One of the great things about sport is the terrific people you meet……the lifelong friends you make.
I accidentally ran into one of them the other day, whilst strolling the corridors of the Rehab Ward at the Wang Hospital. He told me he’d been rounding up cattle on his quad bike……the bike flipped…..the next thing he remembered was waking up in an Ambulance, half-way to Wangaratta.
If any bloke is bemoaning his rotten luck in the field of sport, I’d urge him to meet Lex Nicoll.
Lex is a true optimist. One of nature’s gentlemen. I’d like to tell you his story….
He was barely 18 and had been selected at full forward in Whorouly’s semi-final team of 1951. It was to be the biggest game of his life to date and he was nervously excited on match-eve, despite having been off-colour for a few days.
He woke up with a splitting headache, the worst he’d ever had. His mother suggested he pull out. Lex replied that, no, he didn’t want to let anyone down.
He kicked a few goals and played pretty well in the win over Milawa, the experts said, but the headaches just wouldn’t go away.
He ended up in Hospital, days later, gasping for breath, with machines whirring, nurses scurrying around and a doctor with a furrowed brow diagnosing him.
Sorry, they informed him, but the polio virus has attacked your nervous system. You’re lucky to be alive.
Lex is part of a famous Whorouly cricketing family. His uncles Wils and Ron were two of the greatest batsmen that the area has produced. Another uncle, Vic, who died in a farm machinery accident at a young age, could have been anything. His dad, Ernie, had heaps of admirers as an all-rounder of quality.
Lex went to his first Country Week, as part of the Ovens and King rep team, at the age of 14 and was undaunted by opening the batting. As a Nicoll, much was expected of him, but he was a talent, to be sure.
He had represented a Country Colts team against the VCA’s City Colts early in 1951. And the way that he was progressing meant that the sporting future was indeed rosy for the lean, lithe, athletic youngster.
So the doctors gave him the bad news that the polio had affected muscles in both legs and it was unlikely that he’d be able to play sport again.
He set about proving them wrong.
With the assistance of a dedicated physiotherapist, Barry Robinson, he exercised every morning and evening.
“Barry gave me plenty of support, as did my family. At first I could hardly walk half-a-dozen paces, but I gradually increased this”, he recalls.
Lex was resigned to wearing callipers on both legs. ” I was lucky that I’d stopped growing. Otherwise I might have had twisted legs”, he said.
As time rolled on, Lex slowly improved his mobility. He even got to occasionally have a hit on the makeshift wicket his dad had made on the family farm, learning to improvise with his stroke-play despite his physical impediment.
The day that things turned for him came when a sub-district team made its annual Easter visit to play Whorouly. He was put in to bat at number eleven.
“I was as nervous as could be”, he said. “A fast bowler was operating and sent down a few deliveries that were half rat-power. I walked up to him at the end of the over and said to him on the side : ‘Either flat-out or not at all’.
“He started to let a few go and I knew then that I’d be okay to play the next season. It changed my life, knowing that I’d be able to turn out regularly for Whorouly.”
He came back to WDCA cricket mid-way through the 1954/55 season and used a runner, as he was forced to do for the remainder of his career. Opposition teams were pleased to see him participating, and it just became an accepted part of the game.
Lex developed a fine repertoire of shots, particularly on the off-side, hit the ball with power and had an excellent defence. In short, he became pretty, darn difficult to dismiss, batting at number 3. He fielded at first slip and occasionally bowled spin off two paces.
He seemed to save a lot of his good knocks, in my eyes, for the Rovers. One of the best was in a Grand Final, in March 1956, when he compiled an unbeaten 96 in the Maroons’ total of 204.
Rovers Gold then crashed for 55, fought back to wreck Whorouly for 52 and needed 201 to win the game. They could only manage 130. Another flag was fluttering at Memorial Oval, Whorouly.
Lex scored seven WDCA centuries, including a magnificent 115 in the 1964/65 semi-final against the Rovers. All told, he finished with 5694 runs for Whorouly.
He once shared a stand of 252 with his cousin, Peter, and put on a record 302 for the fifth wicket with another cousin, Ian, who was later to play football for Carlton.
Of the five trips he made to Melbourne Country Week, he cherishes the part he played in the team that secured Wangaratta’s only Provincial Group title, in 1957. Each player was presented with a blazer to commemorate the achievement.
Probably the highlight of his career came the following season, when he won selection in a North-East representative team which played the touring South Australian Sheffield Shield side.
It was a star-studded local line-up and it proved to be a tight contest. Lex came in to face tear-away quicks Peter Trethewey and Alan Hitchcock and handled them capably, then had to contend with ex-Test spinner Bruce Dooland.
He hung around to stabilise the innings and finished with 30 out of a total of 195, after the Croweaters had been dismissed for 150.
Some people joked that Lex had it easy with a runner doing the hard work for him but he said it sometimes backfired. He was run out three of the four times he batted one year at Country Week.
Life hasn’t treated him all that kindly in recent times. He lost his wife Jill many years ago and had another bingle on a motor-bike which knocked him around a bit.Then, about five years ago, his house burnt down, along with all of his belongings. His son Glenn managed to grab a few family photos, but two precious items that he lost were that treasured 1957 cricket blazer and his favourite, trusty old cricket bat.
But, as always, Lex found a positive side to things. He reckons, at 83, he’s had a great innings.
When I told him I’d like to write a yarn about his sporting life, he reluctantly agreed, but warned : “Keep the bullshit to a minimum”.