Ashley Mallett © Getty Images
Ashley Mallett © Getty Images

Ashley ‘Rowdy’ Mallett was born July 13, 1945. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at career of gangly Mallett who played 38 Tests and 9 ODIs and is hailed as Australia’s greatest post-War off-spinner till Nathan Lyon came along.

Despite producing four of the greatest leg-break bowlers of all time (we’re not even including Arthur Mailey or Stuart MacGill here) Australia has given birth to only a handful of off-spinners, almost none of them an all-time champion. Of the few that have gone on to make an impact Hugh Trumble heads the list with 141 wickets — but his career had ended in 1904.

Since Hugh Trumble — his last Test was in 1904 — who took 141 wickets, no Australian off-spinner has matched Ashley Mallett’s tally of 132 Test wickets at 29.84 and a strike rate of 75.6. Mallett had picked up 5 five-fors and a 10-for. If we ignore his comeback year (1980, in which he performed abysmally due to an ineffective low-arm action as a result of acute arthritis) he had picked up 125 wickets till 1976 at 27.95 and a strike rate of 73.0.

Update: Since the time of writing of this article, Nathan Lyon has gone past both Trumble and Mallett.

During this period he was next to only Derek Underwood and Lance Gibbs among spinners in terms of wickets; Underwood and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar in average (with a 50-wicket cut-off); and Chandra and Erapalli Prasanna in strike rate (once again, using a 50-wicket cut-off).

Playing mainly for South Australia, Mallett had an illustrious First-Class career spanning 183 matches, picking up 693 wickets at 26.27 with a strike rate of 57.2. He had picked up 33 five-fors and 5 ten-fors. In Sheffield Shield alone he had picked up 344 wickets which placed 12th on the all-time list and third among spinners (after Clarrie Grimmett and Greg Matthews).

The tall Mallett often rose to a gigantic height with his minimalistic, angular run-up and unusually high-arm action, which meant that he could extract uncanny bounce from the surface. He wasn’t a huge turner of the ball, but his awkward bounce often had the batsmen in trouble — especially on the hard Australian pitches. Because of his reliance on bounce and not on turn, Mallett was a bigger threat to right-handers, who were made to play the lifting ball that came into them: the 107 right-handers he had dismissed had averaged 24.77 while the 25 left-handers had 42.04.

The lanky man who, according to Gideon Haigh, “looked like a book-keeper at a bikers’ convention in the Australian XIs of the 1970s,” was ironically nicknamed ‘Rowdy’ by his teammates. Amicable, soft-spoken, and very bookish in nature, Mallett was surprisingly agile at gully, giving birth to the commentators’ phrase “three slips and a Mallett.” He took 30 catches from 38 Tests.

Early days

Mallett was in the Western Australia squad of 1966-67 but could not make it to the first eleven. He was named 12th man for two matches but was not picked on the spinner-unfriendly WACA ahead of Tony Lock. He moved to Adelaide next season — mostly to seek guidance from Clarrie Grimmett. Along with him came his mate Terry Jenner (albeit to pursue a romantic interest), the Western Australian leg-spinner, with whom he would forge a long partnership for South Australia. They even played two Tests together, and Mallett called Jenner ‘my twin’.

Despite the fact that both were contenders for a national slot, Mallett and Jenner maintained a healthy contest; the duo developed an excellent rapport. Mallett later said: “We [Jenner and Mallett] never had to discuss strategy or who we should be bowling to, it just happened instinctively.”

Despite two poor matches to begin his career (against the touring New Zealanders and Indians — both at Adelaide in 1967-68) he had a splendid Sheffield Shield; he picked up 2 for 65 and 6 for 81 against Queensland at The Gabba on his Shield debut, and backed it up with two more eight-wicket hauls against Western Australia at WACA and against Queensland at Adelaide Oval. He finished his first home season with 32 wickets at 25.15, and was an obvious pick for the Ashes tour of 1968.

Test debut

Mallett did commendably on his first England tour. After a quiet match against Lancashire at Old Trafford he came to his elements at Northampton. He took 3 for 31 in the first innings and wrecked the Northants with 7 for 75 in the second. He kept on picking wickets throughout the tour and was eventually selected for the last Test on a turning track at The Oval with Australia 1-0 up in the series.

England won a crucial toss and decided to bat first; Australia were never in the Test after that and ended up losing by 226 runs, the Test culminating in the spectators participating to dry the ground before Underwood spun the hosts to victory five minutes before close. Mallett, however, picked up 3 for 87 and 2 for 77 (including Colin Cowdrey in each innings) and had made a fair impact. He finished the tour with 44 wickets at 28.29.

With 39 wickets at 23.15 in the next home season (including 7 for 57 in an innings and 11 for 98 in the match against Queensland — both career-best hauls till then) Mallett was given another chance, this time against West Indies at The Gabba where he picked up a solitary wicket in the match. He did not create an impact, but was selected for the spinner-friendly pitches of India for what would eventually turn out to be his greatest.

