01 January 2020

The Local Legacy: Playing on the famous SCG

BY PETER LALOR

The sons and daughters of the Sydney Cricket Ground are as abundant as they are talented.

They are a line that stretches back through time from pioneer women’s state and Australian captain Margaret Peden — a small but sparkling batter who was born in Chatswood and helped organise the first women’s “Ashes” in 1934-35 — to the likes of Alyssa Healy and Ellyse Perry.

That first series against England is said to have helped heal the rift created between the two countries after the Bodyline series of 1932-33, much in the way the achievements and energy of the current women’s team helped nurture the Australian game through its recent turmoils.

Peden and her sister, Barbara, were so keen to practise in the winter months that they installed Sydney’s first indoor nets, at the Salvation Army building on Elizabeth Street in the CBD. The SCG’s sisters were doing it for themselves.

Where to begin or end with the line of incredible male cricketers who called the most historic of Australian cricket grounds home? Monty Noble and Victor Trumper are commemorated by stands named in their honour; so too is Donald Bradman, whose inspiration is everywhere — most apparent in a note fixed above the door in the home dressing room that reads: “If it’s difficult I’ll do it now. If it’s impossible I’ll do it presently.”

The remarkable thing about that sentiment is its date: 10.12.28.

This was not the greatest batsman ever surveying life from the height of achievements never reached before nor since; this was a 20-year-old recently arrived from the country. A young man who’d made his Test debut a fortnight before and one who would be left out of his home Test at the SCG four days later.

And Trumper? Some might ask, as Bradman did, why a batsman who averaged just 39 was so venerated, but those who saw him bat never did. The closest we can come to the experience is, perhaps, in the frozen moment of George Beldam’s famous photograph of the batsman launching into that full-blooded drive at The Oval.

Or, we can be guided by the words of England’s greatest cricket writer, Neville Cardus: “You will no more get an idea of the quality of Trumper’s batsmanship by adding up his runs than you will get an idea of the quality of Shelley’s poetry by adding up the number of lines written by Shelley.”

Sporting stadia, it is often observed, are the cathedrals of our more secular times. Certainly, the SCG has been a place of worship for the masses and practice for the faithful since the earliest days of the colony, and the tradition continues unbroken.

Test batsman and former NSW Blues star Usman Khawaja grew up in the neighbourhood. His is a particularly modern Australian experience. The family, recently arrived from Pakistan, lived in a cramped apartment by the cricket ground. He and his brother would rush to Driver Avenue at the tea break, anticipating the moment the ground attendants would throw open the gates for the last session, and in they would eagerly go.

Khawaja made his debut at the SCG in 2011 and noted after scoring 171 in the Ashes Test in 2018 that it was his first at the ground where, “I sort of grew up”.

Every player can recall their first experience at the ground.

Bradman’s was as a 12-year-old, brought up from Bowral by his father, George, who had been briefly employed there during the construction of the SCG’s cycle track in 1896.

Bradman saw Charlie Macartney score 170 in the Fifth Test against England. It was on that day at the ground that he resolved to pursue cricket above his other love, tennis.

“I shall never be satisfied until I play on this ground,” Bradman is said to have told his father during the afternoon.

The dominance of NSW players at Test level has been a cause of not-so-quiet resentment from the other states who cannot produce cricketers of the same calibre as those from Sydney’s cricket nursery.

Khawaja’s debut Test was a case in point. In the last match in the series against England that summer, five of the top six batsmen were Blues: Shane Watson, Phillip Hughes, Khawaja, Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin. Mike Hussey was the odd man out. Batting at No. 7 that day was a man whose name seems certain to slot in among the greats like Bradman and Trumper, and that was Steven Peter Devereux Smith.

No batsman since the Bowral boy has dominated the game in the manner Smith does. His return to Test cricket in the most recent Ashes series was nothing short of extraordinary, and his return to Test cricket this summer is anticipated more keenly because of that.

Smith averaged 64.56 at the conclusion of the Ashes and had played 68 Tests. The six he has played at home have been even more productive, his runs coming at an average of 68.5.

It is not only batters raised on the Bulli Black clay and basalt of the ground’s famous pitch that do the SCG justice.

Consider that Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood all call the venue their home. They practised their skills in the nets where another famous son, Fred “ The Demon” Spofforth, stands guard —  his frightening stare rendered in bronze by sculptor Cathy Weiszmann.

What stories Demon, the Balmain-born  son of a Yorkshireman, could tell. The first man to take a Test hat-trick, the bowler who removed W.G. Grace for a duck at Lord’s, and one who was playing when a dispute over umpiring saw the game between an England touring side and NSW at the SCG descend  into an ugly riot in 1879.

One of the officials in that match — though not the one whose decision was questioned — was Edmund Barton. The keen scholar and sportsman defused the unfortunate situation and later went on to become prime minister of Australia.

Mitchell Starc and Alyssa Healy may well be the First Couple of the SCG. True, they did not have their wedding at the ground — commentator Jim Maxwell did — but it has been their cricketing playground for many years.

The Australian stars have actually slept a  night on the sacred soil. It was all for a good cause. The Chappell Foundation has an annual Sports Stars Sleepout on the ground to raise money for homeless youth, and in 2018 Healy, Starc and a few teammates joined the fundraiser with only pieces of cardboard and their sleeping bags between them, the grass and the night sky.

The odd member has been known to doze off during a quiet spell in the Sheffield Shield, and more than one fielder has been accused of doing the same by irate bowlers or captains, but to actually bed down for the night on the SCG must be an experience. Another former Test player and NSW captain, Steve O’Keefe, was so content he slept through breakfast and a passing shower before being told to get up and make way for the ground staff, who had work to do.

Talk of Steve Smith’s greatness needs to be accompanied by acknowledgement of Ellyse Perry’s extraordinary achievements with bat and ball. The all-rounder from Sydney’s Wahroonga was just 16 when she made her debut for Australia, the youngest ever to do so.

Despite Australia first playing against England way back in the 1930s, women’s Ashes and Test opportunities are limited — but Perry has made the most of each. She made 213no, 116 and 76no in her last three Test innings and took four wickets.

Her continued dominance had Rina Hore, director of the Bradman Foundation and a former Australian cricketer, commissioning research to establish whether Perry is the greatest women’s player ever.

Great cricketers and great cricket deserve a great home and the SCG is that. It has a wicket that, when at its best, produces runs and then spin as a match proceeds. It has a physical profile that is historic and unique — that elegant shadow cast on the ground from the Members Pavilion by the setting sun is a stamp of authenticity.

There’s something about walking down Driver Avenue, past the Kippax Lake where Doug Walters is said to have smashed a six while batting at the old No. 2 ground, through the turnstiles and into cricket’s finest ground.

Inside, Richie Benaud seems to be directing you into position, as if you were a fielder moving from the covers to point. And there you are, escaped from life and focused  on the finest of pastimes, watching the stars of today do as the stars of yesteryear did.

Time slows down  and plays tricks.

Some years back, Indian great Sachin Tendulkar explained the feeling for him.

“The SCG is my favourite ground,” he said.

“I have always maintained that. It brings back all the memories.

“It’s just the feel of the ground. Whenever I walked in, I felt I could go on and on batting. I just enjoyed the atmosphere, and the Pavilion especially. It’s a fabulous Pavilion with a lot of history. It is the heritage and the impact all the players have left on this ground.”