February 3, 2014

The literal art of cricket

Clarrie Grimmett, Arthur Mailey and Jack Russell were as evocative on canvas as they were skilled on the field

Cricket followers have revelled in the artistry of many great players over the years. However, a select band of celebrated cricketers have turned their hand to art of another kind.

Clarrie Grimmett was not only a wonderful exponent of legspin bowling, he was also a clever artist. While bowling was Clarrie's "breath of life" this veritable Bradman of spin could draw admirably with pencil or brush.

Long before he came to Australia, Clarrie was an apprentice sign-writer in Wellington. Art seemed a natural progression for him and when he left the sign-writing trade, he for a time ran the Clarrie Grimmett Bag Shop in Adelaide. As women browsed, the little spin wizard surreptitiously sketched their profiles on the back of a brown paper bag, a stack of which he kept within arm's reach under the bench top. Later, some of these sketches became works on canvas.

But Grimmett's art never became widely known, for he wanted to be taken seriously, not seen as some sort of comic turn like he perceived Arthur Mailey, his arch-rival in spin.

After his career ended, Mailey bought a butcher's shop in Cronulla, a Sydney suburb. On his shopfront window appeared the words: "I used to bowl tripe; then I wrote it; now I sell it!" Mailey was raised in Zetland, a slum suburb in Sydney, where he worked in a variety of labouring jobs before cricket and art, sketching in pen and ink and painting in oils, began to consume him. In 1921, the year of the first of his two England tours with the Australian team, Mailey's sketches and cartoons so impressed the London Bystander and Graphic that the magazine offered him a job at the handsome salary of £20 a week.

He spent his time away from cricket visiting galleries, museums and theatres, soaking up everything to do with British culture. One day he was at his easel at a house in an estate bordering the Royal House at Sandringham when none other than King George V paid him a surprise visit. On taking one look at Mailey's painting of an English summer's scene, the King's speech took on a critical tone: "Your 'sun' is out of shape." Quick as a flash, Mailey returned fire: "Your Majesty, since arriving in England I had almost forgotten what the sun looks like."

That wonderful English cricket writer Neville Cardus said of Mailey: "[He's] the most fascinating cricketer I have known" and an "an artist in every part of his nature".

Mailey's pen-and-ink sketch books fetch good prices these days. A 15.5 x 10cm cartoon entitled "Australian Press Box" is now selling for £350. His autobiography, 10 for 66 and All That (reprinted in 2008), is a brilliant piece of writing and the added bonus is that the book contains a wealth of the Mailey sketches.

Grimmett and Mailey knew all there was to about visualisation. Both were artists as spin bowlers; Mailey bowled like a millionaire and Grimmett like a miser, but despite their differences in strategy and attitude, both revelled in art. They could apply what they saw in their mind's eye to their bowling or to the canvas.

While Grimmett's paintings are good and Mailey's cartoons and sketches a delight, a more famous artist by far is the former Gloucester and England wicketkeeper, Jack Russell. He turned out for England 54 times, but his enduring fame will undoubtedly stem from his gift as an impressionist and portrait painter.

Russell has painted portraits of such luminaries as Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; guitarist Eric Clapton; comedian Norman Wisdom; and footballer Bobby Charlton. His evocative painting "Cockleshell Heroes" hangs in the Royal Marines Barracks in Poole, and other works are on display in such diverse places as the Bradman Museum in Bowral and the Tower of London.

As a wicketkeeper, Russell was eccentric, ever wearing his favourite black gloves until they literally fell to pieces. When rain stopped play at New Road in the early 1980s, the young Gloucester keeper, Russell, didn't do as the others did, sit about playing cards or chatting. He went for a walk into town. In Worcester he bought a sketch pad and pencils, then strolled back to the cricket along the banks of the Severn. He would later say, "If Rembrandt could do it, so could I."

