Having previously reported on cricket in the West Sussex market town of Horsham, I was struck by several coincidences when beginning to follow the sport in Launceston.
Most were player related, primarily Shane Jurgensen and David Hussey having both played for Horsham. The former made the same journey as yours truly when he returned to play for Tasmania and although the latter went to Victoria, he was player of the match when the Bushrangers beat the Tigers in Launceston in December 2005.
When George Bailey made the return journey from Tasmania to Sussex a decade later, it only re-enforced the bond.
However, the strongest coincidence had more to do with the venue for the match in which Hussey smashed a match-winning unbeaten 94.
Upon first visiting the NTCA Ground, I couldn’t help but notice similarities to Horsham Cricket Club’s home at Cricketfield Road.
When Launceston’s prolific sport historian and author Rick Smith published the latest of his numerous books on Tasmanian cricket, I was delighted to learn I was not alone.
When an MCC team led by Len Hutton visited Launceston in 1954-55, cricket writer Alan Ross made the same observation.
In his book Australia 55, Ross wrote: “Launceston Cricket Ground, surrounded by predominantly English trees, bears some slight resemblance to Horsham, though the outfield is dusty and a white paddock fence runs the length of the boundary.
“Outside the ground, however, the sun beats, not on green swelling slopes, the single-track railway and church spires of Horsham, but on steep dry hillsides, the scrub inflammable as tinder.”
The recollection appears in Smith’s book Launceston’s NTCA Ground – Australia’s oldest first-class venue, which retraces the history of a venue with a unique place in Australian sport.
In February 1851, the NTCA Ground staged Australia’s initial first-class match – by all accounts a thrilling encounter in which the gentlemen of Van Diemen’s Land narrowly defeated the gentlemen of Port Phillip.
Since then the picturesque venue, tucked away off Dowling Street and squeezed between Kmart and Elphin Sports Centre, has been graced by some of the biggest names in cricket.
WG Grace, Don Bradman, Douglas Jardine, Bill Woodfull, Denis Compton, Richie Benaud, Garfield Sobers, Viv Richards, Allan Border, Ian Botham headline the visitors while David Boon, Ricky Ponting and Bailey are the pick of the home-grown talent.
Smith’s extensive account catalogues them all, the author confessing to “a certain affinity for those few hectares of land” having watched, played in and coached teams at the famous old ground.
The author’s spectating memories date back to 1962-63 and the observation that MCC opening bowler John Aldridge was the tallest person he had ever seen, but are headlined by two unbeaten centuries of Sobers.
To his credit, Smith does not allow nostalgia to gloss over the venue’s declining status and deteriorating facilities as nearby York Park gradually usurped its position as Launceston’s principal cricket venue.
Having coached teams at the NTCA Ground, Smith became only too aware that “the practice facilities were in need of improvement” and the buildings “in need of a facelift”.
But he concedes: “Regardless of whether any further representative cricket is ever played there, Launceston’s NTCA Ground has amassed an astonishing history, and it will continue to shape the lives of future stars.”
Inevitably, the book affords space to the fixture which earned the venue its privileged position in Australian sporting history.
Headlined “The first big match”, the chapter recalls an era when transportation was still under way, bushrangers roamed the state and cholera was a constant concern given the town’s lack of a reliable water supply.
Reading Smith’s account it is fair to state the pitch was no road.
Apparently the umpires had considerable difficulty finding a piece of ground flat enough to pitch the stumps and the author tactfully observes: “Conditions suggested that low scoring would be the order of the day.”
He wasn’t kidding, as the subsequent score update suggests: “The Tasmanians were teetering on the brink of disaster at 6-15.”
Aided by a sold-out jovial grand ball which continued “until the early hours of the morning” of the final day’s play, the hosts limped to a nail-biting victory, completing what the Cornwall Chronicle described as “the best entertainment seen in this town”.
About 100 pages later, having detailed the venue’s impressive cast list, Smith’s account concludes with a fascinating statistical collection of its record holders.
Jack Badcock (1933-34) hit the ground’s highest innings of 274 (which remains Tasmania’s record first-class score), Boon (1987-88) and RS Stephens (1913-14) share the honour of being the only players ever to record a century in each innings of a match there while TJ Matthews has the enviable distinction of its solitary hat-trick (1908-09).
And despite a first-class era longer than any other Australian venue, nobody has been able to surpass the 13-52 match figures recorded in a losing cause by Victorian Thomas Wills Antill in that inaugural encounter 167 years ago.