‘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