Sheffield Shield 2021-22
Following in legends' footsteps, Henry's hunt for a Test cap
Rising South Australia opener Henry Hunt isn't getting too far ahead of himself as Sheffield Shield runs continue to flow
23 November 2021, 07:44 AM AEST
It's remarkable, given he hails from a town of barely 2,000 people, that newly named Australia A opener Henry Hunt is not the most famous cricketer to emerge from Grenfell in the rich pastoral country of New South Wales' central-west.
That honour, for now, belongs to Stan McCabe whose run-a-minute 232 in the 1938 Ashes Test at Trent Bridge entered folklore when then-captain, Don Bradman, welcomed his teammate back to the pavilion upon his dismissal with "if I could play an innings like that, I'd be a proud man, Stan".
In truth, Hunt is not even the most famous Henry to have come out of Grenfell given the neighbouring goldfields – which ensured the stagecoach routes in and out of town were rife with bushrangers during the 19th Century – were the birthplace of bush poet, Henry Lawson.
But as the Marsh Sheffield Shield's pre-eminent opening batter since the start of the 2020-21 summer, whose run-making exploits have been recognised by national selectors for next month's Ashes preparation and tour game against England Lions in Brisbane, Hunt is forging his own legend.
And just as Bradman's self-taught technique was fashioned in solitary sessions with a golf ball and a single stump, Australia's new opener-in-waiting relied on items at hand to sharpen his skills while growing up on his family's 500-hectare sheep farm.
Rather than the base of a circular rainwater tank, Hunt employed a rudimentary bowling machine his father, James (a former first-grade rugby league representative for Canberra Raiders) had sourced from nearby.
With a length of malthoid matting rolled out atop the gravel surface of the farmhouse's backyard tennis court, young Henry would enlist the assistance of whichever family member was available and willing to fire balls at him via the archaic apparatus.
"My pop's pretty much the only one in our pedigree that actually plays cricket, so I obviously got the genes from him," Hunt told cricket.com.au on the eve of today's South Australia's Shield match against Queensland at Karen Rolton Oval.
"Dad wouldn't know which end of the bat to hold.
"But having uncles come over at Christmas and playing cricket with them, and then getting mates around over summer holidays for games, as well as having the tennis court out back with the bowling machine, I hit a lot of balls at home growing up.
"And I guess that's helped a lot with what's happening now, through all the hours I spent hitting balls on the tennis court, on the rubber mat."
The jibe about his dad's cricket acumen was delivered in jest, but football is clearly the dominant code at chez Hunt.
Henry's younger sisters are both forging stellar careers in soccer, with 23-year-old Clare recently joining Western Sydney Wanderers in the W-League after a couple of injury-riddled seasons and 18-year-old Anna blazing a trial through Canberra United's development ranks having already made the Junior Matildas squad.
Henry admits he was initially keen to follow his dad's sporting path to rugby league, but by adolescence it had become brutally obvious he was better built for cricket.
"I played football locally at under-14 and under-16 level but it was the size factor ... I just didn't have the size," Hunt recalled.
"When I got to 15 or 16, I came up against some pretty big, strong boys and I was just getting battered, so I made the wise decision to pull the pin on football and just put my focus on cricket.
"Looking back, it was probably a smart decision."
By age 17, Hunt had moved from Grenfell Cricket Club to Queanbeyan in the ACT competition where he peeled off 148 as an opener in the first two-day game of his maiden season.
From there, he won selection in the NSW/ACT Country Comets and was a member of the Australia squad for the 2016 under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, playing in a preparatory tri-series against Pakistan and New Zealand in the UAE before Cricket Australia decided not to send a team to Dhaka on security grounds.
As such, apart from a brief stint with Brighton and Hove in the UK's Sussex Premier League in 2016 and a fortnight in Sri Lanka representing Sydney University in the World University Games' T20 competition the following year, Hunt's playing experience has been largely within Australia.
But it was as he progressed from the Cricket ACT program (under coaches including former New South Wales and South Australia all-rounder Mark Higgs) to Sydney's Premier Cricket that Hunt began to wonder where his pursuit of a professional contract might take him.
He played two seasons at Northern District where he finished as leading runs-scorer in 2017-18, and then crossed to Eastern Suburbs where he equalled the fastest hundred (off 45 balls) in the Kingsgrove Sports T20 Cup.
However, when the star-studded Blues released their contracted players squad for 2019-20 with rookie deals going to Ryan Hackney, Ryan Hadley, Baxter Holt, Ollie Davies, Matt Gilkes and Chad Sammut, Hunt was open to offers from elsewhere.
And it was approaches from SA's high performance boss Tim Nielsen and talent manager Shaun Williams that saw him head to Adelaide on a rookie contract for the start of that summer.
"To be honest, I didn't really know where my cricket was leading me," Hunt said.
"I always had aspirations to be a professional cricketer, but in terms of how and where I'd end up, I'd never really put those eggs in the one basket to play for New South Wales.
"Any opportunity you'd get anywhere, in a high-performance system as a contracted player, you're always going to take, so when South Australia came and offered me a rookie contract, I wasn't going to knock it back.
"I also saw it as a good fit because it suits my lifestyle.
"Adelaide is a big country town.
"It's easy to get around, there's no traffic and I guess that's the biggest positive in comparison to Sydney."
From the moment he arrived in Adelaide, where he initially shared digs with his under-19 World Cup squad teammate Wes Agar, Hunt impressed the SA Cricket Association hierarchy with his preparedness to work hard and willingness to learn.
He was installed as Jake Weatherald's opening partner for the opening Marsh Sheffield Shield game of 2019-20, and has played every Shield game for the Redbacks since then.
In that time, only Test representatives Cameron Green, Shaun Marsh and Travis Head have scored more than Hunt's 1455 runs (from 20 innings at an average of 39.32) which is also 171 runs more than the next-best Shield opener – Test incumbent Marcus Harris.
But it's Hunt's capacity to bat for long periods, against new ball and old, that has won him the support of the national selection panel and praise from its chair, George Bailey.
Only Queensland's Bryce Street – who will likely partner Hunt at the top of the order for Australia A against England Lions next month – has faced more deliveries than the South Australian in Shield cricket over the past two-and-a-bit years.
And Hunt credits his tightened technique to the Redbacks recently appointed batting coach Steve Stubbings (with whom he was working assiduously in the nets at Rolton Oval on match eve), as well as his union with Weatherald.
"The person who's been the most influence on my batting since I've been over here would be Steven Stubbings," Hunt said of the former Derbyshire batter.
"My defence wasn't that great, I don't think, in my first year in Shield cricket but I've done a lot of work with Stubbo and then Weathers has been a good help and a good influence on me, especially last year during the COVID stages.
"I paired up with him and hit a lot of balls, and we did a lot of work around my defence and on his game as well.
"I just found that in first-class cricket, the bowlers are more consistent and going to attack your pegs and be around that third, fourth-stump line more often so I just had to smarten up and build a solid game around that.
"I love batting with Weathers, he's been great since I came here and really shown me the ropes.
"I commend him for that, he's made my life a lot easier and obviously he scores at a better rate than I do when we're in together, so it takes a lot of pressure off me and I can do my own thing.
"I reckon we gel really well, and I've loved working with him and loved learning off him."
It's perplexing that - given his T20 experiences and record in the shortest format, as well as his complementary skills with Bailey describing him as a "gun fielder" – that no KFC BBL club has yet shown any interest in the 24-year-old.
However, Hunt accepts that snub with the same country kid pragmatism he views his Australia A selection and the inevitable question as to whether he must now re-adjust his career ambitions to eye a potential Test cap.
"I just try and keep it as simple as I can and worry about the next game," he said.
"As soon as you get too far ahead of yourself, I think that's where you can fall into a bit of a heap.
"So I'll just focus on this game against Queensland, then I'll go up to Brisbane (with Australia A) and make sure I put my focus where I need to keep it.
"I see myself as a multi-dimensional player, and when the opportunity arises (in white-ball formats) I guess I just have to try and take it with both hands.
"I'll keep trying and prepping, but at the moment there's some good young players like the Kelly twins (Corey and Thomas) coming through here, who will get some opportunities.
"But it's a tough one to answer, that one."
A question that's less problematic is his level of keenness to get back to Grenfell, and the simplicity of country life, whenever a break in his cricket schedule allows.
Hunt is no great fan of spending winter at indoor nets facilities, training on synthetic pitches ("I did plenty of that as a kid"), so if travel restrictions lift next year he's hoping to gain an off-season stint in the UK or return to Darwin where he was a regular player in what's now the Cricket 365 program.
However, he also wants to factor in some time at home where he likes to head as soon as the final end-of-season function is finished in Adelaide.
Having completed the first year of a business management degree at Adelaide's Flinders University, after abandoning the teaching degree he began at Sydney, Hunt is not so certain his post-cricket life will see him take on the family sheep property.
And while his old childhood bowling friend will be waiting for him in one of the farm sheds, he's not planning to call it into action to keep his skills honed during his next visit.
"I tend not to pick up a bat at all when I'm at home these days," he said.
"And I think the bowling machine is pretty much in disrepair, with only cobwebs holding it together, so I'll leave that where it is."
South Australia squad: Travis Head (c), Alex Carey (wk), Wes Agar, Jake Carder, David Grant, Henry Hunt, Nathan McAndrew, Harry Nielsen, Lloyd Pope, Liam Scott, Jake Weatherald, Daniel Worrall
Queensland squad: Usman Khawaja (c), James Bazley, Joe Burns, Matthew Kuhnemann, Marnus Labuschagne, Jimmy Peirson (wk), Matthew Renshaw, Gurinder Sandhu, Jackson Sinfield, Mark Steketee, Bryce Street, Jack Wildermuth
Vodafone Men's Ashes v England
Nov 23-25: England v England Lions, Brisbane
Nov 30 – Dec 3: England v England Lions, Brisbane
Dec 1-3: Australian intra-squad match, Brisbane
Dec 9-12: Australia A v England Lions, Brisbane
First Test: December 8-12, The Gabba
Second Test: December 16-20, Adelaide Oval
Third Test: December 26-30, MCG
Fourth Test: January 5-9, SCG
Fifth Test: January 14-18, Perth Stadium