Bill Lawry © Getty Images
Bill Lawry © Getty Images

There was nothing unusual about Bill Lawry pulling off seemingly unending rearguard actions, but his marathon innings in the Victoria Cricket Association Premiership final of 1965-66 was perhaps the most outrageously unbelievable. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at April 16, 1966, when a tremendous example of application, technique, and determination — facing a monumental target of 515 — resulted in triumph.

“While it might have lacked the grandeur of his great Test innings, there are some who see this as one of The Phantom’s most heroic performances.” — Robert Coleman, Seasons in the Sun: The Story of the Victorian Cricket Association.

Bill Lawry was no stranger to gnawing his way back to big scores. Consider The Ashes tour of 1961, for example: Australia would almost certainly not have regained the urn without Lawry amassing 420 runs at 52.50. More importantly, Lawry batted almost 18 hours in his 8 innings; in other words, he simply batted on and on. The tour saw him acquiring 2,019 runs at 61.18 with 9 hundreds; Wisden had no option but to name him a Cricketer of the Year.

But that was half a decade back. This, on the other hand, was not even a First-Class match. Though Victoria Cricket Association (VCA) Premiership was big in the state, it was not keenly covered across the globe.

Northcote Dragons had not played the inaugural edition of the VCA Premiership, in 1906-07. However, inducted the year after, they were one of the older clubs of the tournament. Unfortunately, they were going through a 54-year long drought; they had made it to the final in 1923-24, only to lose to St Kilda.

Northcote were pitted against Essendon Bombers, playing their third consecutive final. They had won their first title in 1963-64, beating Fitzroy in the final. Things were not good.

But then, Northcote boasted of Lawry, the man who had dominated Test cricket of the highest order. He was good enough to keep out Trueman and Brian Statham, Peter Pollock and Eddie Barlow. If Northcote had to win, Lawry was the man.

The VCA Premiership is no mean championship: the tournament has seen the likes of Harry Trott, Warwick Armstrong, Vernon Ransford, Hugh Trumble, Bill Woodfull, Bill Ponsford, and Jack Ryder; six members from the 1948 Invincibles. Later stars like Colin McDonald, Ian Redpath, Graham Yallop, Keith Stackpole, Rodney Hogg, and Paul Reiffel, and foreign stars like Abdul Qadir and Carl Hooper; and, of course, Lawry also featured.

For the uninitiated, VCA Premiership matches were usually played on Saturdays, and went on for several weeks. The match in question — the 1965-66 final — started on April 2, at Albert Ground, Melbourne. To quote Tom Ryan, who played for Northcote in the match, the ground was “a compact inner-suburban treasure with a minimalist scoreboard and the demeanour of an English village green.”

A brief flashback

Before narrating the tale, let us go back to October 2, about six months before the match. The sides had clashed at Westgarth Street Oval. Essendon had scored 211, and Lawry and Wayne Robinson had walked out in fading light.

John Grant could be brisk on his day. On this occasion, he bowled one on leg, and Lawry played it off his hip. The ball flew to Keith Kirby at leg-slip, hitting him on his head. Kirby caught it off the rebound.

Lawry was not amused. To quote The Age, he warned Grant that evening: “You will pay for that, you little pr*ck.” Northcote were rolled over for 77 (Grant 5 for 24, Kirby 5 for 9), but Lawry, with 79 not out, helped them save the match after they followed on.

But Lawry was not done, as the poor Bombers would find out.

The Monk and the tail

Essendon captain Ian Monks (also prolific in Australian Rules Football) batted first. They lost Raymond Howe for a duck, caught Lawry off the left-arm seam of Ken Walker. Walker had wrecked Richmond in the semi-final, bowling them out for 60 with an unchanged spell of 13.1-3-28-9.

Monks led the rescue with 136. Barring Raymond Howe (Monks’ partner) nobody got out for anything below 23, and Essendon kept piling the runs on. They reached 124 for 1, and later, 205 for 3, but Northcote pulled things back by stumps on the first Saturday.

Essendon finished on 311 for 6, mostly due to Northcote’s fast-medium bowler Paul Shanahan (though, according to Ryan, their fast bowler Mike Mitton bowled without luck), who kept striking at regular intervals. Shanahan was a mere 17 when he played the match, but his lack of experience did not show. He would later play Australian Rules Football for Fitzroy, West Perth, and West Torrens. But we are digressing.

Monks made his intentions clear that evening. According to Mic Rees, he told the media “We might need all the runs we can get with a player like Bill Lawry in the Northcote’s side.” That made sense.

Resuming play a week later, No. 7 Dixie Peters (54) and No. 8 Barry Davis (61) added 80 for the seventh wicket. Further contributions came from No. 9 Tom O’Neill (67), and No. 10 Kirby (50*).

At tea on Day Two, just after Kirby reached his fifty, Monks declared on 514 for 9. Shanahan finished with 4 for 143. Lawry’s immediate reaction, as Ryan reminisced, was “I wouldn’t have done that.” Typical.

Albert Cricket Ground, Melbourne. As serene as Bill Lawry himself. Photo courtesy: Paul Brownrigg
Albert Cricket Ground, Melbourne. As serene as Bill Lawry himself.
Photo courtesy: Paul Brownrigg

Teatime stories

The two camps were in contrasting moods. Despite Lawry’s scepticism, Monks had solid reasons to back his declaration: they were already nine down, so a big addition to the score was unlikely; on the other hand, they had a chance to have a go at a frustrated Northcote side, who had taken 3 for 203 since morning.

Essendon wicketkeeper O’Neill commented: “All we need to do is get The Phantom out and we’ll be into the tail.” Unfortunately, that would never happen.

Lawry had other ideas. Before he went out to open batting with Robinson, the instructions were simple: “We’ve taken a long time to get here; if I get half you can get the other half.” In other words, Lawry had promised his teammates 258, for the target was 515.

Jack Collins and Bill Smyth, the umpires, were passing by the door during Lawry’s pep-talk. Collins later admitted that he thought Lawry was being too ambitious, dismissing his assurances.

Ryan wrote: “I don’t know whether Lawry actually believed what he was telling us, but it certainly sounded like a good idea at the time.”

Lawry probably thought the same himself. “It had never been done before and I don’t really think we thought we were going to make it,” he later confessed to Tim Mitchell of Northcote.

The start

Of course, Lawry was in form. Northcote were bowled out for 82 in the semi-final, but Lawry had scored 32 of them. When he got going in the second innings, he did not stop before 102. CENTURY BY LAWRY WARNING TO DONS’ BOWLERS ran the headline on The Age.

At that period, Lawry’s stature was probably bigger than the tournament itself. As Ryan wrote in The New Daily, “if the game had been a movie, his would have been the name above the title.”

Lawry and Robinson came back that evening. The score read 98 without loss with Lawry on 53 and Robinson on 33. They needed another 417. They had not even reached the base camp.

Lawry builds

It is not clear why, but the match resumed two days later, on Monday. Robinson fell the second morning for 47, leg-before to leg-spinner ‘Rip’ Kirby. Robert Gosstray hung around, and along with Lawry, took the score to 206 for 1.

Grant was a small man, but could build up serious pace. He had already played for Victoria in Sheffield Shield. He ended Gosstray’s resistance, trapping him leg-before.

Ian Cowley emerged from the pavilion. Though not as prolific as his elder brother Terry, Ian had played 4 matches for Tasmania. He did not last long, falling to Ken Adams. 219 for 3; another 196 to go.

Ryan joined Lawry, who was unfazed at the other end. He was already past his hundred, and was looking hungry enough to keep his promise. As Ryan held one end up, Lawry continued to score, inching towards the finishing line.

Essendon, especially Grant, fought back. His 17th (eight-ball) over was a spectacular one: Lawry edged one to slip, where Adams grassed it. Two balls later he edged to the big gloves of O’Neill — but the umpire already had his hand stretched. Grant had overstepped.

The next ball, outside off, probably saw Lawry lose concentration, for once. He slashed hard at it, and the ball soared over slips for four.

Then Lawry decided to give it back, hitting Grant for four boundaries in his 18th over.

They added fifty, then hundred, then another fifty. By the time stumps were called due to poor light, they were on 405 for 3 with Lawry on 236 and Ryan on 77. Suddenly the target looked possible, but then, cricket has had its fair share of collapses.

The Ghost Who Walked

By the time the match resumed five days later, on another Saturday, news had got around of Lawry and his superhuman effort. A formidable-sized crowd, accompanied by media from across the country, flocked to the ground. While the ticket sales data suggest a turnover of five thousand, many suggest the count was double that. In 100 Not Out — A centenary of Premier Cricket, Rod Nicholson and Ken Williams agreed to the count.

The most prominent figure on the ground, of course, was that of Prime Minister and famous cricket-enthusiast Sir Robert Menzies, donning an open-necked shirt.

Adams struck early in the day, with an out-swinger that Ryan edged to Monks for 82. 411 for 4, another 105 to win.

As Frank Brew walked out, Lawry let him take centrestage, giving him the strike. Brew muscled his way to a 56-ball 47 in a partnership of 94. Lawry let his triple-hundred go, for there was a match to be won.

By the time Grant removed Brew, Northcote were a mere 10 runs away. All Phil Burn had to do was to prevent an unrealistic collapse, which he did. Then, with three to be scored, Kirby bowled one short, and Lawry immediately pulled him for his 32nd four.

As Lawry returned, unbeaten, after an 8-hour-29-minute, 454-ball effort of 282 not out, 13 short of Ponsford’s record of 295, he was cornered by The Age. The response was typical Lawry, sans any trace of emotion: “Essendon had a big score of 514, but Northcote showed what could be done when you all pitch in and make a few.”

It was indeed a herculean effort. The Canberra Times summed up aptly: “It was a determined and polished display, with rarely a false stroke.”

Lawry finished the season with 714 runs at 119 from 7 matches. The next-best was 678 by Eric Shade of Prahran, who played 13 matches. Redpath, with 71.67, was the only other batsman to average anywhere in the vicinity.

When they were asked to vote in 2000, the VCA Umpires Association selected the contest as The District Match of the Century.

Brief scores:

Essendon 514 for 9 decl. (Ian Monks 136, Dixie Peters 54, Barry Davis 61, Tom O’Neill 67, Keith Kirby 50*; Paul Shanahan 4 for 143) lost to Northcote 516 for 5 (Bill Lawry 282*, Wayne Robinson 41, Tom Ryan 82, Frank Brew 47) on first-innings lead.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)