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Unconventional, endearing, imperfect

A few errors aside, a tasty biography of the legspinner who discovered the flipper - and the cost of irking The Don

David Frith

The question: was Clarrie Grimmett as good as Shane Warne? Most of us at some stage have asserted that the outrageous Warne must surely be the greatest wrist-spinner of all, perhaps partly out of gratitude for his role in retrieving the golden art of spin bowling as it teetered on the brink of extinction two decades ago.
Then came revised thinking: what about Bill O'Reilly and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar... and CV Grimmett, the New Zealand-born Australian who, already 33 before given his break in Test cricket, spun his way to a then unique 200th Test wicket, averaging six per Test match, until the selectors pensioned him off soon after he had taken 44 wickets in a series in South Africa? He was then 44 - and fit.
This was the little chap who dismissed Bradman 10 times. He had also upset him with some frank remarks, which probably proved costly. Had "Grum", "The Gnome", "Scarlet" (take your pick) played as many Tests as Warne and maintained his strike-rate, he would have bagged 870 wickets.
Grimmett deserves a biography. He himself wrote books concerned mainly with technical matters. Ashley Mallett, Australian offspinner from 1968 to 1980 with 132 wickets in 38 Tests, brings a broader approach to this reworking of his own earlier book. It is lavishly illustrated, thanks to Grimmett's careful archiving (the files passed to his son), and the unconventional approach to the story makes for unpredictability in its telling. Obscure facts - such as the tale of the heavy battery box that fell and just missed him during his Test debut (11 wickets) at the SCG in 1925, and his Roman Catholic upbringing - keep popping up, and there are many departures from the main theme.
If anything, the Test series are dealt with rather too superficially, the reports slightly marred by the author's obsession with the expression "clean bowled". Some of those dismissals might surely have been off the pad or bat's edge?
Mallett, who was coached by Grimmett in the 1960s for $6.50 an hour, believes nobody has ever pondered more deeply about his art or worked on it at the nets more intently. Among other things, Grimmett invented the flipper.
Figures are not everything, but further reasoning, mainly about the batting opposition on offer in different generations, gingers up the debate. So too does the reiteration of Grimmett's lack of respect for Bradman. He once called him a "bloody squib" after deciding that The Don had shown funk against the raging fast man Ernie McCormick in a Sheffield Shield match. People tended to pay the price for provoking or insulting Australian cricket's supreme figure. Frank Ward became Grimmett's Test replacement, and the debate will go on forever over whether Ward, as Bradman insisted, was a better bet than the veteran.
Grimmett apparently never bowled a no-ball in his life, but the author and publisher have let a few slip through. It is hard not to wince when Ranji is confused with Duleep, Jack Hearne becomes "George" and the Trott brothers are mixed up. Nor did Claude Corbett originate the term "Bodyline" or Karl Schneider die from TB. As for "Charles" Fleetwood-Smith, the author must subconsciously have had a certain aviator in mind. Very tasty volume otherwise.
Scarlet: Clarrie Grimmett - Test Cricketer
by Ashley Mallett
The Cricket Publishing Company, hb, 280pp, £18

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. This review was first published in the May 2009 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here