August 16, 2014

A shy Stephen Fry, an irate Elton John

Actors, pop stars, business tycoons and politicians have been attracted to cricket over the years

Sir Oliver Popplewell QC was used to pomp and ceremony and a sense of order in any gathering he had occasion to grace. And so it came as a bit of a shock when in 1975, Australian cricketer Ross Edwards heard his learned friend bellow across a crowded room where people stood in groups at the Royal Commonwealth Society cocktail party at the Commonwealth Club in London: "Good Lord, Edwards, who is that crashing bore smoking a pipe?"

Ever the diplomat, Edwards a splendid batsman and exceptional cover fieldsman, came to my rescue in record time:

"Oh, that's our offspinner, Sir Oliver. Not to worry. He's harmless."

"Hmm," the noted QC mused, "My dear Edwards, no one who smokes a pipe in a crowded room is harmless."

Sir Oliver was either a masochist or intrigued by my performance that evening for a couple of days later he invited me, along with Edwards, to his London home for a drink and a meal. When it came to cricket, Popplewell knew his onions. From 1949 to 1951, he played first-class cricket for Cambridge University. A wicketkeeper-batsman, he scored 881 runs at an average of 20.46 including two half-centuries.

I accompanied Edwards to the Popplewell home, where during the course of the evening Sir Oliver brought in a tall, shy young man, sporting a huge mop of hair worn in the manner of an English schoolboy, plump face with ruddy cheeks, to meet us.

It apparently was an important meeting for the 17-year-old Stephen Fry as, according to his photographic memory, I supposedly told him something that must have had some sort of profound effect on him for he mentioned the incident in his stirring, if irreverent, autobiography Moab Is My Washpot.

The Popplewells had two of the Australian Test side staying with them, Ross Edwards and Ashley Mallett, whom I met in a lather of dripping excitement: cricket by now had entered my soul for keeps. Ashley Mallett told me something that I did not want to believe, something that troubled me deeply. He told me that professional cricket was ultimately hell, because the pain of losing a match was more intense than the joy of winning one.

Edwards disagreed with him, but Mallett stuck fast to his belief. It was, as I see it now, simply a personal difference of outlook between the two of them, but to me it was fundamental. One of them must be right and the other must be wrong. Was the pain of failing a deeper feeling than the joy of success? If so, Robert Browning and Andrea del Sarto were wrong: a man's reach exceeding his grasp did not justify heaven, it vindicated hell."

I cannot recall the quote and the time spent at the Popplewells and indeed meeting the young Fry is a little foggy in the memory. And as I dig deep into my subconscious I cannot fathom how I might have made the remark about losing matches. I would like to think that I liked winning and hated losing. Maybe I stressed how distasteful a loss could be compared to the joy of a win. At least I am convinced that one learns more from a loss than a win, and that is demonstrably true in life generally.

Throughout the history of international cricket a variety of celebrities - royalty, actors, pop stars, business tycoons and politicians - have been attracted to cricket and its top players. In 1972, Australian actor Ed Devereaux, who starred in that old TV favourite Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, sat with the Test team at Lord's.

Despite the riches of today's cricket, I have yet to meet a player of my era who wasn't grateful, indeed glad, that he represented his country at the time he played

In the evening Devereaux used to have a pint with us in the front bar of the Waldorf Hotel in Aldwych. Often during our 1972 tour, Mick Jagger, a self-confessed cricket tragic, would join our happy group for a drink.

Here we were, a bunch of poverty-stricken Australian Test cricketers, rubbing shoulders with the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, who by that time was already rich beyond our imagination. But despite the riches of today's cricket, I have yet to meet a player of my era who wasn't grateful, indeed glad, that he represented his country at the time he played.

In 1980 we attended a grand dinner in London and the Australian team was being introduced in alphabetical order. Dennis Lillee was next man up at one point, but he was seen in earnest conversation with Sir Harry Secombe, the super singer, actor, author and comedian. In keeping with his immortal performance as Neddie Seagoon in The Goon Show, Sir Harry was joyously "taken" with Lillee's suggestion that Sir Harry walk on stage when Lillee's name was called. Giggling loudly, Secombe did just that, bringing down the house.

