The Ken McKay © Getty Images
The Ken McKay © Getty Images

The Queensland all-rounder Ken Mackay was born on October 24, 1925. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the obstinate workhorse in a team of glamorous champions.

“While cricket is played in Australia, he [Mackay] will be fondly remembered.” — Jack Pollard, Australian Cricket, the Game and the Players

Few people have had a nickname as ironic as the obdurate Kenneth Donald Mackay: his slow, very slow rate of scoring had earned him the not-too-prestigious nickname of Slasher. The only others who can be compared are the gentle Ashley Mallett (Rowdy) and the frail Venkatapathy Raju (Muscles).

Mackay suffered from the misfortune of being a contemporary of two of the greatest Australian all-rounders of all time in the form of Richie Benaud and Alan Davidson. Given that he had also played alongside Ray Lindwall and had an overlap with Keith Miller did not make things any easier for him.

Wisden called Mackay’s run-up “stealthy, almost apologetic.” His medium-paced bowling relied mostly on his relentless stamina which made him keep come back at the batsman for hours at a stretch and was based on unerring accuracy. His crafty variations in pace and swing often made his bowling difficult to read and score from.

However, it was as a immovable batsman that Mackay really stood out among his contemporaries: given that he was born in an era where ball-by-ball details were not maintained it is impossible to calculate his scoring rate; however, had it been recorded one may have found that he could have provided the likes of Chris Tavaré, Trevor Chappell, Bruce Edgar, and Asif Mujtaba with stiff competition.

Despite being one of the slowest scorers in the history of the sport Mackay’s arrival usually caused a stir among the crowd: he walked out nonchalantly, took guard in an impassive manner, adjusted his cap, and bent his knees slightly. Then, when the bowler ran in he chewed gum as viciously as the man who was perhaps his greatest antitheses with the bat — Viv Richards.

Mackay was a treat to watch. Very few batsmen had the rare ability to judge exactly where his off-stump was; his minimal back-lift and his unreal confidence on his assessment of the ball’s line provided him with the ability to leave balls uncannily close to the stumps. He could leave “balls that seemed to make the bails quiver,” wrote Wisden of his rare talent.

His runs — on the rare occasions when they came — were usually acquired via deft steers to third-man or a strange scoop-like stroke through mid-wicket. His ability to hit boundaries without any back-lift often astounded his colleagues, opposition, and spectators.

Of the top 8 occasions where a side has faced 70 balls without scoring a run two involve Mackay. In the famous Adelaide Test of 1960-61 against West Indies Mackay and Lindsay Kline batted for an estimated 81 to 88 balls (as per Charlie Davis’ calculations) without scoring a run; earlier, in 1957-58, he and Peter Burge played out 74 dot balls at New Wanderers.

From 37 Tests Mackay had scored 1,507 runs at 33.48. Despite not scoring a hundred he went past the fifty-mark 13 times. With the ball he picked up 50 wickets at 34.42 with 2 five-fors. His forte, however, was his economy rate: with 1.78 runs per over he stands only behind Trevor Goddard, Bapu Nadkarni, and Bert Ironmonger among bowlers with 50 or more Test wickets.

From 201 First-Class matches “Slasher” had 10,823 runs at 43.64 with 23 hundreds and 251 wickets at 33.31 (and an economy rate of 2.01) with 7 five-fors.

Above everything, what made Mackay stand out was his never-say-die attitude. As Benaud (Mackay’s captain for a major chunk of his career) had mentioned, Mackay “was perhaps underrated in some quarters but no one who played with him was ever in any doubt as to his value, particularly his captain; he was the complete team-man”.

Early days

Ken was born in Windsor, Queensland of Alexander (an ironworker) and Lillie Elizabeth née Goebel. Alexander was awarded the Military Medal during his service on the Western Front in World War I. Ken was admitted to Virginia State School, and almost immediately earned the title of The Virginia Bradman because of his huge scores in school cricket.

