In his mum's little house in Perth, a former England bowler recovers from troubled times and tells his tales
"… and that's another thing that went pear-shaped. I had a load of shirts, bats, trophies, all that memorabilia crap, back in England, and when I went back that was all gone. Someone had nicked the lot… "
I wait for a pause, so that I can sympathise.
"… that's the thing, when you've been a millionaire and you're skint and you feel like a failure. Now I say, you know what, you can like me for me, and not the fact I was loaded or a famous cricketer and mates with Mick Jagger and Hugh Grant… "
It doesn't come.
"… you remember Aftab Habib? I bought that stereo off his uncle in Reading 20 years ago. Good piece of kit… "
I am in Alan Mullally's bedroom. It is too small for a double bed: a single reaches down to a wardrobe, before another wall rudely interferes. He's showing me the signed Bob Marley record that was a retirement present and hangs on the wall between two posters of his favourite musician. On the opposite wall there's a signed Liverpool shirt.
It's like trying to listen to a Sigur Ros album on shuffle. I want to say: wait up, go back, start from the beginning
"… which came from Steven Gerrard because when I was at Hampshire I had a Harley and… "
There is a pile of clothes at my feet. They are heaped and tangled in the way mine are when I'm staying at my mum's, hoping she'll offer to do my washing.
"… it's amazing how many friends you've got when you're sponsored by Nike, Lexus, Oakley, all the dosh coming in. When you're struggling, you find out who your friends are… "
The walls are beige, the vertical blinds are blue. The only other decorations are a couple of framed photos, signed by Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer. Beneath the Marley posters is a desk with a laptop and a printer - the room, says Mullally, doubles as his office. The 6ft 5in former England bowler stands in the square foot of floor between bed and desk and grins. It's a really genuine grin.
Ann Mullally with her son: "I didn't know much about mental health and I used to say to him, 'For God's sake, get up. Get in there and have a shower.' And I was digging a bigger hole for him"
© Emma John
Ann Mullally with her son: "I didn't know much about mental health and I used to say to him, 'For God's sake, get up. Get in there and have a shower.' And I was digging a bigger hole for him" © Emma John
He tells me he's got a ticket for the weekend's A$20m (approx US$15m) lotto draw. He tells me about the bungee jump he did in Thailand. He enjoys talking about his life, but he does so in unconnected fragments, skipping on to the next anecdote before you've had time to place the last. It's like trying to listen to a Sigur Ros album on shuffle. I want to say: wait up, go back, start from the beginning.
I'm in the bungalow Mullally shares with his mum in the suburbs of Perth, and a short-eared King Charles Spaniel is leaping at my crotch, and I am wondering how the hell this man squeezes his body into a single bed.
Wait up, go back, start from the beginning.
Two years ago I was writing a book about England cricketers of the 1990s. Each chapter was about a favourite player, and I really wanted to write about Mullally, whose left-arm pace, never quite as pacy as the job required, summed up England's bowling attack in those years. Mullally seemed a good guy, someone who never took his job too seriously. In newspaper interviews or on the radio, he was honest and witty, the ideal person to ask what the dressing room was really like.
"It's amazing how many friends you've got when you're sponsored by Nike, Lexus, Oakley, all the dosh coming in. When you're struggling you find out who your friends are"
One of his county colleagues gave me his email address but "Al hasn't replied to emails in a long while," he told me. Apparently Mullally was going through some stuff; no one was quite sure where he was living. "You might try Twitter," said the colleague. "He's on there sometimes."
It worked - at least, we exchanged a few messages. A couple of times we arranged to chat on Skype, but Mullally never answered, and after a couple of excuses - "just charging my iPad", "new laptop" - he went silent. I gave up and wrote the chapter without him.
And then, earlier this year, I visited some family in Australia. It was the penultimate day of my trip and I was idly checking my Twitter feed when I noticed something: Alan Mullally's page said he was in Perth. And Perth was where I was.
I felt the hand of fate tickle my armpit.
The coach who dropped me: with Duncan Fletcher
© Getty Images
The coach who dropped me: with Duncan Fletcher © Getty Images
I called him.
At 5pm I was in an Uber on my way to an address Mullally had given me.
The driver, who had promised she was two minutes away, had taken half an hour to arrive, and she was now struggling to find his house. We drove along streets of one-storey houses, past an angular modern church and industrial-park offices; and then drove along them again, in the other direction. Every ten minutes I would phone Mullally to apologise, abjectly, for being lost. He was very nice about it, and said he was standing by the road so he could wave us down.
