One of my trips to Melbourne Country Week, as an impressionable teenager, was spent in the company of ‘Tige’, ‘Pimp’, ‘Blinker’, ‘Trebly’ and ‘Shada’.
‘Blinker’ was a local Businessman and former wicket-keeper, who had ventured down to watch one game and, instead, remained for the series. He mentioned, semi-seriously, that he needed to use ‘White Nugget’ to touch up the collar of his shirt. As the week progressed he looked decidedly unkempt.
‘Shada’ caught up with us each afternoon, in the company of his ‘cousin’, a shapely brunette, who never left his side. One of her other ‘attributes’ was that she could go beer for beer with him at the after-match, which doubled as a sort of past-players’ re-union.
‘Trebly’ was the effervescent team-lifter, who only needed to open his mouth to have you in stitches. ‘Tige’ was his ‘straight man’ , the team captain , whose magnetic personality made him a hit with his young charges – and those old-timers whose company he savoured……
‘Tige’ was Max Bussell, the man who the experts plump for as one of Wangaratta’s greatest-ever cricketers. In the years of my adolescence he was the all-rounder I strove to be.
Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the ‘Tige’ I sometimes watched from beneath the peppercorn trees at the Showgrounds, when he was in his prime during the mid-to-late 50’s.
He was well-proportioned, with blond, curly hair; a fast-medium bowler with a rhythmic, beautiful action. At the point of delivery he had a slightly round-arm action, which induced both swing and accuracy.
He strode to the batting crease a’ la’ Keith Miller and possessed a dose of the cavalier style of the Test legend. After an initial settling-in period, he could unleash the full text-book of shots.
In the winter he was also an all-rounder, doubling up as a ‘book-end’ full back and full forward in some of the superb Wangaratta sides of the time.
In effect, he was ‘The Package’.
Max was 14 when he made his WDCA senior debut with Railways, who were to change their name to Wangaratta within a season. He came under the influence of hard-bitten veterans like ‘Cappy’ Richens, Tom Nolan and ‘The Pimp’ – Clement Roberts William Fisher.
He became Clem’s protege’ and the ruthless edge that he developed on-field was a result of ‘Pimp’s’ tutelage. So too, was his knowledge of making turf wickets and the knack of relaxing in the company of team-mates and opponents alike, after a game.
His dad, Seddon, had played football with Clem at Wangaratta, and there was never any question that his sporting future was destined to be shaped at the Showgrounds Oval.
Within two years, aged 16, Max was to begin his lengthy love affair with Melbourne Country Week.
“I couldn’t wait to get down there. Having been told about the feats of Charlie Heavey’s hitting and bowling, how far Bert Carey could swing the ball, the speed and guile of Frank Archman, as he stood up to Harry Kneebone’s express pace….it was every bit as good as I expected. To me it was like a country player’s Test Match”, he once recalled.
“You played on the really good grounds like Prahran and at afternoon tea, a top player such as Sam Loxton would welcome everyone to the club. It was a great experience”.
He soon became recognised as a bush champion.
The day that undeniably stamped him as a player of class came in the A-Grade CW Final of 1954. He and fellow speedster Jackie Beeby quickened pulses and created havoc as they ran through a strong Shepparton batting line-up.
Max finished with 8/27, but modestly gave Beeby credit for applying pressure at the other end. It prompted approaches from a few District clubs around this time, but he opted to stay put in Wangaratta and continue his employment with the oil company he had joined from school.
Mac Holten, his captain in that title-winning side, was, besides Clem Fisher, a major ‘guiding light’ in his sporting career.
He rated Mac the shrewdest sporting person he had met. Bearing in mind that he played under him in football and cricket for several years, it’s little wonder that he adopted all of his strategies.
Max made 22 trips to Country Week as a player. His highlight – besides that 1954 title – was being part of Wangaratta’s only Provincial championship, in 1957.
He succeeded Holten as captain in 1960, and 15 years later, aged 42, made his last appearance, as a middle-order bat and guileful slow-medium bowler.
My father, who was a long-term protagonist, always rated himself a chance to pick Max up in the gully early in his innings. He must have had some success way back, because I never actually saw the champ fall for the trap that Dad would meticulously set.
Clashes between Rovers and Wangaratta in the 50’s always had that extra edge, as there were some really tough nuts in both sides. It stemmed, I think, from a chance remark from ‘The Pimp’ that fell on burning ears : “they’re no good when the chips are down”.
Max was usually in the middle of the action and was, naturally, a star in club cricket. He once took 14/24 in a match against Moyhu Green (7/16 and 7/8), which included a pair of hat-tricks.
Such performances became fairly regular when he was at his peak, and made him an automatic selection for any representative matches that were held in the area. He lined up against the South Australian and Victorian Shield sides, twice against the Englishmen and captained a Victorian Country XI against South Africa at Benalla.
Peter Pollock, the lethal Springbok quick gave him a thigh full of bruises, as Max hung around to score a gutsy 27. He handed Pollock the accolade as the fastest bowler he ever faced.
Some team-mates who saw him pull Wangaratta out of deep trouble at Bandiana in a North-East Cup semi against Upper Murray in 1966 would plump for that as his finest knock.
Coming to the crease after the tumble of early wickets against quality bowling, he hammered an unbeaten 101 out of 195 to guide his team to victory.
Max was another product of the prolific South Wanderers junior football ‘nursery’. His transition to O & M ranks coincided with Wangaratta’s Golden era and, after a steady apprenticeship, he became a regular senior player in 1952.
The grace and style that epitomised his cricket, was also on show in the football arena. A long, probing kick and possessive of a safe pair of hands, he found himself at full forward in the 1952 Grand Final, after booting 5 goals in a Preliminary Final victory over Albury.
The Pies finished on a little stronger in the final term to overcome Rutherglen by 20 points and clinch their fourth successive flag.
Max lined up at full back in the gripping 1957 Grand Final against Albury; the match hanging in the balance until a Lance Oswald snap for goal , literally in the dying seconds, tilted the game Wangaratta’s way.
The Magpie ‘swing-man’ hung up his boots, aged 27, at the end of the 1959 season He had played 103 senior games and was awarded Life Membership. He was finding it increasingly difficult to train and was now the co-proprietor of a Fuel Distributorship.
Instead, he focused on golf as his winter pastime and took to the game with zest. His graceful swing of a wood and iron earned him the nickname, ‘The Natural’, and he spent time as Waldara’s Club captain.
But Max emphasised that cricket was his abiding passion.
A trip down memory lane with him in latter years would produce a romantic twinkle in his eye, as he recalled great games, players and performances……and some of the 101 anecdotes which he could relate with the ease of a good raconteur.