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‘Slasher’

slasher

As a youngster I had heard mention of an Australian cricketer by the name of ‘Slasher’ Mackay long before I knew anything about him. Irony is something that is usually lost on children, and I was no exception, so in years to come as I learnt more about Mackay’s most stirring deeds they were not quite what I expected.

It turned out that Slasher was anything but the swashbuckling hero that his name suggested. He was a left handed batsman, and an all-rounder as well, but that was about all that he had in common with Garry Sobers save, perhaps surprisingly, that Slasher was also an immensely popular figure in the game.

As a fourteen year old however Slasher had earned comparison with the greatest of them all, the Brisbane Telegraph describing him as the Don Bradman of Queensland schools cricket. They had good cause as well. Slasher had just scored an unbeaten 367, and his season’s average stood at almost 600. In fact he had gone two better than “The Don”, first by earning the plaudit that he had done particularly well on rain affected wickets and secondly by virtue of having taken 10-53 in the same match.

Perhaps if the outbreak of World War Two had not stifled the precocious talent Slasher might have been a different cricketer, but as it was by the time he left school First Class cricket was on hold. His first job was in an insurance office and then, once he turned 18, he joined up and served with the Australian Imperial Forces in New Guinea until 1946.

The First Class debut came in November 1946, for Queensland against Wally Hammond’s MCC side. Slasher made 13 in the first innings and an unbeaten 33 in the second. He shared a partnership of 103 with quick bowler Len Johnson, who scored 75 of the runs. The die was cast.

The famous nickname was born a month later in Slasher’s first Sheffield Shield match, against Victoria. With the exception of off spinner Allan Jinks, ironically the most successful Victorian bowler in their innings victory, the attack comprised four Test players. The seamers were Bill Johnston and Sam Loxton, with Jack Hill and Doug Ring to bowl leg spin. They couldn’t dismiss Slasher though, as from number six he batted out for 30 in the first innings and 63 in the second. It was during that latter innings that his teammate Aub Carrigan christened him Slasher. From then on that was how he was known in Queensland, although it was the best part of a decade before the press and thereafter the wider public followed suit.

Part of the Slasher legend arose out of his demeanour, John Arlott describing him as walking with the slow motion, mock sinister walk of the villain in a mid-Victorian melodrama. An inveterate gum chewer Slasher had a minimal backlift, something that never changed. Contemporary writers wrote of his being assisted by using a heavy bat, although today 2lbs 5oz would be considered a lightweight.

For the first ten years of his career Slasher’s returns with the bat were relatively modest and although he harboured hopes of the selectors turning to him during the Australians defeat to a Frank Tyson and Brian Statham inspired England in 1954/55 the call never came. The selectors couldn’t ignore him in 1956 however. He had become Queensland’s highest runscorer and had averaged 72, 50 and 62 in the previous three Sheffield Shield seasons. At this stage he was no more than an occasional bowler, with just 48 wickets to his name with his right arm medium pace. He had long since given up the wrist spin that brought him that ‘All Ten’ as a schoolboy. He certainly wasn’t quick, but Slasher bowled a nagging length that was difficult to score from, and he could move the ball both ways.

In 1956 it would be fair to say that Slasher had a mixed experience. On the plus side he was Australia’s leading batsman in what was generally a bowlers’ summer. His aggregate of 1,103 First Class runs was beaten only by Jim Burke and Colin McDonald, neither of whom could better his average of 52.52.

In the Tests there was no place for Slasher in the team for the drawn first match of the series, but with Ray Lindwall and Alan Davidson injured for the second he came into the side as Australia took a 1-0 lead. This was classic Slasher. In the first innings he spent two hours and forty minutes compiling 38. Wisden observed that he relied on dead bat tactics and rarely attempted a scoring stroke. There was more of the same in the second innings as he scored an even slower 31, in three and half hours, in the course of which he put on 117 with Richie Benaud, who contributed 97 of the runs.

Retaining his place for the next two Tests, both innings defeats and the latter the match in which Jim Laker took his 19-90, Slasher revealed what might have finished a lesser batsman. His left handedness and the way in which he went back to almost everything made him look all at sea against Laker who dismissed him for 2, 2, 0 and 0. He was a little more successful as Australia stopped off in India and Pakistan on their way home. Out of favour he missed the one-off Test on the mat in Pakistan which his teammates lost. Restored to the side for the three Tests against India the 29, 26, 5 and 27 he scored were useful contributions to a 2-0 win, and in the second Test, with 3-27, he mopped up the Indian innings to make his first significant contribution to a Test match with the ball.

In 1956/57 Slasher enjoyed his best ever domestic season averaging more than 74 with the bat. The memories of Laker must however have lingered in the minds of the selectors as, to his great disappointment, he was not one of those originally selected to go to South Africa in 1957/58.  After his disaster against Laker Australia were due to face the one off spinner in the world who could bear comparison with the Surrey great, Hugh Tayfield. In fact however Slasher did eventually get to make the trip, in slightly odd circumstances in he, a batsman who bowled some useful medium pace, was given a place vacated by Ron Archer, a bowler of genuine pace, when a knee injury ruled him out of the tour and indeed finished his career.

