'A little stiff from bowling' – the rise and wry of Arthur Mailey
On the 100th anniversary of Arthur Mailey's nine-wicket haul against England at the MCG – which remains an Australian record – a look at the life and times of one of post-colonial Australian cricket's great characters
Through his emergence from dire inner-city poverty, to the looping leg breaks that brought him fame and then the need to find fortune in professional pursuits away from cricket, Arthur Mailey was the quintessence of his era in early post-colonial Australia.
But with an eye and a hand for art, a penchant for publicity and a talent to turn words more sharply than his potent googly, Mailey might also have been a man almost a century ahead of his time.
For if the self-aware, self-deprecating master of prose and paintings and pen-ink drawings had lived in the age of social media and self-promotion, he would surely have built a cult following to rival King Kohli.
Maybe even a Kardashian, or two.
It's 100 years today since the conclusion of the fourth Ashes Test against England at the MCG, a game in which Mailey – making just his fourth appearance for Australia – returned second innings figures of 9-121 from 47 (eight-ball) overs.
In doing so, he became the first bowler to claim nine wickets in a Test innings on Australia's turf and remains the only Australia player to have done so with New Zealand's Richard Hadlee (9-52 at Brisbane in 1985) and Pakistan's Sarfraz Nawaz (9-86 at the MCG in 1979) the only others.
The next-best by an Australia bowler over the ensuing century remains Glenn McGrath's 8-24 against Pakistan at Perth's WACA Ground in 2004.
Such was the dominance wielded by Mailey – who turned 35 during the second Test of that Ashes summer – he finished his maiden series with 36 wickets at 26.28, a return bettered only among Australia bowlers in five-match campaigns at home by Mitchell Johnson's 37 (at 13.97) in 2013-14.
The series benchmark in Australia remains Rodney Hogg's 41 (at 12.85) in the six-match Ashes contest of 1978-79, although Mailey might have given that a shake had he been summoned to the bowling crease at any stage of Australia's innings win of his birthday Test in Melbourne.
As the legend goes, it wasn't Australia's pre-eminence in that game that denied Mailey the opportunity to add to his haul but rather an injury he took into the Test that precluded him from bowling.
In another nod to the time, legend suggests Mailey was included in Australia's starting XI for his second Test despite being severely hampered because his skipper, Warwick Armstrong, understood how heavily his new spinner relied on the £25 (around $1800 today) match stipend.
Yet his impoverished upbringing was also intrinsic to Mailey's arrival as a Test cricketer in post-war Australia.
Born and raised as one of seven boys in his family's wooden shack in the Sydney slum suburb of Zetland, Mailey left school aged 13 to work as a trouser presser before securing work as a glassblower three years later.
It was the years he spent hunched over a furnace in a galvanised iron shed, twirling a four-feet length of metal pipe through which the molten glass was blown, that saw him develop strong, calloused fingers as well as the hefty lung capacity and heat tolerance needed for long days in the field.
The money he earned also enabled him to pursue dual boyhood passions.
Mailey attended art classes where he honed his talent for painting and drawing, most famously caricatures, and he also purchased a cricket ball that he would devote hours to bowling at any willing batter or – if none was available – a compliant stretch of bare wall.
It was while he was landing his nascent leg spin on the brick façade of a toilet block in Sydney's Domain that he was purportedly approached by a vagrant who taught the youngster the secret of the googly, or 'bosie' as it was then known (in honour of its founder, Englishman Bernard Bosanquet).
It was a 'bosie' that landed Mailey his most celebrated wicket, though its place in cricket history exists entirely due to the bowler's poetic recounting given the legitimacy of the moment remains shrouded in doubt.
Having idolised Victor Trumper to the extent that the sole decoration on the canvas wall of the lean-to that doubled as his bedroom was a photo of the Australia batting maestro, Mailey found himself in the Redfern team to play Trumper's Paddington in Sydney's first-grade competition.
According to Mailey's version of this meeting in his 1958 biography '10 for 66 and All That', Mailey barely slept the night prior to the match for fear some misfortune might befall Trumper such as being "taken ill or knocked down by a tram" thus meaning their meeting might never eventuate.
Then, after being summoned to bowl at his idol who belted Mailey's second delivery to the cover boundary, the spinner produced a 'bosie' so exquisite in its execution that Trumper not only missed it as he leapt from his crease, he didn't even try to regain his ground so comprehensively had he been beaten.
"As he walked past me he smiled, patted the back of his bat and said, 'it was too good for me', Mailey wrote of having his inspiration stumped.
"There was no triumph in me as I watched the receding figure.
"I felt like a boy who had killed a dove."
Trumper died from Bright's disease five years before Mailey made it to Test cricket, so the apprentice was never able to showcase his mastery to his mentor at international level.
And like Hogg more than five decades later, Mailey could not subsequently recapture the heady feats of his maiden series for Australia.
But he did partake in five Ashes campaigns as well as a tour to South Africa (en route home from the 1921 series in England) and a sojourn to Canada and the USA in 1913 as part of a privately sponsored Australia team that played 53 matches, a handful of which were first-class.
It meant he finished his first-class career aged 44 with almost 800 wickets, and with best bowling innings figures of 10-66 against Gloucestershire during the 1921 Ashes tour.
In adapting that return into the title of his memoir – a tongue-in-cheek take of an equally wry history text charting British history from the Norman conquest '1066 and All That' – Mailey underscored the sense of whimsy that would have rendered him an internet darling today.
In addition to his artwork, both frivolous and serious, he brimmed with the sort of humour on which social media thrives, yet all-too-often lacks.
Attending a post-match social function during one of his England visits, Mailey claimed his clumsy footwork led his sophisticated dance partner to hiss at him, beseeching him to stop stepping on her feet.
"I'm sorry, I'm a little stiff from bowling," proffered the Australian, who by that time had progressed from professional glass blower to labourer with Sydney's Water Board.
"I don't care where you're from," he then claimed was the response from his social superior. "Just stop treading on my toes."
When Victoria piled on the highest innings total in Sheffield Shield history (1107) against Mailey's New South Wales at the MCG in 1926, the leg spinner conceded an Australia record 362 runs from his 64 overs for a return of four wickets.
"The figures would have been a lot better had three sitters not been dropped off my bowling," the hapless leggie later mused.
"Two of them by a man in the pavilion wearing a bowler hat."
And when he and his Australia and NSW teammate Johnny Taylor were treated to a joint testimonial match in Sydney in 1955, Mailey (then almost 70) took to the field in a full-length overcoat which remained in place as he sent down a delivery that rattled Taylor's stumps.
"I should always have bowled with my coat on," Mailey mused as the crowd roared its approval.
Forced to abandon cricket when NSW decreed he could not combine his role as a paid newspaper journalist with his playing commitments, Mailey's record showed 99 wickets at 33.91 from 21 Tests and 779 (at 24.09) in a 158-game first-class career.
By his own, typically sardonic description, those successes were achieved from a bowling technique that consisted of five shuffling steps to the crease, a late transfer of the ball from left-hand to right and then a slow, looping arc that would often invite rivals to charge hard and swing harder.
"I'd rather spin and see a ball hit for four, than bowl a batsman with a straight one," Mailey said of the heavy 'revs' he imparted on every delivery.
"And if I bowl a maiden over, it's not my fault but the batsman's."
He continued to write and draw and paint until his travels led him to Burraneer Bay at Port Hacking in Sydney's south, where he ran a general store that included a butchery before his death on New Year's Eve 1967.
"I bowled tripe, I wrote tripe and now I sell tripe," read a note that hung above the shop's counter.
It's the kind of succinct meme that, these days, would grant Arthur Mailey an internet following that his cricket prowess surely deserved.