August 23, 2009

Rowdy the chronicler

In praise of a cricketer who made the transition from player to first-rate cricket writer with ease
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International cricketers who turn writers have their options laid out. At the lowest rung of the ladder is the ghost-written column: the cricketer merely lends his name and collects the cheque after some hack somewhere writes the stuff, often without any input from the star. Tour diaries rate higher, alongside cookbooks (Matthew Hayden has written two). Then come the coaching manuals, which rip off the standard guides like the MCC Coaching Manual or Bradman's The Art of Cricket.

Like mystery writers and humourists, who essentially write the same book over and over again, some players give in to the demands of the twice- and thrice-written autobiography (Garry Sobers, Steve Waugh, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham, Shane Warne).

As we go higher up the ladder, there is the rung for the professional writer among cricketers, who combines a knowledge of the game with an understanding of syntax. Hence the special place that books by the likes of Jack Fingleton, Richie Benaud, Mike Brearley and Mike Atherton occupy.

Yet few cricketer-writers have written books on subjects external to themselves - like biographies or social commentary. Trevor Bailey's biography of Sobers is a fine study, while Ian Peebles has written about Denis Compton, Frank Woolley and Patsy Hendren; and Fingleton has written on Victor Trumper. But few have done so with the consistency and unexpectedness of the Australian Ashley Mallett.

Why unexpectedness? Because that is an important element in all art. The unexpectedness can either be in the content or the form. And Mallett writing about the 1868 Aboriginal tour of England in Lords' Dreaming is a departure for Test cricketers.

Forty years ago Mallett played a key role with his offspin in Australia's 3-1 win in India. He took 28 wickets, the best on either side, and he finished his career with 132 wickets. As a coach he played a role in the development of Ajantha Mendis, so the pedigree cannot be questioned.

Lord's Dreaming is written with a passion, and a loathing for the manner in which Australia treated its aborigines; one reviewer called it a "sad, even tragic" book. Interestingly for today's Twenty20 fan, cricket was not the only attraction for the players back then. One player travelled with 15 boomerangs, another could run 100 yards backwards in 14 seconds. The aborigines wore different coloured sashes to identify them individually, thus anticipating Kerry Packer by over a century.

A self-effacing nature can be charming, but it sometimes takes the author out of the book, and that can be limiting, especially when the author himself has played key roles in many of the situations and matches he describes

In Hitting Out, The Ian Chappell Story, Mallett pays tribute to Chappell for the campaign to have the 1868 cricketers officially recognised and allotted special player numbers (Aus 1 to Aus 13). "To go to England in those days was a remarkable act of endurance," Chappell said. "They paved the way for what followed, and they helped to make it easier for those that followed… they deserve to be recognised as Australian cricketers."

Mallett not only wrote biographies of his contemporaries - Chappell, Jeff Thomson and Doug Walters - he wrote about two of his country's greatest players, Trumper and Clarrie Grimmett. Trumper: The Illustrated Biography was inspired by the discovery of the batsman's 1902 diary in the Indian enthusiast Ramamurthy's collection, one of the best private collections then.

Clarrie Grimmett: The Bradman of Spin is a tribute to Mallett's guru. Mallett moved from Perth to Adelaide in 1967 to be coached by Grimmett, then 76. Within a year he was chosen to play for Australia. In another five years he was writing the first of his autobiographies, Rowdy, his nickname for being the quietest player in the Australian side.

Mallett's most recent book, Nugget - Man of the Century: The Remarkable Story of 'Nugget' Rees, Australian Cricket's Peter Pan, is the story of the talismanic Adelaide Oval dressing-room attendant Barry Rees, a friend and confidant of cricketers for over four decades.

Mallett has also written on Bradman's Band of players, and volumes on coaching. His writing style matched his bowling style, which was always described as "tidy". Yet not all of his 20-plus books would be automatic choices for a cricket library. The one on Grimmett would find a place, as would the one on the 1868 tour. This is partly because Mallett writes like a journalist, with greater concern for recording an event than for interpreting it or focusing on style. And partly because in his biographies, he lets the subject speak too much. A self-effacing nature can be charming, but it sometimes takes the author out of the book, and that can be limiting, especially when the author himself has played key roles in many of the situations and matches he describes.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore