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Greatness calling: Lawry chases his champions

24 December 2017
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Former Test captain and legendary Nine commentator Bill Lawry has spent a lifetime pursuing the best of the best in his two chosen fields

About the Writer:
 @AdamBurnett09

Adam Burnett previously wrote for and edited at Inside Cricket magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and The Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK.

Bill Lawry is up at daybreak. He doesn't have to be, but routines forged over a lifetime can be difficult to change. Besides, his is not a drag-yourself-out-of-bed kind of awake; despite his advancing years, his passion for life burns bright, no matter how early the hour. And out on his property in the Nillumbik Shire, within cooee of Melbourne's north-eastern suburbs and on the edge of the green belt, Bill's day is alive with possibilities.

"I jump out of bed every morning," he says. "I'm just living the life I've always enjoyed."

There's been a storm overnight, which means fallen branches need to be cleared, and there is always a pocket of shrubs to prune, or a section of grass to mow across his two-and-a-half acres.

But the pigeons are his priority. It's been the case since he was a nine-year-old cleaning out his brother's coop before school. He swings open the door of the loft, where there's a hundred of them awaiting their morning training regimen.

Somewhere in there, among the feathers and the flapping and the faeces, is his next superstar. The one he'll be talking about as the years wear on.

"They're on my mind 24 hours a day actually," Bill says. "I'm always thinking, 'How can I breed another champion?'"

***

Champions run deep in the Lawry narrative. As a Test opener, he was one himself; with Bob Simpson, he forged the most prolific partnership Test cricket had seen, a record that stood for a couple of decades until it was eclipsed by Greenidge and Haynes. This summer marks 50 years since he and Simpson last strapped on the pads together, their deeds forever part of Australian cricket lore, but nowadays mere historical footnotes in the context of the sport's contemporary crush.

Lawry was renowned as a hard cricketer. He was a man who refused to kowtow to the nuances of the gentleman's game; one of his first acts as Test captain was to deny an Indian batsman a runner, much to the chagrin of his watching compatriots. He was fiercely parochial towards Victoria, too; an unapologetic passion for his state undermined him at times as a captain and selector and later underpinned the larger-than-life character he became in the commentary box.

Lawry was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2010 // Getty
Lawry was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2010 // Getty

Lawry turned 80 this year but he's not inclined to agree he might have softened since those playing days.

"I don't think my pigeons would think I have – I train them now harder than ever," he says, before adding that laugh that has echoed around the country for 40 summers.

"But I don't think I was hard – I really don't. I just loved the competition; I loved the challenge of playing against the best, and making runs or failing – whatever it was."

But come on, Bill. There were times when people derided you for your conservative captaincy; they said you were killing cricket. Surely you would agree yours was a win-at-all-costs mentality… 

"Well I didn't play the game to lose! I'm a very simple person. I played 110 per cent to win, and if I couldn't win, I'd give 120 per cent not to lose," he says.

"You get to a stage in a Test match where you've got no hope of winning and I think that's when I was at my best … sometimes it's very difficult to save a game and it's quite easy to give up and think, 'There's another one coming up next week'.

"Well that wasn't my philosophy."


***

Lawry was an extreme competitor but cricket wasn't the be-all and end-all for him in the manner it was to some of his peers. He played baseball in the winter and his pigeon fancying was an all-year round pursuit, while his working-class routes taught him the importance of family.

"My day was a six-hour day at the cricket," he says. "When six o'clock came, I wouldn't have a sleepless night because I'd made a duck or we got beat. Life's too short for that."

Today the majority of his time is divided between the pigeons, the property and his partner, Joy. The pair met on a blind date when Bill was 19 and Joy was 17, and they were married in 1962. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Susan, and in the mid-1990s they moved out of the hustle and bustle of Melbourne for a quieter life a little further afield. Here they continue to navigate life's challenges as a couple; Joy has a permanent back problem, which can dictate the direction of their days together. 

"We just take it easy," Bill says. "On the good days we do things, and on the not-so-good days we do not so much."

He'll deny he has softened but his diligent support for his wife suggests otherwise, while there's surely no getting around the cliché that perhaps theirs is his greatest partnership?

"I better say yes, hadn't I?" he says, the laugh re-emerging. "We were lucky enough to meet when we were young and we've had our life together ever since.

"We're very lucky having a good family around us and we just enjoy each other's company."

The Lawry daughters and their respective families are close by, and family remains the fulcrum upon which their simple existence is built. When in February Bill turned 80, they got together for a low-key dinner, as they do for most birthdays.

