‘SPINNING DOWN UNDER…….”

I spot him over near the electronic scoreboard at the Norm Minns Oval on Saturday, far-removed from the clumps of keen fans, who are geeing up their sides in the Under 16 Grand Final.

He’s doing his darndest to relay a few discreet instructions through one of his young fielders in the deep, without looking too conspicuous.IMG_3182
Well, as inconspicuous as a bloke of 6’7” can be, I suppose…………

He’s the coach of the Rovers-United-Bruck Red team, which bowls with discipline and fields keenly, to restrict Benalla Bushrangers to a reachable 105 off their 40 overs.

The following morning he urges them to bat sensibly and build partnerships. Kids, of course, can get ‘caught up in the situation’ and panic, even within reach of a small target. But not this mob. They cruise along and claim victory for the loss of just five wickets………..IMG_3183
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Joe Thomas has certainly created an impression.

A few Rovers footballers, who saw him ‘winding down’ after an early-October training session at the Findlay Oval, thought they were witnessing a miracle. That the key position forward they had been praying for had been delivered on their door-step, as if by ‘divine inspiration’.

Alas, they’re advised, this fellah doesn’t know the first thing about Aussie Rules. He’s the Hawks’ new spinner, who has just arrived in town.

Six months on, the towering left-armer has become a familiar sight in local cricket. I’ve seen most of the 130 overs he’s sent down in the WDCA. They’ve been dead-accurate and economical. And delivered so promptly. We’ve timed him at a touch over a minute and a half per-over.

Fair dinkum, you can’t afford to blink, particularly if you happen to be scoring !
But gee, the boy can bowl…………
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Joe hails from Yarnton, a small, historic village in the South-East of England, about four miles from Oxford.

Soccer was his ‘go’ as a young tacker, he says. But when he made his first tentative steps in cricket, it was as a 14 year-old opening bat and brisk medium-pacer, for Combe, a Division 7 Oxfordshire C.A club.

His next step up the cricketing ladder was to the quaintly-named ‘Great and Little Tew’, a tiny hamlet, boasting a population of about 250, a picturesque oval, and situated roughly 25 minutes from home.IMG_3187

It was a fair lift in standard, but along the way, Joe discovered he could effectively bowl orthodox left-arm spin. A new career was born.
He served a fair apprenticeship in the Third Grade. Then opportunity knocked when the club’s First XI spinner was out injured in 2014. In one of his early games, he helped them to a 9-wicket victory over ex-Test player Darren Gough‘s old side, Dinton.
This earned Great Tew the right to play in the Final of the National Village Cup, on the hallowed turf of Lords.

“It was a great experience…….the first time we’d reached the Cup Final. And to be playing at the home of cricket was like being in heaven. The only low point was that Woodhouse Grange beat us,” he says.

Joe has become a consistent performer in his three years as a member of the First XI team in the Premier League. Last season was his most successful, with 34 wickets @ 15.24.

And he’s been rewarded, in the last couple of seasons, with a spot in Oxfordshire’s Minor Counties line-up. It hasn’t been an easy initiation, he says.

“In a couple of my early games in 2016, I went for plenty. You’re bowling against some gun bats. After all, it’s the equivalent of County Seconds, but I learnt a fair bit and that’s my big challenge now – to cement a spot in the Oxfordshire side. I have to try to beat the bat a bit more, rather than just try to contain.”

His best Minor Counties performance came in his most recent game, last July, when he took 2/49, 2/49 and made 26* against Dorset.

He has crossed swords with the likes of Matt Renshaw, Tim Paine, Peter Hanscombe, Ashton Agar and Curtis Patterson, who have all played as overseas pro’s in the Minor Counties Premier League in recent seasons.

After yarning to them, he was convinced that a season in Australia would do him the world of good.

So, through his agent, he established contact with Rovers-United-Bruck.

“Jacob (Schonafinger) and Luke (Whitten) painted a great picture of the Club through their use of social media. They kept me up-to-date, and I felt really comfortable about coming to Wang.…….”
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And he hasn’t been disappointed.

I get the impression that Joe’s at peace with the world when he cradles that shiny Kookaburra in his big left mitt and charts the course for a lengthy afternoon at the bowling crease. He’s not over-enamoured with the 8-over per bowler one-day limitations. Heck, he’s barely got into a groove when his spell is finished !

No, those 25-over stints are right down his alley.IMG_2923

He finds the closely-mown Aussie ‘tracks’ a touch inhibiting. There is plenty of grass left on the wickets at home, and they allow him to skid the ball onto the bat. Which means that he has to work a bit harder over here.

But that’s okay. He has 21 wickets @ 11.00, and an economy rate of 1.78 in club cricket. He’s a key component of a Hawk line-up which takes on Beechworth in a potentially rip-snorting Semi-Final this week-end.

No doubt the highlight of his Australian summer has been the role he played in Wangaratta’s dual Country Week successes.

“You meet some great new team-mates that you haven’t had much to do with when playing against them in club cricket. There was excellent camaraderie in the team. We struck some class players in some of the other rep sides”, he says.

Joe sent down 54 overs at Bendigo.C.W, and was the leading wicket-taker, with 12 for the week. The Final, which began at 9am, was reduced to 35 overs because of the anticipated plus-40 degree temperature. He snared 3/21, to help restrict Colac to 150, in sauna-like conditions. Wang had earlier made 8/205. The boys celebrated with considerable zest.IMG_3054

He was co-opted into the Melbourne Country Week side mid-week, and again played a valuable role in an attack which had a slant on spin. His 10-over spell in the Final, in conjunction with Northamptonshire left-armer Saif Zaib, put the screws on the Central Gippsland stroke-makers. Wang had some tight moments, but ran down their target for the loss of 5 wickets.IMG_3135

One of the stipulations Joe made upon his arrival in Wangaratta was that he wanted to become involved in junior coaching. Besides his role as Under 16 coach, he regularly took Hawk youngsters aside for individual sessions.

This led to a few kids from other clubs also seeking his tutelage. “The more coaching they got, the more they seemed to lap it up,” he says.

He also managed to fit in some part-time work at ‘Paulie’s Corner Cafe’, the restaurant of fellow RUB player Paul Szeligiewicz.

Joe and his girlfriend Finola were able to take in a fair portion of the Ashes Tests at the MCG and Adelaide. Far from feeling like ‘pigs in a poke’ amongst the rabid Aussie fans, they were surprised at the support for the Poms from the ‘Barmy Army’.

Seven days after they arrive back home, Joe is scheduled to play his first practice match of the new English season.

There is Club cricket, T-20’s and League cricket on the program, besides hopefully, a full program of 3-day games for Oxfordshire. He’ll possibly be playing four days a week.
And besides this, he has to fit in the final year of his P.E Teacher’s Degree, which involves working-in-school assignments.

It’s his intention to return to Australia – and Wangaratta – sometime in the future.

But firstly, there’s a Semi-Final to negotiate…………….IMG_3132

‘TWO BENDIGO CROWNS IN A ROW FOR W.D.C.A….’

The WDCA won its sixth – and arguably most emphatic – Bendigo Country Week Premiership at Bell Oval, Strathdale, today.

Under a blazing summer sun, and in a match reduced to 35 overs because of the anticipated extreme heat conditions, the Division 2 competition leaders faced off against Colac for the second successive day.

Added to that, play got under way at the unearthly hour of 9am, a time when some of the stragglers of yesteryear would have only just bedded down after a hefty night of commiserations.

But it was worth the effort. The WDCA again batted superbly to reach 8/205 (at just under 6 an over) – a total that was always going to be defendable.

Colac had not troubled the scorers when they lost their first wicket, and were right up against it after gun batsman Des Flanigan fell to the persistent right-arm pace of Richie Worcester. They finished with 7/160, continually tied down by a disciplined WDCA attack………
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The seeds of success were sown on Day 1, when Beechworth pace duo, Worcester and Mark Butters dismantled the Maryborough upper-order at the stately Queen Elizabeth Oval.

Worcester, who has been an unsung hero for the Wanderers for many years, finished with 3/50. Butters – an ideal foil – captured 3/24 off his 11.3 overs.
Joe Thomas, a real work-horse throughout the week, was his usual economical-self. His 2/20 came off 12 overs.

In pursuit of 167, openers Reed Clarke (39) and Luke Whitten (30) got off to a flier, adding 79 runs in quick time. From there, the brilliant Yarrawonga youngster Matt Casey (59) and Greta’s English recruit Tom Nightingale (71), put the icing on the cake, as the WDCA totalled 4/223.
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The clash against Red Cliffs followed a similar pattern. Butters (2/34), Thomas (3/46) and Mitch Howe (2/21) restricted the team from the state’s north-west to 180.

But centre-stage was taken by Casey, who again underlined his immense talent by belting an unbeaten century off just 132 balls, to take his side to 6/228.
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With successive victories, the WDCA had moved to the head of the ladder, but their encounter with Portland was to prove a real nail-biter.

