Must-Read Books

Life of Mailey

The story of the only Australian to take nine wickets in a Test innings, told in a rich fruitcake of a book

David Frith

Mailey, Australia's 1920s legspinner, was a solemn-faced but humorous little chap. His ability to let troubles simply flow by probably derived from his Irish ancestry. Nothing seemed to bother him, though the Australian board's decision to ban him because of his journalistic activity must have hurt. While the booklets of his cartoons from his Ashes tours fetch big money today, he did not get around to penning his life story until he was 70.
By way of illustration, 33 caricatures are included here. There is also a colour reproduction of his painting of the cricket ground at Royal Sandringham, which serves as a measurement of Mailey's social elevation from the Sydney slum where he grew up.
He must be the only cricketer to learn of his Test selection while cleaning a water-meter under a coolabah tree alongside a chicken coop. Such was his excitement at seeing that newspaper announcement that he claimed not to remember whether he reconnected the meter or if the old lady ever had water again.
The title of the book sprang from his bowling figures against Gloucestershire in 1921. On his day he could be unstoppable. He is still the only Australian to take nine wickets in a Test innings: 9 for 121 at Melbourne in 1920-21. Like most players, Mailey found bully-boy captain Warwick Armstrong hard to take. On both these remarkable occasions Armstrong is said to have growled to his little spinner at the start, "Right, have a go at some top-order batsmen for once."
There are some instructional passages here, penetrative without being heavy, and some unexpected forward vision: "it is quite possible that powerful television corporations will buy up Test teams lock, stock and barrel and 'can' the match distribution throughout cricket-loving countries." This, astonishingly, was written half-a-century ago, when Kerry Packer was still an office junior.
From such a rich fruitcake of a book there is so much that could be happily anthologised. One passage in particular has been reproduced repeatedly. It concerns his dismissal of Victor Trumper in a club match (Mailey also dismissed Don Bradman later in his career) and concludes with the memorable sentence: "I felt like a boy who had killed a dove." Because of its over-use and recent doubts about the authenticity of this incident, I've chosen another passage from the book to illustrate its delights:
From the book:
At sixteen I was given the opportunity to become a glassblower. A galvanised iron shed in which a furnace melted glass to a light amber liquid was my next workroom. On a summer day the heat was intense. Even without the furnace the unprotected shed registered 110 degrees [F] in the shade. The floor was of roughly laid bricks which often burnt holes in my hobnailed blucher boots. This was hell all right, but it held at least three virtues. I became the youngest bottle blower in the State at a wage of £3 a week - half as much as an MP received in those days. It allowed me to buy decent clothes and pay the fee to join an art class. And, much more important perhaps, the continual spinning of the four-foot pipe which held the molten glass gave me fingers of great strength and toughness.
When bowling, my fingers never became calloused, worn or tired, and this, I feel, was responsible for the fact that I never met a bowler who could spin the ball more viciously than I, even if my direction or length were faulty. "Chuck" Fleetwood-Smith might have been an exception.
Continual blowing expanded and strengthened my lungs and later enabled me to bowl for hours without showing much sign of fatigue. Thinking back, I feel that greater use could have been made of my lung power when appealing, but as it was I seemed to get along on what was described by Neville Cardus as a "somewhat apologetic whimper".
10 For 66 And All That
by Arthur Mailey

Phoenix, 1958

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly