Ashley Mallett could spin a ball like few others in Australia’s cricket history. Now he spins a yarn like few others.
Mallett bowled 39,673 balls in first-class cricket. Now he’s more likely to churn out the odd 80,000 words for his latest book. He played 38 Tests. His tally is up to 37 books. So who better to tell Ashley Mallett’s story of his rise to the top as an SA and Test cricket great, than Ashley himself?
It was a rainy June day in 1951 when older brother Nick, aged seven, taunted his five-year-old sibling: “Beat you across the road, Ash.” Miller Street, Cammeray, was then a main arterial road to and from Sydney Harbour Bridge on Sydney’s North Shore. Heavy rain and the oil slicks on the surface made the road slippery and I fell involuntarily into one of those baseball slides so expertly executed by top-flight cricketers these days.
Trouble was, my slide brought me into the path of a large black car and I was run over, the wheels passing over my left thigh. As it turned out Nick beat me across the road by a good six months, for that was the length of time I spent holed up in the Royal North Shore Hospital. Then it required another nine months in a caliper and lots of physiotherapy.
For a kid of five, six months is a long, long time in hospital. I had time to think and mum and dad visited every few days, sometimes bringing me some sort of toy and once a magazine featuring Australian Test cricketers. By the time my hospital incarceration was done, I announced to my mother: “I want to be a Test cricketer.”
From then on, mum used to pull me up at the dinner table:
“Now Ash, manners, please. That won’t do when you dine with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.” Cricket was never big with my mum and dad but it was with my grandfather Alec West (mum’s father). Pop used to watch the great Victor Trumper at his best and the SCG was one of his favourite places to enjoy the game. On the final day of the second Test in Sydney in the summer of 1954-55, Pop took me to the SCG to watch what he thought would be an easy victory for Australia.
We sat right on the pickets in front of the Noble Stand. What a fabulous day. Neil Harvey hit a brilliant 92 not out. Frank Tyson, bowled like the wind to help England to an unlikely win and where Pop and I were seated, within a yard or two, was Colin Cowdrey, the young England batsman, who almost 14 years to the day became my first Test wicket at The Oval in 1968. Following your dream doesn’t always fall into place.
There are pitfalls, frustrations and periods of self-doubt along the journey. Growing up in Sydney our cricket heroes were always Keith Miller and Richie Benaud. They were brilliant – Miller, a war hero, established Test cricketer and Benaud, the up-and-comer. All the kids adored this pair and tried to emulate them in those inevitable backyard ‘Tests’ which took place in a million quarter-acre blocks across the land.
In 1955 my parents thought it a good idea for the family to move to Perth. Nick and I were aghast. The footballers were all off-side in a game my Uncle Bill West called “aerial ping pong” and not one corner shop I could find sold the old Peter’s favourite, the Paddle Pop. But kids are resilient. They soon adapt and soon enough we began to love the way of life in Western Australia.
I played baseball in winter and, of course, cricket in summer. I visited Adelaide in 1958 with the WA Schoolboys’ Eleven and we played on Adelaide Oval. In one match against NSW I happened to bag 9/20, a WA record wicket tally for an innings which is yet to be bettered in under-17 national championships. Life was good but in one year I shot up 11 inches and went from a little fella throwing them up to a tall, thin, gangling bowler spearing the ball into the pitch.
“You’re not flighting the ball,” dad used to say in a scolding tone. He knew things weren’t right but he didn’t know how to rectify it. But I was super accurate and could bowl for hours. In 1959 a skinny kid turned up at the Mount Lawley Cricket Club. He hailed from Corrigin, a country town a long way south of Perth. Terry Jenner exuded lots of confidence and we became mates, although there was always a fierce rivalry between us. Sometimes in cricket teams there is not room for two spinners.
The years flew by. Baseball became a summer sport, so I had to choose between cricket and baseball. I chose cricket. TJ got into the A-grade team sooner than me but eventually we both found ourselves in Mount Lawley’s senior team. The players had to provide something for afternoon tea. Mostly the fare was traditional cakes, scones and whatever, whereas mum used to send me off with her specialty – lemon sandwiches.