On the England tour of Pakistan in 1987, Russell, the team's second keeper, played only two days of a six-week tour, so he had lots of spare time to take photographs and draw. Upon his return to England he displayed 40 sketches in a gallery in Bristol and they sold out in two days. Nowadays most of his paintings sell for £25,000 (or more); not bad for a young man who never studied art at school.

My own association with art has been rather more modest. In 1991 in Dunedin, I was coaching 60 spinners and decided to have them use a large wall as target practice. There were 20 groups of three bowling at the wall from a distance of some ten paces. Suddenly a man rushed towards us, waving his arms frantically. "Stop, stop," he bellowed, his eyes ablaze. It turned out that he was the curator of tan art gallery that shared the wall we were using. I never discovered how many paintings hit the floor that day.

Jokes apart, a week ago I stayed overnight with Ian Redpath at his family home in Geelong. I was there to speak at the Redpath Society dinner, and an hour or so before we left for the event I let slip that I had started painting in acrylic, confessing that if I made a mistake I could paint over and start again. The bearded Redpath smiled, raised a bushy eyebrow and nodded towards a framed painting hanging on his lounge-room wall. The impressive water colour is of St Nicholas Church, Longparish, place of worship of, among others, the former long-term cricket correspondent of the Times, John Woodcock.

"Wooders", one of the Redpath family's dearest friends in England, dutifully makes the short walk from his home, The Old Curacy, to open up the church three times a week, and will be delighted to learn that it has been portrayed in this way, especially by the hand of his good friend.

Once a week Redders, who enjoys coaching cricket and is often seen working with players at the Geelong Cricket Club, accompanies ex-Geelong footballer and Brownlow Medal winner Alastair Lord to a hall in the centre of the town of Geelong and the two focus on their painting. Redpath's days of running an antique dealership are now over. He still dabbles in renovating old pieces of furniture in his work shed, but painting, his hobby for the past eight years, has become a joy.

Many ex-players find their niche in writing or broadcasting; some like Ian Redpath paint. Perhaps there is also an art in a cricketer picking the right career pathway in their life after cricket.

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • on February 3, 2014, 9:27 GMT

    The late Wellington and NZ women's wicketkeeper Vi Farrell was a commercial artist by occupation and in her spare time, made some beautiful oil paintings. I saw some of them at her house years ago when her widowed husband was still alive. One included an amazing view of Wgtn showing the Basin Reserve and the surrounding areas in 1960. It was so good, that I got it restored along with the frame it was in and took photos of it, which I still possess. The irony about it is that I discovered the painting underneath the house after Vi's husband had told me that he thought some of her paintings were 'down there'.

  • Nutcutlet on February 4, 2014, 7:31 GMT

    Cricketers with sporting achievements in other fields are not uncommon (double internationals and the like); some cricketers can and do make very fine journalists and writers - some of whom can be read regularly on this site - Ed Smith, par excellence. But the artist-cricketer (or genuine cricketer-artist) is a rare breed indeed. Widening the scope to embrace other sportsmen or women with genuine cultural achievement is, I think, not likely to yield much, but I offer you one a great poet who boxed professionally: Vernon Scannell. To those readers who enjoy clear, crafted poetry of a very high order and are not familiar with his work, I would heartily him! Nice piece, Mr Mallett! Thanks.

  • on February 4, 2014, 2:24 GMT

    John Snow the peoples' poet!

    Another nice piece, rowdy. so much colour and not much movement, a great antidote to the "where will watto bat?" hysterical school of cricketism.

  • jbgardener on February 3, 2014, 5:41 GMT

    Richie Ryall who kept wicket faithfully and well for Western Province from 1979-1985, is today an accomplished artist based in Cape Town.

  • on February 3, 2014, 4:39 GMT

    Nice article. wish to see Cricket back in Pakistan especially in Peshawar so that we can see prosperous Pakistan again.

  • on February 3, 2014, 3:55 GMT

    Thanks Ashley Mallett. Spinners can have more in common with artists than athletes (Doshi, Underwood, Panessar). Actually I think spin bowlers should go to art school as part of their training.

