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Ashley Mallett

"Drift through the wonders of life, drop on the lives of many, and put a spin on a great story"

Ashley Mallett (centre) is applauded by his team-mates for his 6 for 58, New South Wales v South Australia, Sheffield Shield, 2nd day, Sydney, February 22, 1975

Ashley Mallett (centre) is applauded by his team-mates for his 6 for 58  •  Alan Gilbert Purcell/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

MALLETT, ASHLEY ALEXANDER, who died on October 29, aged 76, was Australia's best off-spinner in the long period between Hugh Trumble's retirement in 1903-04 and the recent emergence of Nathan Lyon. Tall and accurate, Mallett had a delicate, spidery approach to the crease, and delivered the ball with a precise action that suggested he was placing it on the desired spot, coupled with a clear turn of the wrist, as if closing a door.
He was also a superb fielder, despite short-sightedness and a reputation for pratfalls. According to Ian Chappell, his long-time captain, he "might just have been the clumsiest man ever to take a hundred Test wickets and a slew of blinding catches in the gully".
Mallett had a circuitous route to the top. Born in Sydney but brought up in Perth, he took up off-spin after reading of Jim Laker's exploits in 1956. He was twelfth man in two matches for Western Australia in 1966-67 but, frustrated by the WACA's pace-friendly pitches, he (and future Test team-mate Terry Jenner) moved to Adelaide, not long after getting a lesson in slow bowling from the old Australian leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett. "It was all about getting hard-spun deliveries above the level of the eyes of the batsman," remembered Mallett, who would later write a biography of Grimmett. "He always said the secret to spin bowling was not where the ball landed but how it arrived."
Things started moving more quickly: Mallett took 32 wickets at 25 in his first season for South Australia, including six for 75 in a satisfying victory in Perth. "I could play you till the cows come home," WA's captain Tony Lock had informed Mallett the night before - but he was the last to fall, offering no shot to a big turner that knocked back leg stump. "The cows have arrived early," announced Mallett.
He also acquired his lifelong nickname. "I was twelfth man for the first match," he recalled. "Not a word did I utter unless I was answering a question from one of the players. After pouring the drinks at the close of play on day three, the keeper, Barry Jarman, walked past me, stopped abruptly, turned and yelled: 'Shut up, you rowdy bugger!'" Thus was born "Rowdy" Mallett.
That first season won Mallett a place on the 1968 England tour but, with the cautious Bill Lawry no great admirer, he received few opportunities until the final Test at The Oval. He claimed a distinguished maiden scalp, Colin Cowdrey, with his fifth ball, and finished with five wickets, all from the top seven - including Basil D'Oliveira after his historic 158 - plus a three-hour unbeaten 43, the highest score of his 38 Tests.
Mallett had a stellar tour of India in 1969-70. "I regard Erapalli Prasanna as the best off-spinner I played against," said Chappell, "and Rowdy matched him wicket for wicket - he ended up taking 28, two more than Prasanna." Even so, he was jettisoned after one Test in South Africa soon after, despite taking five for 126 in the first innings at Cape Town, which earned him a "Well bowled, bird-brain!" from his skipper. "Lawry, a renowned bird-fancier, probably meant it as a term of endearment, although he could have been kinder," reflected Mallett.
Things changed once Chappell became captain. After a subdued second tour of England, he bowled Australia to victory over Pakistan at Adelaide in December 1972 with a career-best eight for 59. "Pakistan fell victim to Mallett's improved guile and accuracy," wrote Phil Wilkins in Wisden. A burgeoning career as a journalist meant he missed the West Indian tour that followed, but he elbowed his way back into the side for the 1974-75 Ashes, when his gully fielding came to the fore as England's helmetless batsmen fidgeted and flinched against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson.
After a quiet time at the inaugural World Cup in 1975 in England - Mallett played in Australia's three group games, but not the knockouts - and in the four Ashes Tests that followed, he lost his regular place. He eventually signed for World Series Cricket - against the wishes of Kerry Packer, who thought he was just a "straight-breaker". Ian Chappell insisted on his inclusion, and Packer agreed, initially stipulating that he would sign Mallett only if he could get him out twice in an over in the nets. It's thought this confrontation never took place.
Increasingly troubled by arthritis, which affected his high action, Mallett played only three more Tests after peace was brokered. He went out in style, with the Centenary Test at Lord's in 1980, when he was preferred to Thomson, and claimed David Gower as his 132nd and last wicket. "He had the capacity to bowl sides out and contain batsmen when the situation arose," said Chappell. "Added to this was a good temperament and the ability to bowl his best at the better players."
He took up coaching, refusing to teach off-spinners the doosra because he was convinced it was impossible without throwing, and turned full-time to journalism. He produced two dozen books, the best probably the studies of his contemporaries Chappell, Thomson and Doug Walters. His last, a biography of Neil Harvey, was published a few months before Mallett's death from cancer. Left-arm spinner Brad Hogg, one of many who benefited from his wise counsel, summed him up: "Drift through the wonders of life, drop on the lives of many, and put a spin on a great story."