‘THE KNEEBONE’S OF BROOKFIELD…..’

“He had a reputation as a boaster…… He claimed that he could jump higher and further than nearly anyone else, achieve the highest score in rifle-shooting…. and referred to his run-making ability in cricket…”

“He was ready to throw anyone into the river if he was out clean-bowled when, he said, it was obvious to any fair-minded person that it was a no-ball…..”
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That was one rival’s assessment of Eugene Kneebone, who made a lasting impact on the sporting life of Wangaratta and District.

Born in 1864, he was to become renowned as an athlete, strongman, wrestler, cricketer, administrator and co-founder of a formidable sporting dynasty.

Raised in the rich tobacco-growing area of Bowman’s Forest, he had scant interest in school, but developed a passion for cricket from one of his teachers – Mr. Walters – who preached that one of the fundamentals of success was hard work.

Young Eugene was certainly used to plenty of that. His labours on the family farm conditioned his body for the athletic achievements that lay ahead.

He was skilled at many sports, and was convinced of his obvious potential when he travelled to Melbourne to take on a Scottish policeman called McHardy, in a weight-lifting match.

After winning the first two trials, Kneebone took the 50 pounds prize-money and went home.

Fired by this success, he broke two world hammer-throw records in 1891, which were additional to the record he held for shot-putting in 1899.

The next year he competed in the Caledonian Games on the MCG, where he came up against Scotsman Donald Dinnie, who was to become his chief protagonist for many years. Kneebone won the match, and also regained the world record for the 56 pound hammer.

In his late-twenties, Eugene began a wandering life, competing in a myriad of strange places and, at one stage travelling with Wirth’s Circus.

His contests with other strong-men from Europe and beyond attracted huge exposure and, at the height of his powers he was labelled the ‘Strongest Man in the World.’

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‘The World’s Strongest Man’

Kneebone and his old foe, Dinnie, once met at the Wangaratta Showgrounds, in front of a large, parochial crowd:

“The contest began at 2.30 pm on a glorious autumn afternoon……..” said the Chronicle scribe.   “Dinnie looked a powerful specimen. Kneebone was smaller in height, but remarkably well-built and poised, large-limbed and muscular. Dinnie held his own, but went on to lose the match…..”
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Eugene Kneebone married, and settled in Gippsland, after a spell on the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, where he had made his fortune.

His unique competitive streak was emphasised in a report of a cricket match between Mirboo – of whom he was captain ( and their outstanding player) – and Dumbalk, led by a gentleman named Billy Hughes:

“There was a time-limit set on the game , to enable players to get home for milking. Dumbalk batted first, but Mirboo were creeping up on their total, when Billy Hughes signified that time was up. Eugene claimed that, as the sun was still shining, there was time for 7 or 8 more overs.”

“A great dispute followed and Eugene – with bat in hand – chased Billy around a big blue-gum stump….”
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After 20 years in Gippsland, Eugene returned to his roots with his growing brood, and settled on the property, ‘Brookfield’ (between Wangaratta and Myrtleford). He began to stamp the Kneebone legend in local cricket.

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The Tobacco-Grower

He and the boys carved out a quaint cricket ground in the paddock in front of the family home and the lads began to reveal their talent under the watchful eye of a demanding ‘old man’.

There were 16 kids in the family. The boys, five of whom represented Wangaratta at Country Week, helped form a tough, unyielding team.

Bill, Hughie, Harry, Sam, Jim, Ken, Dennis and Eugene Jnr all had their qualities and played their particular roles, as did sons-in-law Jim and Bernie Morris, Phil South and Bill Swan.

The girls, Nell, Ida, Estelle, Mary, Anne, Belle, Fay and Irene, joined their mother as the chief supporters of the Kneebone tribe.

Among their duties was the preparation of afternoon-tea. “We’d have lamingtons, pavlovas, scones and cream cakes…..we would fill the opposition up so they wouldn’t do any good,” Nell joked many years later.IMG_3959

“Because there were eight boys and eight girls, Mum decided each brother would have a sister for a ‘slave’, to wash their clothes and clean their shoes.”

‘Kneebone’s’ originally competed in the Ovens and King competition and entertained VCA team Prahran in challenge matches for many years. Enlisting the help of a couple of Nicoll’s and Fisher’s, they defeated Prahran 132 to 113 during the Christmas break of 1924. Old Eugene, aged 60, captured 3/11 with his flighted slowies.

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Eugene Kneebone and his sons, who formed the nucleus of the Brookfield Cricket Club.

They transferred to the Wangaratta & District Cricket Association in 1922/23, but changed their name to Brookfield the following year.

They were a most formidable – and certainly one of the ultra-competitive – teams in the competition until the onset of World War II.

Taking on Brookfield on their own ‘dung-hill’ was no easy task. Nor was facing old Eugene, who was still sending down his spinners with guile, well into his sixties.

But the boys knew his fading eyesight was beginning to affect his batting when he issued an edict to one of sons: “Bill, trim the branches off that tree will you. I can’t pick up the ball too well.”

Visiting teams recalled the family patriarch, long after his retirement from the field of play, sitting on the verandah overlooking the ground, shouting encouragement and advice to his team.

Eugene took over as President of the Association in 1929, and held the reins throughout the thirties. It was a period which saw the competition become more structured and the standard improve markedly.

But it was also an era of strong personalities and Eugene, with his volatile temperament, attracted more than his fair share of critics.
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Brookfield won their first WDCA premiership in 1927/28. Their second followed in 1932/33.

The latter was a triumph, as their opponents, Footballers, had a handy lead after the first innings and needed only 73 to wrap up the game. But they crumbled in the face of some fearsome bowling from Harry Kneebone, who took 6/19.

They could have won a third flag in 1936/37, when they met East Wangaratta in the Final. East’s side contained Clem and Clyde Fisher, cousins of the Kneebone’s , and tough old nuts in their own right.

It was a low-scoring affair, with Brookfield gaining the ascendancy, thanks to Ken Kneebone’s 8/35.

East Wang fought back, and needed just nine runs to win, with one wicket in hand.
Brookfield then walked off the ground. East Wangaratta protested and the resultant Tribunal declared the game ‘No-Result’.

Debate often raged over who was the quickest of the Kneebone clan. Harry and Hughie had their supporters, but some opted for Ken, whose rhythmic run-up was ‘poetry in motion’. Ken played against the Englishmen at Benalla in 1937.

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Ken Kneebone – The Quickest of the Clan.

His 4/63 included the wickets of Maurice Leyland, Hedley Verity, Bob Wyatt and Laurie Fishlock. . He was on a hat-trick at one stage, which prompted his proud dad to testify that the lad: “…could bowl for a week……”

With his boys playing a central role at Country Week, Eugene took on the role of Team Manager during the thirties, and was generally sought out by the media for a quote on all things cricket.

On more than one occasion, when discussion turned to his own family, he said, with confidence, that: “he’d back the Kneebones against any other family in Australia. And, if he had to, he said: “I’d get out there and help them myself……..”
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Thirty-two years after Ken Kneebone bowled against the M.C.C, his son Robin was selected to play for a Victorian Country XI against the West Indies at Wangaratta, in 1968/69.

An accurate left-arm swing bowler, who played a handful of games with District club Fitzroy, Robin was one of a number of old Eugene’s grandchildren and great-grandkids who filtered through the WDCA ranks.

The ‘Grand Old Man’ of cricket died in 1953, aged 89.. The WDCA’s Under-16 teams now compete for the ‘Eugene Kneebone Shield’………

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. Eugene Kneebone (Left ,Back Row) Manager of Wangaratta’s 1934 Country Week team, which contained several of his sons.

‘GREAT CRICKETER…………..ORDINARY SPORT……’

His portrait hangs in a position of prominence in Wangaratta’s cricket headquarters.

It’s the classic stance of a right-hand batsman – upright, comfortable, with a glint in his eye. The look of defiance is seemingly inviting the bowler to ”bring it on – if you’re good enough”.

He was the scourge of all opponents, this gnarled, crusty codger, who was an unforgettable character and a mainstay of local cricket for over 50 years.

Many adjectives were applied to Clem Fisher by opponents whom he rankled, including : ‘shocking sport’, ‘tough as nails’, ‘stubborn’ and ‘pig-headed’.

He knew, for instance, how to get under the skin of my father, who waged war with him on the field for a couple of decades. Dad once overheard him make a snide comment, something like – “they can’t handle the pressure, those Hills” – and never forgot it.

He would ‘up the ante’ when Clem strolled to the crease, and invariably grab the ball himself, in an endeavour to ‘get rid of the bastard’.

Yet, like everyone, he was full of admiration for the contribution that ‘Old Clem’ made to the game, and for the ‘father-figure’ he became to young players when he finally hung up his boots……….

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Clement Roberts William Fisher was born in 1905. His idol was his father, John, who once took 10 wickets in an innings for Whorouly, and played for 53 years.

The Fisher boys were tutored on a concrete wicket at the family property, ‘Glen’, at East Wangaratta. Clem played his early cricket with Tarrawingee, and later, with Everton-based Brookfield, alongside his cousins, the Kneebones.

With an enthusiastic old man and an uncle, Eugene Kneebone, who detested losing, it was no wonder the young bloke developed a competitive streak which was almost beyond compare.

Brookfield transferred from the O & K to the WDCA in 1926/27 and the three Fisher brothers combined with the Kneebone family to make up the team.

Clem was a noted all-rounder. He bowled with plenty of aggression and, with bat in hand, produced a resolute defence and a good range of shots.

In the style of a true opener, he loved taking up the challenge to the quickies, and it was in this role that he was to become renowned.

His first trip to Country Week produced successive knocks of 61 and 91. He relished the good Melbourne wickets and would become a key figure in the famous Wangaratta sides of the 1930’s.

