A solid body of work at club level the previous campaign results in an early appearance in the 1974/75 season as 12th man for the state. A fighting half century in a Colts match puts you in the frame. Then it happens, you’re selected to make your Sheffield Shield debut for the reigning champions, Victoria, at the concrete coliseum in Jolimont.
Life’s good, real good. How can it possibly get any better? Then reality strikes. Your opponent, Queensland, possess a potent new ball attack that includes Geoff Dymock and Tony Dell, both men having represented their country over the previous 12 months. Oh, and let’s not forget Thommo!
Following his match-winning haul of 6/46 in England’s 2nd innings of the opening Ashes Test of the summer three days earlier, Jeffrey Robert Thomson – one time Bankstown boy, now happily residing in Brisbane, has swept away the bitter after taste of his forgettable Test debut two summers prior. His capacity to launch a cricket ball at the body of an opponent at speeds of up to 160kmh would strike fear into the hearts (and minds) of batsmen for the remainder of the decade.
Sports science is in its infancy and the advent of protective head gear is still at the drawing board stage. The armoury which you pray will assist in blunting Thomson’s thunderbolts consists of a brand spanking new VCA cap and your bat. Good luck, you’re gonna need it.
Ronald Charles Nicholls, born on Saturday September 1 1951 would take the first tentative steps in his cricketing career for the YCW club in the old Sunshine league, turning out for the First XI at the tender age of 12. Nicholls played two seasons with his original team before transferring to Sunshine in the Sub District competition. By the age of 15, Nicholls was playing in a Crows senior side that would include local sporting icon Don Deeble and Northcote (VCA) veteran John Wildsmith. Nicholls describes Wildsmith as “a thorough gentlemen, and, with the exception of Shane Warne, the best spin bowler I saw”.
After completing his fourth summer at Selwyn Park Nicholls decided it was time to take the plunge and test himself in Melbourne’s premier cricketing competition. He joined Footscray at the start of 1970/71 and made an immediate impact at the Kennel by scoring a superb unbeaten century (122 not out) at Punt Road on Derby Day for the Bulldogs 2nd XI. It left the selection committee no option to promote the 19 year old, and when Hawthorn East-Melbourne ventured west in mid-November, Ron Nicholls became the 112th player to represent the Footscray Cricket Club at senior level since its entry into the Victorian Cricket Association in 1948/49.
The first afternoon of the match saw John Sharp (7/49 from 20 overs) destroy the visitors (109), their miserable effort with the willow provided a harder target to chase down than the hosts would’ve hoped when play resumed a week later. After struggling early the Footscray tail wagged sufficiently to push the Bulldogs (149) across the line. Nicholls’ recollection of his first time is a little hazy “My only memory of that game is how I went out, being caught and bowled by Bob Cowper. I didn’t make many runs” – he made 8.
By the end of February 1971, Nicholls had consolidated his place in the Bullies “ones”. A pair of three fors against Prahran and Northcote overshadowed his efforts with the willow, however it would be at the top of the batting order that Nicholls would make his name in the years that would follow. “I had a number of different opening partners during my time at Footscray- Tony Hargreaves, Brian Gray and of course Graeme Joslin. Graeme and I enjoyed a number of large opening stands, he (Joslin) always seemed to do the majority of the scoring”
Two memorable Joslin/Nicholls collaborations came within the space of a year. A 167 run effort against St Kilda in November 1973 was bettered 364 days later when the pair combined to pummel the Melbourne attack taking the score to 173 prior to separation. The pressure of auditioning in front of Victorian selectors Keith Rigg and Bert Numa didn’t appear to inhibit Nicholls (79) that afternoon, the 202 ball, 207 minute gem against the MCC guaranteeing him a state call up.“I’d made the state squad and around the time of the Melbourne game I scored runs in a state trail match and done well in a Colts game (56 v NSW). This run of form led to me getting picked for the Shield team”
Victoria’s early season form in 1974/75 could be subtly described as mediocre, understandable when you consider the tumultuous off season that followed the procuring of their 28th Sheffield Shield title in March. The retirements of stalwarts Keith Stackpole and Paul Sheahan had left a gaping hole in the top of the batting order. The subsequent loss of the 25 years combined first class experience the pair provided was exacerbated by the tragic loss of 22 year old Robert Rose whose blossoming sporting career came to a premature end on Valentine’s Day, after he sustained injuries in a car accident that left him a quadriplegic.
So into the cauldron Nicholls stepped. Making a good impression on debut combined with the anxiety associated with the threat of serious physical harm that came with facing the blistering pace of Jeff Thomson must’ve weighed heavily on him in the lead up. Anyone who’d read the openly incendiary “Introducing: the batsman hater…” interview that appeared in the June issue of Cricketer magazine would’ve been well aware of the 6ft 1 inch (185 centimetres) 14 and half stone (92 kilograms) Thomson’s raison d’être. “Truthfully, I enjoy hitting a batsman more than getting him out in fact it makes me happy, I get more pleasure seeing a batsman drop his bat than making his stumps fly”, the sound of a five and a half ounce red ball hitting a batsman’s skull “music to his ears”. Ouch!
