WHILE current players in a certain age bracket bemoan whenever someone retired or older says how the standard was “better in our day”, those that played representative cricket for Sale-Maffra toward the turn of the century might have a strong case to justify this notion.
Looking at the Sharks team that travelled down to Melbourne for the 1999-2000 instalment of Country Week in particular one would be hard pressed to find a more credentialed collection of all-round brilliant cricketers.
Although a ‘good team on paper’ can often lead to complacency, the Sale-Maffra of that era was anything but, winning a quartet of Gippsland Cricket League titles from 1996-97 to 1999-2000.
By the time 1999-2000 rolled around, Sale-Maffra had managed to put together a representative team absolutely chockablock full of ability.
Of the 13 that made the trip down, four had or would go on to play international or first class cricket, while another six played either first grade district cricket or for Victoria Country.
Overseas players who represented the SMCA on the trip were Sri Lankan Upul Fernando and Englishmen Kirk Stewart.
Fernando was the team’s wicket keeper and was on the fringes of the Sri Lankan national team at the time, and would go on to play more than 150 first class games and score 12 first class tons.
A deeply religious man who would pray before breakfast every day, Fernando was perhaps unlucky in the sense Kumar Sangakkara was coming through at the same time and would end up going down as arguably the greatest wicket keeper-batsman in history.
Stewart was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and played list A cricket in England for Hertfordshire and the Hampshire Cricket Board as a right arm fast-medium bowler.
Another player to feature was a young Travis Birt, a local who would later play a number of twenty20s for Australia.
In years to come, Birt would maintain an incredible strike rate of 129 in first class twenty20s. He secured a reputation for brutal strokeplay when he posted 145 against South Australia in 2004-05, which was the highest score in Tasmania’s one-day history.
Also in the touring party was express bowler Nathan King, who was in the Victorian state squad for a time, as well as Stuart Anderson, not long out from his career in the AFL. The pair are still playing club cricket in the SMCA and terrorising opponents.
The other local players in the team were arguably all in their prime, and all achieved individual honours at league and club level in seasons to come.
Sharks captain Anthony Hurley, Dean Thatcher and Trevor Wrigglesworth all ended up playing for Victoria Country, while Andrew Tatterson and Simon Waixel both had stints at district firsts level.
Middle order batsman Brett Millington also played district cricket, and may have been the brains of the team, later graduating with an honours degree from the University of Melbourne.
Rounding off the team were Layton Armstrong and Anthony Robbins, who would each be named in respective SMCA teams-of-the-decade for their weekly in season Saturday exploits.
Although matches were still one-dayers at country week as they are today, there were no bowling restrictions in 1999-2000, meaning bowlers could operate unchanged for 25 overs if they really wanted to. What a luxury it must have been for Hurley to never have to calculate when to bring bowlers back or if to bowl them out.
Opposing batsman would be confronted with King and Stewart first up, and if they survived that, would then have someone like an Anderson, Armstrong or Robbins coming on first change. Armstrong finished with a few 10 wicket matches for Sale in club cricket, while Robbins had collected eight A grade six-wicket hauls playing for Collegians before Country Week started.
Perhaps the most telling show of how strong the team was came from how deep it batted, with Wrigglesworth, amazingly, coming in as low as number nine on occasions.
As Millington explained, the team only had one rule – which was to be in bed before midnight.
“There was a lot of fun in between the finish each day and the curfew,” he said.
However, in a classic case of ‘we will never know’, the Sale-Maffra team of 1999-2000 only actually got a result in the first two games at Country Week before rain wiped out days three to five.
After defeating traditional powerhouse Geelong on day one at Punt Road Oval, the Sharks then annihilated Murray Valley the following day.
On day three, Sale-Maffra posted 9-178 against Bendigo but had to settle for a draw as rain came down. Persistent overnight rain meant there was also no play possible the following day.
The wet weather meant the side was unable to potentially go through undefeated and claim the title.
“We were very unlucky because of the rain. We certainly felt a big chance (of winning the tournament),” Millington said.
“It was a very strong bowling team but also had significant batting depth. Nathan King was definitely a stand out performer and Travis Birt was also only very young, but his talent was obvious.”
While people may say the team of 1999-2000 was robbed and probably would have gone on to win the whole thing, the fact that it only played two games is sure to be a sticking point when compared to other great Sale-Maffra Country Week teams. It then begs the question: does a team have to win a grand final to be considered the ‘best’?
Perhaps the premiership-winning Sharks team of 1991-92 will say yes.
That team consisted of Neil Tatterson, Col Carmody, David Wolfe, Anthony Hurley, Nathan King, Greg Wrigglesworth, Bruce Pendlebury, Andrew Stephenson, Chris Morrison, Dean Benson and Blair Campbell.
Was 1991-92 better than 1999-2000? Or has there been another Sale-Maffra Country Week team that could top both of them?
Anthony Hurley (captain)
Barrie Wrigglesworth (team manager)
David Anderson (scorer)
Rob Mayman (bus driver)