Wangaratta bade adieu to a sporting icon in March 2003.
At 73 years of age it had been a good innings and friends from far and wide gathered on this sunny early autumn day to pay homage. Many kind words were spoken and the odd misty eye was dabbed. It was a sad farewell.
Social cricket was pronounced dead not long afterwards and summer Sundays have never been the same since.
Most keen young cricketers in town, me included, cut their teeth on the Sunday game. It had a flavour and personality of its own and, whilst played earnestly, didn’t quite require the commitment and the conformity of the WDCA.
Charlie Welch, one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the association, stressed its guidelines when speaking in the early ’30’s : ” The Social competition was formed to educate youngsters and give older players some enjoyment on a Sunday afternoon. We trust that many young boys will qualify for Saturday cricket”.
That sort of remained its charter throughout the years, although sometimes the will-to-win of some players spilt over into fierce competitiveness .
I became an interested observor of the Sunday game in the late fifties and early sixties, at a time when anything that resembled cricket tended to captivate me.
Even now, when I see a old bloke defying the traffic as he negotiates a motorised scooter down Norton Street on a Saturday morning, on his way to place his bets, my mind goes back to the gritty Woollen Mills left-hand opener Don ‘Bull’ Tripp squirting the ball through slips and gully.
And when I read the ‘Letters to the Editor’ columns, as a prolific correspondent, Ken Preston assails the A.L.P over some of its policies, I reflect on the same ‘Nugget’ Preston giving cheek out in the field for West End and batting with super-confidence.
It was ‘Nugget’ who raised the ire of Postals’ all-rounder Tommy Tobin one day. “Don’t call me a bad sport or I’ll wrap this bloody bat around your head”, was Tom’s fiery retort to the redoubtable ‘Nug’.
I can recall ‘Nugget’ passing comment as I trudged off the ground, head bowed, dismissed cheaply in one of my first games, aged about 13 or 14: “Gee, this kid’s not as good as he’s cracked up to be”, was ‘Nug’s’ prognosis, delivered with the subtlety of a blunt chain-saw.
I remember Greta’s Max ‘Jackie’ Corker, who loved to bowl short and at the solar plexus and provided ample temptation to anyone with a penchant to hook.
Bill Daly was one who would readily take up the challenge. ‘Trigger’ had been a good WDCA player and made an outstanding contribution when he shifted to Social cricket. He and his workmate Vin Kenny were the backbone of Railways.
Bill owned a grey Austin, which, on match-day, would carry the Railways gear, an urn, a couple of kids, the cups and saucers and two or three plates of Mrs.Daly’s tomato sandwiches.
He loved cricket with a passion and many a youngster benefited from his stern influence. He received great support from Vin Kenny, who had played for a Victorian Country team at Bendigo, against Douglas Jardine’s Englishmen.
He was a left-arm bowler of pinpoint accuracy and a classy right-hand bat. In 1951/52 he took 102 wickets at an average of 6.0 and scored 891 runs. Vin produced these sort of performances for a decade, as Railways clinched three flags in the fifties.
Another of the great characters of Social cricket was Lionel Finnemore, who was a fine bat and a great cricket-lover.
We kids used to marvel at the rotund ‘Digger’, his face the colour of rhubarb, as he battled the heat and pursued the ball with the verve of a youth. ‘Dig’ had the dubious honour of being my first captain.
He was in charge of Socials, who at that time were a motley breed of keen cricketers and racing fanatics, including in their ranks a couple of the local constabulary and two or three S.P bookies. They were irreverently dubbed the ‘Cops and Robbers’ by opposition teams.
The Socials players used to joke that the discussions about the previous day’s races could become so absorbing that a participant could excuse himself when a wicket had fallen, go out to bat, be dismissed and rejoin the conversation without anyone having noticed that he was missing !
It was hard to know which took precedence, the cricket or the impromptu racing panel.
The day finally arrived when Socials were one short and captain ‘Digger’ had to call on yours truly. The instructions were simple – field at fine-leg, very fine.
Socials had a delightful fellow keeping wickets called Tommy Ferguson. Everyone thought a lot of Tom and he had, by all reports, been a pretty handy player in his time. He looked like Bert Oldfield in his beautifully-ironed creams and keeping gear, but he had two problems.
One was advancing age and the other was that he didn’t mind a drink or two and was sometimes under the weather. I soon realised that the job at deep fine-leg involved plenty of work, as Tommy dived vainly to and fro.
Then, all of a sudden, he would pull off a miraculous catch and be embraced warmly by his team-mates.
My favourite player was Brian Dorman, who was an up-and-coming racehorse trainer at Berrigan and travelled over to play with Socials for three years in the sixties. ‘Horse’ stood 6 feet 4 and tipped the scales at 15 stone. His VFL career with Collingwood had ended when he crashed and ruined his knee on the MCG turf in the 1960 Preliminary Final.
He was a ferocious hitter of the cricket ball and a high-quality wicket-keeper. His debut knock was a signal of things to come, when he hit 99, including 8 sixes and 7 fours against South Wangaratta. He followed this up with 114 in 72 minutes against Postals.
‘Horse’ was not just a slogger. He had a fine array of shots and a keen eye, mixed with immense power. Many of his sixes at North Wangaratta’s Sentinel Park seemed to land halfway up the adjoining paddock or smashed into the dog boxes, 30 metres from the field of play. Had he devoted himself to cricket he would have received rave reviews as a ‘keeper.
He was an intimidating figure as he stood over the stumps to most bowlers and his glove work was neat, swift and effective. Invited to open with him one day, I watched, transfixed, as he slaughtered the bowling. My contribution to our stand of 126 was 13.
Socials won ten premierships before they disbanded in 1975.
A succession of teams – Greta, West End, Tarrawingee, Bruck and Milawa – to name a few, shared the spoils in succeeding years. When Tarra prevailed over Springhurst on that melancholy day in 2003, in front of a crowd of several hundred, it had been their fifth flag in seven years.
One of their stars had been Bob Murray, a left-hander and former League star, like Brian Dorman 30 years prior, and almost as exciting to watch.
At its peak, some 16 teams from Wangaratta and district comprised the Social competition and they competed with distinction at Bendigo and Melbourne Country Weeks.
One wonders, if they had been able to soldier on for a few more years, the advent of the 20/20 brand may have saved them.
But in the end the changing habits of the younger generation, the option of playing B and C Grade in the WDCA and the increasing year-round demands of football brought the Sunday game to its knees.