He managed to register his name on Wisden at the age of 14 when he captured all ten wickets against Sherwood State School and then followed it with 367 not out.

Mackay played A-Grade Cricket for Toombul District Cricket Club at an age of 15 and worked in the insurance industry. Once he turned 18 he joined the Australian Imperial Force in November 1943; he was stationed at New Britain from January to April 1945 with the 22nd Battalion and was eventually discharged in Brisbane in December 1946.

Mackay made his First-Class debut later that year against the touring MCC at The Gabba. He scored 13 and 33 not out and did not pick up a wicket. He gave an indication of what was in store when he added 103 with Len Johnson — who had contributed 75 in the partnership.

On his Sheffield Shield debut against Victoria at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) he left his mark once again. After the hosts amassed 543 Mackay walked out to bat at 44 for 4; he was there till the end, unbeaten on 30, as Queensland were bowled out for 153 and had to follow-on. Sent out to bat at 117 for 3 in the second innings Mackay batted all the way through yet again, scoring 63 not out as his side were bowled out for 258. It was in his debut season that he earned his famous nickname from his teammate Aubrey Carrigan.

The first hundred took five seasons to arrive: playing against Victoria at home Mackay walked out to bat at 8 for 2 after Queensland trailed by 187. He saw his side slump to 53 for 5, and once Colin McCool and Don Tallon were out he suddenly changed gears. Once again he remained unbeaten — this time on 139 — as his side was bowled out for 269.

At MCG in 1953-54 Mackay picked up 5 for 43 (Victoria had declared at 227 for 6) — his first five-for. The next month, when Victoria came to The Gabba, Mackay scored his career-best innings of 223 (out of a team score of 550 during his stay) before he was run out. In his next match against Western Australia he added 198 to it.

Mackay finished the season with 723 runs at 72.30 and 7 wickets at 34.71. However, with Lindwall, Miller, and their mates still ruling world cricket he was far from being a contender for the national side.

He continued to deliver: in 1954-55 he scored 352 runs at 50.28 with a hundred and bettered that with 872 runs at 62.23 with 3 more hundreds. After scoring 203 and 27 not out (and picking up 3 wickets) in the match against New South Wales (NSW) at SCG he became eligible for the Test trial match at the same ground: after a dour 143 for Ian Johnson’s XI against Ray Lindwall’s XI he was chosen for the 1956 Ashes tour.

Test debut

Mackay began his tour well with a fifty in each of his first 2 innings (against Worcestershire at New Road and against Leicestershire at Grace Road). With a run of 73 against Sussex at Hove, 64 against Northamptonshire at Northampton, and 113 not out against Kent at Canterbury he was selected for the second Test at Lord’s alongside the NSW fast bowler John Crawford. The boots they were filling were those of the injured Lindwall and Davidson.

He started well, scoring a dour 38 in 160 balls with 4 fours (he “relied on dead-bat tactics and rarely attempted a scoring stroke,” wrote Wisden). He also picked up his first wicket in the England innings, having Colin Cowdrey caught by Benaud. After a 114-run lead Australia needed someone to hang around, but Fred Trueman kept on pecking at the wickets.

Mackay walked out at 69 for 3; Australia soon slid to 79 for 5 before Mackay and Miller had an extremely lopsided partnership of 33 out of which the latter scored 30. Benaud launched a furious onslaught that took the game out of England’s hand. Mackay eventually fell for an excruciating 205-minute 31 with 3 boundaries scored out of 160 during his stay: England lost by 185 runs.

He kept up the good work with 122 not out against Yorkshire at Bramall Lane, 71 not out against Somerset at Taunton, and 60 against Hampshire at Southampton in his next 3 innings. However, his career reached a slump after he scored two braces (but batted for 48 minutes) at Headingley and followed it with a pair at Old Trafford, being two of Jim Laker’s 19-wickets haul. Australia lost both Tests and Mackay was dropped for the next Test at The Oval.

