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Kings of country: the top non-metropolitan cricketing birthplaces

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27th June, 2020
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This article is a follow-up to my recent series on Test cricketers’ birthplaces, which named Sydney and Durban as the top two cities for giving birth to the very best Test cricketers.

Firstly, I must eat some humble pie and declare Sydney belatedly as the sole winner: due to a record-keeping error, I mistakenly included Shaun Pollock among the Durban-born, when he was in fact born in Port Elizabeth. With no one quite as good to replace him, Sydney moves ahead in overall quality, as well as sheer depth.

Perusing cricketing birthplaces, it came to my attention that a few rural and non-metropolitan areas stand out as good breeding grounds for elite cricketers around the world.

One micro-region and small town, to which I’ll give a special mention later, stands out in generating cricketers per capita. Its identity may come as a surprise.

By contrast, many readers may have guessed that New South Wales Country tops the list of non-metropolitan birthplaces among provinces around the world. This is my list of the best XI born in country NSW, with their places of birth:

Mark Taylor (Leeton)
Warren Bardsley (Warren)
Don Bradman (Cootamundra)
Stan McCabe (Grenfell)
Charlie Macartney (Maitland)
Doug Walters (Dungog)
Adam Gilchrist (Bellingen)
Alan Davidson (Gosford)
Charlie “Terror” Turner (Bathurst)
Bill O’Reilly (White Cliffs)
Glenn McGrath (Dubbo)

A second XI could include Michael Slater (Wagga Wagga), Rick McCosker (Inverell), Phil Jaques (Wollongong), Brian Booth (Bathurst), Phil Hughes (Macksville), Greg Matthews (Newcastle), Brad Haddin (Cowra), Ryan Harris (Nowra), Brett Lee (Wollongong), Josh Hazlewood (Tamworth) and Nathan Lyon (Cowra). Other candidates include Geoff Lawson and Brian Taber (Wagga), Gary Gilmour (Newcastle), John Gleeson (Kyogle) and Ernie Toshack (Cobar).

Applying the batting-bowling averages differential I used to compare the best players since 1920 born in different cities, NSW Country comes out well ahead of Sydney with of a differential of +212 compared with +171 (bringing in Harris or Hazlewood for the 19th century Turner).

Bradman’s 37-run edge over the highest averaging Sydney batsmen (Steve Smith) is a big part of that 51-run superiority but by no means all of it. NSW Country also benefits from having the top two pace bowlers (Davidson and McGrath) and the top spinner (O’Reilly) with the lowest bowling averages for Australia over the last 100 years, along with the most prolific wicketkeeper-batsmen.

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All the batsmen, including Gilchrist and Slater, ranked as high as third in the world at one point in the retrospective ICC ratings. The top four bowlers and Lawson all ranked number one at one point, while Harris and Hazlewood ranked as high as second.

Warren Bardsley has the distinction of being named after the town where he was born. He was one of the finest batsmen just before and after World War I, and the first to score a century in both innings of a Test (at the Oval, in 1909). However, Bardsley (along with Ryan Harris) was one of the few NSW country-born Test players who didn’t spend most of their early years in the bush.

Victorian country
Melbourne ranked third among all cities as a cricketing birthplace on my rating system. Melbourne dominates Victoria’s population to an even greater extent than Sydney does New South Wales’s so Victorian Country hasn’t produced as many star Test players. But it still boasts a very solid line-up:

Bill Woodfull (Maldon)
Ian Redpath (Geelong)
Lindsay Hassett (Geelong)
Paul Sheehan (Werribee)
Warwick Armstrong (Kyneton)
Billy Murdoch (Bendigo)
Peter Siddle (Traralgon)
Merv Hughes (Euroa)
Alan Connolly (Skipton)
Bill Johnston (Beeac)
Chuck Fleetwood-Smith (Stawell)

Armstrong and Murdoch moved to Melbourne and Sydney respectively when young, so don’t really come across as country kids. Geelong College alumni Hassett, Redpath and Sheahan also have a more urban look to them.

