Alan Davidson

'The only way you learn to bowl is to bowl'

The former Australia allrounder reminisces about growing up, playing alongside Lindwall, batting in the tied Test, and being a Musketeer

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  
Alan Davidson bowls in the nets at Lord's ahead of his second Test, 1953

Alan Davidson bowls in the nets at Lord's ahead of his second Test, 1953 © PA Photos

When I was nine, my grandfather showed me a photograph of a ship taking the Australian team to England in 1938. I said, "One day, granddad, I am going to do it."

I came from very humble beginnings. We had 30 children in the primary school. Nobody had shoes. We lived in homes with kerosene lamps. I chopped wood from the age of five. I used to carry 200lb bags of wheat when I was 14. They were terribly hard times but each of these things taught me a lot of things: Nothing is easy. You never give in. You have always got to achieve something.

It was an immense feeling to get a wicket off my final ball of international cricket.

Ray Lindwall had the most beautiful bowling action. Everything about him was beautiful rhythm.

Observation is the best teacher. Watch the top players - what they do, why do they do this and why do they do that. The great players have some innate skills different to others.

Bill Johnston showed me how to regulate the amount of swing with the different angles in the finger. When a kangaroo hops along and wants to change direction, it is his tail that goes down and hits the ground. I did it by angling my thumb on the bottom of the ball - that was the kangaroo's tail for me.

Where I am today in life, in business, is because of Lord Brabazon, an English gentleman. The decisions you make in life, the acceptance of things, the understanding of people - there were so many facets of life he taught me.

I had 16 wickets in my first 12 Tests. Lindwall, Johnston, Miller and Ron Archer were around at the time and I could not bowl much. But once I got the new ball I had this gift to swing.

Sobers got 130-odd in the first innings of the tied Test, in Brisbane. It is in my top three innings in Test cricket. People can pierce the field with a shot but Sobers bisected the fieldsmen through the middle every time, with the most glorious timing.

For me, there was no such thing as an impossible catch.

My first ball in representative cricket was in a club game in a final, against Mickey Baker, a bloke who played in first-grade club cricket in Sydney. I was 17 and was thrown the ball by my uncle, who had played with Bill Brown. He preferred me over the regular pair of new-ball bowlers, saying Baker had no idea what I bowled. I knocked Baker's stumps over with a big inswinger first ball.

When I was 12 or 13, there was this small pocket at the side of the hill that was the only vacant space left. I got there with a mattock and a shovel and levelled it into a cricket pitch. When I finished with my chores of chopping wood, feeding the chook, milking the cows, I would bowl in semi-darkness. I just wanted to bowl.

When I went to start that last over in Test cricket, it was a memory-lane thing. I remembered my first Test match was in Nottingham and all the rest of my career came back, and I was thinking, 'I hope I can do something in this over.' I had lost count of the number of balls I had bowled. I turned to the umpire, asking him how many balls were left. "This is it," he replied. The previous two deliveries I bowled to Alan Smith, I had him at a spot where his feet were doing something. I thought if I could pitch it on this particular spot, he would either nick it to the wicketkeeper or the slip. As it was, he nicked it to Bobby Simpson at first slip. It was like a crescendo, and then it was a relief that I had gone out in a way I did not think possible.

Funnily enough, my last ball in first-class cricket clean-bowled Garry Sobers, against South Australia. It was off an Irish - reverse-swing. It hit him on the knee, going on to hit middle and leg.

I used to get a green orange off the trees and throw it as high as I could and then run after and catch it. I believe that is where I learned my skill of catching, because if I let the orange hit the ground it would have squished and burst.

"The foreword Don Bradman wrote to my book Fifteen Paces was the best reference I ever take to a job interview. Great players, Bradman wrote, are either performers or entertainers. He said I was both"

Keith Miller gave me the nickname "Claw". Keith was a beautiful slip fieldsman. One day he was in first slip and I was in second slip. This particular ball was snicked and I caught it with my left hand, but virtually caught it at Keith's right foot when he was still on his way down. He uttered: "Goodness, gracious, Claw."

Lindwall would hit the stumps eight times out of eight balls, and each time we nominated which stump. I once saw him bowl Peter May with a ball that was the equivalent of Shane Warne's ball to Mike Gatting. He was bowling with the new ball, and it swung from May's pads and took the off stump and was bowled at 85-90mph. It was better than Warne's ball.