Mackay was brought back for the India tour later that season but failed again with the bat though he triggered a collapse with the ball at Bombay, picking up 3 for 27 as India were bowled out for 251 after being 235 for 6. He was initially not considered for the South Africa tour but was eventually drafted in when Ron Archer opted out.

Establishing himself

It was at South Africa in 1957-58 that Mackay established himself as a key player of the Australian side. He did not manage a hundred but scored 5 fifties in 7 innings, remaining not out on four occasions. With 375 runs at 125.00 Mackay topped the average chart from either side (nobody else averaged over 65) and finished only behind Jim Burke (389).

He became one of the chief architects of Australia’s 3-0 victory and was named South African Cricket Annual Cricketer of the Year. The selectors retained their hope in Mackay despite his failure in the 1958-59 Ashes, probably because of the South African tour – but also because of the fact that Australia retained the Ashes by a whopping 4-0 margin.

Some of Mackay’s finest moments came during the twin tours of Pakistan and India in 1959-60. Nothing provided a greater demonstration of his tenacity when he kept bowling on and on despite the placidness of the unrewarding Dacca pitch. He had already choked up Pakistan with a spell of 19-12-16-1 in the first innings as Davidson and Benaud chipped away at the wickets.

Mackay was introduced as the fifth bowler after Australia managed to sneak a 25-run lead; Davidson, Lindwall, and Ian Meckiff bowled 16 overs between them in an epic tussle that lasted for 100.3 overs. This time, however, Benaud played a supporting act as Mackay kept on persisting with a mixed back of medium-pace and accurate off-breaks.

His diligence earned him the remarkable figures of 45-27-42-6. Ian Botham mentioned an incident in Botham’s Century: My 100 Great Cricketing Characters: “Richie’s [Benaud’s] instructions were clear: on an unforgiving pitch, the ball must be bowled at the stumps, not outside them. After 40-odd overs in the oppressive heat [Ken] Mackay let one slip wide and it was thumped to the boundary. Richie walked to the bowler. ‘What’s the matter, getting tired?’ he asked. A couple of overs later Richie was back, congratulating Mackay for hitting the stumps.”

He registered the second pair of his career at Kanpur where India famously won to square the series. In the fourth Test at Madras he shepherded the tail efficiently, being last out for a career-best 89 as Australia reached 342. Then, after India reached 95 for 1 Benaud brought on Mackay. Mackay broke the partnership almost immediately, bowling through Ramnath Kenny’s defence. Benaud then ran through the rest and India lost by an innings, conceding the series.

Mackay’s finest moment

Mackay became a part of cricket history in the first ever tied Test, that too at his home ground. He had decent outings, scoring 35 and 28, and sharing the burden when Meckiff broke down during the second innings. He top-scored with a 136-ball 74 in the first innings at MCG as Australia took a 1-0 lead in the series.

He was back to his normal self with his side under pressure at SCG. West Indies obtained a 137-run lead despite Mackay’s 155-ball 39, bettered only by Norman O’Neill. He also picked up 3 for 75 in the second innings, but in the end Australia crumbled for 241 chasing 464. Then came the Adelaide Test.

West Indies set Australia a 460-run target in a shade above six-and-a-half hours. Mackay had scored 29 in the first innings before picking up Cammie Smith and Frank Worrell in the second innings. Australia as good as gave up the chase at stumps on Day Four: they were 31 for 3, having lost Les Favell, Colin McDonald, and Bobby Simpson.

Benaud held back Mackay and promoted Burge. The partnership added 82 in 99 minutes before Alf Valentine claimed Burge. Mackay was still held back as Benaud walked out. Soon afterwards, both O’Neill and Benaud were caught by Garry Sobers of his own bowling.

Australia were 144 for 6 now, and still had to bat out close to three-and-a-half hours as Wally Grout walked out to join Mackay. The pair batted for 76 minutes, and just when things look somewhat under control, Worrell removed Grout, Frank Misson, and Des Hoare in the space of 15 minutes. Australia were 207 for 9, and more importantly, had to bat out an-hour-and-three-quarters.

