“KEITH SHERWILL……COUNTRY CRICKET LEGEND……”

Every sporting town probably has its own version of Keith Sherwill.

‘Sher’s’ been gone ten years now, but for just on six decades he was the go-to man if you needed to know something about cricket in Benalla and its surrounds.

He was the champion left-hand batsman who gravitated to become a long-serving administrator and tireless servant of the game. His roles encompassed being a curator, compiler of records and statistics, publicity-machine, zestful promoter at junior level, and Selector/Manager of representative teams……….

Chances are most kids who were making their way in North- East Cricket would have taken note of this slouch-shouldered old-stager who’d shuffle along, fag in hand, brow furrowed; his mind seemingly occupied by a thousand and one things.

They may have been playing in a rep game which he’d organised, welcomed them to, and was keeping an eye on.

But if they happened to encounter him as their careers progressed, they’d have been introduced to the lighter side of him…… the Court Jester, who revelled in the atmosphere of the dressing-room……………

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Benalla’s picturesque Gardens Oval was ‘Sher’s’ pride and joy. He lived just three blocks up from the ground’s Wedge Street entrance – a short jaunt on his trusty ‘chariot’.

“If he went missing we knew he was either rolling the wicket at the ‘Gardens’, or having a beer at the ‘Royal’, the Pub on the corner,” says his son Robert.

His affiliation with his second home began when he’d tag along to watch his dad Bill in action. In time he took over the score-book, then would occasionally fill in for Benalla when they were short.

But a knock on the shin from a cricket ball a few years earlier, almost put paid to the budding Sherwill career.

“His leg became badly infected and he was transferred to a Melbourne Hospital ,” Robert recounts. “The doctors debated about cutting it off, and only for his Maternal Grandmother intervening, apparently the leg would have been amputated”

“He never spoke about it much, only to say how rapt he was when a few South Melbourne footballers came to visit him during his long stay in Hospital. My grandfather was a butcher, and had an affiliation through business with the South President Archie Croft.”

“Red and White became his footy colours from then on…..both for South and Benalla.”

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The aftermath of the injury was that football, which he also loved with a passion, was off-limits for ‘Sher’, even though he did sneak out and play a few games for Winton, unbeknowns to his Mum.

He became a regular in Benalla’s club cricket side at 14, and began to exhibit his obvious potential. His half-century in a semi-final that year helped them into the Final, and a resultant premiership.

There was a hush among those gathered at the Gardens the following season, when he was felled by a delivery at a crucial stage of another BDCA Final. As players milled around, concerned for his welfare, the umpire officiating at the bowler’s end didn’t budge.

It was Bill Sherwill, who, although privately fretting, felt he had been compromised by being assigned to a match involving Keith, and didn’t want to indicate any form of favouritism towards his son.

Runs flowed freely from ‘Sher’s’ bat as he reached his late teens. He made his first trip to Country Week in 1940, as an upper-order bat and finger-spinner. Benalla won its first title – a tight B-Grade Final against Dandenong-Berwick, at St.Kilda in 1946 – and he helped to swing the game.

At a Dance on one of his Melbourne Country Week sojourns, he met his future-wife Dorothy. When he received the inevitable approach to play District cricket with Carlton they settled ‘in town’ for a brief period.

Keith didn’t cope all that well in the big smoke, and after he’d played in the ‘Blues’ 1947/48 Premiership side, they decided to move back home to Benalla for keeps.

He didn’t elaborate on his individual highlights, but the dream season he shared with fellow Benalla club opener Frank Hogan in 1957/58, was certainly one of them.

They were an ideal combination. Hogan, who moved on to play footy and cricket with South Melbourne the following season, was a dashing right-hand stroke-maker and would, in due course, be included in the South Australian State squad.

Sherwill, the mollydooker, was more circumspect, and preferred to settle in before chancing his arm.

They shared six century and one double-century stands before the end of January, then continued their run-spree at Country Week.

Many of ‘Sher’s’ on-field highlights centred around the Gardens Oval. One yarn that he used to tell against himself involved a match against Goorambat in the days of the old eight-ball overs.

He brought himself on to bowl against his friend and keen cricketing rival Tom Trewin, who was well settled. The first seven balls of his over whistled through the elm and plane trees which gracefully ring the ground…… A couple even bounced onto the nearby band rotunda.

Trewin lost his footing attempting his eighth successive six, and was stumped by Benalla ‘keeper Barry Talochino, giving the under-siege Sherwill the figures of 1/42 after his first over……….

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Trewin, a highly-respected Devenish farmer, and the local member for State Parliament, was a cricket diehard. He served as President of the B.D.C.A for 26 years………And for a good portion of his reign ‘Sher’ was his loyal Lieutenant .

The other member of this ‘triumvirate’, which guided Benalla cricket through a period of strength was Ted Cleary, a former wily left-arm medium-pacer, and astute judge of talent, who had worn the Victorian cap three times in his heyday.

The two ‘elder statesmen’ kept the energetic Sherwill – 10 years their junior – on his toes. At its peak, with the competition comprising three eight-team divisions, the BDCA was flying.

Benalla’s performance to defeat Kyabram in the 1979 ‘A’ Grade Country Week Final was, at that point, their best-ever effort. But two years later, after having won promotion to the Provincial Group, they over-powered Ballarat in the Final, to complete their rise to the top rung of country cricket.

‘Sher’ was there, naturally…….Just as he was whenever some extensive organisation was required to host matches at the Gardens, against Ian Johnson’s and Graeme Yallop’s visiting Victorian XI’s, and the touring South African, West Indies and New Zealand Teams.

The biggest shot in the arm to local rep cricket had come three decades earlier, when the North-Eastern District Cricket Cup competition was formed.

‘Sher’, who had earned a spot in the Ensign Cup’s history-books as its first century-maker, acted as Secretary of the body for 41 years, and along the way, helped implement the Mac Holten Shield Under 21 competition in 63/64.

As an extension, he became the North-East Zone 8 delegate to the Victorian Country Cricket League, and was a VCCL selector for twenty years.

He undoubtedly had to put his job with the P.M.G on the back-burner for a week each January, to co-ordinate Benalla Junior Country Week, which he helped kick off in the mid-sixties.

The Carnival became the high-point of the season for the region’s junior cricketers and, in its initial years, would begin with a Clinic on the Sunday. Ian Botham and Merv Hughes were two of the big ‘names’ who were invited to assist with coaching…………..

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‘Sher’ had been able to successfully combine administrative and on-field duties, but at the conclusion of the 1974/75 season he reluctantly pulled the pin as a player, at the age of 49.

He went out on a high, as a member of the Diggers premiership team. Of all the on-field successes that came his way in cricket, this was his favourite, because his sons Robert and Graham were also members of the side.

He managed to combine his duties at Club, Association, Zone and VCCL levels, with his propensity to promote all sport.

His column, ‘Sherwill Speaks Sport’ was a feature of the Benalla Ensign newspaper for over 30 years. He was a deft hand as the BDCA’s – and Benalla Football Club’s – official publicity officer, bringing the game to the forefront of Print, Radio and Television……..

But, of course, as such an opiniated public figure, he always came in for his share of criticism, particularly when dealing with different associations and their own agendas. And heaven forbid, in his role as a Zone 8 Selector, if he failed to find a spot for a Benalla player or two against touring sides.

“Dad always placed great store on the relationships he created through sport,” says Robert Sherwill.

“He often said that he made just as many – or more – friends with the opponents he’d fought tooth and nail against, than the fellahs he played with.”

“He saw all the big guns of North-East cricket at close quarters over nearly seventy years, but he couldn’t go past two all-rounders – Ray Maclaine of Euroa and Max Bussell of Wangaratta, as his favourites.

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‘Sher’s’ monumental sporting contribution was recognised in 2002, when he was awarded the Bob Merriman Medal, for his services to country cricket. This ‘gong’ also tied in with Life Memberships of the BDCA, Benalla Football Club, NEDCCC and VCCL, the Delatite Shire (Benalla) Citizen of the Year in 2001, and the Australia Sports Medal in 2000.

The marathon 55-year Sherwill stint as Curator of the Gardens Oval drew to a close three years later, at the age of 81.