The Fishers formed a new team, East Wangaratta, in 1928 and played their home games on a ground shaped on the family property.

They immediately became a power, partly because they recruited vigorously, with some of Wangaratta’s stars joining their ranks.

East Wang edged past Wangaratta to win an exciting Grand Final by one wicket, in 1928/29. They repeated the dose the following year, prompting Clem to boast that East was capable of defeating a team comprising the rest of Wangaratta.

The challenge, issued through the ‘Chronicle’ prompted an outcry from many cricket ‘officianados’, including his old antagonist, Tom Nolan, who despised the ‘arrogant’ tone of the letter.

Clem further fuelled the fires with another outburst, saying in part that: “…….the challenge was issued in friendly spirit. The Wang chaps are good cricketers as long as they are winning. But when they strike top opposition they drop their bundles……”

He had to eat his words, as East were well beaten in the keenly-anticipated match-up.

Widely regarded as the district’s best all-rounder, Clem guided his club to another flag in 1931/32.

In the semi-final the following year, he clubbed a dashing 127 before being run out. But, as the game wore on, Wangaratta gained the upper hand and needed a manageable 123 to win.

The ‘Chronicle’ reported that “……..they faced hard going against the bowling of Clem and Clyde Fisher. The former gave the batsmen little chance to score, most balls being of the Larwood variety, and bouncing over the heads of the ducking batsmen. Time was called with 4 down for 105.”

“Just how far players can go is a matter for cricket regulations. Spectators gave unceasing barracking to East Wangaratta. In two hours only 20 overs were bowled.”

Wangaratta protested and East Wang were suspended for the rest of the season.

The opening partnership that Fisher formed with Alec Fraser served Wangaratta admirably in representative cricket.

Although opposites in personality and batting technique, they melded perfectly at the crease and the runs usually came in a flood.

Their 304-run partnership against Yallourn-Traralgon in 1934 remains a Country Week record. On another occasion, in 1937, they flayed the Wimmera attack with an unbroken 250-run stand.

Wangaratta won three Country Week titles during the golden ’30’s, with a side which played hard and celebrated keenly – winning 30, drawing 3 and losing just 6 of its matches in the decade.

People were busily picking up the threads of day-to-day life at the cessation of World War II, and cricket was not a high priority. For Fisher, though, it was at the top of his list.

The WDCA was slow to start, and eventually cranked up in late 1946, with Clem at the helm.

His forthright manner no doubt alienated a few and he wouldn’t have been much of a help in patching up the testy WDCA – Social cricket relationship, which was simmering at the time.

But his love of the game was contagious and he was a hands-on President for four years. He was a valuable consultant to clubs who were installing turf pitches in the early 50’s and kept a watchful eye on their development.

Although Clem’s Country Week playing days had drawn to a close, he continued to make the trip as manager. As guardian of a playful group, he was bestowed with the nickname ‘Pimp’ for his vain efforts in trying to curb their nocturnal activities.

He did heaps of behind-the-scenes work to help secure the visit of Peter May’s Englishmen in 1959. Besides his sundry other duties he produced a ‘pearler’ of a wicket. It was no fault of his that the ‘Poms’ spoilt the party by routing the Country XI for just 32.

He resumed the WDCA presidency in 1964, succeeding Alf Kendall, a prim-and-proper Englishman, who liked to see cricket function according to the text-book.

Fisher was rough and ready, his bush upbringing prompting him to bend a few rules and call a ‘spade a bloody shovel’.

He had not long retired from playing, aged 57, and was still the Showgrounds curator, but for the next 10 years slipped easily into his role as the ‘elder statesman’ of local cricket and president of both the Wangaratta and North-East associations. He was a key figure in luring the West Indies to the Showgrounds in 1969.

But appreciated just as keenly was his attendance at the WDCA matches every Saturday.

Like clockwork, his green Chev would chug into the ground and Clem would alight, smoke in hand, to survey the proceedings.

He had excellent rapport with the younger players and would delight in conversing over a few beers after stumps. The boys joked that he would climb into the old ‘chariot’ late at night, turn it onto automatic pilot and it would miraculously find its way back home to East Wangaratta.

What wasn’t so funny was the unwitting part he played in the 1967 Provincial Country Week Final.

Wangaratta was chasing a formidable Euroa target and had got away to a reasonable start on duck-opening eve.

Clem was absorbed in the game, but was distracted by the shuddering realisation that he’d run out of cartridges.

What to do ? His first thought was to conscript lower-order batsman Billy Fitzgerald to chauffeur him into ‘town’ to pick up fresh supplies.

Delayed in heavy traffic, they arrived back much later than expected, to the news that the game was over. Wangaratta had lost a succession of quick wickets, and ‘Fitzy’ was also out – Absent (0) !

Clem Fisher died in 1978, but every so often his name crops up when old-timers yarn about the legends of the game.

The tales about Wangaratta’s ‘Mr.Cricket’ could fill a book………….