Queensland and Tasmania
Queensland has a much bigger rural and regional component than states like Western or South Australia and this is reflected in the birthplaces of some of its leading players:

Matthew Hayden (Kingaroy)
Bill Brown (Toowoomba)
Greg Ritchie (Stanhope)
Martin Love (Mundubbera)
Martin Kent (Mossman)
Shane Watson (Ipswich)
Don Tallon (Bundaberg)
Mitchell Johnson (Townsville)
Craig McDermott (Ipswich)
Geoff Dymock (Maryborough)
Bert Ironmonger (Pine Mountain, near Ipswich).

Reserves: Wally Grout (Mackay), Carl Rackemann and Nathan Hauritz (Wondai), Andy Bichel (Laidley).

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Queenslanders can advise whether it’s right to describe Ipswich, on the outskirts of Brisbane, as regional. Bert Ironmonger lived and played most of his early cricket in Ipswich, before debuting for Queensland, moving to Victoria a few years later, in 1914. Bill Brown moved to Sydney as a toddler.

This group of regional Queenslanders possibly outshines the best born in Brisbane that I can identify: Joe Burns, Ken Archer, Ken Mackay, Peter Burge, Stuart Law, Scott Styris (NZ), Tom Veivers, Ian Healy, Ron Archer, Michael Kasprowicz and Trevor Hohns.

Tasmania
Tasmania’s towns outside Hobart have played an outsize role in producing Test cricketers. That’s mainly due to Launceston, one of the leading small cities/towns of 100,000 or fewer inhabitants in terms of the number of Test cricketers born locally, including some very big names. Here is the “Tasmanian country” squad:

Launceston: Ricky Ponting, David Boon, Ted McDonald (1920s), Alex Doolan, George Bailey, James Faulkner, Greg Campbell; Ulverstone: Ben Hilfenhaus; Exton: Jackie Badcock (1930s); Richmond: Kenny Burn (1890s); Scottsdale: Xavier Doherty.

Punjab
While most of the best sub-Continental cricketers were born in the big cities, the Indian province of Punjab has produced some fine players from places outside the capital, Chandigarh (although Ludhiana is the largest city). They include Bishen Bedi and Madan Lal (Amritsar), Harbhajan Singh (Jalandhar), Lala Armanath (Kapurthala), Mohinder Armanath and Navjot Sidhu (Patiala) and Yashpal Sharma (Ludhiana).

Pakistani greats Majid Khan (Ludhiana) and Intikhab Alam (Hoshiarpur) were also born in today’s Indian Punjab, prior to the 1947 partition.

Pakistani Punjab is the greatest source of that nation’s elite cricketers, but most were born in cities like Lahore and Rawalpindi which have their own first-class teams. Waqar Younis and Misbah-ul-Haq are the best known from smaller Punjabi cities, but it’s hard to put this in perspective when the entire province numbers over 100 million.

Yorkshire
Yorkshire – the leading source of top England cricketers – doesn’t fit neatly into this discussion because the historic county (now divided into three) has several medium-sized cities, rather than being dominated by one metropolis.

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Leeds has traditionally been the home of Yorkshire cricket and is now counted as part of a single West Yorkshire urban area. This conurbation of just under two million includes Bradford and Wakefield and places in between like Pudsey, a village that was birthplace to Len Hutton and Ray Illingworth but has since been swallowed up in the urban sprawl.

My “Yorkshire regional” XI covers players born in places outside this Leeds-Bradford conurbation:

Herbert Sutcliffe (Harrogate)
Geoff Boycott (Fitzwilliam)
Joe Root (Sheffield)
Maurice Leyland (Harrogate)
Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst (Kirkheaton)
Darren Gough and Johnny Wardle (Barnsley)
Fred Trueman and Chris Old (Middlesbrough)
Joe Hunter (Scarborough-wk).

Reserves: Norman Yardley (Barnsley), George Ulyett (Sheffield). Jim Laker and Jonny Bairstow (Bradford) and Bill Bowes (Ottley/Wakefield) would come into contention if we only excluded Leeds-born.

