“BOONY AND THE CURATOR…….”

He’s a constant presence at the Barr Reserve’s O’Callaghan Oval on any summer day……….Strolling at funereal pace, back and forth, manipulating the roller………His faithful Golden Labrador, Boony ( named after the rotund, taciturn former Test opener ), keeps him company. Boony, like his predecessors, Border, Bobby and Ruby has spent more time on this precious centre square than some cricketers do in a lifetime.

It’s said that a passer-by once laid a complaint of cruelty, alleging that, upon venturing down Park Lane one stinking hot day, she saw a distressed dog, tied to the roller (untrue, of course) being dragged repeatedly up and down the wicket.

Fat chance of that……..John Hill and his ‘Lab’s’ are like peas in a pod.

For more than two and a half decades, John has persisted in his efforts to convert this slab of black dirt into a flat, evenly-grassed, hard, true, sporting, ‘track’ – one of the best in the area.

It provides him with plenty of ‘think-time’, whereupon he may hark back to those days when his involvement in the game began…………..

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His father was a sporting fanatic. Blessed with oodles of ability as a cricketer and footballer, Jack was shipped off to St.Pat’s College, Ballarat, where his Mum ( John’s and my Grandma ) hoped and prayed that he’d answer the vocation to become a priest.

There were thoughts of entering the Seminary, but he came to the conclusion that the life of a religious wasn’t for him. He returned home in the early post-war period to become a livestock agent, Wangaratta Rovers centre half forward, dashing Keith Miller-type cricket all-rounder, husband to Maureen and father of eight kids.

John was just a whippersnapper when footy and cricket began to take second place for Jack. He’d discovered a far more lucrative pastime – as an S.P Bookie – which meant that keeping an eye on the fields at Morphettville, Rosehill and Doomben was of more consequence than kicking goals and taking wickets.

Instead, he found the most convenient way to sate his passion was by playing Sunday cricket, and enthusiastically urging the three boys – John, Brendan and Paul – to follow their sporting dreams………….

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John was a star all-rounder in his final years in the WDCA’s Junior comp and at 14 was handed a few senior games ‘for experience’. As captain of the Rovers U.16’s he once took 7/3 to lead his side to the brink of victory. Chasing a meagre 41, they capitulated for 22.

His father was the mainstay for Socials and John and his mates were regularly co-opted into the Sunday team, which would occasionally be one or two short.

The Socials line-up was an eclectic mix of racing figures, comprising Bookmakers ( both legal and S.P ), horse-trainers, punters and greyhound owners.

They would conduct a vigorous post-mortem of the previous day’s racing ( pink Sporting Globes in hand ) before each game, whilst the lads warmed up with batting and fielding drills.

But when the match began their focus would be on cricket. There was plenty to learn from these veterans who had been high cricket-achievers……….

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John became a regular with Rovers in 1966/67 and made his mark as more of a bowling all-rounder. He had a good grasp of the off-spinning craft and was a regular wicket-taker.

As understudy to his uncle, Len, who was in the evening of a long career, he learned plenty about the flight, variation and super-competitiveness of a cunning ‘offie’.

Always a good timer of the ball, he believed in extracting full value for his shots, sometimes to the detriment of his batting partner. A call of ‘Yes’… ‘No’….‘Wait’……would often leave the non-striker contemplating his demise in mid-pitch…….John’s defence would be : “I thought I called No”…..

He was part of an emerging group of young players who formed a close-knit Mac Holten Shield team, which won four titles. In one memorable encounter Ovens & King speedster Trevor Harding snared 9/18, to have Wang in dire straits. Hill produced his best-ever figures (8/43) to secure an unlikely victory,

Maintaining his close bond with the players, he managed the side in succeeding years.

He’d also enjoyed a taste of captaincy with the Under 21 team and slipped into that role a few times with the Rovers.

He was nothing, if not innovative. With the identical Bell twins in the line-up, he once batted Graeme, who was a superior stroke-player to Trevor, twice in the same innings. Graeme recalls John handing Trevor the new ‘cherry’ at one end, then using him from the other end in the next over .

