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Arthur Mailey: Australia’s first celebrated leg-spinner, who was also a cartoonist, painter and writer

Arthur Mailey (above) possessed a googly that troubled many batsmen including the likes of Victor Trumper, Jack Hobbs and Sir Don Bradman © Getty Images
Arthur Mailey (above) possessed a googly that troubled many batsmen including the likes of Victor Trumper, Jack Hobbs and Sir Don Bradman © Getty Images

Arthur Mailey, born January 3, 1886, was a leg spinner of great flight and turn and a fascinatingly interesting character. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was variously a cricketer, labourer, cartoonist, painter and writer.


Remarkable leg-spinner and fascinating man


Neville Cardus called him “the most fascinating cricketer I have known.”


The brilliant cricket chronicler RC Robertson-Glasgow remembers batting against him in 1921. When he came in as a No 11, Arthur Mailey greeted him with a smile — wide and sympathetic, and proceeded to bowl three high and harmless deliveries outside the off stump that were hammered for boundaries. After this, he had the Somerset medium-pacer stumped “by a wide margin of space and time”. And as the tail-ender walked back, Mailey asked him, “Enjoyed yourself?”


According to Robertson-Glasgow, Mailey had “something of Huckleberry Finn about him”, stopping along the high roads of adventure quite often to exchange laughter and lend a helping hand.


Mailey was a remarkable leg-spinner and a fascinating man. He turned the ball – by huge degrees, much more than his contemporaries, more than most of his successors. He tossed it up as an experiment in the science of spin, with disdain for the probable hits for boundaries and beyond. “It is for the medium pacers to keep the runs down, I am here to take wickets,” he used to say. He possessed a googly that troubled, among others, Victor Trumper, Jack Hobbs and Don Bradman – three of the greatest batsmen of all time. And yet, he approached his task with accuracy sacrificed in pursuit of turn and flight. His famed words echoed in his actions on the field: “I’d rather spin and see a ball hit for four, than bowl a batsman with a straight one.”He added, “If I bowl a maiden over, it’s not my fault but the batsman’s.”


Later he became a writer of wit and wisdom, a cartoonist, a painter and a raconteur as none other, and lived his life to the fullest.



Rising from the slums


Mailey was born on January 3, 1996, in Zetland – a suburb described by Cardus as ‘the excretion of Sydney.’ According to his own memoirs, his mother Charlotte White was a ‘formidable but loving woman who strove to keep the family alive.’ His father John Hambleton was carpenter, ‘a handsome soldierly man, proud of his Northern Ireland heritage.’ The reason why the mother had to strive to keep Mailey and his six brothers alive was that perhaps along with being a proud man of martial bearing, John Hambleton was also an alcoholic and a very small proportion of his earnings reached the family coffers.


Hence, Mailey rose from poverty, from his cubbyhole of a room in a wooden shack in the slums where the only artefact of note was a photograph of Victor Trumper jumping out to drive. Each time a new child was born in the family, the carpenter added a partition in the shack. From this cold, windy room, Mailey stepped out in the streets and at the age of 13 left school to become a trouser presser, a glass blower and later a Water Board labourer.


Finally, his employment as a Water Board labourer gave him the wherewithal to buy a cricket ball. Mailey carried it all the time, bowling at anyone who was game. When he found no one, he bowled to uncomplaining walls.


As legend has it, he was bowling against the toilet block wall on Sydney’s Domain when a vagrant, homeless man approached him. It was from this scrounger that Mailey learnt the art of the googly – at that time known as ‘bosey’. It opened up a completely new dimension to his life and cricket. He was a late starter, but by the time he was 21, he had made his way into the First Grade side of the Redfern Club.



The boy that killed a dove


At this juncture the incident took place that has gone down as folklore — and it is up to the discretion of the reader to be struck by the wonder of the tale or remain skeptical about its veracity.


It was now that Redfern Club came up against Paddington and Mailey played against the great Trumper. As he described in his autobiography 10 for 66 and All That, Mailey could not sleep, so apprehensive was he about meeting his hero on the field. Not that he cared for his bowling figures. He was worried that the great man might have some small accident, cut himself while shaving, and not turn up. When he finally bowled to him, Trumper hit him for a boundary off a superb off drive, the most beautiful stroke Mailey had ever seen. And then he had the maestro stumped off a googly, two yards down the wicket, with a googly that beat even his great willow.


According to Mailey, “there was no triumph in me as I watched the receding figure. I felt like a boy who had killed a dove.” The story had for long been relegated to the stature of questionable apocrypha – the meeting with Trumper a figment of Mailey’s very fertile imagination. But recently discovered scorebooks have revealed that there was indeed such a game and Trumper was indeed stumped off Mailey. Did he really feel as if he had killed a dove? Given Mailey’s mental make-up, chances are pretty high.



First-Class and Beyond


Mailey made his First-Class debut in 1912-13, playing under the captaincy of Trumper. In his first game he took five for 46 from 9.5 overs against Western Australia. A week later, against the same opponents, he captured seven for 105 and six for 47.


