“FOND FAREWELL TO LEX & LES….LEGENDS OF THE PAST…. “

Fond memories flash by when sporting legends shuffle off this mortal coil…….

Two champions of North-East sport were farewelled recently,……. I was fortunate enough to have a seat in the bleachers when both of them were strutting their stuff.

One snubbed his nose at the inequities that life dealt him, to become a champion batsman for Whorouly – and beyond ………the other was a boyhood prodigy who scaled football’s heights and was a formidable figure during Euroa’s unprecedented era of cricket success ……

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Lex Nicoll was one of nature’s gentleman – and a true optimist.

He needed to be, to cope with the obstacles that were to confront him throughout his life.

He went to his first cricket Country Week with Ovens and King at the age of 14, and was undaunted by opening the batting. As a member of the famous Nicoll family much was expected of him, but he was a talent, to be sure……

He was just 20 when selected at full forward in Whorouly’s football semi-Final team of 1951. It was to be the biggest game of his life and he was nervously excited on match-eve, despite having been off-colour for a few days.

He woke up with a splitting head-ache, the worst he’d ever had. His mother suggested he pull out……No, Lex replied….. he didn’t want to let anyone down.

He kicked a few goals and the experts said he played pretty well in the win over Milawa, but the headaches just wouldn’t go away.

He ended up in Hospital a few days later, gasping for breath, with machines whirring, nurses scurrying around, and a doctor with a furrowed brow diagnosing him.

Sorry, they informed him, but polio has attacked your immune system. You’re lucky to be alive…….

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So the medicos gave him the cruel news that the polio had affected muscles in both legs and it was unlikely that he’d play sport again.

He set about proving them wrong.

At first he could hardly walk half a dozen paces, but kept working at it. He was resigned to wearing callipers on both legs but, as time rolled on, slowly improved his mobility.

He even got to have a hit on the makeshift wicket his dad had made on the family farm, learning to improvise with his stroke-play, despite his physical impediment.

The day that things turned around for him came when a Sub-District team made its annual Easter visit to play Whorouly. Lex was put in at number 11.

“I was as nervous as could be, “ he once said. “A fast bowler was operating and sent down a few deliveries that were half rat-power. I walked up to him at the end of the over and said to him on the side: ‘Either flat-out or not all.’ “

“He started to let a few go, and I knew then that I’d be okay to play the next season. It changed my life, knowing that I’d be able to turn out regularly for Whorouly.”

He came back to WDCA cricket mid-way through the 1954-55 season using a runner, and was forced to do so for the remainder of his career. Opposition clubs were pleased to see him participating, and it became an accepted part of the game.

He developed a fine repertoire of shots ( particularly on the off-side ), hit the ball with power and had an excellent defence. In short, he became pretty darned difficult to dismiss, batting at number 3. He fielded at first slip and occasionally bowled spin off two paces.

Lex scored seven WDCA centuries, and once shared a stand of 252 with a cousin, Peter, and a record fifth-wicket stand of 302 for the fifth wicket with another cousin, Ian.

He made five trips to Melbourne Country Week, but the highlight of his career came in 1957/58, when he won selection in a North-East representative team which played the touring South Australian Sheffield Shield side.

It was a star-studded line-up, and it proved to be a tight contest. Nicoll handled tear-away quicks Peter Trethewey and Alan Hitchcock, then contended with ex-Test spinner Bruce Dooland.

He hung around to stabilise the innings and finished with 30 out of a total of 195, in reply to the Croweaters’ total of 150.

Some people joked that Lex got it easy, with a runner doing the hard work for him, but he said it sometimes backfired. He was run out three of the four times he batted one year at Country Week.

Life continued to treat him harshly in latter years. He lost his wife Jill; had a bingle on a motor-bike which knocked him around a bit, then his house burned down, along with all of his belongings.

What irked him a bit, he reckoned, was that he lost his treasured 1957 Country Week-winning blazer and a favourite, trusty old cricket bat.

About seven years ago, Lex suffered yet another setback. He was rounding up cattle on his quad bike…….the bike flipped……and the next thing he remembered was waking up in an Ambulance, on the way to Wangaratta Hospital.

That’s life, he said…….There are people a lot worse off than me………

A fortnight ago, he passed away, aged 90……..

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Lex Nicoll crossed paths with Les Reed in some of the titanic North-East Cup cricket battles that raged between Wangaratta and Euroa in the late fifties-early sixties.

Reed has long been hailed as one of Euroa’s sporting legends.

He hadn’t quite turned 16 when he was thrust from junior ranks, to make his senior football debut with the WNEFL Magpies in 1948.

Three years later, word filtered through to Geelong that the talented winger/mid-fielder was worth having a look at. His arrival at Kardinia Park couldn’t have been more perfectly-timed, as the Cats were building a powerful line-up under the coaching of the great Reg Hickey.

He had a sniff of senior football in the opening two games of 1951, but was then promptly dropped to the Reserves.

“I thought I was terrible,” he later reflected on his initial taste of the big-time. “ It was just too quick for me.”

Some fine form in the Reserves saw him return in time for the Second Semi-Final…………A fortnight later, in his fourth VFL game, his boyhood dreams were realised when he was part of Geelong’s 11-point win over Essendon in the Grand Final.

Named as 19th man, he replaced defender Loy Stewart early in the final quarter, and was handed the task of blanketing Bombers’ coach Dick Reynolds for the remainder of the game.

“Dick was an old man at that stage of his career, and slowing up a bit; I was young and energetic, but not as smart as him. I couldn’t have been more relieved when the siren blew, and we’d won the flag,” he said years later.

Reed played in 17 of the Cats’ run of 23 consecutive wins ( still an AFL/VFL record ) during 1952-53 , but missed out on being a member of their ‘52 premiership side.

He returned to favour mid-way through the next season, and figured in his 25th – and final – VFL game, the 1953 Grand Final, in which Geelong lowered their colours to Collingwood.

He’d already decided to return home to Euroa, to work at a sawmill with his dad, Tom.

So he embarked on the second of his five stints with the Black and Whites. He took over as captain-coach in 1955 ( aged 23 ), winning the WNEFL Best & Fairest and leading Euroa to the Grand Final, where they were pipped by Mansfield.

Two other identities with whom he was to have a close connection, were involved with the Magpies that year: Harry Alexander, the former Test fast bowler, was President, and Ray MacLaine was the Club’s Best & Fairest ……….

Les had a handful of footy sabbaticals from his beloved Euroa He spent three seasons ( 49 games) at Benalla, coached Violet Town In 1968 and ‘85 ( 30 games ), and played 54 games with Geelong West.

His 150-plus games with the Magpies were highlighted by three flags (1964, ‘65 and ‘67 ). He coached their Thirds in 1961,( and for several years in the seventies ). He led the Reserves in 1980 and had another term as non-playing coach of the Seniors in 1986.

His playing football career wound down on the eve of Euroa’s entry to the Goulburn Valley League, in 1971…………………..

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Ray MacLaine and Les Reed had grown up together, and shared many of Euroa’s great sporting moments. Besides their footy prowess, they were at the forefront when the EDCA strode the cricketing heights.

Reed regarded MacLaine as his cricketing twin, and the finest bowler with whom he’d been involved…….

One of their many shared cricketing honours came when they were named in the Victorian Country XI, which clashed with South Africa, at Benalla, in December 1963.

Reed came to the crease after the loss of three early wickets, and was immediately on the attack:

“…..He cracked the first four of the day with a delightfully-executed late cut. Peter Pollock reacted violently to this, and rocked down successive short, rising deliveries to the keeper-batsman……Unperturbed, he hit the next ball for three……Eventually though, Reed, who had delighted the crowd with his entertaining batting, was removed, for 30, by medium-pacer Joe Partridge….” the match report said.

MacLaine and Reed were named captain and vice-captain respectively, for the eagerly-awaited Vic Country match against the touring Englishmen, at Euroa in 1965, which didn’t eventuate because of rain.

The pair were automatic selections in rep matches in the area, and were obviously the guiding lights for a number of EDCA youngsters who comprised their side in the sixties.

Players such as Brian Hayes, the Brodie brothers, Mick Hill, Peter O’Donoghue, Billy Sargood, Colin and Rod Ferguson and Gary Mackrell helped to take Euroa to the top in North-East and Country Week Cricket.

Reed was skipper when the tiny town of a touch over 3,000 people achieved its greatest triumph, taking out Melbourne Country Week’s Provincial crown in 1967.

A convincing win over Wangaratta maintained a run of success over their arch rivals. Two years later, they were again due to renew the fireworks in the Country Week Final, but this time rain intervened and Euroa was declared the winner, by dint of superior percentage.

Reed was a stylish stroke-maker, lightning with the gloves, and ultra-competitive. He had a knack of getting under an opponent’s skin with a subtle sledge here and there.

One Wangaratta batsman, though, recalls being on the other end of a piece of his reverse psychology, as he tentatively prodded at off-spinner Brian Hayes.

“You’re going well, young fellah. But don’t be frightened to leave the crease when you’re playing him…He doesn’t turn it much, you know,”

“That’s generous of him to take an interest in a young player like that,” thought the batsman. A few balls later, he heeded the advice, was stranded, and turned, to see Reed gleefully removing the bails.

Les Reed made his first Club century in 1949, and his last in the mid-seventies. He was a Member of Euroa Football Club’s Team of the Century, a Life Member of the Football Club and Cricket Association and a two-time Euroa Bowls Club champion.

He fought a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s Disease, and died on May 25th,, aged 88…….

“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.

 

TOP-LEVEL CRICKET TANTALISES A BOY FROM THE BUSH.

Most of us never get close to living the sporting dream.

Burdened by mediocrity, restrained by self-doubt, impeded by a lack of motivation, we can only imagine what it must be like to reach the pinnacle of our sport of choice.

Others, who have toiled diligently, yet remained on the periphery of the elite level, just need a lucky break.

And that’s what came Paul Broster’s way in 1995.

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Long-term local fans fondly remember the Broster cricket dynasty. Paul’s grand-father, Alec, was a devoted servant of WDCA club Tarrawingee for many years.

Possessed of a stylish technique, he was renowned as one of the area’s toughest batsmen to dislodge. Alec was used to playing the sheet anchor-role to guide Tarra through many a crisis and, by necessity, became somewhat of a grafter.

His son Graham inherited his correctness, but was more forceful and had an expansive repertoire of shots. He used them to great effect in a decorated 34-year career, which yielded close on 10,000 runs.

Graham had played alongside his father, and, towards the end of his time in the game, was joined in the Whorouly side by his two sons, Paul and Nathan.

Graham tells of the day that he decided to pull the pin. He was fielding in the covers, aged 49:

“The ball got hit to me and my team-mates were yelling out ‘Bros…Bros….it’s yours.’ I just put my hands up in the air, but I had no idea where it was. It came through and hit me on the shins. As you get older your reflexes go and I knew there and then it was time to give it away.”

Appropriate, because it coincided with Paul starting to make his way through District ranks with Collingwood. Graham and his wife Barb were able to chart his progress.

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Paul’s talent was identified early on. A classy left-hand batsman and left-arm finger spinner, he once scored a record, unbeaten 233 in a North-East Colts match against Wodonga, a knock which included 34 boundaries.

His father scored 11 WDCA ‘tons’, but was probably prouder of the 103 that his eldest son made against Wangaratta, which began a stint of heavy scoring and alerted those in the know to his obvious ability.

He followed the normal elite pathway – O &M Schoolboys, Dowling Shield, Victorian Under 17’s and Under 19’s and the VIS .

When he moved to the city to study Radiotherapy he joined Collingwood and made steady progress in the lower grades.

A knee injury that he sustained playing football resulted in a reconstruction and cost him a full season, so when he broke into the Collingwood senior team in 1993, he was eager to make a decent fist of his crack at District cricket.

But he was really struggling for touch the following year. “Just before the Christmas break I thought I might be close to getting dropped to the seconds,” he recalled.

He’d totalled just 95 runs for the season when it all came together. He scored  88 against Footscray and began a run of form which led to a sensational finals series.

He scored 109 and took 2/35 against Northcote in the semi-final and hammered an impressive 134 in the Final against Melbourne.

You’d think that this contribution, in a total of 306 would put your side in the box-seat to clinch the flag. But no, Melbourne, thanks to 123 from Dean Jones, passed them with three wickets down.

Paul received the VCA’s Player of the Finals Award, which was little consolation for the pain of defeat.

The thing about making a couple of centuries under the focus and pressure of finals was that people started to talk about him being odds-on to make the State Squad.

“I didn’t really take much notice of that”, he said. But sure enough, he was included in the squad and gained selection in a 15-man team to play a couple of one-day games against New Zealand in Darwin, in October 1995.

“I’d never spoken to half of the blokes. There were a couple that I’d never seen. It was rather daunting”.

It had been quite a journey. Only four years or so earlier he had been playing in the idyllic surrounds of his home oval at Whorouly, with cattle grazing on nearby paddocks.

Now he was acquainting himself with a new set of team-mates. Some of them, like Shane Warne, Dean Jones, Matthew Elliott, Brad Hodge and Damien Fleming, were household names.

After scoring a brisk 30-odd in the first game against the Kiwis, the fledgling Broster was provided with an acid test by Jones, the Victorian skipper.

He was thrown in at the deep-end the next day and asked to open. “Let’s see what the kid’s made of ,” said Jones, aware that there was a vacancy at the top of the order.

Paul responded with a dashing 114, including 14 boundaries.

He had as good as cemented a spot for the opening Sheffield Shield match, to be held at the ‘Gabba a couple of weeks later.

“I was excited, but nervous”, he says of his Shield debut. “There were kids running around getting autographs. Not mine, but Warney’s and Paul Reiffel’s and here I was, sitting with these blokes”.

“You just don’t realise how different it is until you’re there. And, as for the cricket, it was a step up in standard. You’re just expected to be almost perfect in everything you do.”

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As dramatic as Paul’s ascension to the upper echelon had been, it was over in the blink of an eye.

He never really got settled in his first Shield innings against Queensland, making 8 in 33 balls, before succumbing to ex-Victorian spinner Paul Jackson.

A fortnight later, against New South Wales at the MCG, he scored 5 and a more promising 22 in the Vics’ emphatic loss. He did okay in a couple of interstate one-dayers, but it was obvious that, after a poor start to the season, the selectors were keen to make changes.

Paul felt the brunt of the selection axe and was destined never to return to Shield cricket……….

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He continued to churn out runs and claim wickets in District ranks on a consistent basis, but was unable to turn the 30’s and 40’s he was making, into the big scores that would again bring him under notice.

He played in another two Grand Finals with the merged Camberwell-Magpies, which both ended in disappointment. But he could be highly satisfied with his 8 years and 124 games with the ‘Pies, which had yielded 3216 runs and 115 wickets.

Paul missed out on playing with his younger brother Nathan, who made his senior debut at Camberwell in 2001/02 and went on to play 40 senior games.

By this stage his body was starting to let him down, even though he  finished fifth in the  Ryder Medal in 2000/01. So he rounded out his career with four successful seasons at Sub-District club Spotswood. He was captain for two years and won the batting average on three occasions..

“I was reluctant to retire, but my knee, shoulder and hammy were playing up. It was time to move on with life,” he says.

Paul is now Sales Manager for Siemens Healthcare and retains a fervent interest in the game which, for a few weeks, tantalised him at the highest level.

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N.B: Paul Broster was the Wangaratta & District Cricket Association’s first  Sheffield Shield representative in its, then, 102-year history.

Ashley Gilbert followed when he was capped against Tasmania in 1999. Former Rutherglen leg-spinner Josh Mangan played four Shield games for West Australia in 2008 and 2009.