Seven players reached double-figures, but it was a 63-run fourth-wicket partnership between Jacob Schonafinger (39) and Tom Nightnigale (57) which laid the foundations for another sizeable score.

Burly Andrew Squires (31), Cam Notttle and Sam Gladstone produced handy cameos to push the total up to 8/218.

Portland were always there or thereabouts, thanks to opener James Wilson and a punishing knock of 52 off 42 balls from Joe Atwell. They had struggled to get on top of the lanky orthodox left-armer Thomas, whose 12 overs yielded 3/17.

But the telling moment came when Atwell, who threatened to take his side to victory, was dismissed by Sam Gladstone, with the score on 206.

They lost another wicket on the same total and eventually finished nine runs shy – 9/209.
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So the two unbeaten sides – WDCA and Colac – drew swords at Harry Trott Oval on Thursday, with the prize being a certain spot in the Final.

And Wang were soon up against it. Worcester rattled the stumps in his opening over, to have Colac 1/2, but a dynamic Parker- Flanigan second-wicket gave them the ascendancy. Skipper Schonafinger sent Parker on his way for 50, but Flanigan found plenty of support in his classic innings of 98.

Colac’s 6/224 was formidable, but the experts considered that a good start was of the utmost importance.

They could scarcely have been happier when Reed Clarke and Luke Whitten produced another pearler. Their stand of 100 (Whitten’s contribution was 37) was solidified when the Lakers’ pair, Clarke ( 87) and Matt Casey (53) kept the run-rate moving along impressively.

The final total- 6/246 – looked on paper, to be a reasonably comfortable result, but, in truth, there was never a lot in the game………..
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It did, however, give the WDCA an important psychological advantage when news came through that Colac were to be their Grand Final opponent.

But things don’t always go to plan in cricket – particularly at Country Week – where a opposing player who gives you the impression that he’s a ‘scrubber’ can produce an innings of quality. Or two or three of your batsmen, who have been in rare touch all week, are back in the pavilion in the flick of an eye.

Schonafinger, fortunately, won the toss and elected to bat in the furnace-like atmosphere, but that’s when things momentarily began to go astray.

Openers Clarke and Whitten both fell early. At 2/10 it was horror start. It necessitated another fine Casey knock, as he had already totalled 220 runs for the week. But he was soon on his way for 11 and the WDCA were precariously-placed at 3/42.

It required a skipper’s hand. Schonafinger and Nightingale, who had more than proved his worth during the week, knuckled down an kept the run-rate flowing. With just 35 overs to play with, caution could only be applied in small doses.

They pushed the score to 117 before Schona’s bright 59-ball knock ended just one short of a deserving half-ton.

With just 12 overs remaining, it was crucial to push on. Nightingale garnered support from the dashing Squires, Mitch Howe and Joe Thomas, in his first innings for the week, to take the score to a highly-respectable 8/205. Nightingale’s 62 gave him 203 runs for the series.

The two batsmen who had proved such an obstacle on Thursday, were both dismissed cheaply by Worcester, who had excelled on his maiden visit to Bendigo.

There was plenty of resistance from the Colac lower-order, but they found it difficult to regain the ascendency, or up the run-rate.

Joe Thomas, operating superbly, despite the enticingly-small Ball Oval leg-side boundary, sent down his seven overs to capture 3/21, and again be the pick of an impressive bunch.

The boy from Oxfordshire, who will probably never again be subjected to conditions such as this, wheeled down 56 economical overs for the Week, in collecting his 12 wickets.

So the WDCA players returned in triumph from City of Gold for the second straight year. With the benefit of a similarlay-strong outfit, will be keen to acquit themselves well in Bendigo’s Premier Division…….

RIVALS TURN ON ANOTHER CLASSIC CONTEST…….

Joe Thomas, of Great & Little Trew Cricket Club – and occasionally Oxfordshire – made his debut on Australian soil yesterday.

And the rangy English all-rounder played his part in a classic encounter, as Yarrawonga-Mulwala and Rovers-United-Bruck, tangled at the Stan Hargreaves Oval.

It was a match that went right down to the wire – as most contests between the arch rivals generally do – and re-affirmed that both will be thereabouts at the business end of this WDCA season.

Hawks’ skipper Jordan Blades won the toss and elected to bowl in perfect conditions. He sprung the first surprise when Thomas was thrown the new ball.

It was obviously an opportunity for the left-arm finger spinner to settle in to his new surroundings and he immediately dropped onto a tidy line.

But after just one over, Blades reverted to the pacemen. Hamish Busk was a trifle rusty; Jacob Schonafiner, at the ‘Paddock End’, looked dangerous, and disturbed the stumps of highly-rated Shepparton recruit Josh Lawrence.

Ben Welsh and Matt Casey steadily solidified the Lakers’ innings before the game took the first of its several turns.

16 year-old Josh O’Donohue, playing just his sixth senior game, and with two A-Grade wickets to his name, found his rhythm in a terrific second over, to remove Welsh (25). Soon after he had the danger-man, Matt Knight, snapped up by a juggling Adam McNamara in slip.

Both wickets fell on 43. Suddenly the Hawks had assumed control.

It was an important spell for the lad, who tore in with zest and kept the ball up for the most part. Occasionally he dropped one short and was punished, but this was possibly through becoming a tad weary.

His eight-over spell yielded 5/25, and was a key factor in maintaining the ascendency of ball over bat.

But the bowling performances of Schonafinger (8/5/2/4) and Thomas (8/3/2/16) shouldn’t be discounted. ‘’Schona’ was always probing and gave nothing away, whilst Thomas proved what an asset he’ll be – particularly in the two-day format – with an accurate, tidy spell, which produced the occasional ‘fizzer’.

The Hawks had reduced the home combination to 9/98. But the next – and probably most important twist – came when James Irvine and second-gamer Will Sharp combined to defy their preying opposition in a 29-run last wicket-stand.

You just sensed that these were ultra-valuable runs. And it probably became apparent that the Hawks were a front-line bowler short, as the Lakers pushed their tally to a competitive 9/127 after 40 overs………..
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Rovers-United-Brucks’ progress was steady in pursuit of the target. Luke Whitten was watchful; Jordan Blades was his usual aggressive self. They didn’t really have much loose stuff to feast on, as left-arm opening quicks Angus McMillan and James Irvine were bang on target.

It meant that the Hawks were unable to push the run-rate beyond three-an-over. The introduction of young leggie Brock McCabe provided Blades with a couple of handy offerings which he despatched to the deep.

But, with the score on 48, Blades was gone for an enterprising 30, falling
to the newly-introduced Corey McIntosh ( Whitten had been dismissed 11 runs earlier).

Jacob Schonafinger was pro-active with the bat, but you could sense that some impressive bowling and plenty of yap in the field was conducive to tightening the screws.

‘Schona’ fell for 15 when Matt Knight made a surprise excursion to the bowling crease, but Adam McNamara, who is rarely shackled for long, took to the Lakers coach, smacking two sixes over mid-wicket amongst a 15-run over. Again, the Hawks had poked their noses in front.

With the total on 94 – and seven wickets to play with – Knight’s re-introduction of his opening quicks paid dividends. Jim Campbell was caught behind, Hamish Busk was clean-bowled, and the important wicket of McNamara fell to James Irvine.

It was now 6/94 and the weights had been applied to the visitors. Irvine snared another two victims in a team-lifting spell, which saw him finish with 4/17 and had the Hawks teetering at 8/106 – still 22 runs shy of victory.

Enter Joe Thomas. Reports had indicated that he preferred to bat in the middle-order, ideally at about number 7.  Some local experts preferred to think that, after watching him in the nets on Thursday night, he could be pushed up a little higher.

After getting a couple of effortless early shots away, it was obvious that the game now rested in his hands.

The big fellah looked composed, and whittled the margin down. He needed to continue throwing the bat – and keeping the strike – as time was of the essence. He had scored 21 and appeared on the verge of becoming an instant hero when sprightly young left-armer Will Sharp brought the home crowd to its feet by disturbing his hardware.

9/121. Seven to win; one wicket in hand. Wicket-keeper, and another debutant, Damien Kelly, was at the crease, and was joined by Josh O’Donohue.

He scrounged a single to maintain the strike. Six to win with an over from paceman Ben Doyle remaining, to settle what had been an absorbing contest.

Kelly straight drove the second ball for four. Two to win.

He attempted an identical shot next delivery, but it wasn’t there……He heard the sound of the death rattle behind him. The Lakers had triumphed by one run……

The crowd at Hargreaves Oval rose as one – after they finally realised that there was a tiny glitch on the electronic scoreboard – celebrating a famous Lakers triumph.

In a game that stood out for its excellent bowling, as well as its scratchy batting, it was also proof that WDCA cricket is alive and well ……..