Ian Callen in his bat-making workshop in Tarrawarra. Photo: Eddie Jim Ian Callen in his bat-making workshop in Tarrawarra. Photo: Eddie Jim
Ian Callen in his bat-making workshop in Tarrawarra. Photo: Eddie Jim
Ian Callen in his bat-making workshop in Tarrawarra. Photo: Eddie Jim
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Ian Callen’s body reminds him of his one Test for Australia so often it hurts – literally. When the pain in his back returns — sometimes so acute all he can do is lie down for days — he remembers where it all began.
He was 22 and reckoned he might have already been given a go – perhaps in the Centenary Test, or on the 1977 tour of England, certainly in the first outing for the establishment Australians following the World Series split.
Sam Gannon and Wayne Clark got in ahead of him against the touring Indians, but Callen kept taking wickets and was one of four changes for the Adelaide Oval decider of a series locked at two-all.
Already picked to tour West Indies the following month, he was given five innoculation injections the day before making his Test debut. One, yellow fever, had a slow-burn effect. “I was feeling terrible as the game went on,” he says.
This was a six-day Test, and on the fifth, as India made steady inroads chasing a mammoth 493 for victory, Callen went wicketless. He retreated to the team hotel with captain Bob Simpson, and collapsed in the foyer. “They put me on a drip, a nurse was in the room through the night.”
He awoke feeling better and eager to play his part, and in an eight-over spell removed Karsan Ghavri and Bishan Bedi to finish with six wickets for the match before Simpson brought himself on to wrap up the Test and the series. He is immensely proud, not least because of the personal rider.
“I reckon I hurt myself in that Test match – I was fighting against the way I was feeling, pushing through. That’s when I hurt my back. You wouldn’t think about giving a bloke five innoculations the day before a Test match these days, would you? But we got over the line.”
Being a fast bowler with the nickname “Mad Dog” points to a certain personality after stepping “over the line”, and Callen admits he was “a bit of a ratbag” who probably played up to the lunatic fast bowler tag. He says he didn’t like it. And just then, wife Susan appears with tea and cake and affectionately calls him “Doggy”.
He doesn’t know if batsmen were scared of him, but always believed he could put them on the back foot and get them out. “There weren’t too many blokes who could hook me. I learnt how to bowl a bouncer, how to control that space.”
This sporting life is what he always wanted. As a boy he’d raced home from school to watch the last session of Victorian games beamed live by a pre-Mark Scott ABC.
Cowper, Connolly, Sheahan, Stackpole, Bedford – these were the names he yearned to follow into the state team, and beyond. When a mate at Croydon High asked his ambition, Callen answered, “Play cricket for Australia.”
He began with Heathmont, missed the Dowling Shield pathway but got experience against “tough, hard men; you learned quickly”. He went to Carlton, progressed through the thirds, seconds, firsts, state seconds, firsts and into the Test team in the space of five years.
“I could take the ball away from the bat, take it off the wicket or jag one back. I knew I had a leg-cutter, that’s the hardest ball to play.”
He rates Ryan Harris’ ability to do likewise, but reckons Dennis Lillee was the only other bowler who’d mastered the art in his early days.
His Shield debut came with the instruction to “fix” Lillee up at the WACA in November 1976, payback after Lillee had hit Max Walker or Alan Hurst (he can’t recall which) in a previous encounter at the MCG. “I never got to bowl to him. Wasn’t that comfortable with it anyway.”
Memories of his early first class days are vivid. Richie Robinson made hundreds in Callen’s first four matches, “an unbelievable cricketer, could hook, pull, cut, drive on the up both sides of the wicket”.
In his fourth game he bowled David Hookes for nine. It was the only time in a six-innings stretch over 20 days that South Australia’s incredible young batsman failed to make a century.
“I got wickets. Then eight against Queensland, a five-for against New South Wales,” he says of the run in to the Centenary Test in March, 1977. “I thought I could have been selected, felt I’d done enough. I didn’t feel there was anyone I couldn’t bowl to.”
When eventually he lived that high school dream it was against what Callen thought “a wonderful team”. He pays credit to Bedi and Simpson for the great spirit of the contest, runs through the opposition with an almost misty eye.
His victims included Dilip Vengsarkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, “one of the best batsmen India’s ever had”. He fondly recalls Mohinder Armanath, the spin wizards Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, “a terrific keeper” in Syed Kirmani.
He made 22 in a first-innings stand of 47 with Jeff Thomson, can still see the ball running down the path outside the Victor Richardson Gates, children in pursuit, after he’d slog-swept Bedi for six. His highest score in 53 first class games was only a dozen better.