It must have been with at least a degree of trepidation that Slasher set off for the tour. He needn’t have worried however as the pitches were easy paced and the South African bowlers found him extremely difficult to dismiss as he enjoyed what was to remain comfortably his best series with the bat. Five times in seven innings he passed fifty and, dismissed only three times, managed a Bradmanesque average of 125 despite having a highest score of only 83*.

Following a 3-0 victory over the South Africans it was time for Australia to regain the Ashes, something they achieved with unexpected ease against what looked on paper to be a strong England side in 1958/59. The winning margin was 4-0 and Slasher played in each of the five Tests, although his only contribution of note was an innings of 57 in the third Test, the one in which England managed to avoid defeat albeit without ever being in a winning position themselves.

By now Benaud was Australian skipper and if he had not fully realised it before he certainly valued Slasher’s bowling a great deal more after the trip to India and Pakistan in 1959/60. The Australians struggled for most of the time on that tour to raise a team of eleven fully fit players, but Slasher was there for each of the three Tests against Pakistan and all five against India.

The tour began well for Slasher as he made a major contribution with the ball to his side’s win in the first Test. In the Pakistan second innings he had the remarkable figures of 45-27-42-6 as he bowled almost unchanged through a total of 134. He didn’t need any help either, three of his victims being bowled, two lbw and the other caught and bowled. Despite their health problems Australia beat Pakistan 2-0 and were also successful in India albeit by a rather narrower 2-1 margin. Their two wins were by an innings, Slasher contributing 78 and 89 to those, the latter remaining his highest Test score. He did not accomplish very much in the other Tests and indeed in one was dismissed for his second Test pair, both dismissals being lbw to off spinners.

In 1960/61 Slasher was involved in one of the great Test series, that of the tied Test between West Indies and Australia at the ‘Gabba. The tie was in the first match of the rubber, Slasher’s contributions were 35 and 28 so he was not out on the pitch during the frantic denouement. There followed an innings of 74 in Australia’s comfortable win in the second Test.

The third Test was won by West Indies to square the series and there followed, in the fourth Test at Adelaide, the rearguard action which remains the innings that defines Slasher. The Australians were about to go 2-1 down when Slasher was joined at the wicket by left arm wrist spinner Lindsay Kline, career batting average 8.60, with 109 minutes to play.

To begin with the last pair decided to play normally. There was no chance of an Australian victory but they kept the score ticking over adding 50 at a run a minute. Then the game seemed over as Slasher pushed a delivery from Frank Worrell into the hands of Sobers at silly mid off. There was a huge appeal and the West Indians started to leave the field and celebrate, but umpire Col Egar ruled it not out, and Slasher himself always maintained it was a bump ball.

There were still 75 minutes to go at that point, and irritated by the West Indian reaction to the non-catch Slasher and Kline changed their approach. Now the game became a dour and dogged fight for survival and just 16 more runs were scored. Slasher wasted a bit of time, regularly wandering down the wicket to speak to his partner, but not doing quite enough to antagonise the umpires. With two minutes to go Worrell began an over to Kline and, not unreasonably, Slasher believed his work was done. The problem was though that Kline was just blocking, and with Worrell hurrying through the over Slasher realised there would be one more and umpire Egar, showing his fairness, refused to bow to Slasher’s request to take up some precious seconds by moving back some supporters who had encroached on the outfield.

When Worrell’s over finished there was indeed enough time to start the next, and Slasher had to prepare himself once more. The ball was thrown to Wes Hall. The great fast bowler steamed in and Slasher got through the first seven. Then Hall, perhaps in an attempt to break Slasher’s concentration, pulled out of the last delivery as he approached his delivery stride. Then he bowled a no ball, so the final delivery was long delayed. It was a fierce bouncer and Slasher, who had already convinced himself the bumper was coming and that his bat would go nowhere near the ball, just stood there and let the ball clatter into his ribs. The huge bruise was all over the next day’s papers, but Slasher and Kline were the talk of Australia. When the end came Slasher was unbeaten on 62, and Kline on 15.

Australian Test selectors don’t deal in sentiment. Kline had not taken a wicket at Adelaide and despite his batting heroics was dropped for the final Test at the MCG. Slasher, as he had been at Adelaide so he was at Melbourne, was there at the end of another thriller, this time one which saw Australia sneak the match by two wickets and thus take the series. They were set a target of 258 for victory. Benaud held Slasher back to number eight and he came out when the sixth wicket fell at 236. Two more went before the scores drew level. Left arm spinner Alf Valentine was then bowling to Slasher who had scored just three runs in 51 deliveries as he grimly clung on. He didn’t add to that, but the Valentine delivery that he failed in his attempt to dab in the direction of point also eluded wicketkeeper Gerry Alexander and the bye that resulted won the game.

A few weeks later Slasher, by now 35 and a veteran, still had a couple of Ashes series left in him and arrived in England for his second and last tour. He was to have something of a new job description this time round. In the past it would have been stretching a point to describe him as a full time member of the bowling attack but on this trip he did that job for Benaud. On the tour as a whole none of his teammates bowled more First Class overs than Slasher, and only Alan Davidson did so in the Tests, and only ‘Davo’ exceeded Slasher’s haul of 16 Test wickets.

