lillee) trying to knock your head off?’ ‘Well, he’s probably trying to get me out.’ He said, ‘but you’re a team-mate’. I said, ‘not when I’m playing for SA and he’s playing for WA’.

Mallett does not feel any envy towards the top players of today. “It would have been nice to be able to play the game without having to worry about eking out a living outside of cricket but, no, I think they deserve big money.”

He is proud to have been part of the revolution that enabled Aussies to become professional cricketers. Mallett had retired when word got out about World Series Cricket. So he rang Ian Chappell, who would captain the “rebel” Australians. “I said, jeez I wouldn’t mind getting paid to play. I would like to come back and play,” Mallett recalled. “He said, ‘Oh well, I’ll have to talk to Kerry about that’. I said, ‘who?’ He said, ‘Kerry’. ‘Kerry who?’ ‘Kerry Packer – he pays the bills’. Before he got back to me, the greatest batsman who ever lived rang the newspaper office where I was working.

“ ‘Don Bradman here.’ ‘Oh, Sir Donald, how are you?’ ‘We would like you to come back to play for Australia.’ I said, ‘Oh, that would be nice.’ I said, ‘can you guarantee me five Test matches?’ ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ ‘Well you’re doing that with Bob Simpson (who returned from retirement to lead Australia’s Test team).’ That was a bit naughty. ‘No we can’t – you would have to take your chances. We would like you to come back.’ I said, ‘well, actually, I have had a call from an agent of Kerry Packer’s and they can guarantee an amount …

“Unbeknown to me, Packer said to Chappelli, ‘I’m not f.. signing that straight-breaker. No, he wouldn’t get me out!’

“For two days I sweated it out, then Chappelli got back to me and he said, ‘Kerry is willing to fly you to Sydney and he’ll bat against you for an over. If you get him out twice, you’ve got a contract.’ I said, ‘well, you can tell Mr Packer to get f…’

“And then I got a contract.”

Years later Mallett asked Chappell if he had relayed his message to Packer. He said: “No, I didn’t think it was in your best interest.”

“And then we played at Moorabbin, in a practice match. I got a four-for or something and sat myself down and Kerry Packer came along and sat down right next to me,” Mallett recalled. “ ‘Well bowled, son’. I said, ‘pretty good for a straight-breaker, wasn’t it?’ ”

That’s Rowdy. He may be quiet but he loves having the last word. Just as he’ll keep doing as his book tally keeps mounting.

By Peter Cornwall

Ashley Mallett today as an author.

Ashley Mallett’s portrait of Victor Trumper.