Ashley Mallett weaves some spin magic again

Published: Jul 27, 2020, 09:02 IST | Clayton Murzello | Mumbai

Book by former spinner on fellow Aussie spinners brings out more than just art and craft, but character too

Ashley Mallett during the 1970s when he played for Australia. PIC/GETTY IMAGES
Ashley Mallett during the 1970s when he played for Australia. PIC/GETTY IMAGES

It’s been nearly 40 years since Ashley Mallett played his last Test for Australia; the last two of his 132 Test wickets were claimed in the England v Australia Centenary Test at Lord’s in August-September 1980. But the former off-spinner has not stopped spinning them when it comes to writing books on cricket.

Apart from educating us with works on Aussie legends like Victor Trumper and Clarrie Grimmett, the Adelaide-based Mallett, who turned 75 earlier this month, wrote insightful biographies of his former teammates Ian Chappell, Doug Walters and Jeff Thomson.

Now comes The Magic of Spin – Australia’s Greatest Spin Bowlers (published by Hardie Grant Books). Mallett is known to Indian cricket lovers for his 28 wickets in the 1969-70 home series, which India under MAK Pataudi, lost 1-3.

Mallett’s informative profiles on Australia spin bowlers over the years include one on himself. His family moved from Sydney to Perth where he enrolled at Mt Lawley Cricket Club. He tried bowling quick like England’s Frank Tyson but realised that his body was, “not and never would be built for speed. So I stuck to off-spin.” Mallett ended up as one of Australia’s most successful finger spinners. He opted out of Australia’s successful 1972-73 tour of the West Indies because he looked beyond the willow game to make a living – journalism. For long he has been known as a fine cricket writer of articles and books but he also covered parliament, did the police rounds and wrote “colour and hard news pieces.”

Mallett’s great mate was Terry Jenner, who like the off-spinner, moved from Perth to South Australia. Better known to some as Shane Warne’s spin guru, Jenner first played for Western Australia before making his debut for South Australia in 1967-68. In Mallett’s words, they were the “spin twins.” There were times when Jenner was not utilised enough by captain Ian Chappell and the big-hearted leg-spinner used to demonstrate his protest by thumping a beer bottle on the table of the Adelaide Oval dressing room. Invariably, he would want an honest explanation from the captain as to why he was not utilised better. Once, according to Mallett in the book, when Chappell didn’t give Jenner even a single over, the skipper asked an angry Jenner if he, “wanted an answer that would soothe his temper or whether he wanted the truth.” Jenner wanted “the truth.” And so he got it: “To tell you the truth, I forgot you were out there,” said Chappell.

I was delighted to see a profile of a man who did not have the good fortune of playing for Australia – Queensland’s Malcolm Francke. Mallett quotes Greg Chappell as saying, “Malcolm was a very good bowler and much underrated especially by Doug Walters and Ian Chappell, who always tried to belt the s**t out of him.”

Greg Matthews, that perky offie, who starred in the second Tied Test at Chennai in 1986, attracts wholesome praise from the author. He ended his appreciation of the New South Welshman with the words, “Yes, Mo (Matthews’s nickname) was a different breed of cat. He was also a tough, dedicated cricketer with commitment, flair, loyalty and consistency. Greg Matthews did not bow to convention. He did things his way.”

Matthews is also hailed for spurning two offers of $200,000 a season to go on rebel tours to South Africa. “No thanks, $200,000 wouldn’t make me happy,” he is believed to have said while deciding to play traditional cricket for his country.

What is a book on spin bowling without Shane Warne? Mallett goes into detail about Warne’s deliveries and the description of each is nothing short of riveting. But, he wrote: “For all his array of deliveries in his repertoire, much of it was Warne’s bluff. He became the greatest of cricket’s showmen. There were other great ones, such as Grimmett and (Bill) O’Reilly, but they weren’t showmen.”

Current star offie Nathan Lyon’s international cricket journey is described as, “something of a magical carpet ride.” Lyon could end up with 500-plus Test wickets, Mallet reckoned of the “the groundsman who soared.”

Mallett’s ability to tell a good story, touch upon on technical aspects without making it too complex for the reader while writing on, what Ian Chappell called in the Foreword, “the difficult art of spin bowling” and his captivating writing style puts him at the top of a strong tree of cricketer-writers. Not bad for a man who was told by his form master at Perth’s Mt Lawley High School that he was “hopeless at English.”

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