The India tour

The significance of Mallett’s performance in the 1969-70 tour of India can be ascertained from the fact that Australia did not win a series there in the next 35 years. All four Australian bowlers performed superbly and were backed well by their batsmen. Graham McKenzie picked up 21 wickets at 21.00, Alan Connolly 17 for 24.41, and John Gleeson 10 more for 34.70. However, the most impactful performance came from Mallett who had 28 wickets at 19.10 to go with an economy rate of 1.79.

To put things into perspective, only seven touring bowlers have picked more wickets than Mallett in a series in India; two of these feats had come in a six-Test series; and the list contains only two spinners — Richie Benaud and Underwood — with 29 wickets apiece.

Australia won the Bombay Test comfortably but the second Test on a sluggish pitch at Green Park was drawn. Mallett put the Indian batsmen— renowned for their footwork against spin — on a stranglehold and ended with figures of 51.5-30-58-3 in the first innings. India squared the series at Kotla despite Mallett’s 6 for 64 (his first Test five-for) and 2 for 60. He had taken 8 out of the 13 Indian wickets, but Bishan Bedi and Prasanna took 9 apiece to win the Test for India.

Mallett played a crucial role with his 4 for 82 in the win at Eden Gardens before the teams headed for the final Test at Chepauk. It was a Test of three off-spinners: Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan took four wickets each to bowl out Australia for 258; Mallett, however, was alone in comparison to the Indian trio (which also consisted of Bedi) as Bill Lawry had decided to field three seamers. Not disheartened, he bowled brilliantly to pick up 5 for 91 as Australia acquired a 35-run lead.

Prasanna then picked up 6 for 74 and India were left to chase 249 to level the series. Australia needed only a draw, but Mallett had more to offer: just when India were looking to get away with match at 114 for 2 Mallett ran through the batting line-up taking 5 for 53, leading Australia to a 77-run victory. It would remain his only 10-wicket haul in Tests. He picked up 45 wickets from the tour at 17.20 and was named an Indian Cricketer of the Year in 1970.

In and out

Australia plummeted to the abyss of the infamous 0-4 whitewash in South Africa immediately after the India tour. Mallett trundled on, with 5 for 126 in the first innings at Newlands (his third five-for in as many innings) but was mysteriously not picked for another Test — even after picking up eight in the match against Border at East London.

Refusing to give up, Mallett concentrated on his batting in the domestic season for the first time. He scored a career-best 92 against Western Australia at Adelaide Oval, and two matches later, top-scored with 76 against Victoria at MCG (these two would remain his only First-Class fifties).

Despite this he found it difficult to break through to the Test side. It took him a match haul of 7 for 120 (along with an aggressive 42 not out) against the touring MCC to find him a spot in the home Ashes. The third Test at MCG, however, was washed out, and Mallett ended up playing the first ever ODI. His 3 for 34 from eight eight-ball overs was the best figures of the match as Australia won easily by five wickets.  \

Eventually selected for the fourth Test at SCG Mallett did pick up 6 for 125 in the Test but Australia succumbed to John Snow’s famous 7 for 40 following Geoff Boycott’s heroics. He was dropped (why?) in the next Test at MCG, but was brought back at Adelaide Oval. When the entire side was given a makeover (including Bill Lawry being axed) Mallett was dropped rather unceremoniously.

After having a successful 1971-72 season at home (54 wickets at 19.64 with a career-best haul of 13 for 122 against Western Australia at Adelaide Oval) he was once again selected for the Ashes tour of 1972. It turned out to be an encore. He picked up five-fors against MCC at Lord’s and Somerset at Bath, but was picked as late as in the fourth Test — the ‘Fusarium Test’ of Headingley.

It was an uphill task after Australia were bowled out by Underwood for 146. Mallett, however, toiled hard in tandem with John Inverarity; he made the English batsmen sweat for their runs and picked up five of the first six wickets. Ray Illingworth and Snow then turned things around with a 104-run eighth wicket partnership before Australia were routed again by Underwood.

Retained at The Oval, Mallett produced match figures of 5 for 146 to play second fiddle to Dennis Lillee. That, combined with a 201-run partnership between the Chappell brothers, helped Australia return with the series levelled 2-2. Mallett picked up 41 wickets on the tour at 28.41.

The Adelaide Test

Australia whitewashed Pakistan 3-0 in the 1972-73 — but the pressure started with Mallett’s spell in the first Test at Adelaide Oval: he had an innocuous start, picking up a solitary wicket as Lillee and Bob Massie bowled out Pakistan for 257. After Australia acquired a massive lead of 328 Mallett took centrestage. Sadiq Mohammad and Saeed Ahmed put up a formidable 88-run opening stand before Mallett trapped the latter leg-before. Then there was a collapse and Pakistan were bowled out for 214 before they could realise it. Sadiq (81) was the only one who resisted and Australia ended up winnings by an innings and plenty.

Mallett finished with figures of 8 for 59. These would remain his best First-Class figures. They also remain the third-best bowling figures by any spinner on Australian soil (after Arthur Mailey’s 9 for 121 and Albert Trott’s 8 for 43) and the best since World War II.

