In the mid 1990s when I was 16, I was part of a Ringwood Cricket Club Dowling Shield squad that had, as its special guest, former Test cricketer Ray Bright addressing and assessing the group. The feeling of awe is something I remember very clearly from that moment; an actual Test cricketer was right there in front of me.
Later that summer, as a result of playing for Richmond in the Dowling Shield carnival, I met then Test bowler Paul Reiffel. Well, I didn’t so much meet him as stand there and stare at him as he presented me with a little token from the club. Of course, my intention at the time was to join their ranks as a Test player, though I obviously had no idea just how far short of that I would fall.
It was also unfathomable to me then that, some seventeen years later when sitting across a table from Ray Bright as a mature adult with a wife and three kids that I would be just as much in awe as I had all those years before.
He had said coffee and coffee it would be. His order was “as hot as they can get it and no sugar”. The pressure was on. I surreptitiously added two sugars to my cappuccino and asked him about the tied Test in Madras, one of the greatest moments in cricket’s long history.
I love this Test match, and the conversation that followed was a sports fan’s dream. It was September 1986 and the left arm orthodox spinner would play a pivotal role in what would be the third last of the then 32 year old’s 25 Test Match career. He took 2 for 88 in the first innings, and 5 for 94 in the second. Interestingly, he batted at four in the first innings, making 30 off 59 balls as the night watchman.
“My batting average at four is far better than it is down the list, so every time I see AB (then Australian captain, Allan Border) I tell him he batted me out of position all those years.”
Batting so high up the order in this innings meant that he was partnered with my boyhood hero, Dean Jones, in the cavalier Victorian’s magnum opus of 210 off 330 balls.
“Obviously a great knock by Deano,” he acknowledged.
“It’s pretty famous,” I enthused.
“Yeah, it’s pretty famous, particularly by Deano,” he quipped back. “But it was one of the better efforts of human endurance I’ve seen. He was very ill, we were all very ill. To get through that, with the heat being unbearable, but he was good enough to hit the singles when he needed to and get the fours when they were there.”
“The good thing was that he had to spend the night in hospital on a saline drip so we didn’t have to spend the night hearing about how good a knock it was.”
On being ill for the match, Bright said, “We all lost a tremendous amount of weight over there. Touring India is not how it is now. I was crook for the match. The gut; why would you eat a pizza in India? The night before the game I did the right thing and had an early night instead of having a few extra beers with (Bruce) Reid, (David) Boon, Border, (Geoff) Marsh, etcetera, who liked a couple.
“I thought ‘no, I’ll have an early night and be ready for tomorrow’, but the room service pizza wasn’t what it was supposed to be. Fortunately we won the toss and batted, as I would have been struggling to bowl that next day.”
His eyes lit up. “Yeah, weird cat. Still keep in good contact with ‘Mo’, as we call him.”
I mentioned that I saw Matthews in a movie called Trojan Warrior, in which two of my mates had also appeared as extras. “He’s in it?” he asked, “I’d better write that down.” He then proceeded to write down the name of the film, seemingly with the intention of watching the movie to have ammunition to hang crap on his mate.
It would seem that Test Match team mates aren’t that dissimilar to local level team mates. He then mentioned that the spinner-cum-actor had been ill with kidney failure that had had a delayed diagnosis. This was shocking news to me, but, feeling somewhat out of my comfort zone, I mentioned that he could “spin a big ball.”
“Yes he could. Although, one of his big claims to fame is that he averages 41 in Test cricket you know.” I didn’t. “Yes, it’s the same as Mark Waugh.” No way. “His record in Shield cricket is unbelievable, he took a lot of wickets, and his batting at Test level was very good. He got four hundreds.
“He got the other five wickets in the second innings (to make up ten with Bright’s five), and ten for the game.” I challenged him on this statistic but was wrong; he did get ten for the game. “The quicks didn’t bowl much, because it was too hot. The worst thing was the humidity. There was no such thing as a warm up, and the canal out the back, I think it is called the Buckingham Canal, was like an open sewer, so imagine when it is 45 degrees and very humid. It was just horrendous. I’d never known anything like it.”