In his 11th WDCA season John played in his first premiership, a convincing win over Magpies. Rain ruined the first day and it reverted to a one-dayer. He was secretary of the Club, a vital member of the side and a renowned ‘stayer’ at after-match activities.

Out of the blue an offer came from City Colts to become their captain-coach. This was a role hitherto unheard of in local cricket. When his Rovers team-mate Brian Carr was also approached they decided to cross over.

The boys were 26 and regarded this as an opportunity to rejuvenate their careers. It was to prove a recruiting master-stroke for the previously down-trodden Colts, who were given the boost on the field – and in leadership – that they sought.

Within five years Colts were playing in their first Final. Four successive semi-final defeats followed, before they finally cracked it for a flag, in 1986/87. They were emphatic in victory, replying to Corowa’s 141 with 414, the highest WDCA Grand Final score in 51 years.

John was now rated one of the competition’s stars. He won successive ‘Cricketer of the Year ‘ Awards, in 1980/81 and ‘81/82. The highlight of the 517 runs he scored in the latter season was his first WDCA century..

The runs came at a lively clip that day. He opened the batting against Beechworth, as he had an important function to attend later in the afternoon. The time of his scheduled departure came and went, and when he was finally dismissed for 157, he explained that no matter how hard he tried: “I just couldn’t get out……”

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John made six trips to Melbourne Country Week, and thrived on his seven visits to Bendigo. He captained the 1980 and ‘81 sides, and was a member of the winning squad of 1983 .

As he moved into his forties he slipped into the minor grades at City Colts. This was partly out of necessity, because a good portion of his Saturday arvo was taken up with pencilling for his Dad ( who was now licensed ) at the Albury – and, later – Wangaratta greyhound meetings.

He played the last of his 264 WDCA A-Grade games in 2003, but continued to plunder the runs in B and C Grades .

His lengthy Sunday cricket career with Socials, Postals and Tarrawingee made for a hectic cricket week-end in his prime . He had accumulated 4472 runs in that competition before it unfortunately folded.

His 5474 WDCA A-Grade runs and 386 wickets tell the on-field story, but his WDCA Hall of Fame Induction in 2012 was recognition of a sterling off-field contribution over 40 years.

He served as Association Secretary and Treasurer and was an administrator in several other capacities.

Such as being the designated man in charge when representative matches were allotted to Wangaratta. Whilst the Association received plaudits for the smooth functioning of the games, John was generally the ‘nuts and bolts’ man whom the touring teams dealt with……….

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The ire of this fastidious local cricket legend was recently raised when he voiced his concerns about the state of the newly-completed $1million Barr 2 re-development.

It’s the Council’s plan for Colts to use this as their new home, but as far as John’s concerned, there is a long way to go before the pitch – and the Oval itself – are anywhere near ready.

“I was really disappointed. As people who have put hundreds of hours into preparing wickets at the Barr over the years, we weren’t given the chance to provide any input to the project.”

“After all, we went through the experience of installing a new wicket at Barr 1 ( O’Callaghan Oval ) fifteen years ago.”

“They didn’t bother to ask us: ‘What do you think ?……What do reckon you need ?’ “

“It does irk you a bit. But then, they probably think I’m just another cranky old bugger who’s living in the past……”

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John’s greatest cricketing thrill came when his son Simon followed him into the Colts side in the latter part of the 20th century.

Old-timers reckoned that the youngster’s batting style rekindled memories of his grandfather – also a swashbuckling left-hander.

But Simon was destined for bigger things, and was guided into the elite pathway, which saw him represent Australia at Under-17 level, and commence his association with Camberwell-Magpies in 2002/03.

He is among a select group of nine players who have scored 10,000-plus runs in the 114-year history of Victorian Premier cricket; one of just 14 who have played 300 games or more.

His grandfather never got to see Simon play District cricket. He reached the outskirts of Melbourne one day, but, after receiving a message that it was raining, turned around and headed home…..

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John Hill spends most Saturday afternoons these days at his vantage spot on the Park Lane side of O’Callaghan Oval. With a pair of binoculars at the ready, he keeps a close eye on play, and, courtesy of My Cricket, obtains regular updates on the changing fortunes of Camberwell-Magpies.

He reckons this is the closest thing you can get to cricketing bliss……..