This season we will be regularly posting a series of articles titled "You might not remember..." in which we shed some light on a particular moment in our history. We commence this series with:

You might not remember... The Rothman's Cup.

The Sydney Cricket Association recently resolved that players’ performances in the Rothmans Cup competition will now be included in their First Grade career records.  But who remembers the Rothmans Cup?

Indeed, who remembers Rothmans?  It was a tobacco company, which was later absorbed into Philip Morris, which in turn became part of British American Tobacco.  But back in the 1960s, Rothmans did a roaring trade in Australia, and its business was boosted by its heavy sponsorship of sport.  As news began to seep out that smoking might not be entirely beneficial to one’s health, Rothmans responded by sponsoring any sporting event it could put its name to, as well as by employing a number of international sportsmen as sales representatives.  Smoking might be bad for you, but look - Doug Walters was the best batsman in the country, and he worked for Rothmans.

So Rothmans was the eager sponsor when a group of Sydney cricketers decided to launch the country’s first senior limited-overs competition.  In 1967, there was no serious limited-overs cricket played anywhere in the country, not even between States.  But at the start of the 1967-68 season, it was decided that Sheffield Shield cricket could now be played on Sundays.  This was regarded as revolutionary at the time (it forced the NSW captain, Brian Booth, into retirement, since he refused to play on the Sabbath), but a group of Sydney cricketers, led by Test batsmen Jim Burke and Norm O’Neill, decided that Grade teams could play on Sundays, too, and they launched, with the help of Rothmans, a limited-overs knockout tournament.  In the first year of the competition, it was an unofficial affair, with the NSW Cricket Association a mildly interested bystander.  Once the draw was made, it was up to the clubs to arrange their own fixtures whenever they could secure a ground.  That wasn’t always easy, since many local councils still refused to hire out their grounds for Sunday play.  As a result, Sydney University’s first game in the competition, against Northern District, was played at Somerville Oval at Epping, a ground more usually used for Fifth Grade games.

That match was played on 17 December 1967, the day on which Prime Minister Harold Holt went for a swim in choppy water at Cheviot Beach, and never came back.  Each innings was limited to 35 eight-ball overs (an extra over was added the following year), with bowlers limited to nine overs each. Coloured clothing was a decade away, as were helmets: white towelling hats were becoming popular. There were no fielding restrictions: reporting on a match at Waverley Oval, the Sydney Morning Herald huffed that Waverley’s captain was excessively negative because he posted a third man at the start of the game. This was blamed on his English upbringing and the corrupting influence of big money – after all, Rothmans was paying the winner of the competition $500.  Large numbers of spectators attended the games (clubs not only charged admission, but raised substantial amounts from doing so), and girls in short shorts and Rothmans T-shirts walked through the crowd handing out samples of the sponsor’s product.  “We used to have two or three thousand people turn up”, remembers Ian Fisher, who played Rothmans Cup for both Sydney and Sydney University.

University swatted Northern District aside in its opening match,  with Ron Alexander biffing 61 and John King 62 not out.  The second round was altogether tougher.  Most Sydney Grade clubs at the time could field at least one Test player and some handy Shield cricketers, and Balmain turned up to Drummoyne Oval with Test fast bowler Dave Renneberg, “mystery spinner” Johnny Gleeson and NSW all-rounder Ross Collins.  Batting first, University folded cheaply, and was knocked out of the competition, which was eventually won by Western Suburbs.

“The players really enjoyed it”, Ian Fisher recalls, “it was great fun. I was playing for Sydney when it started, and we ended up playing Cumberland two days in a row.  We beat them on the Saturday, then went back out there for the Rothmans the next day.  We called up a keeper called Don Harris for the Rothmans game, and he went in at eight or nine with his hero, Richie Benaud, bowling.  The game went down to the second-last ball, and Don had played pretty well, but he went down to Benaud and slogged.  He missed the ball, but the keeper missed it too, and it went for two byes, so we won.  It was probably the best game of cricket I ever played – although the visitors’ dressing room had no hot water.  When play ended on the Saturday, the Cumberland team offered us the use of their showers.  But they kept the door shut the next day!”

The general consensus was that the competition had been a huge success, and the NSW Cricket Association grabbed control of it, running it for nine more seasons.  University performed intermittently well, without ever progressing beyond the quarter-finals.  Alan Crompton’s 61 was the backbone of a good total against Waverley in 1968-69, but was trumped by 104 from State opener Bruce Francis.  In October 1969, University thoroughly outplayed Sydney, only to be thwarted by rain.  After Sydney’s star batsman, Rick McCosker, edged Rick Lee to Alan Crompton, University contained its opposition to nine for 144 from 36 overs.  University, at one for 28, was well ahead of the required run-rate when rain ended the game.  But University had been batting for only seven overs, and 15 overs needed to be bowled before run-rate calculations could be made.  Instead, the winner was declared to be the team with the higher run-rate in the regular First Grade season and, on that peculiar rule, Sydney was handed a thoroughly unmeritorious victory.