I must confess I never saw any other player – friend or foe – hop into one of mum’s lemon sandwiches. TJ played some 30 times for WA as an allrounder but with Tony Lock in the side he didn’t get much of a bowl and was batting low in the list. Meantime, I plugged away in grade cricket, always bowling okay but not getting bags of wickets. I rationalised it by kidding myself that I was a good bowler out of luck.
Then one day I said to myself, “Mallett, you cannot continue to be having so much bad luck. Something is wrong.” I read of Clarrie Grimmett, who took 127 five-wicket hauls in 248 firstclass matches. He was a leg-spinner, a great one, between the wars, a bowler who had dismissed Don Bradman 10 times. Surely, he could teach me how to bowl.
Early in my career in the fourth grade I would experiment. If my offies weren’t working on any day, I’d bowl leggies and I did okay with them. At the end of a two-and-a-half day train journey, I found myself knocking on the front door of Mr Grimmett’s house in Firle, on Greenhill Road. A woman answered the door: “Get off the porch, I’ve just washed it.”
At that moment at the back of the house Clarrie was sawing at the branch of a giant peppercorn tree. I followed the sound and suddenly this 76-year-old leprechaun sprang from the tree. After a brief introduction, he handed me the bat and said: “Let’s have a look at your batting.” My startled look prompted this: “Now look son, I taught a young man to back cut on board ship on the way to England in 1930…and Don Bradman was a fast learner!”
He had a ball in a stocking, suspended from a branch high in the peppercorn tree and he slung the ball my way. I met it with the full face of the Jack Hobbs Autograph bat. “Righto, son. Seen enough of your batting. Let’s go to the nets.” Clarrie had a full-sized turf pitch in his backyard. He wore casual street clothes, no pads, no box, no gloves. He tapped the pitch with his bat and called out, “Bowl up, son.”
My first ball was on a perfect length and it met the full face of his bat. He called down the pitch: “Give up bowling, son, and become a batsman. I could play you blindfolded.” I reached into my pocket and produced a handkerchief, asking him to put the hanky over his horn-rimmed glasses and I would continue to bowl. He laughed in agreement. Second ball again met the middle of his bat and when he stopped laughing, he gave me the greatest lesson in spin bowling I had experienced.
It was all about getting hard-spun deliveries above the level of the eyes of the batsman. He said that day in 1967 and he continued to say the secret to spin bowling was not where the ball landed but how it arrived. My experience to that date was a lot of toil for Mt Lawley without much return in wickets, although I did happen to get two matches as 12th man for WA. During the first of those games at the WACA and in between getting WA captain Tony Lock lashings of cups of tea-bagless tea, I read in a cricket magazine of a job going for a professional cricketer-cum-groundsman in Ayr, Scotland.
With a 30-minute crash course in wicket preparation from WACA curator Roy Abbott and a good reference from the club and former Test and WA player Barry Shepherd, I landed the job. Armed with the Clarrie Grimmett strategy to spin bowling I arrived in Ayr full of confidence. I got wickets like they were going out of fashion and returned to Perth where I was in the State squad. But I didn’t know where I stood in the scheme of things, so I asked selector Wally Langdon what were the chances of getting a game for WA.
“Well,” Wally said, scratching his chin,” We are looking at you for an allrounder’s spot … probably vying with Ian Brayshaw.” “Wally,” I replied, “That won’t work … I can’t bat. I am going to Adelaide.” From the outset I loved Adelaide Oval. Such a special place. The wicket spun like a top if you gave the ball a tweak and true to the Grimmett mantra had the hard-spun stuff arriving to the batsman in a dipping arc.
The players – Les Favell, Barry Jarman, Ian Chappell, Neil Hawke and Co – accepted TJ and me into the fold immediately and we loved the camaraderie and the way Favell would give the spinners a decent go. Apart from his terrific Test record, Clarrie Grimmett took 504 Sheffield Shield wickets for SA. And I am proud to have taken 344 Shield wickets at 23. Still think I am placed second to Clarrie in the list of Shield wicket-takers for SA.
I only bowled one leg-break in international cricket, in the summer of 1975-76 when the ball landed in the rough outside leg-stump and clean bowled Lawrence Rowe around his legs. That was a magic moment, especially with my old mate TJ standing at first slip. Never did dine with the Queen at Buckingham Palace but I met her on a few occasions, at Buckingham Palace, at Clarence House and on the green sward of Lord’s Cricket Ground.
Sometimes dreams do come true
05 November 2021