‘SO NEAR……AND YET, SO FAR…..’

Fraser Ellis has, for some time, been touted as one of Wangaratta’s hottest sporting prospects.

He earned a reputation last year, for being able to shut down some of Ovens and Murray Football’s gun on-ballers. His disciplined play, whilst still being able to pick up possessions, was commendable for an 18 year-old.

But his cricket star has been on the rise for several years; ever since he won selection in an Australian Under 16 side which played against a Pakistani touring team in 2015.IMG_4018

As a pace bowler with a rhythmic bowling action and the ability to do a bit with the ball, there’s no doubt that talent scouts have had him earmarked for big things…………..

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2018/19 has been a relatively lean year with the ball, though, for the well-proportioned, blonde-haired speedster.

In the home-and-away rounds he took 18 wickets; at Melbourne Country Week he claimed just one victim – hardly stats befitting a brilliant up-and-comer……..

Yesterday, in warm conditions, under a smoky sky, on a fairly unresponsive wicket and a lightning outfield, Ellis proved the match-winner for his club, City Colts.

His 6/38 off 19 overs diverted a thrilling Semi-Final in Colts’ favour after 520 pendulum-swinging minutes of play.

From the second ball of the opening day, when Rovers-United’s inspiration, Jacob Schonafinger enticed Colts’ leftie Ollie Willet into tickling one to second slip, tension gripped O’Callaghan Oval.

The Hawks were at long-odds pre-match, as their form had been patchy and they’d had to cope with a few late-season absentees from their line-up……Colts, on the other hand, finished well-clear on top of the ladder and were hoping to take the next step towards expunging the demons which have haunted them since their only WDCA flag in 1986/87…………

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But first, after winning the toss, lay ahead the task of building a reasonable total.

It looked in some doubt after they plunged to 2/1, when medium-pacer Paul Szeligiewicz stretched his bulky frame onto the turf and clutched a return catch from Englishman Tom Jones.

Mitch Giggins and the veteran skipper Kent Braden, who has pulled his side out of countless tight spots like this, then got to work in restoring order.

But it was hard yakka, as Schonafinger, in particular, was bowling with vim, with offie Joe Thomas and the lively Paddy McNamara lending support.

It was the 16 year-old left-armer McNamara who achieved the next break when he clean-bowled Giggins for 30.

Braden attempted to attack against Thomas, who, he no doubt believed, posed a threat to his lower-order, but he mis-timed a lofted on-drive off Schonafinger, and was picked up at mid-on for 48.

The run-rate, as it proved throughout, was pedestrian, and when Colts crept to 8/117, the game was wide open.

The useful Mitch Howe was the principal figure in navigating them through that crisis, to a competitive 164, with his unbeaten knock of 33.

Jon Hyde (3/25) took the bowling honours, but Schonafinger (2/36 off 22), McNamara (2/27) and Szeligiewicz (2/30) had their moments. Thomas, coming off an eight-wicket haul, toiled valiantly, but went wicket-less. It just wasn’t big Joe’s day…….IMG_3132

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The odds were still stacked in Colts’ favour when the Hawk openers, Luke and Matthew Whitten broached the crease on Day 2.

But their start was highly-promising. They had raced to 27 in quick time, prompting enthusiastic chatter among the Hawk camp.IMG_4019

It was Ellis who drew first blood, having Matt snapped up in slip by Ollie Willett.

Then, putting an exclamation mark on that dismissal, he enticed dependable veteran Jon Hyde into the slightest of nicks, towards the waiting gloves of Mitch Giggins.

Suddenly the Hawks were in disarray. They crumbled to 5/38 and it appeared that the game may be terminated well before tea, as Ellis with four wickets and his fellow quick Dylan Adams (one) scythed through the upper-order.

Enter Gagabadawatta Arachilage Lakprija Waruna Shantha, otherwise known as ‘Lucky’, the most technically proficient batsman in the Rovers-United- Bruck camp and their saviour on many an occasion.

Lucky’s suffering from a dicey back these days; hence his decision to hand over the wicket-keeping gloves, and drop down the order for the Hawks.

Luke Whitten had, by now, begun striking the Kookaburra with his old proficiency, after a rather lean season figures-wise. The pair recognised the massive responsibility that had befallen them and batted with caution against a now-rampaging Colts attack.

Someone mentioned, after they’d been together an hour or so, that if they could add 50 or so, it might be line-ball. I felt they needed to extend the score well past 100 for the Hawks to be an even-money chance.

Lucky was favoured by the odd short ball which he dispatched to the boundary in emphatic fashion with his favourite pull shot.

The pair were now well-set, and when tea was taken, RUB sat on a rather more comfortable 5/102.

Kent Braden was by now wheeling down a deadly-accurate variation of offies and medium-pacers and had helped drag the run-rate back to a stage where overs and time were becoming a factor.

The mood in the field was sombre. A wicket was desperately required. Both batsmen had passed fifty, but you sensed that the classy Sri Lankan was in discomfort. Soon after they were applauded for the century-stand, which had taken the Hawks to a position of superiority, at 5/139, Lucky fended a delivery through to the keeper Giggins.

His departure, after a magnificent knock of 54, left RUB needing 26 runs to win, at a little under three runs per over.

Easy enough, you’d say, but the pressure of finals shouldn’t be discounted, particularly when young, inexperienced players are thrust into the cauldren.

The wickets again began to tumble. It was the still lively Ellis, in his third spell, who captured two of them.

But amidst this Luke Whitten soldiered on. It was now obvious that if the Hawks were to win, he’d be the man to take them there.

At 9/150, with 15 still needed for an upset victory, Whitten was joined by Paul Szeligiewicz, who, it would be fair to say, is yet to be classified in the all-rounder category.

The target dwindled down to 11, then Whitten punched a beautiful boundary, which brought a roar from a portion of the crowd. Successive leg glances produced two runs. Suddenly, the equation was – three to win, two overs remaining.IMG_2923

Sounds simple, but again, don’t discount the pressure…….

On the first ball of the penultimate over, the unlikely combination attempted a run which would have had even Usain Bolt stretching for the line.

Big Paulie was caught short, and so were his side – three runs shy of victory.

A game which had ebbed and flowed and produced a magnificent contest, had ended in heart-break for the Hawks.

There were a few heroes, not the least Luke Whitten, who carried his bat to finish with 68 in a 262-minute innings, in which he faced 229 balls.

A fascinating sidelight of the game was the display of several young players, which, in my opinion, again emphasises that Wangaratta cricket is alive and well………IMG_4020

ANOTHER NAIL-BITER AT THE GARDENS OVAL….

One of the quirkier characters of Benalla cricket is a rough-hewn gentleman called ‘Staff’, who operates the score-board at the Gardens Oval.

Thankfully, the Benalla players are well-used to his mannerisms and have learned to turn a deaf ear to the constant barrage of advice and encouragement that he proffers, in between arguing with those in close proximity about the accuracy of his work.

He was in full-flight yesterday, as he attempted to guide the Bushrangers home in a tense clash against Rovers-United-Bruck……

It was an intriguing encounter. The number of times the pendulum swung was enough to drive the average supporter to drink – and I’m sure that explains why ‘Staff’ had to sneak away a couple times during the afternoon to fortify himself…….
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The action started early, when the Hawks – who had been sent in – lost their openers, Luke and Matt Whitten in quick succession.

The younger of the duo, who has been in fine touch of late, with three half-centuries to his name, was sent packing when he nicked one off the lively Dale Stratton. Whitten, the elder, had preceded him – also edging behind. The visitors were 2/3, and the alarm bells were ringing. Neither batsman had troubled the scorers.

Co-captains Jordan Blades and Jacob Schonafinger appeared set on retrieving the situation, but Blades became Connor Brodie’s second victim. It was 3/22 and the quicks were right on top.IMG_3823

The visitors seemed to be imploding, and the loss of the reliable Schonafinger for 19 was a crushing blow. It only got worse – ‘Staff’ took great delight in bringing the scoreboard up to date after four quick wickets had tumbled – the score was 7/48…….

The two super-veterans of the side then came together in an eighth-wicket stand that brought the game to life. Lucky Perera decided on attack from the moment he reached the crease and, by so doing, wrested the initiative from the Bushrangers.

He and the dynamic Jon Hyde sent the run-rate scarping and took advantage of the fact that Benalla’s new-ball bowlers Stratton and Brodie had used up all of their eight overs.

The hosts were bemoaning the absence of a couple of their key back-ups. They relied on spinners Lee Brennan -who extracted huge turn from the track – and Ryan Lloyd-Williams, in a vain attempt to keep the rampant Hawks in check.IMG_3819

‘Lucky’ survived a clumsy catching attempt at backward square-leg, when he mistimed a sweep shot. It was to prove a crucial moment in the game. Shortly after, he produced a classic on-drive which sailed into the plane trees at the Rotunda-end of the ground.

Hyde, who looked scratchy early, discovered some of his rare touch, and deftly produced three boundaries in one over from Nathan Abley.

Resultantly, the Hawks had not only arrested a snail-like run-rate, but  scored with abandon. The 81-run stand between the pair came in just 49 minutes. but there were signs that ‘Lucky’s’ back injury was causing him some stress, and it came as no surprise when he holed out off Lloyd-Williams for 44.

Paddy McNamara, providing valuable support, helped Hyde reach his half-century. They added a further 39, before ‘Billy’ fell for a well-made 54.

The Hawks were satisfied with their eventual 9/174, particularly the lanky Paddy, who, with an undefeated 17, posted his highest A-Grade score.

“A handy total,” I suggested to a Benalla fan at the break. “Yeah” he replied, “but the Gardens has never been quicker. We scored 170-odd against Colts a few weeks ago and they ended with 200 in their 40 overs.”

So obviously, this was a game that was still up for grabs.

And when James Carboon and Ash Ellis set off after the target, it’s size seemed to shrink markedly. They had effortlessly cruised to 31 in just seven overs when, out of the blue, paceman Paul Szeligievicz got one through Carboon’s defences.

That was  the only encouragement the Hawks were to have for quite some time, though. The dashing left-hander Ellis was composed, and his stylish batting was a treat.
He took toll of Jon Hyde and belted four boundaries in two overs, prompting the diminutive medium-pacer to be removed from the attack.

The Hawks threw the ball to James McIntyre, who was bowling for the first time in senior ranks, and debutant left-armer Tyler Norton. Both strutted their stuff and showed promise, but were unable to make an impact.

Simon Holmes, one of Benalla’s finest batsmen of the modern era, was back in the side after missing two seasons through a serious eye injury. The stocky leftie was soon middling them and provided good support to Ellis, as the pair progressed to 87 at drinks.
88 to win, with nine wickets in hand, 20 overs to get them. It seemed an impregnable position for the home team.

But the game swung on its ear in a trice.

McNamara, the enthusiastic left-armer, had proved the most economical of the bowlers, conceding just 11 runs in his first 4 overs, but he struck a telling blow when he skittled classy Ellis for 59. IMG_3818

Wicket-keeper-turned off-spinner Lucky Perera Made further inroads when he had Holmes caught for 19, and five balls later dismissed Lee Brennan for a duck.

McNamara, who was now in full cry, captured two more wickets in his next over. The Bushies had now lost 5 wickets for two runs.

But again, it was Benalla’s turn to mount a rearguard action. Nathan Abley and Josh McCullum proceeded to steady things, then set a cracking pace, as they added 60 for the seventh-wicket.