"No big celebrations for me," he says. "We're basically very quiet."

Which suits Bill perfectly. Garrulous and excitable in the commentary box, he's otherwise a private man, preferring solitary pursuits, and avian over human companionship much of the time.

"I'm not the most social person," he says. "I'm happy in my own company, and with the few friends I've got."

***

He rattles off the names as he views them in his mind's eye, his words and memories reserved for the best of the best, those types who captivated crowds and made hairs stand up on the backs of necks.

"My last Test was Dennis Lillee's first," he says. "Then along came Warne. And a player like Gilchrist."

The proliferation of Twenty20 cricket robs players of an opportunity to build those legacies. The shorter formats, he says, are spectacular but disposable forms of entertainment, forgotten soon after their conclusion, serving today's appetite for the immediate while brusquely turning their back on history.

Lawry with the new commentary wave - Michael Slater and Shane Warne \\ Getty
Lawry with the new commentary wave - Michael Slater and Shane Warne \\ Getty

"It's all over in five minutes," he says, and the thoughts tumble out, almost stream of consciousness. "A bloke can make a career out of getting 1-24 from four overs. He's not being challenged. He might be part of the entertainment but he's not facing the acid test day in, day out like fast bowlers do when they're playing top batsmen.

"They expected Lillee to knock over three batsmen in the first session and if he didn't they'd ask questions.

"Bat all day and try to make 300 on a dicey wicket – that's a challenge.

"Those things could disappear."

And it is those challenges that produce the legends that have so enamoured Lawry. The figures who have punctuated every generation with their genius. He admires them in other fields, too. He speaks of rugby league Immortal-in-waiting Cameron Smith, and the legacy he'll leave in his sport. Of Winx, the unbeatable racehorse.

"It's important to have your heroes," he says, and you get the sense he's looking inward.

***

Lawry remembers how it was in the early days. His dad, Alfred, received two weeks' holidays over Christmas and the whole family would ride the train from Croxton down to Jolimont. From there they walked across to the mighty Melbourne Cricket Ground, where young Bill was glued to every ball of the Victoria versus New South Wales Boxing Day match in the Sheffield Shield. It was a simpler time, long before broadcast deals and multiple formats.

"I spent my youth sitting in the front row of the Southern Stand," Lawry says. "Now I'm sitting at the opposite end of the ground.

"I look to the right, at the Members, and I see these people on the edge of their seats. They're watching the best players in the world, and they know it's something special.

"Maybe that crowd is dying out, with everything being so packaged nowadays. But they sit there and they say, 'How good is this?'"

It's a surprising moment of nostalgia. Typically, Lawry isn't one for sentiment. He's not dismissive of the past but he doesn't yearn for it, either.

"I'm not like that – I move on," he says. "I'm a bit strange like that."

History suggests it has always been his way. A built-in acceptance of fate and a blinkered view once sealed. The day he found out he had been unceremoniously axed as Test captain – news that filtered through to him over the radio – he came home from Adelaide and was asked 'what now?' by Joy.

"I said, 'I'm going to get up in the morning, feed the birds and go to work'."

***

It's hard to separate his name from some others. Richie. Tony. Maxie Walker. Trueman. The men who sat beside him, as together they watched cricketers become icons, and acts of brilliance become classic moments. In some small way, he and his colleagues even helped shape the game's evolution.

Bill concedes he misses the company of his former friends and sparring partners, though he stops short of melancholy. 

"You look there, and they're not there, but I mean, you just have to move on unfortunately," he says, before pausing on the influence of Benaud, a man who undeniably holds a special place in his memories.

"Richie was my first captain. My most successful tour was my first tour (of England in 1961), and he gave me the opportunity.

"Then of course, when Channel Nine came in, I felt like I was with my captain again. He was the doyen; he'd been doing television in England for 15 years. I'd had no ambitions to be a television caller; my plan was to be the best pigeon fancier I could be."

Lawry with Richie Benaud, his first Test captain // Getty
Lawry with Richie Benaud, his first Test captain // Getty

In fact, Bill was in the loft when the phone call came through all those years ago. Joy answered, and carried the message to her husband: there was a man on the phone wanting to talk about World Series Cricket.

"And this was when no-one knew about it," says Bill, forever the raconteur. "I said, 'Ask him where they're going to play their matches'. He said they were going to play at the showgrounds in Sydney, the trotting track in Perth, and the football park in Melbourne.

"I said, 'Just tell him I'm not interested'."

Five minutes later, the phone rang again. Same bloke. Same pitch. But this time with the addition of eight magic words. 

"He said, 'It's me again – Richie wants you to join the commentary team'."

It was all the convincing he needed.


***

Together with Ian Chappell, Lawry stands as a link to the halcyon days of the Wide World of Sports commentary team. The group that was satirised and immortalised by Billy Birmingham's The Twelfth Man parodies. Tellingly however, he is no anachronism, and it is through the minds of the audience that he has moved subtly with the passage of time. 

For Birmingham, Bill was the punchline. The proud Victorian with the prominent nose and the histrionics on the microphone provided no end of fodder. That he frequently butted heads with Tony Greig only made the spoof more delicious. And the punters ate it up. Bill Lawry: This is Your Life was another hit record for the Australian comedian. Gradually, Lawry's real-life persona even began to blend with the caricature, to the point that mimicking fans would routinely follow his catch cry of Got 'im, yes! with Birmingham's Piss off, you're out! in loungerooms and pubs across Australia.

But since Benaud's death in 2015, that perception has changed. Bill is the first to say he will never be Richie but his seniority among a new generation in the commentary box commands respect. Once the joker in the pack, Lawry himself is approaching doyen status, all the while retaining his trademark humour and blending it with the sort of analysis that comes from seven decades of watching cricket.

The senior members of the Nine commentary team back in 2010 // Getty
The senior members of the Nine commentary team back in 2010 // Getty

He and Benaud of course had contrasting styles behind the microphone. So what exactly did he learn from his captain?

"Not very much, by the way I talk all the time," he laughs, then considers the question further. "I learned from Richie to be yourself.

"As a captain he was very quietly spoken. He let you do your own thing and if he thought you weren't on the right track he'd give you a bit of quiet advice.

"It was much the same in the commentary box, but he realises everybody's different; I couldn't be a Richie Benaud and certainly he couldn't be a Bill Lawry. So you had to be yourself.

"But he was always there. You always felt like, both playing when he was captain, and as captain of the Channel Nine team, while Richie was there you were in a safe place.

"If there was any panic, you threw Richie into the box and everything was calm.

"Like when rain stopped play, the cry would go out, 'Where's Richie?'"

Richie, the metaphorical – and literal – refuge in a storm.


***

A life spent with pigeons and cricket has taught him patience. He won't miss a ball in a day's play, waiting for the moment that will be written about and replayed, and discussed in years to come. In the social media era, where distraction rules, Lawry is a man apart, devoutly absorbing the action.

"I go home tired because I've played every ball, dropped every catch," he says. "Not all games are great but there's always something interesting that happens. Any given day somebody does something special, and that's what I remember."

He waits on his birds, too. Watching the sky with a mixture of hope and faith. Given the distance of their journeys, and the perils they face, even their returns can be cause for quiet celebration, and an indication of something special.

"We sit here waiting for them to come from 500 miles," he says. "The chances of them getting here, with the weather and the falcons and everything else, you have to be very patient … but the good ones survive.

"Breeding champions is very difficult, no matter how good you think your birds are."

Which makes him appreciate it all the more when he sees one.


***

Befitting his nature, Bill relishes being behind the microphones and the cameras. It is as close to privacy as he will get in such a public space. As such, it has become a sanctuary for him. Amid the hype and the production and the mega business of modern sport, he is at peace in the eye of the storm.

"The commentary box to me now is like the dressing room once was," he says. "That's where I like to be. And I like to be in the company of some of the great captains. Mark Taylor and Ian Chappell, and you've got Clarkey (Michael Clarke) now.

"You think how lucky you are to be still mixing with today's players when you played fifty or sixty years ago."

He speaks with great admiration for Channel Nine rugby league commentator Ray Warren, who is ubiquitous with the game he calls and heard but seldom seen; traits that make him cut from the same cloth as Lawry.

"I'm not a television personality – I'm a caller," he says. "And I've just become a voice. Richie's up front, Mark Nicholas – they're the on-camera guys."

He strays into present tense when speaking of Benaud. Old habits. And his general point is tinged with irony, because it's his personality that has made his voice part of the fabric of an Australian summer. With his critics, that familiarity has bred contempt, but Lawry has been around long enough to know he won't please all of the people all of the time; he accepted that during his playing career and carried it with him into the commentary box.

"I reckon half the people would think I'm alright and half the people probably think I'm very ordinary. I just hope they're enjoying the cricket as much as I am," he says, and elaborates on a common gripe from the staid.