Later years and decline

Mallett picked up 19 wickets from the two back-to-back series against New Zealand that followed, but what really impressed the selectors was his performance in the home Ashes that followed. Finally getting a chance to play a full Ashes, Mallett provided excellent support to the devastating trio of Lillee, Max Walker, and the fastest of them all — Jeff Thomson.

Australia trounced England 4-1 in the series. Thomson topped the bowling charts with 33 wickets at 17.93; Mallett came next with 17 wickets at 19.94 — above both Lillee and Walker. He did not take a five-for but contributed by picking up crucial wickets in every Test. After 24 Tests Mallett’s career read 105 wickets at a remarkable 23.86 with a strike rate of 66.5. Of all post-war spinners with over 100 wickets only Johnny Wardle, Jim Laker, and Muttiah Muralitharan had better averages. He had reached the 100-wicket mark in only 23 Tests — the second-fastest among all Australian post-War spinners (after MacGill).

The jacket of One of a Kind: the Doug Walters Story mentions: “Ashley Mallett’s cricket ambition was to take 100 Test wickets, a feat he achieved in his 23rd Test for Australia.” The dream had been achieved. With the advent of Thomson and the success of Lillee, however, Mallett was reduced to a containing bowler and his last 14 Tests yielded 27 wickets at 53.11 with a strike rate of 111.2. Within a year of The Ashes he was gone.

Mallett found bowling more and more difficult due to the bouts of arthritis, and he quit cricket after three ordinary Sheffield Shield outings in the 1976-77 season, retiring to work as a journalist at News Ltd. When he got to learn about Kerry Packer’s lucrative contracts he thought “actually getting paid to play the game resonated with me” and contacted his former captain Ian Chappell (whose biography he later went on to write). On hearing the proposal from Chappell, Packer apparently reacted with the words “I’m not hiring that f***ing straight breaker!”

Meanwhile, Mallett received a call from Don Bradman. The great man asked Mallett to make a comeback but did not guarantee him a spot for the entire Test series the way it was guaranteed to the captain Bobby Simpson, who was also making a comeback in his early forties. Mallett contemplated the two options until he received a call from Chappell. Packer had apparently agreed to offer a contract to Mallett on one condition: the off-spinner had to fly to Sydney, bowl an over to Packer, and had to dismiss him at least twice.

Mallett responded with the words “tell Mr Packer to get f***ed!” Chappell later revealed that he had not relayed the sentence to Packer (“I didn’t think it would be in your best interests); however, Mallett had acquired a World Series contract.

Comeback

Not only did World Series Cricket help Mallett earn a fortune, it also helped him to make a comeback to mainstream cricket: he returned to First-Class cricket after a three-year gap and picked up 7 for 100 against Tasmania at Devonport in his comeback Sheffield match; he followed this with 7 for 166 against New South Wales at Adelaide.

He also played two Tests that summer, making an international comeback after four years at 34. Though he picked up three wickets against West Indies at Adelaide Oval he failed miserably against England at MCG. However, he finished the season with an impressive 53 wickets at 28.30. Surprisingly he made it to the England tour and played the Centenary Test at Lord’s. He picked up 2 for 86 in what turned out to be his last Test. He retired from First-Class cricket at the end of the next season after picking up 9 wickets from his last two matches.

Later life

Post-retirement, Mallett shifted seamlessly into the world of journalism and commentary, working sporadically as a spin-bowling coach. He was appointed by the Sri Lankan Board as a consultant spin coach, his main claim to fame being the unearthing of Ajantha Mendis. He was also appointed as the Director of Spin Australia.

As commentator he ran into a controversy during the SCG Test of 1997-98 between Australia and South Africa. With South Africa in command of the situation skipper Hansie Cronje asked Pat Symcox to bowl on the leg-stump with a packed on-side field. Mallett found the strategy suspicious. To quote Alexander Buzo from Legends of the Baggy Green, “Ashley Mallett thought Cronje was deliberately throwing away a strong position and faxed his thoughts to Dr Ali Bacher”. Mallett possibly saw through things the way others couldn’t. Though the South African manager Alan Jordaan dismissed the allegations as ‘utter hogwash’ the seeds of suspicion had already been sown: Cronje would be convicted in two years’ time.

The other innings

Mallett’s greatest success story possibly lies in his career as a cricket author. In a writing career involving over twenty books Mallett has somehow managed to replicate his bowling style in his writing — generally lacking in flair and panache but full of relevant, honest facts and anecdotes. He has penned down biographies of men like Victor Trumper, Ian Chappell, Thomson, Doug Walters, Kim Hughes, and his mentor Grimmett, among others.

While some of the books — like the one on Grimmett — border on hagiography (he calls the great leg-spinner, somewhat illogically, the Don Bradman of bowling based on rather flimsy analysis), they remain bestsellers.

His most significant work, however, is arguably Lord’s Dreaming: The Story of the 1868 Aboriginal Tour of England and Beyond, a decent work on the famous 1868 tour.

The most singular book, however, is possibly Nugget — Man of the Century: The Remarkable Story of ‘Nugget’ Rees, Australian Cricket’s Peter Pan. Despite the deceptive title the book is not a biography of Keith Miller, but is a biography of Barry Rees, the Adelaide Oval dressing-room attendant.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)