In the first Test, a draw, Slasher bowled 70 overs and took five wickets. He also, from number eight, made 64 out of a total of 516-9.  His last significant Test innings in England came in the second Test at Lord’s when, again from number eight, his 54 was the glue that held the lower order together and enabled them to add a crucial 146 runs. Australia won by five wickets, before a rampant Freddie Trueman took eleven wickets in the third Test to square the series at 1-1.

Returning to Lord’s between the third and fourth Tests Slasher suddenly had a personality change. It was a decent Middlesex attack too and, with Australia losing their first three wickets for 45 all was set up for a long and tortuous innings from Slasher, playing as a makeshift opener. There was none of that however as he came within eight of a century before lunch, and was eventually fifth out for 168 scored from a total of 257.

What caused this rush of blood to the head? Sunday Telegraph writer Michael Melford suggested the release might have been a nasty blow on the hand by a delivery from Alan Moss, noting that afterwards all Slasher’s strokes came out; the scoop, the slash, the bottom-handed drive, the dab and, the speciality of the house, the forward jab executed on the backward jump. From all these the ball sped away through the gaps, dispatched with iron wrists, the usual perfect timing, and more than usual gusto.

In the fourth Test Slasher chipped in with bat and ball as Australia won a match by 54 runs that on more than one occasion they had looked like losing. They then secured the draw they needed from the final Test thanks in part to a remarkable display of stamina from Slasher. In the England first innings his figures were 39-14-75-2 before, in the second, being 68-21-121-5.

Still a first choice for Australia at 37 Slasher made his highest score against England in the first Test of the 1962/63 series. Arriving at the crease at 194-6 Australia were in some trouble before partnerships of 103 with Brian Booth and 91 with Benaud turned the innings round. There was doubtless a sigh of disappointment all over Australia when Barry Jarman was last man out leaving Slasher high and dry on 86.

The recovery at the ‘Gabba meant a draw for Australia but Slasher could not quite manage a similar rescue act in the second Test, although he did his best. This time he came in at an even bleaker 164-6, but this time the partnerships were lower, 73 with Davidson and 52 with Benaud, and Slasher himself was eventually, after more than three hours, dismissed one short of a half century. England went on to win. In the second innings Slasher scored just nine and, not having taken any wickets in the first two matches, found himself the oldest twelfth man in Australian cricket history in the third Test.

Without Slasher the Australians levelled the series but his replacement, pace bowler Colin Guest, did not take a wicket and Slasher was back for the fourth Test, another draw. Innings of one and three did not help him, but he found himself leading the attack after Davidson pulled up with a hamstring injury in his fourth over. In the England first innings Slasher went on to take three wickets before, in the second innings, he took one more to bring up a round 50 in Tests. The wicket was something of a comedy of errors as well. Slasher found the edge of David Sheppard’s bat and the ball went to Benaud at second slip. The skipper had two goes at taking the catch, followed by one by Bob Simpson who was at first slip before Slasher’s Queensland teammate, ‘keeper Wally Grout, put an end to the nonsense by plucking the ball out of the air.

After his double failure with the bat the press, as they often had, called for Slasher’s head for the fifth Test. He remained in the twelve despite that, but ended up carrying the drinks again. There is a slight irony in the fact that the match proved to be one of the dullest ever played, something Slasher would doubtless have been blamed for had he been playing.

His Test career over Slasher led Queensland through the following 1963/64 season before calling it a day. He didn’t score too many runs but, in terms of wickets taken, his last season proved to be the most productive of his career. After his retirement a benefit fund amply demonstrated Slasher’s popularity as it raised £20,000. An impromptu collection after his heroics at Adelaide had raised £800. Not so financially rewarding but further evidence of the esteem in which he was held was the MBE for services to cricket that Slasher received in 1963.

His playing days over Slasher remained in the game as coach and state selector and he also, with assistance from Frank O’Callaghan, wrote an excellent autobiography, Slasher Opens Up, followed by a decent account of the 1965/66 Ashes. In life Slasher did not prove quite so obdurate as he had at the crease and died far too early at 56 in 1982. It was a sad time for his four daughters as Slasher’s wife had died just a fortnight previously.

As some will know we do have the good fortune at CricketWeb to have amongst us one of Slasher’s contemporaries, who pays the following tribute; Ken was one of my first coaches, nice guy and a very fierce competitor passing that attribute on to younger players. Always a “Team Man” consistently putting them before his individual aspirations, he could always be counted on to produce something to get the team out of whatever predicament they were in. The finest example of that, and what I personally believe was his greatest Test innings, was that last wicket stand with Lindsay Kline in Adelaide in the 60/61 Test series. He always chewed gum (Stimorol). As a mentor Ken always listened to what you had to say, did not ridicule the content, and bloody hell sometimes, just occasionally, he even changed his mind. He was also a good sportsman and role model for his time, He liked a cold one on a hot day and in my opinion was a very underrated Cricketer.

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