“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’……………..

‘MEETING THE GHOST OF LOCAL CRICKET…..’

The whitish pitch shimmers in the brassy sunlight……Fielders dawdle listlessly on a vast, scorched outfield…….Batsmen opt to ‘dig in’ rather than play their shots…….The quicks struggle to summon the effort to muster that extra yard……..

Cricketers and spectators alike appear drugged by the oppressive heat of this stinking mid-summer’s day……..

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I’m drawn to this solitary figure, leaning against the huge gum tree at the northern end of the ground ……

I’ve got to know all the identities around local cricket, but this fellah doesn’t ring a bell. I know I’m starting to get on a bit, but he’s positively archaic.

He sucks on a blade of grass, totally entranced by what’s happening out in the middle.

We get yapping…….Initially, he doesn’t appear keen on being distracted, but he loosens up after a while, his eyes misting over as he studies the technique of the young left-hander.

“See how he fiddles outside the off stump…..Doesn’t use his feet….I had that problem, you know. Took me years to get out of the habit.”

“Ah, it only seems like yesterday I was out there…. Course we had rolled dirt, then concrete, to play on. Not beautiful tracks like this one.”

My gentle prompting seems to kick his memory into over-drive…….

“Ever heard of Charlie Heavey?”, he says. “Made 299 in a day, over on the Showgrounds. I made sure I watched every knock he played. Geez, he could bat.”

“He hit the ball so hard that day, that a few of his sixes landed in Edwards Street ….We all  reckoned he should have played Test cricket, but Charlie liked a good time and upset a few of the snotty- noses when he went to Melbourne.”

Yes, I reply. By all reports he was a beauty.IMG_0829

“Too right. He was the best around at that time and was also downright dangerous when he decided to let ‘em go with the new ‘cherry’.”

“But heck, son, there were plenty of good players in those days…….Like Alec Fraser…. Lovely chap, Alec…Made a power of runs up the order.”

“He opened with Clem Fisher in Wang’s rep teams, and what a combination they were ! Put on 300-odd in one match at Country Week.”

“Funny, you know. They were polar opposites. Alec was a gentleman….Always giving encouragement and a bit of advice to the youngsters….Played the game as it should be played.”

“But Clem was a bloke who knew how to create a stink on the cricket field. Nice enough chap to talk to….did heaps for cricket…..but once he crossed that line he was an old bugger…..He’d resort to anything to get you out…..It’s a wonder he didn’t get punched on the nose a few times……..”IMG_2256

By now, my mate has taken his eye off the going’s-on in the middle. It’s almost as if he’s watching a flickering highlights tape and describing it to me.

I ask him his opinion of a latter-day batting hero – Barry Grant.

“Funny you should mention it. He reminded me very much of Alec Fraser, with his technique and defence. Both of them were very hard to dislodge once they got settled. His temperament was a touch more bristly than Alec’s…..Didn’t like going out. Not too stylish, but more of a run-machine. He and his brother….I just forget his name for a sec….Darren, that’s right….They were great players for a lot of years.IMG_3150

“Yes, I’ve seen ‘em all. Those Nicoll’s out at Whorouly…….Don’t know what it was in the water out there, but they were master batsmen. You had four champion brothers – Wils, Ron, Ernie and Vic. People used to debate about who was the pick of them – Wils or Ron. I couldn’t seperate them.”

“Wils used to smoke a roll-your-own when he was batting. He’d plonk it behind the stumps and have a puff between overs…….’Didn’t have much style.”

“They used to tell the story about him walking out to bat at Country Week one day, wearing a pair of black socks tucked behind his pads, and puffing on a fag. An opposition fielder slung off about this ‘country yokel’, and he proceeded to score a century in no time.”

“A few of the Nicoll progeny turned out all right, too. I had a lot of time for the chap who had polio and batted with a runner. Did a terrific job….Lex, I think it was….”IMG_0412

“Talking about families, you had the Kneebone’s from Brookfield. I suppose you knew they fielded their own family team in the local comp.”

“They lived for cricket, and got their competitive instinct from their old man.”

“I thought Ken was the pick of ‘em. He had a run-up that was smooth as silk. Did well against the Poms at Benalla one year. But a few experts rated Harry just as quick. Frankie Archman kept up on the stumps to most bowlers, but he had enough sense to stand back to those two.”

By now this mystery-man has me gob-smacked, having touched on all the names down through the ages in Wangaratta cricket – Carey, Trebilcock, Lidgerwood, Charlie Ladds, Thomlinson, Beeby, Bill Hickey, Sid Docker, Max Bussell, Rosser…….IMG_1022

“I thought he might have played for the state, that  fellah. He had the ability and played some good hands out on this ground. He got close when he went down to play District cricket, they tell me……”

His mate was nice and slippery when he was in full flight  – Welchy – with the curly hair. Had a bit of shit in him, too. Course his knees went on him in the end.IMG_0180

“And the boy Broster – the left-hander- who played a few games for the Vics, I’d have preferred him to serve more of an apprenticeship before he got his chance. His Shield career was virtually over before he’d got started.”

“You’d have seen his dad bat when he was in his prime, wouldn’t you. Golly, he could play, and his grandpa, Alec, was terrible hard to get out.”

“I watch these kids coming through now and think: ‘Have they got what it takes to go on ?’ “

“All of the Welch’s were handy, and  Hilly’s still making runs down at Camberwell. Surely he deserved a chance in the State side. But, I suppose they must have seen a shortcoming in his game.”IMG_1024

I mention the changes that have taken place in the modern era. Like the local competition now expanding its horizons to include Mansfield, Benalla, Rutherglen and Bright. And the great teams, and players, from Corowa, Yarrawonga and Beechworth that had plenty of success in recent decades. I’m surprised that he’s all for it…..IMG_0882

“Well, you’ve got to embrace change, son. On the same note, I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be watching the  lasses playing cricket. Terrific………”

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That steel trap of a mind doesn’t miss a beat, and when he diverts again to tell me about Billy Henderson scoring a big 100 in a Final, he describes his cover and straight-driving as if he was there.

“When was that ?” I ask.

“Oh, back in the 1890’s,” he replies.

We have barely paid any attention to the cricket, so engrossed are we in his reminiscences. But the umps lift the bails to signify the tea-break and, momentarily distracted, I turn to resume our journey into the past.

But he is hobbling down the bank and out of sight.

“Hey, just a minute, do you remember………..”IMG_1549

TIGE’S ABIDING PASSION

One of my trips to Melbourne Country Week, as an impressionable teenager, was spent in the company of ‘Tige’, ‘Pimp’, ‘Blinker’, ‘Trebly’ and ‘Shada’.

‘Blinker’ was a local Businessman and former wicket-keeper, who had ventured down to watch one game and, instead, remained for the series. He mentioned, semi-seriously, that he needed to use ‘White Nugget’ to touch up the collar of his shirt. As the week progressed he looked decidedly unkempt.

‘Shada’ caught up with us each afternoon, in the company of his ‘cousin’, a shapely brunette, who never left his side. One of her other ‘attributes’ was that she could go beer for beer with him at the after-match, which doubled as a sort of past-players’ re-union.

‘Trebly’ was the effervescent team-lifter, who only needed to open his mouth to have you in stitches. ‘Tige’ was his ‘straight man’ , the team captain , whose magnetic personality made him a hit with his young charges – and those old-timers whose company he savoured……

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‘Tige’ was Max Bussell, the man who the experts plump for as one of Wangaratta’s greatest-ever cricketers. In the years of my adolescence he was the all-rounder I strove to be.

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the ‘Tige’ I sometimes watched from beneath the peppercorn trees at the Showgrounds, when he was in his prime during the mid-to-late 50’s.

He was well-proportioned, with blond, curly hair; a fast-medium bowler with a rhythmic, beautiful action. At the point of delivery he had a slightly round-arm action, which induced both swing and accuracy.

He strode to the batting crease a’ la’ Keith Miller and possessed a dose of the cavalier style of the Test legend. After an initial settling-in period, he could unleash the full text-book of shots.

In the winter he was also an all-rounder, doubling up as a ‘book-end’ full back and full forward in some of the superb Wangaratta sides of the time.

In effect, he was ‘The Package’.
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Max was 14 when he made his WDCA senior debut with Railways, who were to change their name to Wangaratta within a season. He came under the influence of hard-bitten veterans like ‘Cappy’ Richens, Tom Nolan and ‘The Pimp’ – Clement Roberts William Fisher.

He became Clem’s protege’ and the ruthless edge that he developed on-field was a result of ‘Pimp’s’ tutelage. So too, was his knowledge of making turf wickets and the knack of relaxing in the company of team-mates and opponents alike, after a game.

His dad, Seddon, had played football with Clem at Wangaratta, and there was never any question that his sporting future was destined to be shaped at the Showgrounds Oval.

Within two years, aged 16, Max was to begin his lengthy love affair with Melbourne Country Week.

“I couldn’t wait to get down there. Having been told about the feats of Charlie Heavey’s hitting and bowling, how far Bert Carey could swing the ball, the speed and guile of Frank Archman, as he stood up to Harry Kneebone’s express pace….it was every bit as good as I expected. To me it was like a country player’s Test Match”, he once recalled.

“You played on the really good grounds like Prahran and at afternoon tea, a top player such as Sam Loxton would welcome everyone to the club. It was a great experience”.

He soon became recognised as a bush champion.

The day that undeniably stamped him as a player of class came in the A-Grade CW Final of 1954. He and fellow speedster Jackie Beeby quickened pulses and created havoc as they ran through a strong Shepparton batting line-up.

Max finished with 8/27, but modestly gave Beeby credit for applying pressure at the other end. It prompted approaches from a few District clubs around this time, but he opted to stay put in Wangaratta and continue his employment with the oil company he had joined from school.

Mac Holten, his captain in that title-winning side, was, besides Clem Fisher, a major ‘guiding light’ in his sporting career.

He rated Mac the shrewdest sporting person he had met. Bearing in mind that he played under him in football and cricket for several years, it’s little wonder that he adopted all of his strategies.

Max made 22 trips to Country Week as a player. His highlight – besides that 1954 title – was being part of Wangaratta’s only Provincial championship, in 1957.

He succeeded Holten as captain in 1960, and 15 years later, aged 42, made his last appearance, as a middle-order bat and guileful slow-medium bowler.

My father, who was a long-term protagonist, always rated himself a chance to pick Max up in the gully early in his innings. He must have had some success way back, because I never actually saw the champ fall for the trap that Dad would meticulously set.

Clashes between Rovers and Wangaratta in the 50’s always had that extra edge, as there were some really tough nuts in both sides. It stemmed, I think, from a chance remark from ‘The Pimp’ that fell on burning ears : “they’re no good when the chips are down”.

Max was usually in the middle of the action and was, naturally, a star  in club cricket. He once took 14/24 in a match against Moyhu Green (7/16 and 7/8), which included a pair of hat-tricks.

Such performances became fairly regular when he was at his peak, and made him an automatic selection for any representative matches that were held in the area. He lined up against the South Australian and Victorian Shield sides, twice against the Englishmen and captained a Victorian Country XI against South Africa at Benalla.

Peter Pollock, the lethal Springbok quick gave him a thigh full of bruises, as Max hung around to score a gutsy 27. He handed Pollock the accolade as the fastest bowler he ever faced.

Some team-mates who saw him pull Wangaratta out of deep trouble at Bandiana in a North-East Cup semi against Upper Murray in 1966 would plump for that as his finest knock.

Coming to the crease after the tumble of early wickets against quality bowling, he hammered an unbeaten 101 out of 195 to guide his team to victory.

Max was another product of the prolific South Wanderers junior football ‘nursery’. His transition to O & M ranks coincided with Wangaratta’s Golden era and, after a steady apprenticeship, he became a regular senior player in 1952.

The grace and style that epitomised his cricket, was also on show in the football arena. A long, probing kick and possessive of a safe pair of hands, he found himself at full forward in the 1952 Grand Final, after booting 5 goals in a Preliminary Final victory over Albury.

The Pies finished on a little stronger in the final term to overcome Rutherglen by 20 points and clinch their fourth successive flag.

Max lined up at full back in the gripping 1957 Grand Final against Albury; the match hanging in the balance until a Lance Oswald snap for goal , literally in the dying seconds, tilted the game Wangaratta’s way.

The Magpie ‘swing-man’ hung up his boots, aged 27, at the end of the 1959 season He had played 103 senior games and was awarded Life Membership. He was finding it increasingly difficult to train and was now the co-proprietor of a Fuel Distributorship.

Instead, he focused on golf as his winter pastime and took to the game with zest. His graceful swing of a wood and iron earned him the nickname, ‘The Natural’, and he spent time as Waldara’s  Club captain.

But Max emphasised that cricket was his abiding passion.

A trip down memory lane with him in latter years would produce a romantic twinkle in his eye, as he  recalled great games, players and performances……and some of the 101 anecdotes which he could relate with the ease of a good raconteur.

‘Tige’, a Wangaratta sporting legend, passed away in 2011.IMG_0917IMG_0918