Barbados
As noted in the articles on cities, not only is Bridgetown near the top of the list of cricketing birthplaces, but the rest of Barbados has also produced its fair share of great names. “Barbados country“ sounds like a misnomer for an island 34km by 21km in size, but the progeny of villages outside the capital would outdo most similar provincial selections, drawing on a population smaller than Hobart’s:

Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Conrad Hunte, Sherwin Campbell, Royston Chase, Collis King, Shane Dowrich, Joel Garner, Charlie Griffith, Wayne Daniel and Kemar Roach.

Trinidad
Trinidadians born outside Port-of Spain include several of the island’s best: Brian Lara, Jeff Stollmeyer, Darren and Dwayne Bravo (all from Santa Cruz), Larry Gomes, Learie Constantine, Dinesh Ramdin, Sonny Ramadhin, Gus Logie, Phil Simmons and Bernard Julian.

Special Per Capita Prize: Guyana and the Port Mourant-New Amsterdam district (bold)

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Guyana’s non-metropolitan areas (population just over 500,000) rival Barbados’s in siring some of the West Indies finest, particularly in batting – the top six below all averaged above 40 over lengthy Test careers:

Roy Fredericks, Rohan Kanhai, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Alvin Kallicharran, Basil Butcher, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Joe Solomon, Colin Croft, Devendra Bishoo, Reon King, John Trim, Ivor Mendonca.

The striking feature is the number of cricketers born in the tiny sub-region comprising the adjacent towns of Port Mourant (10,000 people), New Amsterdam (35,000) and satellite villages, close to the Berbice River about 100 km east of the capital, Georgetown.

Port Mourant (bigger than Cootamundra but smaller than Bowral) lays claim to Kanhai, Kallicharran, Butcher, Solomon and Trim plus other Test players such as Leonard Baichan, Narsingh Deonarine and Veerasammy Permaul. New Amsterdam boasts Fredericks, Bishoo, Shimron Hetmayr and Clayton Lambert.

No other area outside a big city appears to have generated as much cricketing talent. Like Guyana as a whole, the area has a rich mix of descendants of Indian (mainly Tamil) indentured labourers and African slaves brought to work on the sugar plantations.

Honourable mention: the Olympic Highway and A41, NSW
While not matching Port Mourant for Test runs per capita, one sub-region of NSW has a particularly good record in siring Test cricketers.

I have in mind the towns along and close to the A41 road, which stretches through the Central West and the Riverina between Albury and Bathurst via Cowra. The honour board for this route is pretty illustrious:

Michael Slater (Wagga Wagga)
Don Bradman (Cootamundra)
Stan McCabe (Grenfell – 50 km off A41)
Brian Booth (Bathurst)
Peter Toohey (Blayney)
George Bonnor (Bathurst)
Brad Haddin (Cowra)
Albert Hopkins (Young)
Geoff Lawson (Wagga Wagga)
Charlie Turner (Bathurst)
Nathan Lyon (Young)
Reserves: Steve Rixon (Albury), Brian Taber (Wagga), Trent Copeland (Bathurst)

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Albert Hopkins, who bowled “gentle, slow-medium swing bowler” in 20 Tests in the 1900s is described as a “Penrith bee-keeper” so he certainly sounds rural. He must have moved to the Penrith area well before it was swallowed up by Greater Sydney.

If we expanded the A41 catchment area to include towns a bit further away we get Mark Taylor (born Leeton, but grew up in Wagga), Ian Craig (Yass) and Andrew McDonald (just across the border in Wodonga).

I’ll leave it to others to speculate on why some country areas produce good cricketers. In the case of NSW, having a very strong Sydney grade system to gravitate to certainly helped in polishing players.

NSW, Guyana, Trinidad, Indian Punjab, Yorkshire, Queensland and Tasmania are pretty much the only cricketing provinces around the world where the regional areas and small towns outshine the capital or main metropolitan centre as cricketing birthplaces. Of these, NSW is the only one where the capital has a bigger population than the rest of the province (and by some margin).