They come in ones, and occasionally in twos. We’re not talking about the run rate in the eras in which these gentlemen played, but the loss of two of Australian cricket’s gentlemen from this plane of existence. Alan Davidson, pioneering left-arm fast bowler in the age of Richie Benaud, died of natural causes aged 92 on Saturday morning. He followed Ashley Mallett, the leading off-spinner from Ian Chappell’s time, who died the previous evening of cancer aged 72.
Before Davidson’s debut in 1953, Test ranks had seen very few left-arm quicks with careers of substance – George Hirst and Bill Voce are the two that stand out. Compare that to today when left-armers proliferate, and you may draw a link with the period when school teachers stopped caning the fingers of children for writing left-handed. He produced swing at pace, operating with the new ball and making use of his unusual line. He also batted dependably, spending most of his career at No 7 and averaging just under 25.
Davidson’s career tells a tale of the instability of Australia’s Test team after Don Bradman’s retirement. He played under captains Lindsay Hassett, Arthur Morris, Ian Johnson, Ray Lindwall, and Ian Craig: five skippers for 17 Tests, before things settled for 26 matches under Benaud and one fill-in from Neil Harvey. He didn’t taste victory until his 14th match, waiting four and a half years. Having never dismissed more than two players in an innings, Davidson grabbed 6 for 34 in Cape Town. From that match on he took 170 of his 186 wickets, averaging less than 20.
He won that series in South Africa, regained the Ashes at home, beat Pakistan and India away, pipped the West Indies in 1960/61 including 11 wickets and 124 runs in the Brisbane tied Test, won the 1961 Ashes in England and retained the trophy in Australia. He made vital runs, too: in Brisbane, in Sydney, in Kanpur, in Lahore, and never more importantly than his unbeaten 77 in Manchester in 1961, with Australia leading by 119 when he walked out in the third innings. He took that out for 256, just enough to bowl out England for the match that would seal the series win.
Even for those of us a couple of generations down the track, ‘Davo’ in cricket circles only meant one person. He was always Benaud’s champion, and Richie’s omnipresence held Davidson there with him, the former captain paying homage in airtime in the way that Chappell still credits someone like Ian Redpath. Or indeed, Ashley Mallett.
Mallett’s 8 for 59 against Pakistan at Adelaide Oval stood as the best innings of work by an Australian finger-spinner for 45 years, until Lyon’s 8 for 50 in Bengaluru. Before then he had been decisive on the 1969 tour of India, taking 28 wickets at 19 to set up Australia’s last series win in the country until 2004. He never had another five-wicket innings after the Pakistan glut, but was dependable for the Chappell brothers through back-to-back Ashes wins in both countries in 1974 and 1975, helped beat an excellent West Indies team, and finished his career with the grand occasion of the Lord’s Centenary Test of 1980.
A quietly spoken type who was naturally nicknamed Rowdy, Mallett maintained his own post-playing visibility with his writing, both of books and on websites like ESPNCricinfo. His biographies looked at contemporaries he had loved: Chappell, Jeff Thomson, Doug Walters. My research for a cricket history podcast often leads to Mallett articles: his paean to a bonkers Roy Fredericks ton at the WACA, his joy in the feats of the 1868 Aboriginal touring players, who he also wrote a book about, and his essential writing about the art of spin bowling, with the tales of tricks taught and lessons delivered by greats like Tony Lock, Jim Laker, and Clarrie Grimmett. His description of the elderly Grimmett, with a full-sized cricket pitch in his backyard, playing a young Mallett with one of Jack Hobbs’s bats while literally blindfolded, is one that will endure.
There are other ways that the past can live on. Not many current cricketers would know a lot about off-spinner Hugh Trumble, for instance, whose 141 Test wickets set the world record in 1904. But Lyon, his heir of today, carries the nickname of GOAT as an acronym for Greatest of All Time, applied when he passed Trumble’s tally to become Australia’s most prolific wicket-taker to have used the finger-spinning art.
In another cricketing land, another contemporary off-spinner carries a nickname that looks back to the craft’s predecessors. India’s Ravichandran Ashwin, he of 413 Test wickets and counting, had his name predictably shortened by teammates to Ash, then less expectedly expanded to Ashley. The reference was to Mallett, whose work was sufficiently far in the past that for current players, invoking him felt niche and nostalgic. If you tune your ear to listen for it, cries of “Bowling, Ashley” still ring out from behind the stumps.