In June1913, Mailey travelled to Canada and USA as a member of a privately sponsored side. The Australians played 53 matches, winning 49. Mailey captured 187 wickets at 7.26. Five of these games were acknowledged as First-Class and the leg-spinner scalped 24 wickets in them averaging a little more than 11.


Back in Australia for the summer, he toured New Zealand, picking up eight wickets against Hawke’s Bay and seven more against a representative Kiwi side. Young Mailey was on the threshold of Test cricket, but at that juncture, with a rude jolt, cricket came to a sudden halt. The First World War broke out in Europe.


Mailey tried to join the Army, but was rejected on health grounds. So, he played cricket during the War years, representing the Balmain Club. In 1915-16 he became the first bowler to take 100 wickets in First Grade cricket. That same season, Balmain won their first title.


The War was a bitter affair, which not only delayed Mailey’s Test career but also claimed two of his brothers. When cricket resumed in 1920-21, Mailey at last made his Test debut under the redoubtable Warwick Armstrong.



Test debut


Against the men of Johnny Douglas, the 32-year-old Mailey took three wickets in each innings at Sydney, did not get a bowl at Melbourne and took five in each innings at Adelaide.


In the second Test, he carried an injury. Armstrong, aware of the value of the £25 match fee to the impoverished Water Board labourer, played him all the same. When the series returned to Melbourne for the fourth Test, Mailey paid his captain back with four wickets in the first innings and nine in the second.


Being Mailey, he could laugh in retrospect at the chance off Patsy Hendren that went down that day. But for the miss, he could have had all ten. Mailey had already taken four wickets in the second innings, which included those of Jack Hobbs leg before and Frank Woolley stumped with a brace of googlies.


With the score on 201, Hendren was finally bowled by some unusual swerve generated by Charles Kelleway. England, facing a 108-run first innings deficit, was revived by some adventurous hitting by Percy Fender. As Johnny Douglas held on at the other end, Mailey was singled out for punishment as Fender raced to 59.


And then, suddenly, the last five wickets fell for 10 runs — all to Mailey. That day, even the reticent Douglas was lured into stepping out to be stumped by the ever alert Sammy Carter. The lower middle order perished to hits that went awry, as the ball spun in ways defying expectation. And at last, Abe Waddington became the third man to be stumped, ending England’s innings at 315. Mailey had taken nine for 121 off 47 overs.


Did the leg-spinner rue the missed chance of Hendren? Chances are that he laughed about it. When fielders dropped chances off him, his way of reacting was to smile and remark, “Never mind, I am expecting a wicket any day now.”


In spite of the presence of Ted McDonald and Jack Gregory in the line-up, Mailey accounted for 36 English wickets at 26.67. It was an Ashes record that took 58 years to be broken by Rodney Hogg. Hogg played six Tests as opposed to Mailey’s five.



10 for 66 and all that


After this first series, Mailey never quite reached the same heights as a bowler. He toured England in 1921 and took 134 wickets on that historic voyage with Armstrong’s great side. But, it was Gregory and McDonald who wrecked England in the Tests. Mailey played three of the Tests and captured 12 wickets.


However, it was on this tour that in the second innings of the match at Cheltenham against Gloucestershire that he ended with figures 28-4-66-10. In the 1930s, W.C. Sellar and R.J.Yeatman had authored a tongue in cheek version of English history, covering the times from the Norman invasion of 1066 to the First World War. They called it 1066 and All That. The bowling analysis against Gloucestershire gave Mailey the license to call his autobiography 10 for 66 and All That.


The 1921 tour may not have been that successful in terms of the Test matches, but it witnessed another epochal moment in Mailey’s life. His cartoons impressed the London Bystander and Graphic and they employed him for the considerable sum of £20 a week. Mailey also spent his time in galleries, museums, theatres and taverns – in general soaking up the British culture. He started writing for the papers as well and could at last bid adieu to his life as a labourer.


On the way back, Australia played in South Africa and Mailey took another 12 wickets in the three Tests. As usual he had a whale of a time outside the cricket field.


In 1924-25, when Arthur Gilligan’s team came along, Mailey played in all the five Tests and captured 24 wickets.  But, they came at 41.62 apiece in a series dominated by batsmen. However, there was that moment of Mailey magic. In the second Test, Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe had batted on a sticky wicket affected by thunderstorms, and had still managed to put on 283! Mailey, who had been taken to the cleaners by the two great batsmen, now persuaded captain and friend Herbie Collins to give him a bowl. With the second ball of his new spell, he bowled Hobbs, with a looping full toss.


According to AG Moyes, “When the Mailey full toss came down from the skies… often it would dip at the last minute; sometimes it would make a late change of course…. the wise batsman was the one who feared Mailey the Greek bringing such gifts.”


He returned to England in 1926 and took 126 First -Class wickets at 19.34. He held an exhibition of his paintings as well. When Queen Mary commented that his work was excellent but the sun was not convincing, Mailey quipped, “But Your Majesty, in this country I have to paint the sun from memory.”