He had been standing there for 40 minutes when we finally arrived: wearing board shorts and an orange polo shirt that emphasised his tan, an excited spaniel attempting to wriggle past his legs.
"Hope you like dogs," said Mullally, ushering me through the front room. "That's Finbar." A woman half his size sat in front of a computer screen in red leggings and a green vest. "And that's my mum." The chief piece of furniture in the room was a wooden sideboard, its every inch covered in trophies and medallions. The exuberant display of everything Mullally had won since puberty was a giveaway. This was her house, not his.
"I got dropped by Duncan Fletcher 'cos I was too laid-back. Can you imagine dropping Glenn McGrath or Curtly Ambrose because they're too laid-back?"
We passed a tiny kitchen, where he stopped to make us tea, and into a backyard where three enormous fishing rods stood semi-erect. (I say enormous; I've never really seen fishing rods that close up before and I was pretty intimidated. Perhaps they were just normal size.)
He didn't remember the last time we'd been in touch, but he seemed as delighted by this random visit as Finbar, whose front paws were threatening to shred my tights. By the time I had dredged out my Dictaphone from the bottom of my bag, Mullally was deep in reminiscence. Bowling to Lara, Tendulkar and Inzamam. Graeme Hick's mismanaged genius. The lack of fraternity between England's bowlers - "it was every man for himself" - and the over-intensity of their batsmen. "They just didn't relax and play, and yet they had so much talent," he said. "It was a shambles."
I said that he never seemed particularly intense - quite the opposite. He nodded. "I got dropped by Duncan Fletcher 'cos I was too laid-back. Can you imagine dropping Glenn McGrath or Curtly Ambrose because they're too laid-back? It's incredible. I got dropped when I was ranked No. 2 in the world… "
Mullally takes a wicket in East London in 2000
© Getty Images
Mullally takes a wicket in East London in 2000 © Getty Images
(A lacuna: Mullally held the No. 2 position for exactly one week, between 18 and 24 August 2000, and he wasn't dropped from the team, he was injured. Many will contest that his brief spell ahead of Muttiah Muralitharan is proof not of his abilities but of a fundamental flaw in the ODI ratings algorithm.)
"… but you don't have to headbutt the wall and have steam come out of your ears to show that you care."
He leapt up, and returned moments later with his benefit programme from 2005. The tributes from fellow players teased Mullally's conversational style ("rambling monologues", "constant claptrap", "monotonous drivel") and goofy behaviour. It was a portrait not of a man who rebelled against authority, but who met it with a Stan Laurel grin and a continual stream of gobbledygook.
David "Bumble" Lloyd's page made an oblique reference to a shark and the England captain Mike Atherton. When I asked Mullally to tell me the story, he lit up. "It was the New Zealand tour of 1996-97. Atherton had his rods, he loves his fly fishing, he's making up all his flies on the planes and in his hotel room, and as you can see, I love fishing too, I'm rigging up my rods at the moment, I used to have my own boat… "
When he was struggling with a maths question his older brother called him an idiot. "I said, that's it, I'm going to England to play cricket"
For the next ten minutes Mullally did not pause for breath. He explained how he had gone fishing on a day off, with a couple of players and Lloyd, the England coach. They were trying but failing to catch some snapper when Mullally hooked something heavy.
"… and I've gone, 'Shit, bring your rods in lads, I've got something big on here', and after about ten minutes Bumble's like, oh for f***'s sake, just bring it in, would you, and I said, 'Mate, I've got a whale on here I'm telling you', and two hours later I pull in a mako shark, they're related to the great white… "
(There followed a scene, which I'll cut for brevity, where a toothy 55lb shark thrashed about on the deck of the boat, and Bumble leapt at Andy Caddick like Scooby Doo jumping into Shaggy's arms.)
"… and when we got back I chucked it into the back of the pickup and Bumble's like, 'Ay up lad, what are you going to do with that?' And I said, 'You know what I'm going to do with it'…
Loons of a feather: with Phil Tufnell
© PA Photos
Loons of a feather: with Phil Tufnell © PA Photos
"… and I took it to the big fancy hotel reception and said, 'Excuse me, can I have Mr Atherton's room key?' I dragged it up through the elevator, it's still bloody and it stinks, I stuck it on his bed, I got a marker pen and a bit of paper and stuck a note on its pectoral fin. 'Athers, this is what you call a fish… '"
Mullally was dropped for the next game.
