February 15, 1921. Arthur Mailey captured nine English wickets at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and could have taken all ten if Patsy Hendren had not been dropped off his bowling. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the inimitable wrist-spinner who bowled like a millionaire.
He was more accurate than usual, but the figures still stand as the most expensive of all nine plus wicket hauls in Test cricket. And he would be the last one to be bothered about this oddity.
For Arthur Mailey was an artist, as far from the run-counting economist as possible. He bowled like a millionaire. It was largely due to him that before Clarrie Grimmett entered the annals of Australian cricket, that leg-break googly bowling was considered an expensive way to take wickets.
Mailey was creative, as his excellent sketches and entertaining writing would demonstrate later on. He would rather be hit for a four off an enormously spinning delivery than bowl a batsman with a straight one. Besides, with all his experimentation and guile, hugely turning leg-breaks and wrong ’uns, he was overly generous.
The Huckleberry Finn of cricket
The brilliant cricket chronicler RC Robertson-Glasgow remembers batting against him in 1921. When he had come in as a No 11, Mailey had greeted him with a smile — wide and sympathetic, and had 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 had 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.
Hence, indeed, even though it was his belated first Test series and he was playing in just his fourth Test match, he could laugh in retrospect at the chance off Patsy Hendren that went down that day. Mailey had 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 whose own leg spinners had obtained five Australian wickets. 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. Had Hendren been caught, it could have been a perfect ten.
The loops and curves of temptation
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.
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.
Captain Warwick Armstrong had battled injuries, illness and a vicious media to score a match-securing 123 at the age of 41 years, eight months and 22 days. Now, he had shown incisive judgement in keeping Mailey on in spite of periods of punishment. And in the second innings, Jack Ryder and Jack Gregory added 130 unbeaten runs for the third wicket to make a reasonable target look insignificantly small. Australia went up by 4-0, in their eventual 5-0 Ashes triumph as England were still trying to rebuild from the ravages of the Great War.
Service with a smile
So, did Mailey rue Hendren being missed off his bowling? Well, he was not one to attach too much importance to the vagaries of chance. He seldom planned or expected greatness and hence hardly ever rued the opportunities of immortality that slipped away.
Once when Victoria raced to the First-Class record total of 1107 runs against New South Wales, Mailey bowled 64 eight-ball overs without a maiden, conceding 362 runs while picking up four wickets. He observed that his figures would have looked a lot better had not three sitters been dropped off his bowling – “two by a man in the pavilion wearing a bowler hat”. The one missed by a team-mate did not elicit any of the reactions made famous by the likes of Fred Trueman down the years. Mailey merely said: “I’m expecting to take a wicket any day now.”
Arthur Mailey did not take himself or his accomplishments too seriously. His roots were humble, he worked as a labourer and gas fitter in his youth. That and the irrepressible sense of humour carried him through life with many a laugh and not so many sighs.
Long after his cricketing days — as a player and journalist — were over, he was supposed to have set up a meat shop with the huge placard that read: “Used to bowl tripe; used to write tripe; now he sells tripe.” For such a man, a dropped catch could easily be drowned in a chuckle.
(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 http://twitter.com/senantix)