The Age Article by Greg Baum 11 October 2019
In 1905, the Brunswick Street Oval was said to be second only to the MCG as an arena. For the best part of 100 years, Fitzroy teams graced its turf, winter and summer. Triple Brownlow medallist Haydn Bunton played there the year round. The six Harvey brothers lived in Argyle Street and went to school in Falconer Street and populated Fitzroy’s first XI for decades, amassing around 800 games, meantime appearing three at a time for Victoria. When the teenaged Neil Harvey was first picked for Australia in 1948, he borrowed a bat from the Fitzroy kit.
“Brunswick Street was one of the great cricket grounds in Melbourne,” remembers the 79-Test superstar, now the last surviving Invincible. “They had a beautiful wicket.”
By the mid-1980s, though, Brunswick Street was all but derelict. The football club had shipped out 20 years previously, and after much wandering in the wilderness had been subsumed into Brisbane.
The walls were gone, and with them the ground’s defences against Fitzroy’s gentrification. The cricketers had to play around shoppers strolling in the outfield and sometimes a tent pitched there, too. Graham Harvey, a successor to the dynasty, remembers counting only one local in the top three XIs.
Illustration: Jim PavlidisCREDIT:JIM PAVLIDIS
The suburb had become too hip for cricket, the council uninterested. Left to maintain their own wickets, the club found it impossible. Gary Watts, the eldest of three brothers from Maryborough who took up the Harvey’s mantle, between them playing more than 700 games, recalls arriving one Saturday to find a pitch cut half on the square, half on the outfield. So much for Harvey’s beautiful wicket. In 1986, the club moved to Doncaster and Watts in time became District cricket’s greatest run-maker, as well as opening the batting for two Sheffield Shield-winning teams.
Renewal came slowly to Brunswick Street. Edinburgh Cricket Club, the local park team, moved in. At length, the Reds, Melbourne University Football Club’s social team, now reconstituted as Fitzroy, followed, then the landscapers. When Brisbane won its first AFL flag in 2001, it celebrated the next morning at Brunswick Street, teenager Jonathan Brown declaring: “I’m proud today to be a Lion - a Fitzroy Lion.” Drawing on the cachet of the name, Fitzroy FC is a rising force in the amateurs. Last month, 10-year president Joan Eddy was gonged at the Football Woman of the Year awards.
Meantime, counter-intuitively, Edinburgh Cricket Club thrived. Including juniors and women, it now boasts more than 40 teams. And yet something still was missing. One of cricket’s many eccentric charms is that it is traditionally played on a surface that itself is a force and factor in the game, “a third team” says author Gideon Haigh, mysterious, whimsical, promiscuous, contrary. “Pitches are like wives,” English legend Len Hutton once said. “You never know how they’re going to turn out.”
Notwithstanding, Edinburgh CC wanted one. It began with a grant of $50,000, and raised another $100,000 itself. State government MP Richard Wynne, a former player, flew the flag and the once-apathetic local council came on board. It took a while to cultivate and lay, but last week, against a sparkling backdrop of city lights, five turf pitches were inaugurated at Brunswick Street.
The footy club was there: it would not miss this party. Neil Harvey was invited, but at 91 was not quite up to the trip from Sydney. None the less, The Age can attest from a recent conversation at Lord’s that his fondness for Fitzroy has not dulled. Graham Harvey, himself a first XI premiership player, came to represent the clan, and Gary and Leigh Watts came, too, and in true cricket club tradition, were in occupation for a long, long time. Gary wished for the bowlers that they would find a pitch like the one he played on, and for the batsman a pitch one like Harvey found so much to his liking!
Some time during the night, a veteran player said he might not have cared to live in Fitzroy in his playing days and could not afford to now. Indeed, the neighbourhood is unrecognisable: the gasworks next door, the last identifiable feature, are now rubble and soon will be a designer “village”. And yet the local cricket club, far from a remnant, is bursting at the seams with juniors and now plays literally on its own turf. In every sense, it is a victory for grass roots.