‘A MASTER OF HIS CRAFT…..’

Stuart Elkington is recounting one of his countless sporting memories………..

It’s the early sixties, and he’s the baby of Wangaratta’s North-East Cup Cricket team , fielding at short mid-on in a tight Final against Euroa. The match is reaching its climax……. You can almost sniff the tension in the air….He’s just praying that if a catch does happen to bob up in these dying moments, it won’t be heading his way.

Alas, an attempted drive miscues in Stuie’s direction. He’s perched under it, and can hear the whooping of his team-mates, as they sense they’ve snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Blokes like Trebilcock, Bussell, Welch – giants of the local game…….he can’t possibly let them down by dropping this absolute ‘sitter’….

“I don’t know how it happened, but the ball has slipped through my fingers. It was the most embarrassing moment of my career……”

The next day, the Border-Mail’s headlines accentuated his ‘clanger’. He shows me the now-faded match report: ‘…ELKINGTON DROPS CATCH, WANG LOSE MATCH…’

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Elkington-territory is prime Dairy country; just three or so kilometres from Whorouly’s heartbeat, which includes the Pub, General Store, Hall and, of course, the Recreation Reserve .

On my way here, I can’t resist calling in to pay a nostalgic visit to the lovingly-maintained Memorial Oval, scene of the township’s many sporting triumphs.

It brings to mind the imperious left-hander, Peter Nicoll contemptuously hoiking me over the fence, and over the road, necessitating the fielder to extract the ball from the garden bed of a neighboring house……..of his cousin Lex, curtailed by polio, patiently manoeuvring the bowling and accumulating runs……and of the blonde Stuart Elkington setting off on his elongated run-up and making the Kookaburra spin, curl and bounce on this traditionally batsman-friendly track.

It was on this very Oval that Stuie mastered the craft of spin bowling, plundered thousands of runs, and played the majority of his 212 games of footy in the Maroon and White guernsey……………….

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He was the youngest in the family, by quite a distance, behind his brother Brian and  sister May, so had to find ways to entertain himself in his boyhood days.

In summer, it would be relentlessly throwing a ball against a wall in the Dairy. The pill would ricochet onto the uneven concrete wash-down gutter, breaking this way or that, and forcing Stuart to improvise with his shot selection.

After he played every ball, he jotted down the runs – or wickets – in his scorebook. He’s explaining this intricate exercise to me, when Jo, his wife, pulls out the 60-odd year-old book, which painstakingly recorded his version of ‘Test Match Cricket’. The performances of the ‘players’, such as ‘Tom’, ‘Phew’, ‘Hard’, ‘Peter’, ‘Clown’, ‘Elk’ and ‘Zip’, are preserved for posterity.IMG_3768

Later, on match days, he’d pedal down to the Oval and spend the afternoon scoring in the same book…..and paying particular attention to Whorouly’s smattering of star batsmen.

Eventually, the opportunity came for him to play alongside them. At 14 he made his debut, and shared in a useful partnership with the phlegmatic veteran Wils Nicoll.

That was an education in itself. Wils was a renowned run-machine; unstylish, but determined. One of his quirks was that he usually smoked a roll-your-own during his innings; retrieving it from behind the stumps between overs to have a reflective puff.

In one of these instances he sidled up to offer a quiet word of advice to Stuie, who had begun to get a touch cocky, and played a reckless shot during the over.

“These fellahs coming in behind you, they’ll get their turn…..There’s no rush to get the runs, you know,” he said.

Yes, there was no shortage of advice for the youngster. After he’d wheeled down a coupe of overs of his leg-spin, someone suggested: “Just slow it down a bit, Stu….toss it up…..Give the ball a chance to turn……”

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As one of a group of emerging youngsters who promised a bright future for Wangaratta cricket, he was sent to hone his skills at Bendigo Country Week.

In their early years, WDCA officials had the lads billeted at the outer-suburban residence of a kindly old soul, Mrs.Tredinnick. The idea was that they, in their innocence, shouldn’t be exposed to the perils of the city’s night-life.

That failed. They discovered the demon-drink, bounced off each other, and formed long-lasting friendships. The nonchalant Elkington was one who savoured the social life, shrugged off the occasional hangover, then hurled himself into his cricket under the blistering January sun.

He made six trips to Bendigo, once taking 8/39 to rout Emu Valley and, on another occasion, figuring in a 257-run stand against Tyrrell. Having already taken 4/18, he and Greg Rosser opened and had a race to be first to reach 50, then 100. Rosser was dismissed for 112; Elkington soldiered on to 148*.IMG_3779

He recalls his fate being decided one day, by a gnarled old Bendigo umpire, who had a habit of providing a running commentary on each decision:

“I’ve been rapped on the pads, and he’s gone: ‘Well, son…….It was pitched in line……..but then you were playing forward….. the wicket’s doing a bit…..and he is moving the ball….’ “

“After what seemed like an eternity, he’s slowly raised the finger and testified: “I think you’re out…..”

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Stuie’s first adventure took him to Hobart, where he undertook a two and a half year Phys-Ed Degree, and played TCA cricket with the University of Hobart.

He came under the influence of former English Test player John Hampshire, who opined that he had a rare talent and plumped for his selection in a Tasmanian Colts team, which met the NSW Colts at the SCG.

“He’d bring me on first change and bat me high up the order. I had a bit of success in Tassie, and, in hindsight, probably should have stayed longer. But when December came around I’d head back home for the holidays. I’d feel bad about leaving them, but the lure of home always brought me back.”

With a Degree in hand, he headed over to Adelaide for his first teaching job, playing two years of District cricket with Sir Donald Bradman’s old team, Kensington, and footy with Barossa Valley club, Freeling.

On his return home one year, he received a phone call from the Principal of Benalla Tech School…..Said he’d heard good reports about him and wondered if he’d be interested in a teaching job there.

“I said sorry, I’ve already got the car packed. I’m about to head back to Adelaide. But on my way through Benalla I thought to myself: ‘It won’t hurt to have a look at the place and see what it’s like.’

“Funny, I walked in and my concentration was diverted to this young teacher with nice legs. It was Jo. That settled it…..One thing led to another and I decided to take the job.”

But he found he needed more qualifications and took study leave later that year, to undertake a Science Degree, majoring in Geology at Melbourne Uni. At the same time, Jo did a Degree in Pottery.

“Les Stillman was Melbourne Uni’s coach and he encouraged me to come along to practice,” Stuie recalls.

He went from the Thirds to First XI in three games and, in one of his first Senior appearances, lined up against Essendon and State speedster John Grant, who proceeded to give him a baptism of fire.

“He whistled a couple past my ear, and I was most uncomfortable. After I’d played and missed a few times, he continued his follow-through and eye-balled me, muttering : ‘Why don’t you have a go, you weak little prick’……”

Stuart and Jo eventually returned to teaching at Benalla, and he provided a huge boost to a Whorouly cricket side which was now blossoming, after being forced into recession a season or two earlier.

For the next dozen years he proved a stellar performer in the WDCA, as one of its premier all-rounders. And there’s no doubt that his figures as a spinner have been beyond compare over the last half-century.

He took 744 wickets, scored 6,500 runs and hit nine centuries in his 236 games for Whorouly. And if you needed proof of his influence with the ball in big games, have a look at his figures in the Maroons’ three winning Grand Finals: 7/36 in 1971/72, 6/22 in 1974/75, and 6/27 in 1981/82……

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He had a particular fascination for Melbourne Country Week; loved the tough, no-holds-barred aspect of the games. Stuie found that he needed to push his leggies through a bit quicker against the good bats, but that was all part of the challenge.IMG_3778

He captained Wangaratta on two of his 11 trips to the ‘big smoke’ and, as we talk we’re reminiscing about some of the quickies who used to have you ducking and weaving.

…Like George Skinner from Maryborough, who, one day, threatened to ‘go through’ Wangaratta on a softish green-top, which was causing the ball to skid through alarmingly.

We recall left-hander Terry Hogan copping one delivery on the ‘moosh’ and taking ages to be revived – and assisted – from the field of play. Stuie was next in……

“I arrived at the crease and took block in a pool of blood. George was back at his mark, raring to go, and I’m hearing the fielders urging him on: ‘Here’s another one…Take him out.’ “IMG_3780

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Apart from stints with Federal League club Oakleigh Districts, Freeling (S.A), Old Hutchins Amateurs (Tas) and Benalla, the bulk of the Elkington football career was played with Whorouly.

As a skilful mid-fielder/half forward, he saw plenty of the action and would count winning the 1970 Ovens and King League’s Baker Medal among the cherished highlights of his 14 years with the Maroons.

Conversely, he’d rate as one of his roughest times when he was persuaded to take on the club’s coaching job in 1974. They’d been hit heavily with player departures, blooded many youngsters and battled through to win two games.

Three years later, he was part of a dominant line-up which completed an undefeated season by defeating North Wangaratta in the 1977 Grand Final.IMG_3770

He was lured out to King Valley the following year, and thrived in the role as captain-coach. The Roos, who had won just three games in ‘77, improved dramatically to storm into the finals.

“We had a great year, but it fell apart in the first half of the Preliminary Final. We were 56 points down at half-time, then came home with a rush. But the siren beat us. Beechworth held on to win by eight points,” Stuie says.

The Valley reached the finals again the following season, but the end was nigh for the veteran. His hips were giving him hell and decided to pull the pin……..

For the school-teacher, turned Public Servant, turned cockie – and fanatical sportsman – it was time to focus on the Dairy Cows……IMG_3774

“THE EPITOME OF ELEGANCE……”

They called him ‘Hollywood’.

The nickname seemed to stick after one of his team-mates compared his sartorial elegance to that of the flamboyant Sydney punter of the fifties and sixties, ‘Hollywood’ George Edser.

That was one of the colourful characteristics of Peter Nicoll, who was a true personality of Wangaratta cricket for almost three decades.

There was no more imposing sight for an opposition player than to see the bulky frame of Nicoll striding purposefully to the wicket. A gifted left-hander equipped with the full range of shots, he could murder an attack when in full flight. You probably considered yourself a reasonable chance to pick him up in slips early, but if you didn’t, then … ‘look out’.

Peter Nicoll was part of a blue-blooded cricketing dynasty at Whorouly. His uncles, Ernie,Ron and Vic were all champions, as was his cousin Lex.  Brother Ian, a future proficient Carlton winger, could wreak havoc with his ruthless hitting, whilst his father Wils, a fellow ‘Hall of Famer’, had a peerless record and scored over 10,000 WDCA runs.

Yet Wils and Peter were poles apart in the rudiments of batting. Peter, stylish and playing through the lines, was a conventional stroke-player. Wils, more rough-hewn, relied on a superb eye to plunder the bowling. But both shared an appetite for runs which produced monumental results.

The story is told of Wils, striding to the crease at Country Week, looking like he’d hastily changed after a tiresome day on the farm. Trousers tucked into black socks, well-worn pads offering scant protection. And carrying a single, spiked batting glove.

There was collective derision from the fielding side. Someone sneered: “Get a look at this yokel will ya !” It was just loud enough for the ‘yokel’ to hear, and store in his memory bank.

After a commanding knock,  during which he’d taken toll of a highly-rated attack, he quickly departed, in search of a relaxing ‘roll-your-own’ as his method of winding down.

Peter, to the contrary was all sophistication , replete with  finely-tailored creams and the most up-to-date equipment.

He was just 13 when he lined up alongside Wils in the Whorouly side. Two years later he was hailed as a prodigy when he shared a 240-run opening partnership with his father. His contribution was 104.

He was one of the youngest-ever Country Week players when selected that year. A season later he was representing a Wangaratta team against the visiting Victorians. It was all very heady stuff for the lad, but he handled a Shield attack with aplomb.

“Ian Meckiff routed the remaining bats, although young Peter Nicoll provided stubborn  resistance with a fine innings of 17. He certainly justified his selection and played a fine array of shots to score his runs”, said the Chronicle reporter of the day.

Peter headed to Melbourne , where he spent a couple of seasons with Richmond. To the surprise of most WDCA followers, who rated him an excellent chance of playing District Firsts, his time was spent in the Seconds and Thirds, with a Third XI Batting average and a top score of 99* being the highlight.

Employment as a livestock agent took him away from Whorouly for a period. He represented Mansfield at Country Week on three occasions whilst working in the town and he had spells at Ariah Park and Wagga in the early seventies. But for 27 seasons he was one of the cornerstones of a usually-strong Whorouly line-up.

Besides his formidable batting he adopted another string to his bow, as a medium-pace swing bowler. He was under-estimated in this role, but showed accuracy and guile to trouble the best of batsmen.

Nicoll enjoyed an excellent season in 1967/68, scoring three centuries and taking out the Chronicle Trophy. But he would probably rank ‘71/72 among his most enjoyable. It was a season of one-day games and he totalled 623 runs, finished runner-up in the Chronicle Trophy and played in his first Whorouly premiership.

He had scored 114 not out in the final-round and played a lovely hand of 46 to help the Maroons defeat Tarrawingee in the semi-final. He then hammered a top-class United attack to the tune of 116 not out to assist in knocking off the hot favourites in the Final. Some people rate this as his finest and most disciplined innings, but then again, any of his other 11 WDCA ‘tons’ could rival that honour.

Nicoll played in two other premierships with Whorouly – 1974/75 and 1981/82, but figured in four losing Finals.

His name was regularly thrown up when representative fixtures came around and he was selected for two international games. The first, against England at Euroa in 1965 was washed out, but he opened the batting against the West Indies at the Showgrounds in 1969, defying the pacemen Wesley Hall and Richard Edwards for more than half an hour, for 13.

Nicoll was a permanent fixture at Melbourne Country Week and his 17 trips as part of the Wangaratta team spanned 26 years. Only Max Bussell, Clem Fisher and Barry Grant  made more journeys down the highway for the best country cricket around.

He was always a vital part of the upper-order, with his highest score, a breezy 86, helping Wang to defeat Ballarat in 1966. In his last innings, at Coburg in 1985, he promised the boys, on heading through the gate, that he would ‘turn it on’ for them. True to his word , his 69, against Colac ,was a classy swansong. In latter years his bowling at Melbourne had  also proved invaluable,

There were few more recognisable players in local cricket than “Holly”. His competitive nature was a vital part of his make-up. There’s no doubt that occasional sparring sessions with opponents may have rubbed some of them up the wrong way.

But he gave great service to Whorouly in his 286 games and the stark statistics of 7561 runs and 466 wickets speak for themselves. So does his record with the WDCA – 17 Country Week trips and 50 North-East Cup games.

His prowess as a footballer often faded because of his cricket achievements. But he was an aggressive, strong defender, who starred in key position roles with Myrtleford during the sixties.

The Nicoll residence borders the Whorouly oval and if the present-day merged Ovens Valley side happen to be playing there he usually sidles up to peruse the state of the game . Old-time cricket watchers would say that , when he was in his pomp, there was no more attractive sight than watching “Holly” unveiling  his repertoire of shots.