Links to golden past lost but trio's legacies live on
On one sadly salient weekend, Australia lost three former Test cricketers who each left lasting and unique marks on the game
In starkly transactional terms, it's straightforward to quantify cricket's loss through the passing of Ashley Mallett, Alan Davidson and Peter Philpott inside a sombre 72 hours last weekend.
Across a combined tally of more than 450 first-class matches from 1949-1981, the trio captured 1610 wickets (at an average of 24.65) and clocked up 12,016 runs (at 25.56) with a total of 13 centuries between them.
That's in addition to the aggregate of 78 five-wicket hauls, the nine occasions they cumulatively claimed 10 wickets in a match and the 90 Test caps they collectively earned.
What can't be so quickly enumerated is the influence each of them wielded on those who followed at all levels of the game, whether in trying to emulate their on-field impact or being drawn to the game through the enthusiasm they kindled and the examples they set.
And what will never be replaced is the direct connection the three men represented to the nation's celebrated cricket history.
Links that all three actively nurtured and maintained, but which will now require new champions to ensure they remain resonant and relevant.
Before he forged a path in senior cricket, back in the days when he was still bowling left-arm wrist spin at Gosford High School, Davidson was inspired by the greatest name in Australian sport, Don Bradman.
Davidson's grandfather produced a photograph of Bradman's touring team embarking by ship for the 1938 Ashes tour of the UK, and the then nine-year-old boy studied the picture and announced he too would one day represent his country at cricket.
Current Australia superstar allrounder Ellyse Perry posted a photo of herself captured at a similar age – taken with Davidson who she described as "a truly kind and gracious man" following his passing – nursing a cricket bat, and seemingly aspiring to a similar career path.
Vale Alan Davidson, a very special contributor to Australian cricket during his playing career and for many, many years afterwards. A truly kind and gracious man. pic.twitter.com/YfzS5dIsjt— Ellyse Perry (@EllysePerry) October 30, 2021
By the time Davidson made it to the New South Wales team, and played his maiden Sheffield Shield game in Bradman's adopted home town of Adelaide (where the young allrounder took a wicket in his first over), the greatest batter cricket has seen had called time on his unsurpassed career.
But as an influential member of Australia's cricket board as well as a national selector, Bradman was a proponent of the attacking approach to the game that was at odds with prevailing sentiment in the 1950s, but which Davidson – along with his boyhood friend-turned captain Richie Benaud – came to characterise.
Davidson and Benaud were sitting together, with pads on awaiting their turn at bat, on the final day of the 1960 tied Test against the West Indies when Bradman appeared in the Australia dressing room to quietly inquire of Benaud whether his team was chasing a win or hoping to draw.
Upon hearing Benaud's reaffirmation that winning was always the intention, Davidson went out and played perhaps his most famous hand, an innings-high 80 that ended with a run-out in the final, frantic minutes of a match Bradman later cited as a saviour of the Test format.
It's no coincidence that after he retired in 1963, Davidson followed in Bradman's steps and served the game as president of the New South Wales Cricket Association (from 1970-2003) and 20 years as a Trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground in addition to five years as a national selector (1979-84).
He was also a regular source of wisdom to young players making their way, including Test quick Mitchell Starc who followed Davidson's advice to finish training sessions by sending down a full over of yorkers, with devastating effect.
Benaud, who with his fellow allrounder helped drag Test cricket from its moribund state in the 1950s, said of Davidson he would "remain in Australia's history as one of the greatest cricketers ever to set foot on a ground for NSW and Australia".
Mallett, who like Bradman came to adopt Adelaide as his home, also developed a strong rapport with the game's most revered batter and powerhouse figure of SA and Australia cricket, and the pair regularly corresponded.
But Mallett's connection to cricket's golden past stretched back even further than 'The Don', having established an early relationship with the nation's most prolific spin bowler, Clarrie Grimmett.
While still living in Perth and trying to forge a path to first-class level through district ranks, Mallett wrote to Grimmett and then made the 2,700km train trip across the Nullarbor to visit the long-retired spinner at his Adelaide home to try and glean some spin bowling tips.
After facing a couple of deliveries from Mallett on the full-size pitch he maintained in his suburban backyard, Grimmett advised his eager student that unless he flighted the ball above a rival batter's eyeline, he would remain forever a club-level trundler.
The holder of Australia's benchmark for first-class wickets – 1424 with his leg spin during a career that spanned three decades from 1911 – gave Mallett a powerful example, which the pupil regularly cited as the most valuable coaching tip he ever received.
And it was one he happily passed on to the countless young spin bowlers he worked with, at international and interstate teams (including Sri Lanka and New Zealand), as well as developing players from all levels through his Spin Australia program.
"From a batsman's perspective, if the slow man operates on a flat trajectory, below the eyeline all the way, as soon as the ball leaves your hand, he knows exactly where it will land and he will move to hit it hard," Grimmett reputedly advised, illustrating his thesis by noting it's much easier to ascertain the speed of an oncoming vehicle from an elevated vantage point.
"If you happened to walk onto a motorway and stood in a manhole - don't try this, son - it would be far more difficult to judge when the car was arriving.
"Similarly, if the ball arrives hard-spun and above the eyeline, the batsman doesn't know precisely where it will land."
Flight and guile became trademarks of Mallett's bowling, and a stark counterpoint to the fire and fury of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson who were teammates in the all-conquering 1970s outfit led by Ian Chappell.
Mallett's quiet, flint-dry humour – which earned him the antonymous nickname 'Rowdy' – was also at odds with the bare-chested bravado Chappell's teams often betrayed.
But the bookish off-spinner, who excelled as a nimble gully fielder despite his poor eyesight and penchant for clumsiness, was a favourite of his SA and Australia skipper.
Having supplemented his meagre cricket earnings through work as a newspaper journalist and sub-editor in Adelaide, Mallett then became an increasingly prolific writer and penned insightful biographies of cricket's influential figures including Grimmett and Victor Trumper.
But he also honoured the contributions of more contemporary greats by writing with an insider's perspicacity on teammates Ian Chappell, Doug Walters and Thomson, while his most recent tome 'The Last Invincible' on Neil Harvey was published just months before his death.
Like Mallett, Philpott was an irrepressible enthusiast for the spin-bowling craft and devoted his post-cricket life to spreading the gospel through coaching and writing.
While he didn't enjoy the longevity at Test level afforded Davidson and Mallett, Philpott's playing career bridged that pair's eras of influence.
When he fought his way into the NSW Sheffield Shield team in the mid-1950s, he was a teammate of not only Davidson and Benaud but also of heroes from the Bradman days such as Keith Miller, while pitting himself against the likes of Harvey (by then with Victoria) and Ray Lindwall (Queensland).
And his final first-class outing, for a Rest of Australia XI (similar to Australia A) against a Test-strength Australia team in 1967, came alongside some of the big names of generation next including Ian Chappell, Walters, Keith Stackpole and Paul Sheahan.
Benaud maintained Philpott (along with former SA left-arm wrist spinner David Sincock) turned the ball more fiercely than any leggie he saw before or since, modern great Shane Warne included.
It could partly explain the ferocious fizz Stuart MacGill was able to impart on his leg breaks, given Philpott was overseeing the spin bowling program at the Adelaide-based cricket academy when MacGill attended in 1990.
Philpott's passion for teaching the game's most demanding art saw him fill coaching roles with international teams (Australia and Sri Lanka), at Shield (South Australia) and club (Mosman) level in addition to stints in the UK county system and regular sojourns to NZ's high-performance program near Christchurch.
His writing ventures were more prosaic than Mallett's, with his 1995 illustrated text 'The Art of Wrist Spin Bowling' timed to capitalise on the renaissance of leg-spin bowling spawned by Warne's remarkable exploits.
However, the trail Philpott most visibly blazed was likely his installation as coach (or 'cricket manager' as he was more formally referred) of the Australia men's Test team for their ill-fated 1981 Ashes tour to the UK.
That campaign – Australia's first multi-Test British sojourn since the bitter World Series Cricket split – is more often remembered as 'Botham's Ashes' after the mercurial allrounder singlehandedly led England to victory despite being sacked as captain in the wake of an abject first Test defeat.
A month later, with England trailing by 227 runs on the first innings and compelled to follow-on by Australia skipper Kim Hughes, Botham spanked 149 at a run-a-ball to set up an extraordinary turnaround and a still-eulogised series win for the hosts.
In his autobiography 'A Spinner's Yarn' (with foreword by Benaud), Philpott recounted being in the BBC Radio commentary box as England's first innings ended and was asked by host Trevor Bailey about the likelihood of Hughes enforcing the follow-on.
Having noted he didn't envy his captain's choice, Philpott claimed the mental damage inflicted on England's batters plus their waning confidence against Australia's seamers suggested the "psychological advantage" of making them bat again carried undeniable appeal.
But he added "I wouldn't like to be batting last on that wicket with more than 100 to 120 to get", well before Australia was rolled for 111 to lose by 18 runs.
That's the level of prescience that was also lost to Australian cricket on a sadly salient weekend.