At some point during the telling, Mullally's mum, Ann, wandered out for a smoke and joined us at the table. Mullally's family came to Australia when he was four; his father was an Irish scaffolder whom Ann had met at a dance hall in Southend, the Essex seaside town where she lived. One day he had come home and said, "How do you fancy going to Australia?" She asked when. "Tomorrow!" They left the next day.
I asked if she had always lived in this part of Perth. No, she said, they started out in Sydney. After 18 months the family moved 2500 miles cross-country: Mick drove their two older children across the Nullarbor desert, and Ann brought the other three, including Al, on the week-long train. "The people on board were great. They knew I was on my own. The stewards used to knock on my door and take the kids for a while and they'd come back full of ice cream."
At one point, he found himself unable to get out of bed. "It was about eight years in the coming." The attacks of anxiety felt like a heart attack
"I remember the vanilla ice cream," said Mullally.
Ann told me neither she nor Mick had any interest in cricket - they were football fans, Manchester United - but she'd learned to score after her boys became obsessed with it. Mick bowled them legspin on the patio. "We had crazy paving, so it was going everywhere," recalled Mullally. "He thought he was Shane Warne."
Mick died last year. He had a heart attack in the front room. Ann had to do CPR on him while she waited for an ambulance. Alan's been living here ever since. Father and son were close: when Mullally moved to England, aged 17, to play for Hampshire, he spent a large percentage of his weekly budget on pound-a-minute phone calls home. "The Irish can talk," said Mullally.
Mullally was always different from his siblings. His brothers were both "very Australian"; when they played Aussie Rules in the park, Mullally insisted on kicking round a soccer ball. I got the sense that he sometimes felt belittled. He mentioned a couple of times that his older brother got straight As because "he was studying millions of hours a day", while he got Bs and Cs without trying at all. He remembered a pivotal moment when he was struggling with a maths question and his older brother called him an idiot. "I said, 'That's it, I'm going to England to play cricket.' My dad thought I was joking, but I was off in a month." He played his first game for Hampshire in 1988; he had made his first-class debut playing for Western Australia in the Sheffield Shield final a few months before.
Mullally is put through his paces in the Kingsmead car park (rain had made the ground unusable) ahead of the third Test in 1999. He didn't make the cut
© PA Photos
Mullally is put through his paces in the Kingsmead car park (rain had made the ground unusable) ahead of the third Test in 1999. He didn't make the cut © PA Photos
If the career that followed - about a decade and a half for Leicestershire and Hampshire, and 58 Test wickets in 19 matches - was relatively undramatic, its aftermath has been a long-running soap opera. He retired in 2005, he said, with the intention of heading back to Perth and starting a family. Then his wife left him. "The plan was to sell my house in England, come over here, go study media, become a physio, or buy a Subway or Nando's franchise. I had my plans. She woke up one day, pissed off and ripped me off."
That was just the beginning of his bad fortune. He lost a large sum of money when he invested it with someone he'd met at the school where he was coaching. "I was too trusting," he said.
"That was your biggest downfall," agreed Ann. "Too trusting."
It's hard to tell exactly how much Mullally lost; from this point on, the story became increasingly bizarre. He told me A$400,000 (US$300,500); court reports said it was only a quarter of that. But it seemed enough, on top of the divorce, to drastically change his circumstances. Mullally said he used to be "loaded". He showed me a picture of his Honda S2000 - "that, in Perth, is like having a Ferrari". There was another, weirder claim: that he'd spent A$30,000 (US$22,536) flying a pet beagle back and forth between England and Australia. I assumed he was exaggerating.
He spent three months in Thailand on the rehab programme. "I learned a lot about drugs. These blokes are on valiums, or benzodiasomethings… "
As Mullally talked on, fragments of the story winked teasingly like shards of broken mirror. A girlfriend whose parents owned an incredibly posh London restaurant. A spell in Sydney, where he tried to learn to fly helicopters. A trip to Mustique, where he hung out at Mick Jagger's place. And through it all, an undercurrent of anxiety and depression that he admitted to only after his father's death.