I had a side-on action, which is contrary to all the bowling actions of left-arm fast bowlers. Look at Mitchell Johnson, who is open-chested. You are always going to go against the arm. My back foot was square, my front foot was square, but once I landed, my hips would pivot. It was like firing a rifle.

In Wairarapa, New Zealand, I took all ten wickets for 29 in the first innings and then came back to bat and hit 157 not out. I was 80 not out overnight. At dinner one of the blokes asked if I realised that tomorrow I could make history because only once had a player - EM Grace in a 12-a-side match in 1862 - achieved the double of ten wickets and a century. I did not sleep, I was that nervous. Next morning I still had the shakes. Bill Brown, our captain, was alongside me when I was on 99. They had a fielder at deep mid-off, on the fence. I pushed on to mid-off and ran. Bill said, "Get back down there. Get your hundred in style." I just scrambled back to my crease. I pulled over midwicket for a four soon.

Neil Harvey, Richie Benaud, and myself were known as the Three Muskeeters.

Strategies are one thing. Today everyone thinks by feeding data into a computer they can come up with answers. We made instantaneous decisions.

My best batting was in the second innings in the tied Test. But Benaud ran me out at the most critical moment. We had two overs to go. We needed seven runs in virtually seven minutes. I told him, "Just make sure I am down there for Wes Hall." Richie played three or four balls in the penultimate over. Then he hit straight to Joe Solomon and took off. I wasn't really backing up 100% and I was out by four to five yards. Next over Hall bounced Richie, who was caught behind. It was the most unforgettable game of all time.

I was the first player to achieve the double of getting ten wickets and getting a hundred in the same Test match.

The foreword Don Bradman wrote to my book Fifteen Paces was the best reference I'd ever take to a job interview. Great players, Bradman wrote, are either performers or entertainers. He said I was both.

Touring India and Pakistan was rough in our days. Ahead of a subcontinent tour once, I had rolled my ankle playing against England. During the recovery I was bowling in the nets. The little fella [Bradman] had hidden himself in the crowd, watching me bowl. As I headed back to the dressing room, I spotted him up in front. I said, "Good morning, Don." He replied in his squeaky voice, "Good morning, Alan. How are you?" Thinking this is my chance, I asked him if it was compulsory to go to India and Pakistan later in the year. Without turning his head he replied, "You've retired, have you?" I was stuttering as I told him I had not. He said, "Good. You might tell the others up in the room the same thing." He was a good selector.

Davidson hooks Wes Hall at the MCG in 1961

Davidson hooks Wes Hall at the MCG in 1961 © PA Photos

I wrote my book in long-hand and it probably took me nearly a month. I was a bank clerk at the Commonwealth Bank and would come back home and write it from seven in the evening till midnight.

In terms of technique, Len Hutton was the best batsman I bowled. Ted Dexter was one of the hardest to bowl to.

I was head of New South Wales cricket for 33 years. Every high school in the state plays for the Alan Davidson Shield, a knockout competition. Every player who has played for New South Wales and Australia in the last 30 years has been identified from that tournament. That means something to me.

Neil Harvey and Sobers were the best two players of my era. Harvey challenged every bowler. He was never going to play himself in for an over and then play a shot. If the first ball came on and he thought he could go for a shot, he would. That is a touch of genius.

I do not believe players today have the same mutual respect we had for opponents during our time. Another thing I do not like is that the umpire's decision is no more the final word.

Once we were on a ship near Cairo, en route to England, in 1961. Brian Johnston, the BBC commentator, was on board doing some filming. He told Benaud that England had the advantage because of the accuracy of Brian Statham. Richie said, "Huh, I've got a bloke just as good as that." So I was pressed in [to bowl] with a pair of sandals on and a pair of swimming shorts. First he asked me to knock over the off stump. Then I knocked over the leg stump followed by the middle one. That kept Johnston quiet for a while.

I agree with Bradman's opinion that cricketers are not made by selectors. They are only given opportunities. If they fail, that is their responsibility, not yours as a selector.

It was a boyhood dream to play for Australia. I never lost that.

An old adage of Alec Bedser was: the only way you learn to bowl is to bowl.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo