Farewell, Rowdy

Ashley Mallett was among Australia's finest spinners - and a source of comedy on the field

Ian Chappell
Ian Chappell
Ashley Mallett during Australia's tour of England, May 26, 1972

Mallett took 132 wickets in Tests, behind Nathan Lyon and Hugh Trumble among Australia's most successful offspinners for Australia  •  Evening Standard/Getty Images

After a long battle with cancer, Ashley "Rowdy" Mallett has died aged 76, bringing to an end the successful cricket and writing career of a beloved team-mate of mine.
It wouldn't have surprised me if I'd received this horrible news following Rowdy suffering a bad fall. He might just have been the clumsiest man ever to take a hundred Test wickets and a slew of blinding catches in the gully. Then again, we were never quite sure about the extent of Rowdy's clumsiness, as many of his stumbles seemed designed to provide a laugh in the dressing room.
His clumsiness knew no bounds but probably reached its zenith at Lord's in the second of three ODIs in 1972. Mallett had bowled brilliantly in the first session as he completed the last over before lunch. In addition to taking the wickets of Dennis Amiss and John Hampshire, he'd been especially miserly.
The final delivery was played sedately into the covers and knowing it was lunch - along with everyone else bar Mallett - the English batters began to walk towards the pavilion. Sensing a run-out opportunity, Rowdy moved quickly to retrieve the ball but instead trod on it and twisted his ankle. Then, having been convinced by his team-mates that it was the lunch break, he picked up the ball and obligingly returned it to the umpire.
There was only one problem: the stumps were between Rowdy and the umpire and he flattened all three - leg, middle and off. This episode brought the house down, as did his performance in that match, 2 for 24 off 11 overs and a blinding catch at mid-on to get rid of the always dangerous Alan Knott.
How good was Mallett as an offspinner?
He got to 100 wickets in exactly the same number of Tests, 23, as Shane Warne. I regard Erapalli Prasanna as the best offspinner I played against, and in India in 1969, Rowdy matched him wicket for wicket - he ended up taking 28, two more than Prasanna.
In 1977, when World Series Cricket was being planned, Kerry Packer told me: "I'm not giving that [insert adjective] straight-breaker a contract" when I asked for Mallett to be included in the playing list. A few weeks later we were having dinner in Leeds with a few of the English players who had signed for WSC. Packer had reluctantly signed Mallett and wanted an assurance his investment was viable. He asked Knott his opinion of Mallett's bowling and when the keeper gave a glowing report, Packer accused me of prompting the Englishman.
Mallett was the best Australian offspinner I've seen, in addition to being a brilliant gully fielder. He could also be a useful lower-order batsman and once smote Jeff Thomson for four with a perfectly executed cover-drive. He didn't move as he admired the shot and when I asked him afterwards why he hadn't run, he replied; "I've always wanted to just stand at the crease after hitting a boundary."
He was also a courageous cricketer. As an offspinner he was often on the receiving end of a bouncer barrage, and one such delivery from Dennis Lillee broke his hand during a Sheffield Shield encounter at the WACA ground once.
As we chased a target of 291 in the second innings, I told Mallett he would bat at 11 and then only if we needed just a handful of runs. When the eighth wicket fell with 17 still needed, he raced out the door ahead of confirmed No. 11 Wayne Prior to face the bowling of Lillee.
Along with keeper Mike Hendricks, Mallett completed the victory but not before he'd toe-ended a cut shot from Lillee, which must have jarred his injured hand terribly. By the time he reached the dressing room his hand was shaking uncontrollably. I thanked Rowdy for what he'd done for the team and added, "But you're a bloody idiot going in to bat like that."
He simply replied, "I couldn't let Wayne go in to face Lillee."
Mallett got his best Test figures of 8 for 59 in bowling Australia to victory over Pakistan at Adelaide Oval in 1972. His last Test wicket was David Gower in the 1980 Centenary Test at Lord's.
After retirement his journalistic career flourished and he published numerous books and articles with a preference for writing on spin bowling. His book on the legendary legspinner Clarrie Grimmett, who gave Ashley some worthwhile advice when he was a budding offspinner, was a labour of love.
He had recently just completed a well-written and researched book on Australian champion batsman Neil Harvey, the last of the 1948 Invincibles.
In addition to his writing, Mallett regularly conducted sessions on spin bowling, many of them with his mate and fellow tweaker Terry Jenner. In recent years he remarried and was as happy as I'd seen him in a long time with his soul-mate, Patsy. Sadly this loving relationship was cut short but Rowdy will be remembered as a fine bowler, a valued team-mate and a soft-spoken but witty human being.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is a columnist