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A tribute to Tony Mann

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Roar Guru
17th November, 2019
14

Tony Mann died this week after a seven-year battle with pancreatic cancer that was expected to defeat him in six months.

I never saw him play and my dealings with him were limited to one phone interview but I was very aware of him growing up. He played one of the all-time great innings – in the second Test against India in 1977-78, he became the first Australian to score a century as a night watchman, helping his country to a desperately close victory.

Mann was part of a West Australian cricketing dynasty. For whatever reason, cricketing dynasties seem especially prominent out west. You’ve got the Inverarities, the Brayshaws, the Marshes, etc.

Mann’s father Jack was a local club legend and Tony learned how to play on the front verandah of the family home with his brothers and Dennis Yagmich. Tony Mann was a school teacher by profession but the family trade was wine – Jack Mann was a pioneer wine grower in WA and his son spoke with great authority on the subject. He told me he delighted in introducing different types of wine to the traditionally beer-dominated Australian dressing room.

Mann was a teen prodigy as a cricketer, taking bags of wickets in club games with his leg spinners and making his first-class debut for West Australia in 1963-64. Many contemporaries felt Mann never lived up to his early potential, which at one stage seemed limitless. Rod Marsh thought his development was hurt by an over-reliance on the wrong‘un and playing too much English league cricket.

But by the end of the decade Mann had become a fixture of the WA side who would go on to dominate Australian domestic cricket for the next two decades. It wasn’t easy to be a spinner with the WACA as your home ground, but Mann made his mark, helped by the fact he was a more than handy lower-order batsman and superb fielder (his strong throwing arm earned him the nickname Rocket).

Indeed, he was such a force that West Australian spin bowlers Terry Jenner and Ashley Mallett moved to South Australia to further their careers. Ironically, both made the national side well before Mann did.

In 1969-70 Mann took 25 first-class wickets for the season and was spoken of as an international prospect, but went into a form slump with the ball for a number of years, although he scored 110 against the touring English as a nightwatchman in 1970-71.

Mann recovered but seemed well back in the national spin pecking order until spots opened up with World Series Cricket. Australia’s two best spinners, Ray Bright and Kerry O’Keeffe, signed with Chappell and co (WSC never made an offer to Mann, incidentally), leaving the field open for the series against India at the beginning of the 1977-78 summer.

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The front-runner was Jim Higgs, an excellent leggie who had toured England in 1975. Another option was David Hourn, a fiercely talented New South Welshman. But both Higgs and Hourn were poor fielders and batsmen, which hurt their prospects.

Mann leapt into Test consideration with eight wickets against Tasmania in a Shield game. He then took Bob Simpson’s wicket in a NSW versus WA match – a wicket particularly enjoyed by the sandgropers because the night before Simpson had accused the West Australians of being unable to pick wrong‘un during a television interview… and Simpson was unable to pick Mann’s wrong‘un, shouldered arms and was trapped LBW.

At age 32, Mann was no spring chicken and Australian selectors were then (as now) notoriously ageist but Mann had a very strong ally in his corner. Sam Loxton, Australian selector at the time, told me that Don Bradman wrote him a letter in praise of Mann. The Don knew how hard it was to be a spinner in WA and thought Mann was better than his eastern state reputation. So Mann found himself in the Australian team for the first Test. He was the second oldest player in the side, the closest in age to the 41-year-old captain Bob Simpson.

Mann had a very good Test debut. He came to the wicket in the first innings when Australia was 5-49 and took part in a 41-run partnership with Peter Toohey that steadied the side and helped Australia reach a competitive 166.

When India batted, Mann took a wicket in his first over (Gundappa Viswanath, which is pretty cool) and wound up with figures of 3-12. Mann’s batting was also handy in the second innings – he scored 29, taking part in a 49-run partnership with Simpson that arrested another collapse. His bowling was less effective second time around (0-52) but Australia won by 16 runs.

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Mann then played against the Indians for WA in a tour game. He found the going harder as a bowler, taking 1-68 and 1-50 but did make 56 with the bat.

Mann is mostly remembered for what he did in the second Test. India batted first and put on 402, Mann coming in for punishment with 0-63 off 11 overs. Australia made 394 in response, Mann only scoring 7. India made 9-330 in their second innings, Mann going for 0-49. Newspapers confidently predicted he would be dropped for the third Test.

(Wiki Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Australia had to chase 339 to win. When John Dyson was dismissed at 1-13 Mann was sent out as nightwatchman (Steve Rixon would normally have taken the job but was exhausted after wicketkeeping all day). Mann and Craig Serjeant took the score to 33 the following day when Serjeant was dismissed.

Mann had to bat with David Ogilvie, who had been in terrific form in the Sheffield Shield but was struggling at Test level, particularly against the bowling of Bishan Bedi. Mann ended up being the senior partner. He was comfortable playing at his home ground against the Indian spinners.

David Ogilvie later told me: “I think Rocket just went berserk. And I was happy to feed him the strike and do whatever I had to to hang around. I’d never seen him play like that before.”

By the time Mann was dismissed, the score was 3-172 and the West Australian had made 105. Ogilvie got out afterwards for 47 but the middle and lower order did their job and Australia got home by two wickets.

The victory was especially sweet because Mann did it in front of his home ground, in front of his family, playing alongside his great friend, Sam Gannon, a sturdy bowler who was also a skilled businessmen, and went on to have perhaps the most successful business career of any of the ’70s Test cricketers.

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Mann’s efforts with the bat secured his selection for the next two Tests. He found the going harder – the Indian batsmen had figured him out by now, and he didn’t have the same luck with the bat. In the third Test Mann’s returns were 0-15 and 1-24 and 11 and 18. In the fourth Test he scored a pair and took 0-101. India won both games.

Mann was unfortunate in that he had to make his Test debut against the best spinners in the world – he told me he felt he would’ve done better against the English or West Indians. He had a possibly unsympathetic captain in Bob Simpson who liked to bowl himself as spinner. The West Australians in the side generally disliked Simpson and felt John Inverarity should have been captain, notwithstanding Simpson’s outstanding abilities as a player. Mann kept a cartoon someone wrote of a player asking Simpson when Mann could have a bowl.

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Mann also may have lacked the mental fortitude to make it at the top level. One of his teammates told me that Mann had great talent, but struggled to truly believe in himself. “He never quite had the temperament,” said the player. “You could get on top of him. I always fancied playing against Tony because you knew that he knew that you had his measure.”

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Mann was replaced in the fifth Test and subsequent tour of the West Indies by a fellow West Australian, off spinner Bruce Yardley, who was a similar sort of player – excellent fielder and aggressive lower-order batsman – only he had no trouble believing in himself.

Yardley and Jim Higgs became Australia’s two spinners of choice during the World Series Cricket years, with Peter Sleep as third cab on the rank. Australia won the fifth Test to take the series 3-2 but without those crucial innings of Mann’s, there’s a chance India could have won the series 4-1. Mind you, if Jim Higgs had played instead, maybe he would’ve won the games with the ball… we’ll never know.

Mann never made his way back into national colours but continued to perform solidly for WA until 1983-84, helping win several Sheffield Shields. He finished with 2544 first class runs at 24.22 and 200 wickets (from 80 games) at 34.54. His best summer as a bowler and batsman was 1977-78 – 39 wickets at 29.6, 561 runs at 25.5.

Mann was greatly beloved by his teammates, who particularly appreciated his fielding and never-say-die attitude. He knew he had been given an unexpected chance to play Test cricket and made the most of it. Several of them described him as “a typical West Australian – you know, ‘don’t die wondering’, that sort of bloke.”

RIP Tony Mann. He didn’t die wondering.