I asked how he got his wickets and who he got. “Got Sunny Gavaskar. Deano took a great catch at cover off a leading edge. Tried to hit me through the leg side and it skewed out to cover. (Mohammad) Azharuddin, caught on the boundary.”
“At tea we were going to lose the game, we almost couldn’t win it. But then the batters wilted and the wheels just turned and it all just turned around.”
I mentioned the controversial final dismissal, in which Maninder Singh was given out LBW to Matthews in almost execution style by the Indian umpire, and Bright was quick to bring balance to the issue.
“We declared twice. We lost twelve wickets, they lost twenty, plus we reckon we had another eight that were given not out. They like to whinge about that last wicket, but I think we dominated the game.”
“Yes, that would have been late ‘60s, about ’68. I started in the Dowling when I was 14, and played my District cricket with Footscray and finished at Richmond. Including Dowling I had about 17 years at Footscray.”
I asked if he was at Footscray at the same time as Merv, thinking it was a good feat for two Test cricketers to be in the same District team. “Yeah, Merv and I played in what was Footscray’s only Premiership before this year, when they won again. All Merv’s early days I was with him. Tony Dodemaide played as well.”
“What’s he now?” I asked moronically. “He’s something isn’t he?”
“He’s the CEO of Cricket Victoria, yeah.”
“That’s something,” I said, sheepishly. By now we had started our second coffee and the caffeine was starting to have its way with my unaccustomed body. “So three Test cricketers at the same time?”
“Colin Miller played as well.”
“Yeah, Funky. In actual fact I reckon there were four of us playing at the same time at the one club side.” I wonder if this has ever happened before or since. “We never played together at the same time for Australia, but over the course of time we all played Tests for Australia.”
I asked when his District Premiership was. “’79-80 we beat St Kilda. I’m lucky enough to have played in two Premiership sides at that level, both against St Kilda, one for Footscray and one for Richmond.” I was pleased to see a man that had played for Australia with names like Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Marsh and the Chappells could be so proud to have had success for his club side.
Born in 1954, the now 60 year old Bright seemingly comes from ordinary Australian origins. “My father was a mad sportsman. Followed the Dogs, a club cricketer in his own little way. Gave me tremendous support as a youngster, not a great sportsman though. Mum wasn’t really a sportsperson but gave me a lot of support. My sisters played netball. Standard sorta stuff.”
Despite this, through my caffeine buzz I was acutely aware of the well credentialed individual sitting opposite me. He represented Victoria in the Sheffield Shield 184 times, taking 471 wickets at 32.08 over 17 seasons. These are numbers that would belittle all of the modern spinners, and I suspect his contemporaries as well. His Test career features 25 Tests, with 53 wickets at 41, but it really should include the two seasons of World Series Cricket.
In these Supertests from 1977 to 1979, he was a permanent fixture in the incredibly strong Australian side to play against WSC World and WSC West Indies. “Rod Marsh and I were the only two that played in all of the Supertests. Fourteen all up, ten in Australia and four in the West Indies. They were probably my best two years, believe it or not.”
A quick scour through the records of World Series Cricket shows Ray Bright to be an extremely well performed international cricketer. Looking at the sides against which he played, there is no doubt in my mind that his record in these matches should count towards his Test career. If they did, it would appear significantly improved.
I told him if a spinner in Australia today had 471 wickets at 32 he would be straight in the national side. Full of confidence and coffee, I cited Xavier Doherty’s (126 Shield wickets at 45.07) selection in 2013 as proof of this statement. “He bowled a lot at Bellerieve, which is not the best wicket to bowl spin on, but he’s made his name as a One Day bowler and has had a fine career in his own right.
