Meet Rocket Mann: the boy wonder of spin bowling.
From 1959 to his late teens Tony Mann was the young spin sensation of Western Australian cricket. Those who faced him in his early years will attest to "Mann's inhumanity to man" by the way he used flight and spin to perplex and befuddle. Like a young Shane Warne, Tony spun his stock legbreak fiercely, achieving such purchase that the ball fairly hummed in its dipping trajectory towards the batsman.
By the time both Tony and I were ten years old, we were playing against one another; Tony for Midland Guildford against my Mt Lawley in WA's Under-16 grade competition.
He always bowled from the end at which his father, Jack Mann, an umpire, stood. Jack Mann, the chief winemaker at Houghton Winery for nearly 40 years, was a pioneer in the WA wine industry, creating in 1937 the Houghton White Burgundy, now the White Classic, one of Australia's most popular drops.
Umpiring junior cricket was a breeze for Jack. When Tony got a ball to spin and take the edge, or to hit the pads, Jack smiled broadly as if to say, "That's my boy!" and gleefully raised the index finger of his left hand.
On weekdays after school, Tony, older brother Dorham, younger brother Bill, and neighbour Dennis Yagmich played backyard "Test" matches on the Mann family verandah. Tony bowled, Dorham or Bill batted, and Dennis crouched behind the wicket, supposedly there to snare a catch or a stumping, but his main role was to prevent any ball getting past him and careering on to Angela Mann's patch of prize geraniums. Yagmich rarely conceded a bye in those verandah "Tests". No wonder he went on to keep wicket for Western Australia and South Australia.
Before Tony turned 13, he used the orthodox offbreak as the variety ball to his stock leggie. At that time, in 1958, he taught himself to bowl the wrong'un, experimenting on the brick verandah of the family home. That 1958-59 season, Tony continued playing senior cricket with Middle Swan and took 93 wickets, eclipsing the record set by Jack Mann years before. (Jack was later left with a disabled right arm, legacy of a shooting accident, and was forced to bowl underarm legbreaks.)
In the wake of Tony's record-breaking summer for Middle Swan seniors, Midland Guildford stalwarts and WA sporting heroes Keith "Spud" Slater and Kevin Gartrell called in to see Jack Mann. They were on a mission to coax him into allowing his son to play A grade cricket for Midland Guildford. "Dad thought I was too young for such a step," Tony recalled, "But Spud and Garty were persuasive and Dad finally agreed."
In his first A grade match for Midland Guildford against a strong Subiaco batting line-up, Tony bowled 14 eight-ball overs and took 6 for 29. My Nedlands baseball mentor Neville Pratt, a WA and Australian baseballer and Subiaco's opening bowler, told me: "That boy Tony Mann will play for Australia. I'm sure of it."
Next grade game for Midland Guildford, Tony took two cheap wickets against Claremont Cottesloe, the only wickets to fall before the tea break. He stood with the other players at the tea pavilion, but he was wearing shorts, and the lady pouring the tea from a large container said softly, "Now dear, you'll have to wait until the players have finished their afternoon tea." Tony can never forget the moment: "Spud took me by the arm and came back to the afternoon tea area and said to the lady, 'Now this fellow Tony Mann is our best bowler. He's earned a well-deserved refreshment.' [The tea lady] Mrs Wakefield and I became very good friends afterwards," Tony laughed.
At university Tony played alongside John Inverarity and Rod Marsh. Both men saw the genius in young Mann's bowling. It was at university that Tony was given the tag "Rocket". Inverarity said: "Tony Mann was a brilliant fieldsman. He had a tremendous arm, a rocket arm." So the nickname wasn't a take on Elton John's iconic song after all.
Midland, WA and Test opener Wally Edwards, now Cricket Australia chairman, remembers: "Tony's father Jack was my first coach and gave me a good start from about the age of 12. I remember Jack saying, 'Tony loves to go kangaroo hunting. He is a very good shot and usually only requires one bullet to get the job done. So to give the 'roos a bit of a chance he doesn't take a gun anymore. He just takes a bag of cricket balls and knocks them over with his bullet throw.'"
Marsh kept to Mann at university and for WA. "Rocket Mann was a heck of a good leggie in his early days," he said. "I would say the fact that he had such a good wrong'un was the start of his demise. He used his wrong'un too much, as he knew few could pick it, and as a result he lost his excellent leggie. The fact that he got so many wickets with his wrong'un was bad for his bowling in my opinion. His playing for Bacup in the leagues in England didn't help. He would have bowled with a wet ball and just tried to contain. Batsmen eventually realised the difference between his leggie and his wrong 'un, as the different ball was his legbreak!"
Near the end of his career Neil Harvey batted for an invitation side against the WA Governor's XI at the WACA in the early 1960s. Tony deceived him with a beautifully flighted wrong'un that dipped sharply and spun away from Harvey, who was stranded well down the wicket. Marsh joyfully whipped off his bails. That was some coup for the youngster, because in 79 Tests, many of which were against the wiles of fabulous slow bowlers such as Jim Laker, Tony Lock, Sonny Ramadhin, Lance Gibbs and Hugh Tayfield, Harvey - always charging well down the track to the spinners - had never been stumped.
Maybe Stuart MacGill got things right with the googly. He had a superb wrong'un which was a brilliantly effective shock weapon for him. Those who saw Mann the boy, the boy wonder of legspin bowling, ponder what might have been had he used his wrong'un sparingly.
Overused wrong'un or not, Rocket Mann was a very good first-class cricketer for WA, playing 80 matches, scoring 2544 runs at 24.22 and taking 200 wickets at 34.54. The best of his five five-wicket hauls was his 6 for 94 for WA against SA at the Adelaide Oval. And wouldn't you know, he trapped me plumb lbw with his wrong'un in that game.
Rocket played four Tests for Australia, at home against India in 1977-78, a series played in fierce opposition to Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket. He took just 4 for 316 at an average of 79, but it was his 105 in Perth that highlighted his brief Test career. Rocket went in at the fall of the first wicket, becoming the second nightwatchman in Test history, after Pakistan's Nasim-ul-Ghani, to score a century.
He never bowled the "Midland Hanger", though - a high-flung ball designed to land squarely on top of the bails, a delivery that WG Grace lobbed so successfully all those years ago. "I probably did bowl the odd Midland Hanger… but never on purpose!" Tony laughed.
He was lucky to have come under the influence of Slater and Gartrell, and later Norm O'Neill and Barry Richards, all of whom gave such great service to Midland Guildford CC.
There was a time when Tony Lock coached a group of 12 spinners in a special squad at the WACA. Among those 12 were four men who went on to play Test cricket: offspinner Ashley Mallett, legspinner Terry Jenner, left-arm spinner John Inverarity and Tony Mann.
Throughout his cricket career, Rocket Mann batted, bowled and fielded with obvious joy and never-ending enthusiasm. November 8 takes his score to 68 not out.
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