When the Sydney Grade cricket competition was created in 1893-94, Sydney University was one of its founding clubs. Perhaps the least distinguished statistic in the club records is the one showing that, in the 106 years that followed, Sydney University reached the First Grade semi-finals precisely once – in 1956-57, sixty years ago.
Of course, like many statistics, that record conceals as much as it reveals, and Sydney University performed far better than it suggests. In fact, in those 106 years, University won three First Grade premierships and finished second four times. The anomaly exists because, for the first sixty years of the Grade competition, premierships were simply awarded to the teams that finished the competition rounds with the highest number of points. Finals were occasionally scheduled, but only when they were necessary to separate two teams with identical records.
The NSW Cricket Association considered introducing semi-finals as early as 1914, but the idea was shelved when the outbreak of war prompted the Association to abandon the awarding of premierships for several seasons (even though matches were still played). Premiership competition resumed in the 1919-20 season, at the end of which the Test batsman Charlie Macartney wrote in the Evening News that “many players believe that it would be far better” to “take the first four teams and let them play off two semi-finals”. This arrangement would have suited University perfectly that year, as it finished second to Western Suburbs under the first-past-the-post system. But the influential journalist, JC Davis, grumbled in The Referee that football-style semi-finals “would not be tolerated in cricket”, because it was unfair to give the fourth-placed team as much chance of winning a title as the team that finished first. The NSWCA’s Grade Committee revisited the idea in 1935, only to conclude that it was “undesirable” to play semi-finals. Semi-finals were first played in 1942-43, as the NSWCA believed that they would increase public interest and help to raise funds for wartime charities, but the experiment lasted for only one season. Finally, in June 1952, the Association voted to introduce semi-final matches “to enliven grade cricket for the season” and finals matches have been played since 1952-53.
In the early 1950s, Sydney University struggled to compete with the leading teams in First Grade. The limited amount of international and inter-State cricket meant that Test players appeared regularly for their clubs (especially in seasons like 1953-54 and 1955-56 when no Tests were played); University teams, on the other hand, were still chosen entirely from the ranks of undergraduates. This resulted, too often, in a serious imbalance of strength. University did have a Test player in its ranks – opening batsman Saxon White – but, unfortunately, he had earned his international caps in Rugby Union. As it happened, a number of internationals (Richie Benaud, Alan Davidson, Jim Burke, Ian Craig and Pat Crawford) missed a large part of the 1956-57 season because they were engaged in Australia’s marathon tour to England, India and Pakistan. But no-one thought this did anything to enhance Sydney University’s prospects. After all, University had finished last in 1955-56 with the dismal record of three draws and eight defeats.
Frank Stening: 1955 was my first year in grade straight from school. It was daunting to be playing with and against names you had only heard of and not met. Grade cricket in those days was strong and you played regularly against the state players and internationals. Remember too, that NSW was virtually the Test side. And there were many grade cricketers as good as the internationals playing in the competition. In 1955 Peter Hall was our captain, a debonair and slightly eccentric architectural student/graduate. He would arrive at the cricket attired in a Uni Blues blazer driving a vintage car or Bentley that stood out amongst the opposition, and us, especially at places like Bankstown. He was unfailingly polite and a handy, but not brilliant, cricketer. My second game in First Grade was on the Monday of the long weekend against Manly at Manly and Keith Miller was captaining Manly. There was a decent crowd there to see Miller, who had been controversially dropped from the Test side. I can remember he strolled into our dressing room before the start not knowing any of us except Saxon, and wanted to know our captain. Peter timidly, but very presentably, indicated he was and Miller immediately demanded 'do you want to bat or bowl?' Peter responded that he thought we should toss, to which Miller responded 'you bat', which we did. They beat us by an innings in the day and Miller did virtually nothing other than to run me out. That was really how we were accepted in grade and we ended the season not winning a game and having, I think, one draw.
Saxon White: While we knew each other well, the University side was regarded as boys among men… which, if you consider the age of the team, was pretty right.
Don Scott-Orr: We had been very short of respect for a long time. Present club members would have little idea of what it was like from the time when I started at University. We were constantly under threat of exclusion from the competition by the pressures from other clubs and districts who resented any of their locals who went off to play with us and who saw us a weak club with little in the way of on field achievements. Although we only fielded four teams we had great difficulty in filling their vacancies as students ‘disappeared’ towards season's end. The heroes of this era were the club secretaries. On the committee we were constantly faced with such challenges and perhaps only just survived at one stage because our NSWCA representative, Sid Webb, a lawyer, was also the free legal advisor to the Association. Sports Union fees were not compulsory and we barely had the funds to keep equipment up to scratch (at one stage the Sports Union Secretary actually took some of our precious equipment into his office for safe keeping). Morale was often low.