At one point, he found himself unable to get out of bed. "It was about eight years in the coming," he said. "When you're used to achieving, then all of this stuff… you feel like a failure. You can't find a way out." The attacks of anxiety felt like a heart attack. "He kept it to himself," said Ann, shaking her head. "Even when he lived here. He was getting up three o'clock in the morning throwing up and I didn't know a thing. I didn't know much about mental health and I used to say to him, 'For God's sake, get up. Get in there and have a shower.' And I was digging a bigger hole for him."
Mullally nodded. "To have a shower was harder work than climbing Mount Everest," he said. Last August, some friends who ran a private rehab centre in Thailand heard about his troubles and invited him to stay. "They knew I wasn't right, and they said, 'Why didn't you tell us this last year you d***head?'"
What Mullally hadn't included - what he never mentioned in the two and a half hours we spent discussing his Icarus narrative - were the four drink-driving convictions he had racked up, the most recent last May. The judge had rejected his lawyer's claim that Mullally was a person of good character and unlikely to offend again, not least because it was the drunkest he'd been caught behind the wheel. Mullally was fined and had his license rescinded for three years. Which is one more reason, perhaps, why he was living at home with his mum.
Mullally (far left, top) with fellow fishing aficionados Atherton (centre, below) and Lloyd (far right) on the sidelines of a Bulawayo tour match in 1996
© PA Photos
Mullally (far left, top) with fellow fishing aficionados Atherton (centre, below) and Lloyd (far right) on the sidelines of a Bulawayo tour match in 1996 © PA Photos
He spent three months in Thailand on the rehab programme. "I learned a lot about drugs," he said. "Do you even know what chasing the dragon is? I'd never heard of it before. These blokes are on valiums, or benzodiasomethings… "
"He got people into the gym that'd never been in the gym before," said Ann, proudly.
"Oh yeah, this one American guy, he'd been living in Vietnam doing - what was he doing, Mum? Ice? He was a lovely young lad, 24. He looked like he was 50. And I got him in the gym. The difference in him in six weeks… he walked in with a hump on his back, but he put on seven kilos of muscle, veins popping out of his arms… " His friends asked Mullally to stay, he said, to be a "motivational guru" for the others. "I said no, I've had enough." For just a second, he sounded like David Brent.
The landline rang. Mullally went inside to pick up the phone, then passed it to his mum: "Tell them I'm not here." She listened for a couple of seconds, then hung up. "Some survey about the election." Watching Fox News and CNN was one of their favourite pastimes, said Mullally. "I'm up 'til two in the morning, I think it's brilliant."
"I've had people say to me: he's living at home, doing this and that… I say to them, he's my son. What do you expect me to do, put him out on the streets?"
He liked watching the presenters - he wanted to do more media work himself, and it was good to learn from them. He'd been commentating on the BBC recently. "It all happened because I bumped into Kevan James in West Quay shopping plaza in Southampton. He said, 'Al why don't you pop in for half an hour?' And then the head honchos were listening, and they were like, 'Who is this guy?' And they changed their budget around for me to be on the coverage full-time, all over the country."
Heavy breathing began to emerge from Finbar's kennel; he had finally fallen asleep. We returned to the living room, where Mullally gave me a tour of the trophies. There were just so many, I said. "Well, when I coach in India they always give you a trophy, and I thought if I don't bring them back, Mum'll kill me. They gave me that thing up there, that thing over there, all those up there… "
I stopped to look at a signed photograph on a side table by the sofa. It didn't seem to belong among the cluster of brass bats, balls and plaques - the picture wasn't of a sportsman but a retired policeman. "Have you seen Homicide Hunter?" asked Mullally. It was his mum's favourite TV show, so he'd written to its star to ask for the photo. Mullally read out the inscription: "Ann, all the best, Joe Kenda."
Bedroom, office, everything: Mullally at home
© Emma John
Bedroom, office, everything: Mullally at home © Emma John
His mother beamed. I said she'd got a good son. She nodded. "I've had people say to me: he's living at home, doing this and that… I say to them, 'He's my son. What do you expect me to do, put him out on the streets?'"
"I bounced back, that's the main thing," said Mullally. I asked him what he thought the future might hold. "There's a lot of demand for good fast-bowling coaches and people who can speak well, but not a lot of supply. Within the next two years I might be flying high again, might be able to buy a house again."
Then he checked himself. "I've never been materialistic. I could win the lotto tomorrow and it wouldn't change me. I'll still stay here and look after the old girl."
Emma John is the author of Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket
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