Ashley Gilbert recalls the moment that a WDCA Final turned on its ear……..
His memory flicks back to March 1992…….. As he assumes his spot in first slip, he’s privately chuffed that his middle-order half-century has pushed ‘Cinderella’ side College to a defendable first innings total of 284.
“We knew that if we could pick up Corowa’s ‘danger-man’ ‘Psycho’ Carroll early-on, we were in with a real show. My opening partner ‘Bouncer’ McCormick takes the new pill; ‘Psycho’, still on zero, slashes at one outside off stump, and I grass the catch. He goes on to score 153 and steer his side to victory………”
What was shaping as a ‘rags to riches’ story for College – the popular underdogs – turned todisappointment, as powerhouse Corowa clinched their fifth straight flag………
‘Rags to riches’ is perhaps an appropriate way to summarise the career of Ash Gilbert.
He’s a Lakes Entrance boy, and grew up with no great pretensions to sporting glory. “I played a bit of cricket as a kid, but didn’t crack it for any rep sides, or the like. I had a few other priorities,” he says.
When he landed a job in Leongatha, with the National Bank, he was enticed into having a game for a year or so. “But, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t all that keen. I drifted away.”
A transfer to Wangaratta in the bank changed all that. A new work-mate, Donna Grady, suggested that, for a bloke of his size he’d make a good fast bowler. “Well, I have done a bit of bowling, “ Ash replied.
Donna’s husband Pat, recruited him to College. For the first couple of games he rolled his arm over in C-Grade. But the boys knew they had a player on their hands and, once he had qualified, slipped him into the Senior line-up on the eve of the finals.
College had finished on the bottom of the ladder for the previous five years, but surged dramatically, to finish as minor premiers. With their lethal new-ball combination in fine form, they wrecked Magpies in the semi-Final ( Gilbert 4/21, McCormick 3/30 ).
The Final was one of the most gripping – and certainly controversial – in WDCA history. After College had batted for all of the first day, vandals found a way into the padlocked oval that night, and took to the wicket with hammers.
Corowa had misgivings about commencing their innings, but, after a delay, play continued. It was the mercurial Anthony Carroll who then stepped up to take the game out of College’s hands………..
The two and a bit seasons he spent in Wangaratta revived Ash’s enthusiasm for cricket. Batsmen found him a difficult proposition – a 205cm gangling giant, propelling the new cherry from a great height, and continually forcing them onto the defensive. His batting, too, proved more than handy.
Saturdays were spent with College. On Sundays he turned out for Moyhu in the Social Association. Inspired by the friendships he had created, his competitive juices flowed. He revelled in the argy-bargy of a tough game of cricket.
He shared in a premiership for Moyhu in 1992/93, and just missed out the following season, when they almost had one hand on the Cup. Ash’s 4/23 had limited West End to 9/146. Moyhu, needing just 13 in two overs, with six wickets in hand, fell 5 short.
“It was a good standard of cricket in both competitions,” he says. “People used to knock the Sunday comp a bit, but gee, there were some good players and the top teams were fairly even.”
In the brief time he spent in Wangaratta, Ash made trips to both Melbourne and Bendigo Country Weeks in successive years. He found himself well-suited to the bounce and carry of the good tracks in the city.
He hadn’t given much thought to his cricketing future, but when he received a bank transfer to Euroa, initially decided to travel to the ‘big smoke’ each week, to try his luck with North Melbourne.
“ ‘Bouncer’ (Barrie McCormick) had been down there for a season, and had made a big impact. I think, from memory, he played a game or two with the Victorian Second XI. They gave me a chance and I settled in okay, sharing the new ball with him,” Ash recalls.
He had played 45 District games with the ‘Roos over three seasons, when he and North parted company three games into the 1997/98 season. “To be truthful, I wasn’t very fit, but the culmination of it was that I had a ‘blue’ with the Chairman of Selectors,” he says.
He started training with a suburban club, Caulfield-Glenhuntly, and had just about decided to sign on, when Carlton all-rounder Ian Wrigglesworth, who knew him from their days in Gippsland, contacted him.
“The best decision I ever made,” he says, of the Blues enticing him to Princes Park.
Carlton found him a job reading gas meters, which involved plenty of trudging around city streets.
“I dropped a heap of weight. For the first time in my career I’d got really fit.”
In the off-season he was invited to the Cricket Academy in Adelaide for three months, by its head coach, Rod Marsh.
He worked on refining his technique, rather than just loping in, using his height and strength and letting the ball go. They impressed upon him the importance of getting his run-up smoothed out, and bowling the right lines.
He played for the Academy in a couple of three-day games in Brisbane, against New Zealand, then in a one-dayer against Australia.
“I had a front-row seat to the Adam Gilchrist Show, and looked forward to seeing another great knock from him. But I had to be a smart-arse, and get him caught behind first ball,” he recalls.
When he followed this up by having Steve Waugh caught at third-man, eyebrows were raised. This bloke had something……..
At the airport a week or so later, Waugh met a Carlton official, who mentioned that he was heading overseas to sign mercurial Pakistani leg-spinner Abdul Qadir, for the 1998/99 season.
“With Qadir and the big bloke, Gilbert, you’ll have the most lethal club attack in the country,” said the Aussie skipper.
Ash’s performances for Carlton duly earned him a spot in the State squad and, eventually, his first-class debut for Victoria against the touring Englishmen.
He earned a pass mark, with figures of 2/44 and 2/63, and the plaudits of the experts, who felt that he was ‘dangerous enough’. It was a run-in with English batsman Mark Ramprakash which produced the headlines, though.
The right-hander didn’t relish the send-off he received when Gilbert dismissed him in the second innings. The English press zeroed in on the aggressive speedster.
Ash played one Shield game – against Tasmania – that season, and featured in four Mercantile Mutual one-dayers.
But he realised his first-class career was limited. “When they were all available, I had Paul Reiffel, Damien Fleming, Ian Harvey and Matty Innes in front of me in the queue. I knew I wasn’t quite good enough,” he said.
He was still rated among District cricket’s top quicks, and played on for another three seasons.
His District career produced 97 games ( 45 with North Melbourne and 52 with Carlton). He captured 190 wickets and scored 911 runs over eight years.
“The end came when I decided to go to the races early in the 2001/02 season, and missed training. ‘Scholesy’ ( Carlton coach John Scholes) wasn’t too impressed. He said: ‘That’s it. You’re finished.’ “
He spent the rest of that season with Bentleigh, where he won a Club Championship, then had more than a decade away from the game, before saddling up with VTCA club Strathmore.
“I was in my forties, but was enjoying my cricket, until I did my knee last season. It was time to pull the pin,” he says.
Ash operates his own business, servicing fire equipment, and is now back at Carlton, as bowling coach. He’s excited about some of the lads coming through at Princes Park, like 16 year-old all-rounder Mackenzie Harvey and talented speedster Xavier Crone.
I suggest that, had he been lured to District cricket as a teen-ager , rather than his mid-twenties, it might have had a big impact on his career.
“Who knows…….. but I’m happy with the way things panned out,” he says………..