Morale did not improve in the opening weeks of the season. University had a good attack, which bowled Wests out for 146 in the opening game, but when rain ended play University was unconvincingly placed at five for 70. Two more batting collapses (for 118 and 97) cost University any chance of points against Bankstown and Mosman. Even when University’s form improved, the team could not clinch a win. Chasing 204 against Waverley, Don Scott-Orr and Saxon White began with an unbroken opening stand of 111, before University ran out of time. Scott-Orr (64) and White (42) set up a decent total of 9 for 218 against Balmain, but University’s bowlers could not separate the ninth wicket pair, and Balmain hung on for a draw. After Round Five, University was thirteenth (out of sixteen) on the competition table, having earned two points for each draw, and one for each defeat.
In the sixth game, University – without a win in its last sixteen matches – played Petersham, which then led the competition. University was missing its two regular new ball bowlers, Bernie Amos (who had medical exams) and the injured Dick Woodfield. Middle-order batsman Graham Reed was missing, too.
Graham Reed: The 56-57 season was well and truly my worst season at the club, completely my own fault, as I had a bad attitude I must say. My exams were over, I fell in love and I lacked motivation. I met my wife Jo (the present and only one) just before the Olympic Games in Melbourne, and she had tickets for the Athletics and Swimming – so I missed Rounds Six and Seven!
Tony Edgar and Jack McDonald were promoted to play their one and only First Grade match of the season.
Graham Reed: Tony Edgar was a handy leg spin bowler, flighted it well with a wrong ‘un. He played mostly Second Grade – we had Saxon White and Don Scott-Orr, so there was no room for him in the side.
For want of alternatives, Edgar opened the bowling and justified the decision by breaking the opening partnership. Then left-arm opening bowler David Walker and off-spinner Don Scott-Orr claimed nine wickets between them to dismiss Petersham for 148. Peter Hall emerged from his dismal start to the season (he averaged just eight after his first five innings) to hit 50 and at 2 for 107, University appeared to be cantering home. But University then collapsed spectacularly to State fast bowler Bruce Livingstone and former Worcestershire off-spinner Noel Hughes, losing eight wickets for 43 runs. Fortunately, number ten batsman Walker chopped the winnings runs from Livingstone’s bowling immediately before he was dismissed.
For a time, it seemed likely that University might also win its next game, against Manly: chasing 213, University reached four for 139, an hour’s solid batting away from victory. Unhappily, Manly’s State bowlers, Tom Brooks and Peter Philpott, then grabbed six wickets for only nine runs. The Students, it seemed, had reverted to type.
Except that they hadn’t. Seemingly out of nowhere, the team discovered some new resolve with the bat, and assembled a very effective attack.
Don Scott-Orr: We were a good bowling side. Frank Stening was frighteningly fast – as fast as any bowler in the State. Dick Woodfield has also quietly matured as a fast medium trundler. Dave Walker opened the bowling with Frank and Bernie Amos was a reliable stock bowler. When Keith Sheffield was then brought into the side, as a graduate taking on the captaincy (the only circumstance that a graduate was permitted in those days), he noted that we lacked a slow bowler and there was discussion about me being tried - I suspected most of the discussion lacked conviction. I immediately began to get wickets and I well remember Keith's highly amused delight when Wilf Ewens (a highly respected batsman) danced out to drive me on the off and missed my highly flighted delivery to be clean bowled, when it actually turned (mostly I got little off the pitch and varied my out swerve and flight).
Graham Reed: Saxon White bowled a combination of tantalising off spin and medium-slow, flighting it well. Much the same as Scott-Orr really. Really, Scott-Orr bowled well-flighted nothing balls.
Neil Marks: Scott-Orr? He bowled… donkey drops!
Saxon White: We were very good in the field; the throwing and catching was excellent. David de Carvalho as wicket-keeper was a great team man for the fielders and bowlers. And the persistence and skill of the attack were outstanding. David Walker with his magnificent left arm high action and the right arm Frank Stening were fast, Dick Woodfield and Bernie Amos (left arm around the wicket) were line and length and hard to get away.
Frank Stening: We began to hold our own and scramble a few wins and draws. Suddenly I think we beat Northern Districts at Waitara in a stirring finish, and Keith Sheffield had the temerity to suggest that if we won our next three games we could make the semi-finals. They were against Paddington, the strong St George and North Sydney. We would not have been favourites against any of these teams. Ted Cotton and Jack Clark were at Paddo, Booth and Saunders, Vic Michael and Keith Francis at St George and John King and the Springs at North Sydney. But once we started winning we found we could do it again.
