Bill Lawry is an eminent Victorian, and a modern Lytton Strachey would find it all too tempting to debunk the values upon which both his cricket and his life have been based. Comedians certainly found his high-pitched voice, his love of pigeons, and his pledged devotion to both Victoria and Australia to be fertile ground for generally good-natured fun. Add in the contrasts between Lawry and Tony Greig, his long-time friend and colleague in the Channel Nine commentary box, and there was enough material for a few routines.
And yet when Lawry’s career is considered in the round, there is an admirable simplicity about it; particularly so, perhaps, given that our analysis is taking place in the context of the self-inflicted wounds Australian cricket is currently seeking to bind. Here is an opener who played almost all his career for one of two clubs, Northcote or St Kilda; for the state of his birth, Victoria; and for his much beloved country. Lawry never needed a victory song to remind himself he stood beneath the Southern Cross.
Nor did his opponents require much of a nudge to recall his capacity to break their hearts with a style that eventually turned obduracy into an article of faith. “His wicket is as inviolate as a detective’s daughter,” wrote Ray Robinson, whose analysis of Lawry in On Top Down Under offers a lovely reminder of a cricketer whose best innings were played in an increasingly distant age. Australians who never saw him block the will to live out of an international attack may enquire whether he actually played top-level cricket. (The same question was once asked of Richie Benaud, another former Test captain who arguably gained even greater fame as a commentator.)
All of which makes Bill Lawry – Chasing A Century a welcome addition to crammed shelves. Essentially this book is a collection of tributes, cuttings and reminiscences about a man who announced his retirement, aged 81, when Channel Nine lost the rights to broadcast Australian cricket last May. “I’ve had 40 great years and I’ve been very, very lucky,” Lawry said, “I don’t want to spoil a great journey.” The editor of Chasing A Century, Alison Proietto, has done so fine a job of charting that journey, one wonders why it is necessary to hunt around on the copyright page to find /her name. There are generous cuttings from newspapers like the Canberra Times and full details of Lawry’s district cricket. The coffee-table format gives some fine photographs the space they deserve, and the reader is able to follow a career that began in a Melbourne suburb and eventually featured seven centuries in 29 Ashes Tests.
When Lawry left Test cricket – he was sacked as captain before the last match of the 1970-71 Ashes series – only Don Bradman and Neil Harvey had scored more runs than his 5324. And as Robinson pointed out, he opened the batting against fast bowlers of the quality of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Mike Procter, Peter Pollock, John Snow, Fred Trueman and Brian Statham. If he survived that onslaught – and he frequently did – there were spinners like Fred Titmus, Lance Gibbs and Bishan Bedi to face. And then there were people like Garry Sobers, who qualified in both categories.
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Yet, while this book contains a host of tributes, it is also critical of Lawry’s transition from the stroke-maker who scored memorable centuries in the Lord’s and Old Trafford Tests on his first Ashes tour in 1961 to the predominantly defensive opener described by Ian Wooldridge as “a corpse with pads on”. That later intransigence and the defensive mindset that was all too frequently the hallmark of Lawry’s captaincy are also examined, as is his realisation, later, that he and his players were grossly underpaid and undervalued. Thus, rather than remain loyal to the Australian Cricket Board, with whom he had already had a few run-ins, Lawry threw in his lot with Kerry Packer and World Series Cricket. Keith Stackpole, his colleague at WSC, offers a brief view of that tumult, and Greg Chappell, another colleague in the commentary box, supplies an engaging picture of Lawry the commentator.
“Whenever he was commentating he would sit on the edge of his chair, like a kid watching his favourite movie. The enthusiasm that you hear in his voice is real. If anything dramatic happened on the field, he would leap into the air in the commentary box. He was more overtly emotionally involved in the game than any other commentator I’ve worked with.”
Perhaps Lawry still found it difficult to believe his luck. After all, he was the boy from Thornbury who had played at Lord’s, who had been on the losing side in only one of his six Ashes series and who was now being paid to talk about cricket.
“I come from a poor working-class family,” he wrote. “We had pigeons, chickens, dogs, ferrets. We used to go rabbiting. We used to go fishing. That was our hobby. I used to play cricket in the summer and baseball in the winter. My life has revolved around my pigeons, my family, my cricket, my dogs. That’s what we did. I didn’t have a car until I was 24.”
Yes, it’s easy to mock this stuff. But then you remember Lawry’s delight at Australian success and his pride in his native state. You look at the glorious photograph of Benaud’s team before their first match of the 1961 tour at Worcester, with the cathedral and the Glover’s Needle cloaked in mist behind them. And then you realise what a fine book this is. Above all, though, you understand the deep loyalties that still inform the life of a man with the gift of simplicity. And you realise that Bill Lawry’s sleeve was never complete unless his heart was upon it.
Chasing A Century
By Bill Lawry
Hardie Grant Books, 2018
£22, 208 pages