The game was now theirs to lose.

They needed just 21 runs; still had four wickets in hand.

In a make-or-break move, the ball was again thrown to part-timer Perera. It was felt that the game may be decided on what happened next.

Again Lucky did the trick. Abley, on 38, slammed one back and was dismissed caught and bowled; a brilliant reflex catch.IMG_3821

Then McCullum fell with no addition to the score – out for 22.

Moments later, Dale Stratton was found short of his crease following a smart Schonafinger return.

Benalla had lost 3 for 1. Their two batting ‘hiccups’ had amounted to the loss of eight wickets for three runs.

Just 14 runs short of their target, and still not without a chance, Connor Brodie hoiked a shot into the deep, giving Jordan Blades a short run to complete the catch and effect a memorable victory for the Hawks.

McNamara, one of the team’s five ‘babies’ sent down 6.4 overs to finish with the figures of 4/16 and continue his improvement. Perera snagged 3/17 off his 4 overs.IMG_3817

With youngsters Matt Whitten, McNamara and Bailey Dale all enjoying fine seasons, and Bailey Annett, Jimmy McIntyre and Tyler Norton sure to continue their improvement,  the smiles  are back on the faces of the Hawk clan………..IMG_3822N.B: With thanks to Peter Whitten for Photography.

‘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

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 ……..

‘THE SNOWMAN…..’

Ben Derrick’s sole cricket premiership came in March 1990.

He was just 16 when he and his twin brother Chris played starring roles in Rovers-United’s C-Grade flag win over Magpies.

As his sporting career veered off in a completely different trajectory from that point on, it would be understandable if his passion for the game had dwindled.

“Far from it,” he says. ” I’ve always been a cricket tragic. In fact, when you rang I was logged onto Cricinfo, catching up on Australia’s opening tour match against the Indian X1.”…….

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Competing on the world’s most famous snow slopes against the cream of international skiers, seems light years away for a lad who was once making his way as an all-rounder in the lower grades of Wangaratta cricket.

But in truth, Ben’s family heritage decreed that his future lay in skiing.

The Derricks have been long-term farmers at Boweya – a tiny hamlet which is negotiated via a brief 15-minute jaunt over the Warby Ranges. It’s renowned as good sheep and cropping country – but hardly, you would say, the archetypical launching-pad for the career of one of Australia’s finest cross-country skiers.

Ben and Chris were brought up in and around the Wangaratta Ski Club.

Their inspiration was an uncle, Charlie Derrick, a dual Victorian Langlauf champion, who is still commemorated for his deeds and – in particular – for a feat of endurance which he undertook 50-odd years ago :

He headed off at 5 o’clock one morning, in an attempt to become the first person to ski non-stop from Mt.Bogong to Mt.Hotham in a day.

It was a monumental challenge. He needed to cover a 62km course that climbed almost nine thousand feet.

Disregarding the notoriously fickle weather and the blinding rain which began to pelt down about midday, Charlie’s determination was such that he decided against seeking shelter. What was turning into a blizzard became progressively worse, making visibility poor and the snow sluggish.

Near the top of Mary’s Slide – in darkness – and only 10 minutes from the inhabited Rolla Hut on Mount Hotham, he collapsed.

When his body was discovered the next morning his skis were found 400m away.

He had missed his goal by one kilometre.

The Charlie Derrick Cross-Country event was instituted in his honour the following year . Ben is chuffed to have taken it out on several occasions…………

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“Skiing’ s an individual sport,” says Ben. “In fact I’m a little bit envious of Chris, who was able to pursue his cricket ambitions and played in the Canberra A-Grade competition for many years.”

“He developed into an accurate medium-pace swing bowler and, although he never actually got a game, was a member of the Canberra Comets squad which contested the Mercantile Mutual national one-day series during the nineties.”

“The level of work that’s required to reach the top in skiing is mind-boggling,” he explains. “I was probably a bit fortunate that my body could cope with the physical requirements and that I was able to recover well.”

“Cross-country skiing is brutal. I’d liken it to competing in one-day bike races.”img_2791

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Ben was recognised as Australia’s number one junior in 1992, and competed in the World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic the following year. He broke into the Australian Senior team in 1994 and held his place for the next 12 years. From 1999 onwards, he was ranked the nation’s top skier.

He must surely have been at his peak in 2000, when he cleaned up Australian titles in the 10km Classic, 15km Freestyle and 42km Freestyle events. He also won his first Kangaroo Hoppet and finished a close second in Canada’s Keskinada Loppet, the first time an Aussie had placed in a Northern Hemisphere Loppet event.

It earned him the gong as Australia’s Cross-Country Skier of the Year.

Surely, I ponder, he must have been dead unlucky to miss selection in at least one Olympic Games squad.img_2790

“I was pretty close a couple of times,” he says. ” I finished 57th in a field of about 100 in the World Titles in Finland – three spots behind the reigning World champ. Had I beaten him, I would probably have been selected at the 2006 Turin Games. It was really an antiquated selection system and it has now been changed.”

Being named in two ‘Shadow’ Olympic squads was some consolation, but his overall record is pretty darned impressive.

With 16 National titles to his name and having contested four World Championships, he has skied in around 25 countries.

“I missed out on Japan,” he says. “I’d have loved to compete there.”

One of his career highlights was his performance in the 50km Konig-Ludwig Lauf marathon at the German resort, Oberammergan in 2004.

Here’s a brief excerpt and a fantastic insight to the race, through Ben’s eyes:

“……I have prepared well for this, even pedantically….For about a week I have been thinking of little else ……I just want the gun to go and get out of here……Finally -BANG! The gate goes up and I move as fast as I can……The race is a mass of sprinting skiers………..”

“The first 5km undulate slightly up and down the valley. The pace is on. The lead pack becomes 30, then 25, then 20……….”

“We rotate the lead for the next 10km. The pack becomes three and I’m feeling pretty strong…..”

“The last 15km are dead flat and skiers require a high threshold. This is my forte and I crank it up. My entire focus becomes the two skiers in front of me……..With 6km to go – ‘trouble’!  Cramps in my legs. I move to the front and try to look strong. Luckily the cramps ease a little…….”

“One km to go. We are all getting edgy because we have all busted ourselves for 50km and know the race will be decided a few metres from the line……Roelli moves ahead with 300m to go. We are near the stadium, the crowd is going crazy and we are smoking. I can’t look behind but I know Stitzl is there somewhere. Everything starts to burn. We turn into the final straight. Four lanes and 100m to go…..”

“I move as fast as I can…..Roelli isn’t getting any closer. I think he’s got it. I can sense a skier on my right….Noooooo….There’s the line, come on hamstrings and luuuunnnngggggeee……Second. Yeee-haaaa!!!!……”

“All three of us are mobbed by people…It seems like the last two hours of intense focus and determination are over in a heart-beat with one mad sprint…………”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Ben has also taken out 4 Kangaroo Hoppet titles. The race, which is held annually at Fall’s Creek is a 42km test of endurance, and is part of the Worldloppet series. He is now the Race Director of the event.

“I can tell you, it’s a lot easier to win it than organise it,” he says.

He is now employed as the Director of Economic Development and Land Management at Fall’s Creek – a role which manages to combine his love of the environment and ties in with his sporting passion.img_2792

Ben has managed to sneak in a few games of cricket in the Wodonga Association ( now CAW) with Mount Beauty, but, with a lot of time constraints, has been unable to commit regularly.   Chris, who moved to the town seven years ago, has also played on and off over the years, and appeared in a couple of A-Grade games this season.

It’s been a fascinating journey for the boy from Boweya. I’d vote for him as Rovers-United’s finest sporting export…………..