Lindsay Kline, with zero reputation as a batsman, walked out (in fact, he was so bad a batsman that as soon as he walked out the police turned towards the crowd to prevent a pitch invasion). Soon afterwards, a defensive stroke Mackay was caught by Sobers at short-leg off Worrell, but Col Egar ruled him not out. The West Indians looked unhappy, but Mackay maintained – even after the Test – that it had been a ‘bump catch’.

Mackay batted on. He left balls perilously close to the stumps, and to add to the West Indies’ frustration, took his time out to walk down and tap the pitch, or even loosen his limbs. Worrell kept an eye on the clock, but did not protest. The frustration began to mount.

Worrell switched to Lance Gibbs, who had taken a five-for (including a hat-trick that began with Mackay) in the first innings, but nothing was achieved. Then, as the clock ticked over to 5 o’clock, Worrell claimed the second new ball and tossed it to Wes Hall.

Time passed. Kline looked immovable. Ten men prowled around Kline like birds of prey but one of the rank tail-enders of all time (he never got to 40 even at First-Class level) batted like a possessed man, somehow managing to play everything with the middle of the bat.

Then, as the time reached 5.57 Hall was brought back for one final time. It was déjà vu for the fast bowler. The light was already fading. One ball went by, then another, a third, a fourth, a fifth: Mackay seemed impossible to get out. Hall shifted to round the wicket.

The sixth ball was negotiated with, as was the seventh. Hall ran in for one final time — but changed his mind midway: he did not release the ball, and instead went back to his run-up to bowl from over the wicket.

‘Slasher’ survived the eighth ball: the policemen — now too engrossed in the Test themselves — had not bothered to stop the group of schoolboys that flocked the ground. In the confusion Col Hoy’s hand went unnoticed for a while: Hall had bowled a no-ball.

Mackay was completely worn out by then: he found it almost impossible to get his concentration back. He later said: “As I faced the last ball I thought – if it’s going to be short I won’t let it hit my bat, I’ll take it on the body or the head if necessary.” Hall bounced, Mackay shouldered arms, and the ball hit his ribs with a thud. The draw compensated for the bruise.

Thus ended one of the greatest rearguard actions in the history of the sport. In acknowledgement of the innings the Brisbane Courier-Mail collected £800 as a token of appreciation for the man.

It all came down to the final Test at MCG. Mackay scored a typical 109-ball 19 in the first innings and was surprisingly held back again when Australia were set 258 for a victory. Australia looked on track with Simpson and O’Neill taking the score to 154 for 2 before the slide began.

Mackay eventually walked out at 236 for 6 and saw Burge get out with the score on 248. Grout hung around, and the score trickled to 254. Then Grout late-cut one from Valentine and the ball bisected Gerry Alexander and the first slip, Worrell. The batsmen ran two, but Alexander did not move: he stood there, pointing at the bail that had fallen on the ground.

Egar, after a consultation with Hoy at square-leg, declared that Grout was not bowled, much to the resentment of the West Indians and several witnesses. Grout skied one to Smith off Valentine almost immediately, but those precious two runs had already been scored. With Johnny Martin for company, Mackay saw Australia through to a 2-1 series victory — with an unbeaten 3 scored off 51 balls.

Ashes to Ashes

Mackay chipped in with 64 at Edgbaston in the 1961 Ashes; he followed it with a gutsy 54 at Lord’s, taking the score from 238 for 8 to 340, securing a 134-run lead. He also picked up 2 wickets, and Australia went 1-0 up in the series. He did little of note before the final Test of the series at The Oval.

With the Ashes already retained Mackay picked up 2 for 75 in the first innings to help bowl out England for 256. Australia took a 238-run lead before Mackay reduced England to 90 for 4. It was eventually a 226-minute partnership of 172 between Raman Subba Row and Ken Barrington that saved the Test for England.

The Mackay marathon was a spell of 68-21-121-5; he bowled 17 overs more than even Benaud. The 408 balls Mackay sent down still remains the most number of deliveries bowled by an Australian seamer in an innings after 1894 (George Giffen is the only one to have bowled more).