  • on February 3, 2014, 9:27 GMT

    The late Wellington and NZ women's wicketkeeper Vi Farrell was a commercial artist by occupation and in her spare time, made some beautiful oil paintings. I saw some of them at her house years ago when her widowed husband was still alive. One included an amazing view of Wgtn showing the Basin Reserve and the surrounding areas in 1960. It was so good, that I got it restored along with the frame it was in and took photos of it, which I still possess. The irony about it is that I discovered the painting underneath the house after Vi's husband had told me that he thought some of her paintings were 'down there'.

  • Nutcutlet on February 4, 2014, 7:31 GMT

    Cricketers with sporting achievements in other fields are not uncommon (double internationals and the like); some cricketers can and do make very fine journalists and writers - some of whom can be read regularly on this site - Ed Smith, par excellence. But the artist-cricketer (or genuine cricketer-artist) is a rare breed indeed. Widening the scope to embrace other sportsmen or women with genuine cultural achievement is, I think, not likely to yield much, but I offer you one a great poet who boxed professionally: Vernon Scannell. To those readers who enjoy clear, crafted poetry of a very high order and are not familiar with his work, I would heartily him! Nice piece, Mr Mallett! Thanks.

  • on February 4, 2014, 2:24 GMT

    John Snow the peoples' poet!

    Another nice piece, rowdy. so much colour and not much movement, a great antidote to the "where will watto bat?" hysterical school of cricketism.

  • jbgardener on February 3, 2014, 5:41 GMT

    Richie Ryall who kept wicket faithfully and well for Western Province from 1979-1985, is today an accomplished artist based in Cape Town.

  • on February 3, 2014, 4:39 GMT

    Nice article. wish to see Cricket back in Pakistan especially in Peshawar so that we can see prosperous Pakistan again.

  • on February 3, 2014, 3:55 GMT

    Thanks Ashley Mallett. Spinners can have more in common with artists than athletes (Doshi, Underwood, Panessar). Actually I think spin bowlers should go to art school as part of their training.

  • on February 3, 2014, 3:55 GMT

    Thanks Ashley Mallett. Spinners can have more in common with artists than athletes (Doshi, Underwood, Panessar). Actually I think spin bowlers should go to art school as part of their training.

  • on February 3, 2014, 4:39 GMT

    Nice article. wish to see Cricket back in Pakistan especially in Peshawar so that we can see prosperous Pakistan again.

  • jbgardener on February 3, 2014, 5:41 GMT

    Richie Ryall who kept wicket faithfully and well for Western Province from 1979-1985, is today an accomplished artist based in Cape Town.

  • on February 4, 2014, 2:24 GMT

    John Snow the peoples' poet!

    Another nice piece, rowdy. so much colour and not much movement, a great antidote to the "where will watto bat?" hysterical school of cricketism.

  • Nutcutlet on February 4, 2014, 7:31 GMT

    Cricketers with sporting achievements in other fields are not uncommon (double internationals and the like); some cricketers can and do make very fine journalists and writers - some of whom can be read regularly on this site - Ed Smith, par excellence. But the artist-cricketer (or genuine cricketer-artist) is a rare breed indeed. Widening the scope to embrace other sportsmen or women with genuine cultural achievement is, I think, not likely to yield much, but I offer you one a great poet who boxed professionally: Vernon Scannell. To those readers who enjoy clear, crafted poetry of a very high order and are not familiar with his work, I would heartily him! Nice piece, Mr Mallett! Thanks.

  • on February 3, 2014, 9:27 GMT

    The late Wellington and NZ women's wicketkeeper Vi Farrell was a commercial artist by occupation and in her spare time, made some beautiful oil paintings. I saw some of them at her house years ago when her widowed husband was still alive. One included an amazing view of Wgtn showing the Basin Reserve and the surrounding areas in 1960. It was so good, that I got it restored along with the frame it was in and took photos of it, which I still possess. The irony about it is that I discovered the painting underneath the house after Vi's husband had told me that he thought some of her paintings were 'down there'.