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Turf Comes to Preston

It will undoubtedly come as a shock to learn that during the upheavals in Melbourne's cricketing circles in 1905 and 1906, the scheme originally proposed for District and Sub-District competitions (briefly called First and Second Grade with an additional Third-Grade of second XIs) included Preston Cricket Club teams in both the Second and Third Grades - a plan which if had been put in effect would have Preston as a senior club some fifteen or sixteen years of its actuality.

The inclusion came as the result of a direct application from the junior Preston club then playing - and not particularly successfully - in the Victorian Junior Cricket Association.

There was never any mention of the club's plans in the Preston Leader, but The Argus of 24 May, 1906 in suggesting plans for the new system were virtually in place noted "Both Brunswick and Preston have applied for admission to the Victorian Cricket Association under the scheme and the executive recommends that they be included provided both get their grounds fit for play next season".

This was probably the first time that the name of "Sub-Districts" was mentioned - the competition of this name did not commence until 1908 - and what proved to be a highly controversial system of promotion and relegation was proposed.  

As it eventuated, Northcote won the 1905-06 Second Grade premiership and became the only club to ever be promoted. No First Grade club was relegated, and a fierce battle ensued the following year when Hawthorn were Second Grade premiers but were refused promotion, a decision of the V.C.A. executive that nearly tore Victorian cricket apart.

Accordingly to The Argus of 10 July 1906 (just three months before District cricket officially started), Second Grade of the new competition was to consist of Brunswick, Coburg, Carlton 2, Melbourne 2, Hawksburn 2, Hawthorn, Malvern, Brighton, Northcote, Preston, Port Melbourne, St. Kilda 2, South Melbourne 2, University 2 and Williamstown.

Hawksburn eventually entered the District competition as Prahran; the Third Grade was to be made up of Second XI teams from most of the Second Grade clubs (although oddly not Coburg) plus similar XIs from the weaker First Grade clubs - Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy and Richmond.

"Grounds fit for play" appears to have been the sticking point in Preston's bid - both First and Second Grades were to be played on turf; Preston at the time still had two matting wickets, the northern end used by the All Saint's club, and as it turned out, the precious turf was many years and a World War away.

Despite the problems with the onion-weed, the Council agreed to a recommendation of its Parks Committee for the laying of a turf wicket in March, 1921 at an estimated cost of £40 as a pre-requisite to the club gaining access to Sub-District ranks. As well as the cost of laying the wicket, there were some concerns about the cost of maintaining the pitch, estimated at £2/10 per week (there was still no full-time curator at the time).

In retrospect, the Council's decision in fact cost them nothing - in January, the Shire received in addition to the normal Government grants a windfall bonus of £208 as the municipality's share of metropolitan tramway profits, even though the planned East and West Preston tram routes were still under construction at the time.

"Prior to the "windfall", the Council had tackled the job of improving the Cramer Street park by ploughing up and levelling the surface and endeavouring to kill the onion-weed which grew in such profusion there. The Council on Monday evening to consider the matter of laying down a turf wicket. This and many other improvements will be possible now such funds are available:.       Leader, 29 January, 1921

Tiddly-winked

"Windfall" or not (it appears that much of the money went towards improvements as the Council's new attraction at Edwardes Lake, any plans of a quick entry of the Preston Cricket Club to Sub-District ranks were soon quashed, when at the August meeting of the Shire Council where the lack of any positive action on laying the wicket was briefly discussed, Cr. Bartrop warned that "if they (the cricket club) again get "tiddly-winked" they would not get into the Association this year".

Cr. Llewellyn Jones minced no words, suggesting bluntly that "we won't be playing on a turf wicket this year, just on matting" and it appears that work did not commence until October and the club certainly was "tiddly-winked" and confined to junior ranks once again.  

(We should add that Llewellyn Jones was a prominent real estate agent in High Street and he had a close association with the cricket club as the honorary masseur, a role in which he served briefly on a hospital ship late in the First World War).

(Archives of the Sub-District Cricket Association suggest that given the delay in approving the turf wicket, Preston did not submit an application to join. Two other applications from clubs - Oakleigh and Ormond - were rejected.-

The Leader commented on the wicket in November after work finally got under way in August, 1922 :

"A Turf Wicket at Preston Park"

"Some people talk of lightly of putting down a turf wicket having no idea just what a "contract" it is.

"First there is the old ground to "box out" - some 400 or 500 square feet of it, about nine inches deep.  This soil has to be carted away and replaced with special soil.  This may have to be brought a great distance, but as it happens that soil splendidly suited for a fine turf wicket - that is the rich black alluvial soil of the Merri Creek - is very handily situated.   

"This soil having been put in, together with the necessary drainage and the surface made level, then the very tedious work of planting the grass has to be commenced".

"This operation is now going forward and by the time it is finished, some 30,000 separate roots of couch grass will have been put in.  We understand that certain kinds of grass seed will afterwards be sown in addition to the planting of the couch grass."

"It should be a champion wicket worth all the trouble and care that the Shire Engineer, Mr. W. E. Kelly, is taken in its preparation".

V.C.A. officials later inspected the wicket and ground and Preston's move into Sub-District was approved after a few other minor issues were resolved.  

Preston's residential "district" as defined by the Association included Preston, Ivanhoe, Heidelberg, Fairfield - then part of the Shire of Heidelberg -and north to Whittlesea.   The Northcote club at the District level had access to players residing in the City of Northcote, but players of lesser ability were assigned to Brunswick in Sub-District ranks.

(Preston's admission was clear-cut, but maybe only so because Kew also applied to join and were accepted - perhaps it is a moot point as to  whether Preston would have been admitted on their own, thus creating a bye in the competition).

The football club switched its last two home matches for the 1922 season to allow the wicket and ground to be properly top-dressed an the cricket's club's big opening day came on 5 October, 1922 when it hosted neighbours Coburg, one of the original Sub-District clubs of 1908.

"Hosted" may not be the right word - surprise! surprise! - the first day was washed out and any celebrations postponed until the following Saturday.

Whether the (uncovered) wicket was still affected will never be known.  Despite holding Coburg to 85, Temple taking 5 for 18, Preston after being in a winning position were bundled out for 68, Hugh Fothergill 19 and Les Punch 10 the only ones to reach double figures.

Preston and Gowerville Park (Home).

Preston and Gowerville Park

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