"When a wicket falls, people say 'Why do you yell out?'. Well, there might only be two wickets all day, and if people are fiddling around in the kitchen and a wicket falls, I want them watching, because that's a big moment of a day's play.

"People want a bit of a buzz, and a wicket is a buzz, particularly if Australia are bowling."

***

A less-discussed Lawry truth is revealed when he harks back to a Test match in February 1970, against South Africa in Durban. The verve that is ever-present in his commentary enriches the reflections.

"We were getting slaughtered by Pollock and Richards," he says of Proteas legends Graeme and Barry, who assaulted the Australians to the tune of 274 and 140 respectively across a couple of days.

"I was at cover next to Paul Sheahan, and they were both a couple of hundred, just splitting us all the time.

"But really, even though we were getting hammered, it was a moment of enjoyment – to see these two great players in full flight was something special.

"It must have been the same coming up against Bradman.

"When you get somebody that's outstanding, sometimes you've just got to stand back and say, 'Hey – this is something special'. Even if it's hurting you. Even if you're bleeding to death."

For Lawry, the captain renowned for delighting in the vanquishing of an opponent, witnessing champions in their pomp – even at his own expense – could trump his deep-seated competitive instincts. Perhaps commentary was a calling. Nowadays he can sit back at the MCG, the Members to his right, and watch the new wave of champions build their legacies. Steve Smith is one, the unorthodox batting savant who Bill says can add thousands through the gate at every Test around the country this summer "because people love to see the great players".

"I've seen Gilchrist become one of the world's best allrounders; a wicketkeeper-batsman was never heard of once," he adds. "Lillee running in and knocking over Viv Richards.

"They're moments you never forget. You forget the ordinary things but you remember the great things."

***


Bill fears his two sporting passions are slowly dying.

Generationally, the pigeon fancying could end with him. A hobby, which became a passion, was born and flourished in another era. When time was measured in days and months and years, not seconds and minutes. No-one has the patience – or seemingly the time – for pigeon racing nowadays.

"If I'd had sons I would've tried," Bill says when asked if he had considered passing his pastime on within the family.

"In my day, we had pigeons and dogs and chooks, and everybody had animals. Well today, in all the working-class people's suburbs, the backyards are too small – they're lucky to even have a dog.

"So it's a dying hobby, which is a shame."

Same goes for Test cricket. The format that breeds the true champions. Like pigeon fancying, people are increasingly either unable to commit such significant blocks of their time to the one activity, or they simply don't possess the attention span to want to.

Lawry says Steve Smith adds thousands to Test crowds // Getty
Lawry says Steve Smith adds thousands to Test crowds // Getty

As he explains it, an end to Test cricket would mean the end of hope, not just for Lawry, but for all those who watch the sport to revel in the achievements of the supremely skilful.

"I think it'd be terrible if in 20 or 30 years there's no chance of there being another Bradman," he says.

"There will never be one but you just hope there might be one, and if you take away Test cricket you take away that hope.

"You won't have people screaming Lillee, Lillee, Lillee as he's coming in to an English batsman.

"That's what's at stake."

Despite his unbridled passion for the traditions of Test cricket, Lawry understands the need for adaptability. He is an advocate of the two-division concept, and understands the benefits of day-night and four-day Test matches.

Survival is his bottom line.

"I would hope that Test cricket is still going strong in 50 years' time," he says, and casts his mind back to throw further forward.

"I hope the greats will continue to put up their hands as they have done for centuries, and we'll be talking about a Bradman or a Warne or a Lillee or a Gavaskar or a Sobers forever.

"That's what I hope will happen; whether it does or not, only time will tell."

***


Right now, Bill is content. More than that, in fact.

"Simple, straightforward, and very happy," he says. "That's my combination."

He knows his four decades of service at Channel Nine has allowed him to set his own retirement date, and he sees no reason to finish up just yet, despite some concern from those closest to him that he might be stretching himself a little thin.

"I've got a lot of pressure from my family," he says with a laugh. "They wanted me to retire five years ago. If Joy was healthy I'd be doing all the cricket – I just love it. How lucky have I been the last 40 years watching the best cricketers in the world from the best position in the world?

"So I don't know. I never look that far ahead."

Instead, he'll limit his plans to tomorrow, just as he has always done.

"I'm a morning person – I get out there and get into it, and if the birds are going well, I have a great day," he says.

"Of course, the champions are very rare; not too many Don Bradmans around the pigeon world, I'll tell you that."

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