The following season, University shocked Sutherland, the reigning champions, with a thrashing in the first round.  On a soft pitch, slow left-armer Mick O’Sullivan snared 7-30 as Sutherland succumbed for only 84, after which Bruce Collins (57 not out) and Crompton knocked off the runs without any difficulty.  O’Sullivan was brought back to earth in the quarter-final against St George; his nine overs went for 78 runs, as State batsman John Wilson hammered 112.  Collins (69) and Crompton (41) maintained their form, but a target of 282 was never within reach.

The scheduling of matches was more casual than it is today.  In 1971-72, Manly reached the final, only to learn that its State all-rounder, Terry Lee, would be on an interstate study trip when the match was due to be played.  Manly asked the NSWCA to change the date, arguing that the final would attract more spectators if the big-hitting Lee (who had hit 28 sixes in the season so far) played.  Amazingly, the NSWCA agreed to shift the game so that Lee could play, and Manly went on to beat St George in the final.

One of University’s better results in the competition came in December 1972, when a powerful Northern District team was beaten by three runs.  Northern District fielded six players who had represented NSW, or soon would, including Test batsman Ian Davis and spinner David Sincock.  But Ian Fisher’s aggressive 56 and some late swiping by Mitch Thompson and Peter James pushed University’s total to 8 for 201.  Northern District was always just behind in the chase, losing wickets regularly to leg-spinner Alan Manzie, medium-pacer Greg Harper and left-arm seamer Geoff Pike, and ended the game nine wickets down and a boundary away from victory. 

The popularity of the competition encouraged the NSWCA to expand it, and soon teams representing Newcastle, the ACT and the Illawarra were included.  “We were forever being drawn against Newcastle”, says Alan Crompton, “and we never played them at home. The M1 hadn’t been constructed yet, so that meant getting up at 5am on Sunday to be in the car and on the road by 6.  Usually some of the players in the back of the car were a bit the worse for wear after Saturday night.  After we drove up the old winding road, we sometimes had to hunt around the Newcastle suburbs for the ground.  Then when we got there, we played a combined team drawn from the Newcastle competition – and they were a really good side.  It was a time when players were still sometimes chosen directly from the Newcastle competition to play in the State team, and they were always keen to knock off a Sydney club.  I’d say we lost more against them than we won.”

“I played against Newcastle a couple of times”, Fisher says, “once at Newcastle, and once at Waitara Oval.  When we played them at Waitara I invited both teams to my place for a barbecue after the game.  But they brought buses down with all their supporters!  I finished up with a couple of hundred people crammed into my two-bedroom house!”  Newcastle ended University’s promising campaign in the 1972-73 quarter-final, after the Students had outplayed Sydney and Northern District.  The following season, University was badly embarrassed at Gosford by a Hunter Valley team, collapsing for only 85.  But the fast-medium Peter James (5-40) and O’Sullivan (4-7) bundled out the home team inside 22 overs, salvaging a tense five-run victory.  Damon Ridley had played a crucial innings of 14 in what is now recognised as his First Grade debut – almost seven years before his next appearance.

There may never have been a stronger Sydney limited-overs team than the side Western Suburbs assembled in the mid-1970s.  The formidable Bob Simpson opened the innings, followed by Test-class strokeplayers Peter Toohey and Gary Gilmour, who was a one-day match-winner in international cricket, let alone in the Sydney suburbs.  Opposing batsmen had to contend with Gilmour’s lively late swing, and two other NSW representatives, burly speedster Brian Rhodes and wily swing bowler Wally Wellham.  Like Balmain, Western Suburbs won the Rothmans Cup twice.

University ended the competition the way it began, with a match against Northern District.  Peter James, with 5-37, restricted the powerful Northern District side to 150, but an interesting chase was cut short by rain, and University lost on run rate.  Altogether in Rothmans Cup games, James took 23 wickets at 21.22 and scored 251 runs at 27.88.  If the six wickets he took in Rothmans Cup games in 1973-74 are added to his 65 First Grade wickets, then he collected a total of 71 wickets in Firsts that season, which would stand as a club record.  No-one scored more runs for University in the competition than keeper-batsman Alan Crompton (271 at 19.36) while, to no-one’s surprise, the leading wicket-taker was Mick O’Sullivan (26 at 14.46).  When the Club’s records are adjusted, James will move past 300 wickets in First Grade, and O’Sullivan past 800 in all grades.  Although they played only occasionally, Bruce Collins (164 runs at 54.66) and Mitch Thompson (157 at 31.40) did well with the bat, while left arm swing bowler Geoff Pike took ten wickets at 14.50 apiece.  Opening bowler Chris McRae played only one Rothmans match, against Manly in 1973-74, in which he took 4-10 yet still finished on the losing side: University needed three to win from as many deliveries when McRae was dismissed by the tall Manly leg-spinner, Tom Spencer.  Stuart Grant appeared in the match against Newcastle in 1974-75 and now, forty years after the event, is awarded his one and only First Grade cap as a result.

In 1976-77, the Rothmans Cup was shelved, crowded out of the schedule by a new, short-lived competition known as the State Cup, which was designed as an additional tier between Grade and State cricket and featured teams like City Central and City West.  It was another ten years before a distinct limited-overs competition was reintroduced to Sydney cricket, in 1985-86.  Remember the Benson & Hedges Cup?