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……..
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.
“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……..”
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.
“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….”
“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…….
“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.
“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.”
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…..
“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………”
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………..”