“I told them it was about time these young blokes learned how to make wickets,” he said. “Some of them don’t even know the dimensions of the crease.”

This pronouncement amused one of the youngsters who sometimes helped him tend to his sacred stretch of Turf.

The lad joked that ‘Sher’ had once mistakenly marked out the pitch more than a foot too long for an important club game……… then complained all day that ‘these young blokes can’t expect to get wickets if they don’t bowl a decent line and length’……………..

” ‘ASHO’S’ STILL PLOUGHING OUT THE RUNS……”

The cricketing gods smiled fondly upon Wayne Ashton one sunny, early-October day in 1995……

The spotlight had been trained on the softly-spoken, new-boy in town, as he prepared for his A.B.C.A debut with Wodonga. His reputation as something of a run-machine preceded him; now the good judges would make their own prognostications.

It was to prove some sort of initiation for Wodonga’s opponents, the Tallangatta ‘Bushrangers’, who had recently been admitted to the competition.

They would concede a mammoth 4/502, as the Bulldogs flailed them unmercifully. Ashton’s contribution ?…..An unbeaten 270, including 34 fours and three sixes.

The left-hander’s name had been indelibly etched into the record-books of Border cricket………

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At 48, ‘Asho’s’ still scoring runs. He now plays alongside his 14 year-old son, who’s an up-and-coming right-hand bat and leg spinner.

The thrill he gets out of lining up with Will, he says, is a reminder of the old days, when he used to stroll onto the Goorambat Oval in the footsteps of his father, John.

That’s where it all began…….

Tiny Goorambat is a dot on the map, perched in prime wheat and grazing country, 16km from Benalla, and in the vicinity of St.James, Devenish and Thoona.

They’d traditionally fought above their weight, in cricketing terminology , and had won their share of flags in the strong Benalla competition. Players of the calibre of the Cleary’s, Trewin’s, Steve Siggers and, of course, medium-pacer Johnny Ashton, had been long-time stars of North-East cricket.

Wayne was only a toddler when he started following his dad, but when the ‘Bat’s were a man short one day, they slipped him into the A-Grade side…..He was just 12……

He served an apprenticeship in the lower grades for a couple of years, but it was evident that the fluent stroke-maker was going places when, aged 15, he scored 148 in an A-Grade match against St.Joseph’s.

Two years later, he helped Benalla pull a Bendigo Country Week Final out of the fire with a majestic knock at Golden Square.

Gisborne had amassed a defendable 5/223, and when they snared four early wickets, the assessment of the experts was: ‘Game- Over.’ Ashton then proceeded to take charge. He was 150 not out when Benalla reached their unlikely target.

The inimitable Keith Sherwill branded it “ without any doubt the best knock I’ve witnessed in country cricket over the years.” He went on to point out that his earlier innings that week had been 34, 72, 70* and 15, giving him a total of 341 for the Series, at 113.66.

“Also,” added ‘Sher’, who was prone to pen the most flowery turn of phrase: “I’m certain it won’t be the last time that a dazzling piece of willow controlled by Ashton is responsible for a three-figure innings………”

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Wayne had previously represented Collingwood in the U.16 Dowling Shield Carnival. So, when he moved to the city to commence his Radiography studies, he was invited to throw in his lot with their Premier Cricket team.

They were busy times. He played Amateur footy; firstly with Banyule, then North Old Boys ( where he won a flag in 1993). Cricket was pretty full-on, and he had to fit all of that around his studies. But he recalls it as a terrific experience.

His progress at Collingwood was steady. Starting in the Fourths in his first season, he scored a century when promoted to the Thirds, then settled into the Second XI after the Christmas break.

A ‘ton’ in his opening Seconds game made the pundits sit up and take notice, as did the 470 runs he plundered in the post-Christmas period.

But for one reason or another, he wasn’t able to crack it for a First XI game at Victoria Park, despite some consistent form and the role he played in a Seconds flag in 1990/91.

After spending four years at Collingwood, he was approached by South Melbourne, who dangled the prospect of playing First XI cricket in front of him.