Mackay’s most outrageous performance of the tour, however, came against Middlesex at Lord’s. When he opened batting with Bill Lawry it was supposed to be one of those crawls. Instead, Mackay launched a furious onslaught, and reduced Peter Burge to a spectator: coming out at 45 for 3 Burge scored only 40 in a 156-run partnership.

Mackay eventually fell for 168 out of a team score of 257. After Benaud was through with the hosts Australia required only 26 to win. For some reason Mackay shifted to top gear yet again and scored 20 not out, leaving Lawry on a single.

He began the return Ashes on a high, scoring 86 not out in 247 minutes at The Gabba, adding 103 with Brian Booth and 91 more with Benaud. He followed it with a 137-ball 49 at MCG, which Australia lost and Mackay was dropped for the third Test at SCG as the Western Australian Barry Shepherd was drafted in; the latter played an instrumental role in squaring the series.

Australia, now with a defensive mindset, brought back Mackay at Adelaide to replace the fast bowler Colin Guest, who had made his debut at SCG. The Test was drawn, but Mackay failed miserably with the bat, scoring 1 and 3; however, after Davidson broke down in the first innings Mackay shared the new ball with Graham McKenzie and finished with 3 for 86 and 1 for 38.

Mackay was awarded an MBE in New Year’s Honours for services to cricket during this Test, which turned out to be his last. Australia brought back Burge and found another debutant in Neil Hawke, and never reconsidered Mackay.

Final days

Mackay played domestic cricket for another season before finally calling it a halt at an age of 38. Even against the touring South Africans Mackay returned figures of 13-5-14-2 and 21-8-23-2. In his last match — against Victoria at home — he scored only 7 but finished with 2 for 61 and 3 for 76.

There was a public appeal on his retirement that, as per Ian Diehm in Australian Dictionary of Biography, helped raise an amount of 400,000 shillings for Mackay (Wisden, however, mentions £20,000 as the amount).

Post-retirement

Mackay co-authored his memoir Slasher Opens Up with Frank O’Callaghan in 1964 and followed it with Quest for the Ashes — an account of the 1965-66 Ashes. He acted the selector of Queensland from 1964 to 1979 (missing out only in 1966). He also became a Lifetime Member of the Queensland Cricket Association [QCA].

Mackay was also an avid tennis and squash player and golfer, playing all three with the same diligence that he put into his cricket. As his friend and QCA Secretary Barry Gibbs wrote in My Cricket Journey, “he [Mackay] simply never gave up on a point.” Gibbs added: “His serve was a lot like his bowling, not really fast but invariably deadly accurate with lots of variety.”

“As for squash, all I can say that it brought out every bit of determination, innovation, cunning, competitiveness and sheer bloody mindedness that his [Mackay’s] character possessed. Again there were no easy points; everyone was chased down in that dogged Mackay fashion,” Gibbs added.

He also wrote: “His [Mackay’s] putting stance was hardly out of the textbook; Slasher had his own distinctive method. Ken’s putter was specially made, with the shaft at a 90-degree angle to the blade and joined at the centre. He would stand on the green, feet astride, facing the hole front on as he proceeded to use the putter like a croquet mallet. It looked dreadful, but was highly effective. There is every possibility that Ken had something to do with this type of putter subsequently being banned!”

Mackay’s all-round interest in sport helped him become the President of the Queensland Division of the Sportsmen’s Association of Australia, a post he held from 1969 to 1972. He was also an avid fisherman, and remained a non-smoker and teetotaller throughout.

Mackay had married a clerk called Mavis Jean Kenway on August 4, 1951 at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Brisbane. Mavis passed away on May 28, 1982. Sixteen days later Kenneth Donald Mackay died of myocardial infarction at Point Lookout in Stadbroke Island. He was 56 years 232 days, and was survived by his four daughters.

The Ken Mackay Oval at Nundah, Brisbane has been named after him.

(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)