The Oval: my spiritual home
In a game against Surrey a few weeks earlier, Australian-born umpire Cec Pepper made it known he didn't like my constant appeals. "Rowdy," he said sternly, "you'll never die wondering." In that first Test match over I asked the question four times. As the fifth ball left my hand I knew it was a rip-snorter. It developed a lovely curve and dipped menacingly in flight before breaking back sharply to trap the Kipper dead in front. Umpire Charlie Elliott raised his finger and Cowdrey looked up, touched the peak of his cap and said politely, "Well bowled, master."
Before I moved from Perth to Adelaide to get a game, I was a sometimes member of the Limp Fall Club, a global institution inspired by its founder, the great cartoonist Paul Rigby. At Australia's team meeting at the Waldorf Hotel the night before the Test, the instant I realised I was in the XI, I celebrated in true limp fall tradition, throwing myself backwards off my chair and hit my head on the fireplace. A sore head, yes, but nothing would prevent me playing that first Test match although the incident ended my limp fall career.
I picked up five wickets for the match and was delighted that I could hold up against the strong England batting line-up, which included luminaries such as Ted Dexter, Tom Graveney, Basil D'Oliveira, Colin Milburn and John Edrich. England scored 494, with D'Oliveira hitting a career-best 158. Australia was 237 for 7 when I joined Bill Lawry. We survived to stumps.
The next day we stood together for two minutes in silent respect for Stan McCabe, who had died tragically at his Sydney home the previous day. When his score had reached 135 and our partnership 32, Lawry was given out caught behind. The umpire, Arthur Fagg, obviously didn't see what I saw, for the ball nipped back from outside off, clipped Lawry high on the back leg and flew through to the keeper.
The Phantom was not amused. I batted for three hours and hit what turned out to be my highest Test score, 43 not out, and somehow we avoided the follow-on. An old Aussie Digger, AJ Kirk, wrote me a lovely letter, praising my innings and fight. He mistakenly likened it to the battle he fought as a young man at Gallipoli. But I knew that cricket is just a game: war is hell.
Rain came, but not enough for our liking. There was the unforgettable image of the rotund Cowdrey, resplendent in creams and England blazer, standing under a brolly in the middle of the ground near two large puddles of water. As Cowdrey surveyed the scene, the ground announcer told spectators that anyone who helped mop up the water would receive a payment of 12 shillings and sixpence. The ground was cleared in no time and the Australians fell like a pack of cards. Derek Underwood ran amok, claiming 7 for 50. On an uneven or wet surface Underwood was indeed "Deadly".
1972: 'Don't you want us to reach 400?'
In 1972 Australia had to win the fifth Test, at The Oval, to square the series. The wicket was hard and fast, very much like Brisbane. It provided bounce and carry for the quicks and ample turn for the spinners. Dennis Lillee bowled quite magnificently, taking 5 for 58, and to my joy I bowled a lot in tandem with him and picked up 3 for 80 off 23 overs. I particularly liked getting rid of Tony Greig, caught at slip by Keith Stackpole, with a ball that curved away from the bat and bounced to take an outside edge.
England scored a moderate 284, with Alan Knott, that serial pest of a batsman, hitting 92. He had a funny front-on stance, holding the bat as if he were playing French cricket. Rarely would Knott launch into a drive, but he could whip to leg, cut along the ground or over the slips, and deflect the ball hockey-style either side of the wicket.
A brilliant 201 partnership for the third wicket by the Chappell brothers (Ian 118 and Greg 113) saw Australia reach a total of 399. I was run out for 5 and the instant I set foot in the dressing room my captain said with a smile: "Didn't you want us to reach 400, Rowd?"
Batting a second time England got 356: Barry Wood hooked brilliantly to get 90, helped by a string of moderate scores. That pest Knott belted a quickfire 63 before Lillee knocked his middle stump back to grab 5 for 123. I took 2 for 66 and we needed 242 to win.
The pitch had not slowed a lot, but there were rough patches and the dust flew when Ian Chappell advanced down the track to drive the spin of Ray Illingworth. Rod Marsh and Paul Sheahan got us home with an unbeaten sixth-wicket stand of 71. The pair ran off the ground in jubilation, Marsh madly waving his bat. In the after-match celebration Marsh stood on a chair and sang his rendition of what became our official team song. He apparently adapted the lyrics from a well-known poem about a sprig of wattle.
1975: lifeless as a dead dingo
My last Test at The Oval was in 1975. It was a dull and boring affair on a wicket that was as lifeless as a dead dingo. The England players were on the front foot to Jeff Thomson, a ploy that only a few months previously would have proved fatal on the lightning-fast Perth track.
The Oval is famous for its gas holders that have towered near the ground since 1861, seven years before WG Grace turned up to watch the 1868 Aboriginal team play Surrey. During a break in play in that match, the Aboriginals delighted the crowd with demonstrations of their skill in hurling spears and boomerangs. The 20-year-old Grace, then a spitting image of Ned Kelly, made the fans sit up by throwing a cricket ball 118 yards one way, then 109 yards against the wind.
In 1882 at The Oval, Australia won for the first time in England, thus spawning The Ashes legend.
Walking onto The Oval in a Test match is very special to Test players because you are following in the footsteps of the greats: Grace, Trumper, Bradman, Hobbs, O'Reilly, Hutton, Laker.
I think fondly of England, its people, their humour, the lovely tone of their voices, north and south, especially those who hail from Kent, and their pride in the summer game. In a cricket sense I consider The Oval to be my spiritual home.
Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell