An Australian Cricket Season
As the spring rains cleared and the days warmed, the nets and ovals of the nation once more echoed with the crack of ball on willow, the shattering of stumps, and the creak of middle-aged backs and footballers’ knees.
Then as now, the Australian cricket season ran from roughly mid-spring (the end of September) to the end of autumn (usually at Easter in early April). As each season spanned two calendar years, they are labelled as a composite – 1938/39 represents the season spanning September 1938 to April 1939.
Groundsmen and their horses worked to repair the damage of winter caused by rain, the lack of sunshine, and the boots of footballers. The weekly cycle of the season usually began in September and gathered pace through the summer, punctuated by breaks at Christmas and New Year, then Australia Day (also called Foundation Day) in late January, and then through February and March, into the seemingly inevitable rains of Easter. Then the football boots went on again, and the Great Cycle of Life in Australia saw one sport succeed the other in the calendar.
Football and cricket were interdependent to a remarkable degree – many players, clubs and grounds were common, and footballers were absent early in the season from playing in the finals. Especially in Australian Rules, there was an extraordinary overlap of personnel. The players of the national game, played principally in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia, and most especially its fast-running rovers, wingmen and centres, and its tall forwards, contributed mightily to the cricket strength of those States. There was also a substantial overlap into Rugby League and Rugby Union in Queensland and NSW, though its body shapes and skill sets saw a disproportion of backs and only a few forwards in cricket whites in the summer, though many a scary fast bowler in country and district cricket sported the broken nose of a Rugby forward.
Baseball in Australia was a winter sport (until the 1970s), strongly gaining in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, and it was often played as a curtain-raiser at the VFL football matches in Victoria. It was very often played by non-footballing cricketers. Hockey too was played as a winter sport, and was very popular in Western Australia in particular.
Many top sportsmen in this largely non-professional era still played a profusion of sports, and with much lighter training burdens and little international competition, were able to represent several sports to State or even national level. As an example, in his Wisden obituary (1970), the remarkable Vic Richardson was described as ‘a noted all-round Australian sportsman for, besides taking part in 19 Test matches between 1924 and 1935, he represented his county at baseball and played for South Australia at cricket, baseball and golf. He also won a State tennis title, was prominent at lacrosse and basketball and was a first-rate swimmer.’ While many a footballer still excels at junior cricket, or vice versa, the opportunity to excel at more than one sport has been almost entirely lost in recent decades.
The pinnacle of cricket in most seasons was the Sheffield Shield competition, contested between the four largest States: New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, the latter only since 1926/27. Owing to their small populations, neither vast Western Australia, nor the island State of Tasmania, despite its historical importance to cricket, contested the Shield.
The Sheffield Shield season ran across the height of summer, from late November to late February. It consisted of a round robin of twelve matches, with two matches – one home and one away – between each of the four States. These matches attracted large crowds, especially when blessed with the presence of ‘The Don’. Over New Year 1939, South Australia met Victoria at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, with a total attendance of 66,728, paying £2,897 (less than a shilling apiece). On New Year’s Eve, over 28,000 attended to see Bradman’s 107.
Other first-class fixtures for international selection (such as Australia vs The Rest, or Probables vs Possibles), or benefit fixtures for retiring top players were also occasionally held.
Fixtures involving Western Australia or Tasmania were played on an irregular basis, and were usually treated as first-class matches. Always visited by touring teams, but often badly beaten, they were often fortified by Shield players from other States for a Combined XI match as well.
Second XI matches between Victoria and NSW Second XIs, and Colts matches between Queensland and NSW for players under an age limit (at this stage usually 23) were also annual fixtures.
Annual representative fixtures between the various cricket associations within a State were also not uncommon – the Victorian Cricket Association played the Victorian Sub-District Cricket Association, or the Queensland Cricket Association against the Warehouse Cricket Association.
In Tasmania, intrastate competition between the North (centred on Launceston) and South (on Hobart) was the key competitive axis in local cricket (and football) with North vs South representative matches the pinnacle for many Tasmanian cricketers.
Country teams usually played against touring teams drawing on the country cricketers of the State, though in NSW and Victoria often two matches were played, allowing some split of the country teams into Northern and Southern NSW, or matches centred on key rural centres in Victoria such as Ballarat, Bendigo or Geelong.
Rural inter-city matches were especially prevalent in Queensland, with the Advanx Shield in Far North Queensland, and many annual fixtures in the southern triangle (Ipswich, Toowoomba, Brisbane). In NSW, unofficial challenge cups such as the Mumford Cup and Grinsted Cup in the West, or the O’Farrell Cup in the Mallee and Riverina regions were contested on a challenge basis between the rural centres, and engendered strong and continuing rivalries, and continue to this day. The round-robin Burns Cup in southern NSW was contested between the member cricket associations of the region. The Whitty Trophy has been actively contested for almost a century between Mt Gambier, Millicent, Penola and Naracoorte in South Australia’s east.
An annual Country Week carnival was a key tournament in all States, where country players came to the capital – and its unfamiliar turf pitches – to represent their towns and districts against one another, and against ‘Town’ or ‘Metropolis’. This often unearthed talent for future development, usually by transfer to the metropolis, though many a lofty country reputation was shattered on the turf pitches of the city, against higher quality opponents.
Queensland, with a large and remote hinterland, also had a Country Trial early in the season to test a selected team against the city’s colts. Annual tours of country regions by metropolitan teams were common though not regular and typically occurred very early or very late in the season, sometimes in precarious weather conditions. More ambitious tours of Far North Queensland and Northern NSW by teams of metropolitan cricketers, studded with State or Test stars, arranged by cricketing entrepreneurs such as Sydney’s ‘Gar’ Waddy, Bill Ives and later Jack Chegwyn were also welcome opportunities for strong competition. The memory of these contests often lasted for years after they occurred in local newspapers, giving locals a benchmark for assessing the form of their local champions.
Annual tours arranged by the State Cricket Associations or strong grade or district sides to nearby rural centres such as Port Pirie (SA), Kalgoorlie (WA) or Bendigo and Ballarat in Victoria were also common, though they naturally tended to visit attractive places with high quality facilities.
Grade or District Cricket
In the cities, grade or district cricket was the core of cricket in all of the cities, playing matches over two Saturdays on turf. A core of eight to twelve clubs were typically entered in each competition, and the line-up of clubs was extremely stable. Many of these clubs has been founded fifty to sixty years before. There were typically two, three or even four teams entered into various grades by the various clubs to allow the development of players into higher standards. In Tasmania, Hobart in the south boasted the Tasmanian Cricket Association and Launceston in the north the Northern Tasmanian Cricket Association, and both boasted district cricket competitions
The provincial cities like Newcastle, Wollongong, Wagga Wagga, Albury in NSW, Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat in Victoria, Kalgoorlie in WA, Townsville, Rockhampton, Ipswich, Toowoomba and Cairns in Queensland, Canberra in the ACT all had such grade or district sides, mostly playing on turf, at least in their most senior grades. Smaller rural centres also fostered local grade competitions, though turf was not always available, and many competitions were based on matting pitches – canvas or coir mats fixed over concrete or earthen wickets – or more exotic antbed or porphyry wickets. A remarkable effort was undertaken in many country centres to build and maintain turf wickets in the period between the Great War and the advent of the Second World War.
The notion of ‘district’ (or sometimes ‘electorate’) cricket was that each club had a fixed catchment area, with residence in that area compulsory for players to play for a team, sometimes softened by rules allowing long-serving players to remain with their clubs. This contrasted with older ‘club’ cricket organisations that allowed particular clubs to draw players from any area. Club cricket had the disadvantage at times of allowing long-established clubs with excellent facilities to draw the cream of the players, and weakening the less well-endowed clubs. The challenge of the district form was its creation of fierce disputes about catchment areas and boundaries between clubs, especially as cities developed and expanded, and boundaries required realignment.
In the largest cities, there was often a second-line competition that replicated the grade or district structure, at a slightly lower level. Melbourne had the sub-district competition (VSDCA) that offered two grades of competition between long-established clubs, that often fed players ‘up’ to the three grades of district teams, and took aging champions ‘down’ to act as captains, coaches and mentors. In Sydney the Shires competition fulfilled a similar purpose for the four grades in the grade competition. Perth too had a sub-district competition, and Adelaide’s Turf Cricket Association fulfilled similar purposes.
In most major cities, there was also a massive Junior Cricket Association such as the VJCA or the NSWJCU. The name ‘junior’ relates to its subordination to high level local cricket, rather than the age of the players – many renowned ‘juniors’ were well into their forties. These brought together multiple Cricket Associations based on social groups like churches, lodges or industrial corporations or schools, or locations, such as Centennial Park in Sydney. The vast numbers of such teams were again arranged into various grades. In Melbourne and Sydney, the top grades also played on Turf in a highly competitive competition. In Queensland the Warehouse Cricket Association was based on occupational or employment groups, and the Perth Matting Association fulfilled a similar position.
Schools cricket in most cities revolved around groups of the large private grammar schools, who had the money and turf facilities to host substantial matches: the Great Public Schools and Associated Grammar Schools in Sydney, Grammar Schools in Melbourne, Great Public Schools in Brisbane, the Darlot Cup in Perth. The Schools Cricket was part of SACA grade cricket in Adelaide, in addition to the long tradition of annual matches between Princes and Saints. Inevitably, Tasmania again had two competitions in north and south, and an intrastate competition between the premiers.
Provincial schools close to the capital were often roped in – Geelong Grammar and Geelong College in Melbourne, King’s College Parramatta in Sydney, Ipswich and Toowoomba Grammar and Southport in Brisbane, and sometimes a major metropolitan high school. Fuxtures between the
Great Public Schools representative side and the Cricket Association or University were also common pre-war in Sydney and Brisbane, and drew good crowds, mostly of Old Boys. State Schools often also had representative sides, with Brisbane particular active in fostering high-level schools competition.
The Universities too, while usually represented in first-grade competition (except in Perth, where they played in second grade, and did not exist in Tasmania), also played inter-state intervarsity matches on a regular cycle.
Colts teams – with an age restriction – were a fixture in the first grade competition in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, usually drawing upon a certain number of the juniors in the other grade clubs, and placed under professional coaching to develop their game. Though often easy-beat teams, at times the Colts were highly competitive – the QCA Colts won the premiership in Brisbane in 1937/38, with the talent of coach and State captain Bill Brown and State players wicket-keeper Don Tallon, batsman Rex Rogers and bowler Bill Tallon.
Club or social cricket teams of long standing – such as Wanderers in Brisbane, or i Zingari in Sydney – also played a role in fostering competition, especially with the public schools, and (in wartime) with Services sides. Professional associations also frequently staged matches – such as Dentists vs Undergraduates in Sydney, and the Railways Institutes national championships.
With the lack of television, and international tours only every two years or so, a State capital would typically see Test cricket only every two or three seasons, and only two Shield matches per season. Grade cricket was thus central to any spectator interested in the game, and crowds at such fixtures were respectable, and newspaper coverage pre-war was lavish.