“If you look at all the left-arm orthodox bowlers that have played for Australia, unfortunately I am the most successful. So I think that is a bit of a tragedy. Hopefully someone comes along and fixes that.”
I think he undersells his achievements, and oversells Doherty’s. They are, though, part of the spinners club and must look after each other.
Who knows how his career would have unfolded if not for the injury he suffered immediately following World Series Cricket. “I did my shoulder first game back for Victoria. I had a good couple of seasons, and then when the two bodies (The Australian Cricket Board and World Series Cricket) got back together again we were playing a Shield game in Queensland and I threw my arm out on the day before the match.
“I lost a lot of power, and a lot of things I could do before I wasn’t able to do. So I probably changed my technique after that to get more side-on, but I probably got more back-on. I was coming in to bowl but I was facing the wrong way. I thought I was doing the right thing by changing things, but it didn’t work.
I asked if, with hindsight, he would have approached it differently. “Yeah, nowadays I would’ve had a shoulder operation. John Holland, who is Victoria’s spinner now, has had three shoulder operations. They have them done without thinking.”
“Were you advised to have one?”
“I got told I could have one, but it was really up to me to organise.” Times have changed.
When I asked if his twelve overseas tours with Australia were based on similar selection policy that saw Brendan Julian travel with the Aussie side, he was happy to have a laugh at his own expense. “BJ – tall, good looking. Not in the same category there.” The manner in which he laughed through this banter made it easy to see why the selectors would be happy to have him tour. He’s good company.
During the interview he took the time to credit the Australian selectors for the resuscitation of the side of the ‘80s following the talent drain post Lillee, Marsh and Greg Chappell, as well as the Victorian selectors for the success they had over a similar period. Since hanging up the spikes, Bright has held similar roles in officialdom, being a long-time Victorian selector as well as a National Youth Selector.
He helped put together the Victorian side that has been so good over the past decade. While the current side is going through a bit of a change of the guard, with a man of the incredible cricket experience of Ray Bright helping guide the side it surely has the best chance of making a quick recovery.
By the time I had smashed down my second coffee in my bizarre attempt to impress the former Test cricketer before me, I was at full steam hacking into T20 cricket and pushing the barrow for long forms of the game over the shorter. I was happy to find an ally, although one slightly more reasonable than me.
He sees Sheffield Shield cricket as an investment in cricketers to play Tests, and is concerned that Cricket Australia seem intent of reducing the number of Shield matches played. In regards to domestic T20 cricket, he said, “Big Bash, because of its importance in the calendar has to be when it is, December to January. But for me personally, it should be over in a month. From Boxing Day to Australia Day, give or take. You can play double headers and make it a carnival of cricket.
“It is needed though. At least kids are playing cricket and not sitting on computers. It’s perfect for TV, being shorter and kids and women like it. It gets kids playing and we can develop them from there.”
Talking to him about State cricket, which has professional and semi-professional cricketers aiming to make their livings out of playing in a combination of forms of cricket and sides, ranging from Test to Shield to T20 to 50 Overs, and from Australia to Victoria to the Melbourne Stars, it is clear that cricket is in a confusing state of change and growth. Just where exactly it will take us is anyone’s guess.
This aside, I was so wired with caffeine that I was trying to get him to spill his guts on why Deano was cut from the Aussie side after topping the averages against Sri Lanka way back in 1992. The eleven year old in me is still gutted by that. Alas, our time was up, and with a shake of the hand we parted ways.
Ray Bright is a strong character with a big voice. He’s had an amazing life in sport and brought with him from that an extraordinary breadth of knowledge. The information I gleaned from him on topics past and present will keep me in good stead. The young spinners he tutors in his role as Bushrangers Spin Coach, as well as those young aspiring cricketers prepared to hire him for the service, will no doubt be similarly enlightened.
Should I get the opportunity to chat to him again I’d be keen to make the most of it, so I might just have a hot chocolate or a nice cup of tea.
Follow Greg Gibson on Twitter: @GregGibbo28