“I’m glad I moved to South,” he says. “ They’d recruited Gus Logie, the West Indies batsman, who was a really down-to-earth fellah. He didn’t drink or smoke, and just loved his cricket. I certainly learned a lot from him.”

Wayne played six First XI games in his season with the Swans, including a ‘Country-Round’ match against Ringwood at the Norm Minns Oval………

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After qualifying as an Accredited Radiographer in 1992, he had spent some time working in city Hospitals. But he was on the lookout for an opportunity to sneak back to the bush. When a job offer presented itself in Albury, he snapped it up; thus commencing his association with Border Medical Imaging.

Almost on cue, Keith Sherwill subtly dropped the hint to Wodonga stalwart Bob Craig that there was a handy recruit in the wings.

“That suited me ideally, because I was living in Wodonga. They were a great club, the Bulldogs, and made us most welcome,” he says.

Over the years we mere mortals in Wangaratta have sniggered at the tendency of the Border’s media to almost ‘Deify’ their star cricketers. When Ashton began to cut loose in the early rounds of ‘95/96, they were almost having heart palpitations.

He went to the Christmas break with a total of 522 runs on board. Following his maiden hand of 270*, he had scored 158 against New City and 101* in the reverse encounter with Tallangatta. By season’s end, he had convincingly won the A.B.C.A Batting aggregate.

The highlights of his time at Wodonga were the three Club championships they won, and the premiership he captain-coached in 1998/99. That tied in neatly with the Reserves footy flags he’d collected with Wodonga, and Wodonga Raiders………

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‘Asho’ heartily agrees that you never tire of winning flags. He’d already picked up his share, but Lady Luck was about to land him in the midst of another ‘Golden Era’.

A transfer in employment saw him re-locate to Wangaratta and throw in his cricketing lot with Wangaratta-Magpies.

The ‘Pies had been there, or thereabouts, in the dozen years that had elapsed since the traditional rivals merged. They’d snatched two flags, and been ultra-competitive, but often fallen just short.

The tide was about to turn.

They scrambled into the 2003/04 finals by just a handful of runs, but Ashton produced his finest WDCA innings when he overpowered a lively Bruck attack in the Semi-Final. His 107 enabled them to reach 7/284.

The pressure of chasing a huge total told on Bruck, as they battled the over-rate and tumbling wickets, to fall 88 short.

The following week, they matched up against their nemesis, Corowa. The Roos’ batting had proved their Achilles heel all season, and again they wilted. Wang-Magpies lost only four wickets in cruising past a target of 93.

It was a triumph for a side of seasoned veterans and talented youngsters.

Darren Grant, one of those old-timers, spent plenty of time watching ‘Asho’ at close quarters.

“He was exciting to watch, for sure,” says ‘Daz’. “When he was in full cry, he was destructive; very strong square of the wicket……a bit unorthodox…..but he had all the shots.”……”And,” he adds, he had a real cricket brain. He was a terrific player for us.”

The ‘Pies won the next two titles, then another in 2007/08, when they proved too strong for Rutherglen. That gave them four flags in five years.

Wayne made six trips to Melbourne Country Week -five of them as captain – and guided Wang to the Division 3 title in his last season at the helm.

He also captained them to two North-East Ensign Cups, giving him the rare honour of playing in Cup wins with Albury, Benalla and Wang.

After working at the Base Hospital for six years, he became a Principal of ‘Wangaratta X-Ray’ in 2008. The need to spend extra time on an expanding business prompted him to step away from cricket.

Two years later, though, he began a two-year spell as coach of the Wangaratta Rovers Reserves, a job he threw himself into wholeheartedly.

He completed his hiatus from cricket in 2016, when he took up the invitation to play alongside his son Will, in Rovers-United-Bruck’s C-Grade side.

He proved the dominant player in the competition, winning a hat-trick of Awards as the competition’s Best Player, and sharing the last two flags. This season, with Will continuing to develop, and earning promotion to A-Reserve, ‘Asho’ decided to join him.

The old champ, whose 24 centuries and 10 premierships have provided him with a plethora of career highlights, still enjoys eking out a few runs.

But he gets a bigger kick out of seeing Will and his mates making their way in the game. If he can help them, he says, that’ll be just fine……….