17 January 1969 – the day I met W.A. (Bert) Oldfield

 

So imagine this then.

 

On a warm muggy January day 51 years ago, a shy sixteen year old country lad (ah, that would be me) feels quite overawed and bewildered in Sydney CBD. First visit.

 

It’s a strange place. Lots of yellow interstate number plates. No sporting grounds with proper goalposts. The pubs all stink and have the same dirty pale yellow tiled walls. Their advertising hoardings all feature heavily Brylcreemed rugby types saying “Reschs refreshes”. Yuk. In the privacy of other settings I had tried some and it was putrid. Even the Brylcreem ads are fraudulently misleading. Officially the company message is “a little dab will do it” but Dr Google now tells me the substance in question is “an emission of water and mineral oil stabilised with beeswax.” Sigh. And ICAC is still decades away?

 

But get this. The main streets are crooked and quite a few of them are one way. Seriously? I mean even my hometown of Winchelsea (pop 1000) has straight streets and they all run both ways. I check to make sure I have the correct departure time for the Spirit of Progress because I sure as hell don’t want to stay here any longer than I have to.

 

Notwithstanding the foregoing, it’s only mid-afternoon so I still have a few hours to kill as Paul Simon’s lyrics start to cruelly taunt my loneliness.

 

“…And every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be
Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound…”

 

But then an apparition appears. “Bert Oldfield’s Sports Store” announces a modestly sized hoarding in a clear sensible font. As the name gives the game away, it is a sporting store with a small street-front display groaning with cricket gear of all sorts. Then I give thanks for our national sport to which it seems even the Brylcreemd local Reschs’ thugs are pleasantly disposed.

 

Upon entry, I am greeted by a kindly avuncular gentleman aged somewhere between 70 and 80. He is smallish in stature with grey thinning hair and piercing blue eyes. He moves very nimbly between the closely configured aisles of sporting goods, a commercial necessity of size given crippling CBD rents.

 

His smile is warm and not the slightest bit forced as he greets me fondly with the impression he is wondering why I took so long to find the store.

 

“Hello. I’m Bert Oldfield. Can I help you?”

 

Thankfully the penny drops and all those cricket conversations where Dad used to lean back and go into overdrive while regaling the sole young member of his audience came back to me. The roll call would constantly be trotted out as he would repeat his favourites. “Bradman, McCabe, O’Reilly, Davidson, Harvey, Tallon, Woodfull, Ponsford, Brown et al.”

 

But there was one he never failed to mention and now I suddenly realised I was talking to him!

 

“Hello, Mr Oldfield. Dad always said you were the best wicketkeeper he saw,” I blurted out without editing Dad’s opinions one bit.

 

“That’s very kind of him, young Roger. although there are many others he could well have picked.”

 

“Like who, Mr Oldfield?” (I was on my best manners as I knew that would be the first line of enquiry Mum would pursue when I told them the story later.)

 

“Oh, the current bloke (Wally Grout) is as good as I’ve seen. Lovely and light on his feet like old Don (Tallon) would have taught him.”

 

“Dad said the same about you too though as you made lots of stumpings, didn’t you?” No hint of a lie there. Dad was always insistent about rating a keeper by how clean his work was at the stumps.

 

“Oh well, I had a few very good bowlers who made me look very good and opposition batsmen look very uncomfortable. I suppose he must have mentioned Bill O’Reilly too, did he?”

 

And so the conversation continued until other customers required Bert’s attention. Even then, as I left the store I could hear them exchanging cricketing stories. I think he really liked the people aspect of retailing.

 

Closer inspection today reveals exactly how self-deprecating Bert was.

 

He still holds the world Test record for the number of stumpings (52) and he is contesting in a pretty hot field, especially when you think many of his more recent colleagues played, in some cases, more than twice the amount of Tests.

 

For the record.

 

54 Tests – 78 catches & 52 stumpings;

 

245 First class games – 399 catches & 263 stumpings;

 

Corporal AIF World War I, wounded 1917;

 

Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1927.

 

“Ave a good weekend, Mr Oldfield!”

 

 

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Comments

  1. I suppose we should say ‘Happy Anniversary’, Roger. Enjoyed this tale, seems like Bert was a very down-to-earth bloke. A memory and a moment to cherish. I wonder what you’ve got up your sleeve for next week?

  2. A lovely yarn, Roger.

  3. Thanks for that story!
    The reminiscences of Sydney recall the old Sydney/Melbourne rivalries, but I was not aware of the Sydney/Winchelsea rivalry.

  4. Roseville Rocket says

    Harder to find pubs in Sydney with yellow tiles and the old-style beer poster these days, sadly.
    And Reschs on tap. No more Tooths. Not even DA.

    Good piece. Be interesting to know exactly where Bert Oldfield’s sports store was?

    The cricket ground in Killara is named after Bert Oldfield.

    Resch’s refreshes!

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Lucky you Roger. A treasured memory.

    RR, 243 Pitt St apparently.

  6. From ’59 to ’71 (when i married Mrs Fisho) we lived in an an Adelaide suburb named Firle, near a suburb named OLDFIELD. In fact I often caught the OLDFIELD bus home from work. I wonder if that suburb was named after Bert?

  7. “When Bert Oldfield hit the ground they nearly jumped the fence”. At 5:00. Haunting. Grandad was there but could never explain why the crowd didn’t riot.
    Tom Moore talks about his first PGA job selling golf clubs in Bert Oldfield sports stores just after WW2. Had big rope hanging nets for players to hit balls into while salesman/club fitter watched. https://www.golfaustralia.com.au/news/the-thing-about-golf-podcast-5—pga-life-member-tom-moore-530910

  8. Great stuff,Roger geez that is a incredible record re stumpings .I admit I knew it was high re percentage wise but no idea it was that high sounds like a lovely bloke to thank you

  9. Roger Lowrey says

    Thanks everyone. Yes, the shop was somewhere in Pitt St.

    Yes, that record of stumpings is phenomenal isn’t it? After looking around a bit further after I posted the story, it looks like 38 of the 52 Test stumpings were off Clarrie Grimmet’s bowling with the remainder shared between Tiger O’Reillly, Chuck Fleetwood-Smith and others. Dad always said that O’Reilly’s towering height gave him the advantage of bounce and angle of trajectory in addition to spin where it seems his topspinner in particular was a killer. And in addition to all this dad reckoned he bowled at what we would now regard as something approaching medium pace so Tiger must have presented challenges to wicket keepers as well as batsmen.

    And yes, I can still remember what a lovey old bloke Bert was to talk to. He could obviously spot me as a keen young cricket fan and was therefore prepared to share his time very generously even though he would have realised I was unlikely to end up buying anything.

  10. Luke Reynolds says

    What a magnificent signature from Bert Oldfield, and great memories Roger. Incredible that he still holds the record for most stumpings given the wickets taken by the likes of Warne, Murali, Kumble and Lyon in more recent times.

  11. Roger Lowrey says

    Yes Luke. Written in his old fountain pen too. I am currently admiring the original item as I type.

  12. Luke – I reckon modern heavy bats explain the reduction in stumping in modern cricket despite the quality of spinners you mention. Too easy to for bigger athletes to take a step and hit them over the fence now. In Oldfield’s day people were shorter and lighter and bats were matchsticks. Doug Walters and Ian Chappell are the last batsmen I can remember who regularly used their feet to get down the wicket to spinners.

  13. Luke Reynolds says

    Good points PB, footwork to spinners has been a dying art for a long time.

  14. Ah hah, Roger!
    Ripper yarn so fondly and respectively written. Beautifully done.
    Sav

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