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Ashley Mallett

My life in cricket writing (and reading)

A player tells of how he came to fall into the line of work followed by Cardus, Arlott and others of that ilk

Ashley Mallett
Ashley Mallett
Mallett takes the wicket of Keith Fletcher, Headingley, 1972  •  PA Photos

Mallett takes the wicket of Keith Fletcher, Headingley, 1972  •  PA Photos

My dear old dad told me, "Aim for the stars and you might hit the treetops."
In 1960, when I was about to enter the workforce, my Mt Lawley High School (Perth) form teacher, Don Melrose, asked me what I was going to do. "Now you are just 15 and about to start work in a bank. Is that your life's ambition?" he asked with a curious pursing of the lips.
"Well, Don. I am going to play Test cricket and I aim to become a good writer."
"Ah," his eyes narrowed and those pursed lips instantly became thin, brown lines, "There is no money in cricket and writing is out because you are hopeless at English."
Mr Melrose was right on both counts: at that time, long before Kerry Packer rescued Test players by bringing television to the game, there was no money in cricket.
And my English wasn't exactly tickety-boo. I couldn't fathom either the depth or the value of grammar in all its various pedantic forms.
Lunchtime at the bank was an eye opener. In summer the round-table discussion always embraced three main topics: sex, cricket, and how to rob the bank. Winter was slightly different: Sex, football, and how to rob the bank.
I thought that my summer's 22 1500-word articles would net me the grand total of £110. Maybe I should have stayed in the bank after all, because the editor at season's end presented me with a crisp £5 note for my summer's writing
The bank taught me two things. It was a job I knew I didn't want to pursue, and it offered me an opportunity to regularly contribute to the suggestion box.
I wrote regularly. None of my suggestions, I might add, were ever taken up, but the exercise got me writing. Eventually I hit upon the idea that if one could articulate in speech then he or she should be able to write clearly and succinctly. Mark Nicholas is a fine example of someone who speaks eloquently and writes fluently.
As far back as the summer of 1954-55 my interest in cricket was sparked by a trip to the SCG with my grandfather to watch the last day's play of the Test match. My grandfather, Alec West, a man who idolised Victor Trumper and was a one-time vice-president of the Balmain Cricket Club, thought it a good idea to introduce his grandson to big cricket when Australia held the whip hand. Sadly Frank Tyson had other ideas. He ran through the Australians with a devastating display of fast bowling.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall the night before. On the penultimate ball before tea, stand-in captain Arthur Morris fell to a stroke that the Sydney Morning Herald's columnist Bill O'Reilly described as "suicidally wild…a shot borrowed from kerosene-tin cricket".
While Harvey batted bravely to Tyson, granddad, whom I referred to as Pop, and I sat at the fence in front of the MA Noble Stand.
On the ground at fine leg was no less a personage than Colin Cowdrey, then a man who resembled a ruddy-faced schoolboy. Fourteen years later, in August 1968, he became my first Test wicket, at Kennington Oval. Alas Australia lost that first Test match I attended by just 38 runs. Australia all out 184; Harvey 92 not out, Tyson 6 for 85.
The SCG experience fired my love for the game, and later Pop passed on some books in his cricket collection. One, A Century of Cricketers by Johnny Moyes, I devoured. When our family moved from Perth to Sydney in mid-1955, I took with me that book, along with another, Odd Men In, by the famous English author AA Thomson. Moyes brought to life such players as Trumper, Clem Hill, FS Jackson, Fred Spofforth, Hugh Trumble, Clarrie Grimmett, O'Reilly, Don Bradman and a host of others.
In 1967 I found work as the professional-cum-groundsman at the Ayr Cricket Club in Scotland. During my stint there I negotiated a weekly sports column with the Ayr Advertiser, the editor promising me £5. I erroneously thought that my summer's 22 1500-word articles educating the Scots about the game of Australian Rules Football would net me the grand total of £110. Maybe I should have stayed in the bank after all, because the editor at season's end presented me with a crisp £5 note for my summer's writing.
Within 18 months I was playing for Australia, and after tours of India and South Africa in 1969-70, I sought to follow a journalistic career. Greg Chappell knew the Messenger Newspapers boss, Roger Baynes, a self-made, big-hearted, rough diamond, who answered the phone when I called.
"So ya wanna be a journalist? Can yer type?"
I answered in the affirmative.
"Can yer do shorthand?"
"Okay, come down to the Port Adelaide and I'll give yer a job as an advertising salesman."
And so began my career in newspapers.
There was an attitude among coaches and the press that held that if Richard Hadlee or Malcolm Marshall was cut to the point boundary, it was always a brilliant shot; however, if a spinner was hit down the ground for four, it was always a "bad ball"
I opted out of the 1972-73 Australian tour of the West Indies purely because I wanted to get into journalism. It was terrific experience: I covered council and parliament, wrote colour and hard-news pieces, and did all-round general reporting.
The day I retired from cricket, in 1981, Geoff Jones, chief of staff at the News in Adelaide, offered me a job as a general reporter.
During the mid-1980s there was a dearth of spin bowling in Australia. There was a sad prevailing attitude among coaches and the press that held that if Richard Hadlee or Malcolm Marshall was cut to the point boundary, it was always a brilliant shot; however, if a spinner such as Greg Matthews or Bob Holland was hit down the ground one bounce over mid-on for four, it was always a "bad ball".
Then emerged the magical talent of Shane Warne. His brilliance was out of this world, inspirational to this writer. In the 1997 edition of Wisden I wrote a piece on Warne that included this line: "Until he came along, many feared wrist-spin was a lost art, gone the way of the dinosaurs, who vanished years ago when Planet Earth failed to duck a cosmic bumper."
Who can forget Warne clean-bowling Mike Gatting at Old Trafford with his first ball in a Test match in England.
Richie Benaud said simply: "He's done it." Ah, the power of brevity. Less is more.
Mind you, history might have been different had Phil Tufnell faced that ball. Most likely Tuffers would have been playing down entirely the wrong line and met the ball with the full face of the bat.
I never saw Trumper bat, but the iconic image of him jumping out to drive is an inspiration. It inspired me to write of him: "When Trumper strode onto the green sward of his beloved SCG, the crowd rose in a standing ovation. Even the blades of grass seemed to bow respectfully in the wake of the great man, and in a gentle breeze the grass became a rolling sea of green: nature's own version of a Mexican Wave."
A writer needs to read good writing. The names of the good ones roll easily off the tongue: Neville Cardus, AA Thomson, John Arlott, RC Robertson-Glasgow, John Woodcock, Moyes and O'Reilly among them.
The doyen of cricket writers was Neville Cardus. He wrote of Clarrie Grimmett, the great legspinner between the wars, a man who took 216 wickets in just 37 Tests: "To play forward to Grimmett, to miss and then to find yourself stumped by Oldfield - why it is an operation under anaesthetic."
"I love to see [Grimmett] bowl a man out behind his back, so to say - round his legs; the ball gently touches the stumps and removes perhaps one bail. The humorous cunning of it reminds me that the Artful Dodger used to walk stealthily behind his master and extract the handkerchief from the coat tails without Fagin's ever noticing it."
I love Arlott's "He played that cut so late it's positively posthumous."
William Shakespeare got the recipe right enough. It wasn't the words he used but how cleverly he built his sentences. Oh that the Bard had written on 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