The Tests however were disappointing with just 14 wickets from the five matches. In the great final Test, he did get Hobbs, Sutcliffe and Frank Woolley among his six first innings victims. In the second innings, as Hobbs and Sutcliffe battled to save the game on a pudding of a wicket, Hobbs misread his googly and was trapped plumb. Sutcliffe looked downwards in agony. Umpire Frank Chester later said that Hobbs had been palpably out. But, wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield perhaps thought the ball had pitched outside off. Mailey also did not appeal. The batsman survived.


Later Mailey said, “Frank may well be right but I always thought I appealed too much anyway.” He bowled Sutcliffe with a gem of a delivery off the final ball of the day. He was tired after bowling top spin and googlies all day. “I could barely get my arm over”. And he sent down the fastest leg break he could manage with all the spin on it he could muster. “Herbert Sutcliffe lunged languidly forward but never quite realised what had happened until he heard the death rattle.”


Sutcliffe walked back after a great innings, but did not admit that Mailey had bested him. It would be three decades before the Yorkshireman would ask the little spinner from New South Wales, “What was that ball you bowled me with at the Oval?”





Back in Australia, Mailey scripted the unflattering record for conceding the highest number of runs in an innings. At Melbourne, Bill Ponsford scored a triple hundred and Jack Ryder stopped short by just five runs as Victoria scored 1107 and Mailey finished with four for 362 from 64 overs. The irrepressible leggie was, however, not really crestfallen. According to him: “The figures would have been a lot better had three sitters not been dropped off my bowling, two by a man in the pavilion wearing a bowler hat.”


Mailey retired from Test cricket soon, replaced by Clarrie Grimmett. The end was hastened by New South Wales Cricket Association (NSWCA) ruled decreeing that he could not continue to write about the game while playing. Mailey opted for the money in journalism. He earned substantial amounts from the Sydney Sun and then the Sydney Daily Telegraph.


In his 21 Tests he ended with 99 wickets at 33.91.


He continued playing First-Class cricket off and on till 1930, and had the honour of dismissing Bradman twice in the same match. However, he did suffer a lot at the hands of the great man in their final meetings. His final tally was 779 wickets at 24.10.


The small man ran in with a shuffle and five easy steps, weaving from side to side, and carrying the ball in his left hand. At the last moment, the ball would change hands, and his right hand would be flung back till hidden behind his back. A peep over the left shoulder would gauge the mind and method of the batsman. Sometimes, the astute caricaturist gauged the temperament of the batsman in dinner conversations and tuned his bowling accordingly. His arm came directly over the top, classical in action, and his fingers ripped across the ball. The curve of the offering would be slow, looping and would often trick the batsman, with less of deviousness and more like a smirking prankster.


Some of the looping deliveries ended up as full-tosses, but even they got wickets – Jack Hobbs fell to them twice in Test matches. Mailey gave the batsman all the time in the world to come out of the crease and gorge himself, and it carried the caveat of increased chances of demise.


He was a good catcher in the slips fieldsman, and a clever captain to boot. He could be useful with the bat as well, but took pains to conceal his merits. Against England, at Sydney in 1924-25, he put on a then world record 127 with Johnny Taylor for the last wicket of which he made 44.


Taylor and Mailey were granted a joint Testimonial Match by the NSWCA in 1955.They walked out to loud applause before play started, Mailey draped in an overcoat. He bowled with a low arm as Taylor took strike, and the ball struck the stumps. Mailey observed, “I should always have bowled with my coat on.”



Laughter and brightness


Most of Mailey’s writing, as his cartoons and his opinions, were self-deprecating and often side-splitting. Hugely popular in all the countries he travelled to and lived in, he enjoyed being the butt of jokes. Many were regaled by his own tales of his poor bowling, when he was barracked, “Oh for a strong arm and a walking stick.” He loved to tell the story of his meeting a formidable lady member of the Royal Family after a long day in the field. “I’m a little stiff from bowling,” he explained as he offered a ginger hand. “Ah,” replied the lady. “I wondered where you came from.”


He continued writing, drawing, painting and organising cricket tours all his life. His books of cartoon are now published as paperbacks and sell for £350 and more. His 10 for 66 and All That remains one of the most popular cricket biographies. He wrote his own account of the Bodyline series as well, titled And then came Larwood. The fly leafs depict his cartoons of batsmen in the full armoury of a medieval knight. However, Mailey did not criticise the tactics used by the Englishmen.


During World War II, Mailey vigorously supported the Federal government’s austerity campaign. And even in his later years he was a bowler at heart. When Len Hutton was knighted for his services to the game, he voiced his congratulations adding, “I hope the next one is a bowler. The last bowler to be knighted was Sir Francis Drake.”


Finally, when he was done with travelling the world, he settled down in a Sydney Beach. He ran a mixed business at Burraneer Bay, Port Hacking, where he enjoyed writing, painting in oils, fishing and golf. His general store included butchery. Over the counter hung a notice “I bowled tripe, I wrote tripe and now I sell tripe.”


Arthur Mailey passed away on the last day of 1967.


(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at

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