Roo beauty

Allen Aylett is self-deprecating about his two-summers-long first-class cricket career, and says it doesn't come up much these days. Contemporaries such as Ron Barassi, Brian Dixon or Graham Arthur might prod him now and then, but he's far more likely to be asked about his life in football, which reached lofty heights on either side of the fence.

Yet in the tradition of the more sedate and story friendly of the two sports, his brief stint at the top of the Victorian batting order still makes him smile because of the unlikely happenings it produced.

Sport's ultimate juggling act

From middle to medal and back

At 7 o'clock on the November morning of his 1957 Sheffield Shield debut, 23-year-old Aylett sat alone in a room at the old dental hospital in Spring Street, his final-year oral surgery exam on a desk in front of him. Special dispensation from Melbourne University secured him an early start; his soon-to be dentist mates opened their papers two hours later up the road in Parkville.

At 10am, Aylett put down his pen and rushed outside and climbed into a waiting taxi.

At the door of the MCG home rooms he was met by captain Sam Loxton. “You'd better hurry,” the former Test man told him. “I've won the toss and we're batting.”

Aylett and Neil Crompton, both newbies, strode out and took block against a strong West Australian attack. After an hour John Shaw replaced Crompton, but Aylett was seeing them well — until he clipped one to midwicket, called “yes”, and was halfway down the pitch when Shaw, who was nicknamed “Forgetful”, sent him back.

He had made 24 and felt he was going all right after an initiation he admits was unusual, and a little stressful. There was an unexpected consolation. “I finished up winning the prize for oral surgery, of the 50 students in my year,” Aylett says. “It might have been a payback for Forgetful Shaw running me out!”

Oddly, the contention that his football would suffer alongside more serious devotion to cricket — one of many reasons why all-rounders such as Aylett became sporting dinosaurs — isn't supported by his double-act experience.

Already a six-year, 100-game North Melbourne footballer when he became a state cricketer, his two first-class summers bookended arguably the best season of his football career.

“[North teammate] John Dugdale had a great year in 1958, too, and he was a very good cricketer,” recalls Aylett, who, like Dugdale, made the All-Australian team, and added the Tassie Medal for best player in the national carnival and the fi rst of three club champion awards.

He reckons his football did not suffer because the summer to winter transition was far easier than footy to cricket.

Pre-season football training was largely an as-you-please affair; getting fit for cricket was almost as distant as checking your email, yet Aylett still ailed as summer dawned.

“After finishing a VFL season, then going to Melbourne University for cricket practice, I could hardly walk for a fortnight,” he says. “Bowling in the nets, even batting or fielding practice, I'd feel every muscle in the legs and arms and chest, like I had flu-like symptoms, simply because you're using all of these other muscles.”

Soon he was back at uni permanently, Bill Lawry returning to the top of the Victorian order (Aylett had initially replaced him) and his sporting ambition narrowed to Arden Street winters. Since growing up in West Brunswick, playing junior cricket with the St David's Church team and football in the Essendon district league, he had wanted what all sporty kids want: to play both. He was grateful for the chance to do so, but knew where his future lay.

“There were a lot of good district cricketers who might not have been as lucky as me,” he says. He knows his 11 games produced modest returns, yet remembers feeling at home in a couple of Adelaide Oval 30s, another 40-odd at the MCG, and has pondered what might have come from a shift in focus. “Because I didn't quite make the big time [in cricket], I have on occasions thought, 'Would I have done better if I hadn't have played football, or stopped playing like they do now?' ”

Barely a few minutes into our chat, he breaks off to ask the cricket score. It's day one in Hobart, and he's mindful of recent concerns about the Bellerive Oval pitch. He's happy to hear that Australia is 2-140-odd, well aware it's the administrators who cop it in the neck when the stage is deemed unfit for the show.

So opens the door to Aylett's other sporting string: his nine years as the Andrew Demetriou of the day, during which South Melbourne became Sydney and the VFL cast off its blinkers and galloped off towards becoming the sporting behemoth that is the AFL. He was 42 when elected chairman, and stepped into a vastly different landscape to today's.

“As far as I was concerned they could both live together, and if you were good enough you could make it at both,” he says, recalling no sense of one seeing the other as a competitor. He is conscious the dynamic has changed; when Aylett asks, “Who's winning, do you think?” it's a rhetorical question.

In Victoria, at least, the “football season” gets longer every year.

Relations with Ray Steele, Bob Parish and the men running cricket were good; he agrees that the summer sport — on the back of World Series Cricket, TV innovations and marketable stars like Lillee, the Chappells, a young David Hookes — was arguably “winning” in the public eye. A memorable dinner at VFL Park, Waverley, just before the WSC bombshell was dropped illustrates a co-operative approach.

"It was the first night [football] match ever, and Kerry Packer dined with us," Aylett says of the media mogul, who was about to fly London to reveal his plans to cricket's governors. After the first course, as darkness fell and the lights came on, the diners stepped outside.

"You could play night cricket here." Aylett encouraged Packer.

"Night cricket ..." he responded, lost in a truly lightbulb moment.

Figures for ground hire were floated - $300,000 for years one and two, $400,000 the third - and even when cricket's factions united after two WSC seasons, a Packer-signed cheque duly arrived to honour the third, redundant summer.

Was football helping cricket? “We were helping ourselves,” Aylett says.

He remains a lover of both sports, and acknowledges they are very much in competition now — for players, fans, dollars. “It'll find its own level, depending how much money's around.” He adds: “Cricket seem to be worrying more about it than football, don't they?”

Not all of football's offseason “events” hold his attention, but he marvels at its ability to dominate the news even months away from the last game or the next. He used to discuss expansion with Barassi, Alan Schwab, Jack Clarke and a few others; now consultants chart the road ahead. “It's much more professional with that attitude.”

Aylett says his goal was only to develop football, not squeeze cricket in the process.

He observes that football “has just sort of tumbled on, hasn't it?”, but he sees the appeal in Twenty20, the scope for it to become “quite an event” in the US market. “Hitting a six in a Test match in my day, that'd make headlines almost.”

Now 78, he still works three days a week as a dentist, now in Alexandra after five years of dividing his week between Melbourne and Kerang.

Football inspiration still visits him; he doubts many care much about his cricket past, but the memories bring a smile.

His fondest is a tale told against himself. Opening the batting for Victoria in the then traditional Boxing Day clash with New South Wales, he watched the fi rst three balls of the match from Test quick Gordon Rorke fly past his backside and to the fence for four wides. The next ball Aylett swears trapped him plumb leg before, but he survived. He scrounged a single, and was cleaned up by Alan Davidson at the start of the next over.

“That was one of our better opening partnerships. The scoreboard read: Aylett 1, Crompton 0, 12 wides, Victoria 1-13. So I walked off with my head high.”

ALLEN AYLETT

THE CRICKETER

FIRST-CLASS
Victoria 1957-59 11 matches 275 runs at 16.17 2 wickets at 31.00

THE FOOTBALLER
VFL North Melbourne 1952-64 220 games, 311 goals Victorian representative 15 times Best & fairest 3 times Dual All-Australian VFL president 1977

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