As if Thomson’s colourful observations weren’t reason enough for Nicholls to reach for the antacids a recent mishap at the MCG wouldn’t have helped quell any butterflies in the tummy. “I was hit in the head by a young quick from WA by the name of Terry Alderman in a Colts game a few weeks prior to my Shield debut. I fell on my stumps and was carted off the ground, out cold. Still, I can say I spilt blood for the game of cricket”
So, what was it like to face a 100 mile an hour missile? “He (Thomson) was quick, far too quick for me” Thankfully Nicholls lived to tell the tale of how he survived becoming one of Thomson’s 60 plus victims that summer. “He didn’t get me out, I got knocked over up the other end” (caught McLean bowled Dymock 12). Collapsing twice within the space of three days Queensland (182 & 167) were humbled by a revitalized Victoria (259 & 2/91). Batting a second time in the match Nicholls (25 not out) celebrated his first game under the navy blue cap in style “I managed to score the winning runs off Greg Chappell on the Sunday afternoon”
Victory over its oldest, fiercest and most hated rival, New South Wales, was top of the Vic’s Christmas wish list leading into a mid December MCG scrap. Batting first the visitors declared its 1st innings closed at 7/377. In response Victoria (172) crumbled and was asked to follow on, Nicholls (c Gilmour b Walters 23) the third highest score in an otherwise putrid performance by the locals. Nicholls (5) didn’t hang around long in the second innings, but amazingly the home town heroes came within a whisker of pulling off a miraculous win on the final afternoon of the match. Set 213 to secure an outright victory the men from Harbour Town (9/90) hung on for a draw, the pre-Xmas nail biter signalling the end of Ron Nicholls’ brief Interstate career.
Footscray faltered in its bid for back-to-back VCA finals appearances in 74/75 but rebounded strongly the next year, Nicholls contribution – three half centuries, 350 runs @25.15 average – a major factor in the Doggies finishing their home and away commitments in third position. Hitting a rich vein of form either side of the Christmas hiatus Nicholls registered back-to-back 50’s, a match winning 92 against St Kilda (the highest 1st XI score of his VCA career) preceded another game deciding innings of 65 in a rare club game at the MCG against Melbourne in mid January. It was Nicholls’ third consecutive half century against the Demons. Was there a secret to dominating the MCC? “With the exception of Max Walker the Melbourne attack of that era consisted of a few honest trundlers, their success was due to an extremely strong batting line-up”.
Entering the final weekend of home and away games of the summer of 75/76 Footscray required 1st innings points in their Labour Day long weekend clash with University to be assured a spot in the post season. Nicholls (60) was outstanding, the Dogs (190) accumulating enough runs on the first afternoon of the contest for their formidable attack to play with, the Students falling 30 runs short of the target.
After accounting for the heavily favoured Carlton at the semi final stage Footscray found themselves one win short of an inaugural First XI title. Unfortunately the strong Bulldog attack was unable to contain A P Sheahan (189 not out) Melbourne (350) setting the Dogs a massive task to grab an elusive pennant. “Paul Sheahan’s long innings and the fact I was the only (Footscray) player who didn’t bowl – even Lindsay James bowled – are the lasting memories of the final” Footscray (239) fell well short of the target, Nicholls (21) had his promising innings cut short when man of the moment Sheahan took a brilliant catch at second slip.
When Footscray secured the services of former West Indies Test all-rounder John Shepherd in November 1976 many district cricket followers believed the Puppies had procured the final piece of the premiership puzzle. “Shep was a wonderful cricketer. His first game with the club was at St Kilda and he made a big score (79). When he was dismissed he threw his bat, one of the new double scoops, in disgust. A few of us went scampering after it”
Finishing the home and away fixture in second position, the Bulldogs entered the finals a warm favourite to go one better than twelve months earlier. Their semi final opponent, Collingwood (188) had other ideas, opening bowlers Norm Emerson and Colin Costorphin taking ten wickets each to dismantle the Footscray batting order twice (82 & 73) in the space of 24 hours and bring the Bulldogs season to a disappointing end. Thankfully Nicholls’ recall of the debacle has faded “My lasting memory of the match was John Shepherd trapping Trevor Laughlin in front. He was plumb” The only person inside Victoria Park who held a contrary opinion was the one who mattered most, Laughlin (118) single-handedly swinging the match the way of the Woodsmen.
The Abbotsford Annihilation abruptly ended a season that promised so much, but delivered nought, the Dogs earlier than expected exit from the finals also drew the curtains on the VCA career of Ron Nicholls. “I left Footscray to coach Yarraville in the Sub District competition the following year (77/78)” Nicholls still holds the Eagles club record for most runs scored in a season (746 – 1982/83)“I spent time at Werribee and Spotswood (VTCA) and whilst I didn’t coach those teams to the ultimate success we did play finals. We won a grand final at Werribee under Peter Cox and I won the man of the match award” Nicholls achieved the rare feat of being named in the Team of the Century at Yarraville, Werribee and Spotswood, quite an achievement.
Winning a pennant eluded Nicholls during his time with the Bulldogs, their second place finish in 75/76 as close as he would get. “Footscray had some wonderful players during the early to mid 70’s – Jeff Collins, John Sharp, Lindsay James, Les and Graeme Joslin and Alan Hurst are just some of those that come to mind.” Sadly all the players Nicholls named, with the exception of Lindsay James, departed the Western Oval in the prime of their cricketing careers – Graeme Joslin (28) Hurst (27) Sharp (26) Collins (25) Les Joslin (24). Taking into consideration the talent at their disposal was it fair to suggest the Footscray teams of that period had underachieved? “Perhaps. We may have enjoyed a good time, too much.”
When Ron Nicholls strolled onto the MCG on December 6 1974 he became the third Footscray batsman in four years to represent Victorian at Sheffield Shield level joining Ken Eastwood and Les Joslin. The last four decades have seen five Sons of the Scray – Ray Bright, Merv Hughes, Tony Dodemaide, Colin Miller and John Hastings graduate from club to state and finally international level. Yet Nicholls remains the most recent Bulldog batsman to gain interstate honours. Residing in Shepparton since 1994, he keeps in contact with many of his old team mates from the Western Oval “I hear from Rex Bennett, Ken Fox and also Barry Watson from time to time.” Nicholls hasn’t forgotten where he got his start “ I still get down to play in YCW’s annual golf day every year”