During a lunch-time meal in a crowded Cape Town restaurant in 1970, I set eyes on the great English actor Trevor Howard engaged in conversation with two people while enjoying a good Stellenbosch red. I introduced myself and learnt that Howard was in town "coincidentally at the very time a Test match is about to start".

It was, in fact, our first Test against South Africa, the first of four scheduled for a series that was destined to become the last for South Africa before more than 20 years. "You know," said Howard, "it is an integral part of any film contract I sign that there is included a clause which makes it perfectly clear that I am excused from work whenever a Test match is being staged."

Famously, the author of Peter Pan, Sir James Barrie, also loved the game of cricket. In 1934, Arthur Mailey, formerly a splendid legspinner for Australia, then a press man, invited one of the Australian tourists to England, Bill O'Reilly to accompany him to Sir James' flat in Adelphi Terrace, overlooking Pall Mall. Apart from Mailey and O'Reilly, Bill's Test team-mates Hans Ebeling, Alan Kippax and Stan McCabe were also present.

It was not until the early 1990s that O'Reilly wrote the foreword to my book about his old spinning mate Clarrie Grimmett. O'Reilly's foreword was one of the last pieces of writing Bill undertook. Bundled up together with the foreword was a written description of his dinner that night in 1934 with Barrie.

"Slow bowling was my forte,' Barrie said quietly and between puffs of smoke which emanated from a black-stemmed pipe, billowing up ominously behind his rather untidy drooping black moustache, he continued his discourse.

'I am, perhaps, the slowest bowler there has ever been. I'd rush up to bowl, release and then if I didn't like the look of my delivery I would hasten down the pitch and retrieve the ball before it had a chance to land or be smitten for four or worse.'

Noting my look of incredulity, Barrie proceeded to give his audience an example of his style.

"Bowling one day on my home ground in Kent I launched my customary leg-break and on examining it critically, I was compelled to cry out, 'My God he's out!'

"I was so delighted I retreated behind my bowling mark and sat cross-legged under the shade of a plum tree and as I sat in the shade the ball twirled down the wicket in the late afternoon sunlight, evaded the outside edge of the bat and leant up against the off-stump, gently removing just one bail."

There are times in your life when you really put your foot in it. In 1980 the Australian team made a brief tour of England for the Centenary Test. There were a couple of lead-up games and one was against Hampshire in Southampton. First day saw Lillee and Len Pascoe demolish Hampshire for just over 100. That evening at a local pub the players gathered and I found myself at the bar, chatting to a bloke waiting for his order.

"Did you see much of the game today?" he asked.

"Yes, I did. I wasn't in the side today but I watched it all."

"I guess you were disappointed with the Hampshire batting?"

"Indeed. Hampshire batted badly, but nowhere near as bad as the bloke who batted three. It is one thing to get a duck, but to have hung around for that long, playing and missing, mistiming and generally boring everyone at the ground was dreadful. The longer he batted the worse he got. Poor fellow. No future at all."

There was a pause before I asked: "Did you go to the game."

"Yes," he said with a wry grin, "I batted number three."

The man was none other than the one who was destined to become the smoothest among all of the modern television cricketer-presenters and commentators, Mark Nicholas.

Late in my career - it must have been in the last days of the 1981 summer - when, as a member of the South Australia cricket team travelling from Adelaide to Perth on an Ansett Airlines 737, I discovered that Elton John was sitting in business class. Elton and his band were on their way to a concert in Perth and he passed his personal autograph book back to where our team had gathered.

We all signed Elton's book and I added my forgery of Ian Chappell, who by the summer of 1980-81 had retired and was living in Sydney. A few minutes later passengers were startled when Elton John stood at his seat and said in a loud voice: "Who signed Ian Chappell?"

"C'mon, own up, I know it is a forgery because I saw Chappelli at Sydney Airport and I know he didn't get on this plane."

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