Having bowled his heart (and ultimately his back) out, he sat in the rooms thinking a good night lay ahead. “We’d beaten a strong Test nation at full strength, us the minnows, the second-raters …” Don Bradman shook his hand, sat down for a chat. Then everyone packed their bags and left. “It felt empty.”
Barely a fortnight later he was in the Caribbean, struggling through a trial game in St Kitts. He played a one-day international in Antigua, remembers the pain of each follow-through. “They had me on the stretch rack at one stage,” Callen says of the years of treatment that followed. “With a fractured vertebrae!”
It restricted him to one first class game in two years; at Carlton he played as a batsman. When he returned for Victoria, Walker, Hurst et al were gone, Merv Hughes and Rod McCurdy charging through their footmarks. He fought his way back into national calculations, and toured Pakistan in 1982.
“I learnt to bowl within myself, was more like a stock bowler drying things up. But I could still let the odd one go.” A tour game in Multan was the first time Rod Marsh had kept wicket to him. “The first couple he got a bit of a shock.”
Lillee, Greg Chappell and Len Pascoe opted out of that tour, and there are many of their vintage happy to avoid a country Ian Botham famously thought a good place to send your mother-in-law. Callen suffered dysentry and hurt his knee, the tourists didn’t win even one of their nine matches, but he loved the experience.
The West Indies had planted a traveller’s seed. An airline strike during a stopover in Puerto Rico put Simpson’s tourists on a charter flight. Callen remembers gaps in the floor, broken windows, being able to see the pilot through what looked like saloon doors. “You could hear the steel band through the floor even before we landed!”
Two years ago he took Susan to Pakistan. In Lahore, their hotel lights gone and gunfire cracking through the night air, he said to his wife, “I hope our side’s winning!” The next morning the desk clerk insisted it was merely fireworks; they later heard that several people had been shot dead.
“We had a driver take us to Sialkot. There were kids on the back of bikes, a whole team on a tractor going off to play cricket. They were playing up alleyways, in fields … It was fantastic.” He feels for Pakistani cricketers who have played many Test matches but none in their home country.
Susan is proud that her husband sent a consignment of bats to refugee camps in Pakistan, a window not just on his compassion but the other arm of his cricket story. His name appears in Test history but once, but for 30 years has featured on the back of the game’s most fundamental tool.
Photo galleries of Phillip Hughes in the wake of his death included the batsman as a 12-year-old, sporting that beautiful smile, a Callen cricket bat resting on his shoulder.
“We had about 50 agents up and down the coast selling bats into the local cricket clubs,” its maker says. “They came across a young Phillip Hughes, gave him a bat. He used it to make his first hundred.”
Bat-making has deepened Callen’s connection with the game’s past. He was taught by the Warsop family during the earliest of many winters spent playing in England’s Lancashire League, and two decades ago acted on the conviction of former England captain Archie MacLaren that the Yarra River flats near Healesville racecourse replicated the conditions where English willow had for centuries been grown.
“MacLaren honeymooned at Healesville in 1895, married into the Dalgety family, was a great friend of Dame Nellie Melba,” Callen says. “That’s where we started to grow 20 years ago, and I think he’d be pretty happy to see the trees are doing well and the willow’s producing bats.”
The pure satisfaction of crafting a bat by hand was soured in 2005 when he was forced into bankruptcy, with little more than his bat-making tools to his name. He admits he was scarred, was the victim of misinformation, listened to people he shouldn’t have.
“I virtually stopped making bats.” Yet he was able to keep his trees, and with Susan’s support has “dusted myself off” and carried on.
Each morning he wanders down the hill at Tarrawarra to the barn, and goes to work turning willow clefts into batting wands. When the first of the trees matured five years ago he made a bat, took it up to Toolangi and tried it out in the fifths.
Up the mountain, out behind where the poet C. J. Dennis crafted his prose, he made 80 with his new “stick”, and was moved as only a sentimental bloke could be.
“It sounded like a gunshot every time I hit it, the ball was coming off like a cannon. I thought, ‘You beauty’!”
The next chapter could be the Ashes series he never got to play. Next year, the barn will host bat junkies from around Australia for the first courses in the craft, taught by Callen, after which he’ll send them off armed with clefts from his trees to make bats to sell into their own cricket communities.
They will carry his Willow Blue brand, but feature whatever name the maker chooses.
“The English have had 300 years’ head start on us, but they’re not the monopoly any more,” he says. “We’re going to take them on.”