University ran up a solid total of 250 against Paddington, with Peter Hall hitting 53. Paddington was always off the pace on the second day after Bernie Amos removed the dangerous Ted Cotton for 42, and University won comfortably enough, by 47 runs. Suddenly, University found itself in equal fifth place, with Western Suburbs, only a point behind fourth-placed Randwick. But now it faced St George at Hurstville Oval.
Graham Reed: The pitch was a factor. It was grassy, green, kept low and suited the bowlers throughout. Keith Francis, who bowled off the wrong foot with a quick arm action, got the ball to shoot through low.
Francis, who played for New South Wales the following season, led the St George attack as University crumbled for 134, with only Peter Hall (56) resisting for long. But Frank Stening made an early breakthrough when Warren Saunders edged the ball through to David deCarvalho behind the stumps.
Frank Stening: Norm O'Neill was not playing but they did have Brian Booth, Warren Saunders and others. They went in expecting to knock the runs up in a few minutes but they were routed for 80 and Dick Woodfield, who sadly died recently, took 7 for 37. They were devastated and we suddenly had some hope.
Yet University remained in fifth place. Western Suburbs had beaten Balmain outright after dismissing them for 20 in the first innings, with the great Alan Davidson taking 6-4. So with one round remaining, Glebe led the table with 63 points, followed by Mosman (53), Manly (48), Wests (47) and University (44).
Frank Stening: But North Sydney at North Sydney were a tough ask. We batted first again and didn't make too many. They had to bat for a few overs before stumps and we had them 2 for very little but John King, an excellent bat just below Shield status, was not out.
Keith Sheffield’s 44 was the backbone of University’s modest total of 156. North Sydney made measured progress towards the target on the second day, with John King looking in ominous form.
Frank Stening: On that second Saturday I hadn’t bowled very well, certainly not as well as I had been expected to bowl. Keith Sheffield took me off and put me at short backward square leg. I never liked that position. John King was a lovely bat and I had played rep cricket with him in the NSW Seconds and Colts, and I knew how well he could bat. He was looking good, and Dick Woodfield bowled him one on his legs which he glanced. I can remember thinking, “Damn it, there’s no fine leg, so I’d better make it look good”, so I dived to the right and no one was more surprised than me that I suddenly found a ball in my hand. I can remember John cursing his bad luck but he was the one we had to get.
With King back in the pavilion, Don Scott-Orr picked his way through North Sydney’s middle and lower order. When Ken Spring swiped a shortish delivery to Peter Hall at wide mid-on, Scott-Orr had taken 6-37 and University emerged with a victory by 15 runs. Western Suburbs won its match easily enough, but Manly, placed third going into the last round, lost to Glebe, and so University (which had never once been in the top four until the final day of the regular rounds) claimed the last place in the semi-finals.
Underdog stories are meant to end with one last improbable victory against the odds. This one doesn’t. Glebe had a fast, bouncy home pitch and an extremely rapid young opening bowler, the future Test player, Frank Misson. University’s pace spearhead, Frank Stening, had broken a rib in diving to catch John King at North Sydney, and couldn’t play.
Don Scott-Orr: The State selector, Jack Chegwyn, met Saxon and me on the way to the game and commented that we could win it if we could 'hold out Misson'. We didn't.
University batted first and managed only 91 on a fiery pitch. But its ability to retaliate with the ball was cruelly constrained.
Don Scott-Orr: Frank Stening was out, and when Glebe batted, Dave Walker (fellow opening bowler to Frank) and Bernie Amos (our reliable stock bowler) both broke down. Though I got a couple of quick wickets I was never a stock bowler but was used, of necessity, to bowl the highest number of overs in the high heat and I suffered an assault from big-hitting Jack Rowley.
With the talented Ron Kissell scoring 54, Glebe took a first innings lead of 133. When University batted again, Scott-Orr salvaged some pride with a fighting half-century. He ended a remarkable season with over 500 runs and 41 wickets. But it was Glebe who carried on to the final (where Western Suburbs, inspired by Alan Davidson, outplayed them to claim the premiership). And yet University emerged from the season with newfound confidence and respect.
Frank Stening: We came from a winless 1955-56 to a semi-final in 1956-57 with virtually the same set of fellows. Same set of players, no set of superstars but a really good collection of blokes. I saw Peter Hall a few years before his death. He was the man who finished the Opera House after Utzon was discharged, but I remember him recalling this cricket transformation as one of his proudest memories.