After a prolonged pause, and against the odds, the Walhalla Cricket Club has been reconstituted, reinvigorated and thoroughly resuscitated!
A little over a year ago, locals were made aware of the very poor state of the playing surface at the ground, located on a mountain top behind Walhalla's Star Hotel, and 200 metres above the township. After 2007's very successful centenary match, we had been approached again by the Melbourne Cricket Club to play at Walhalla’s famous mountain top ground, but sadly, this match had to be postponed due to the condition of the ground — the surface had been severely damaged by irresponsible users of trail-bikes and 4x4 vehicles. Considerable amounts of abandoned waste — not all of it particularly sanitary — showed that the ground was also being used without proper authority as a camping area.
The extensive scale of the damage demanded a major — and quite costly — effort to begin bringing the ground back to a playable condition. After due deliberation, the committee of the Heritage and Development League resolved that the only way to provide the attention that the problem required was to reconstitute the Walhalla Cricket Club, which had been dormant since before the turn of the new millennium. Enthusiasm for the idea can be judged by the fact that the Club already has a full committee, and very quickly grew to a membership of more than 20 subscribers, without even trying. It has now opened its membership list to applications from the general public.
The Club was originally formed at the height of the gold rush, in 1885. It was during this decade that the community, in search of a more formal venue for sports in the town, excavated the top of what would become known as the Cricket Ground Hill, by hand — with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows.
The ground quickly became integral to Walhalla's success in Gippsland and state cricket (as well as football during the winter), and its association with such players of regional, state and even international repute as Harry Boyle, William Carkeek, Dick Merrington, and others, whose accomplishments are alluded to here, for example.
It was said by many a team — usually after a losing encounter and an opportunity for some reflection — that the ground was Walhalla's "secret weapon" against visiting teams. The home team was reputed to camp overnight on the hill before games, with abundant time to recover, while visiting opponents struggled up the narrow path to the ground on the day of the game, arriving exhausted for their first innings.
With the twentieth-century decline of the town and its mines, and the flight of its population, there was no longer any real need to maintain the cricket ground other than as a tourist attraction, and without the people and the inclination to maintain it, it eventually fell into disrepair, like most of the town did. Without intervention, it would by now probably have become indistinguishable from the surrounding bush, which was already beginning to show signs of taking over.
Sadly, the present-day, re-born Club still doesn't have a suitable population base to be able to field a team (yet!), so we've instead set ourselves the humbler and possibly more readily achievable goal of merely rehabilitating and maintaning the ground as a venue for occasional social and exhibition games between visiting clubs, as well as for special functions. The Walhalla Cricket Club has, nevertheless, been granted affiliation with the Traralgon and District Cricket Association, and even now, impromptu games are regularly played on the ground by visiting schools, outdoor education groups and family gatherings.
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In the few weeks immediately following its reconstitution, WCC members and local volunteers worked to further repair the surface. There were working bees to clear and level the ground in preparation for fertilizing and sowing some grass seed. Working bees were arranged and visitors were invited to stroll around the ground and help in clearing the rocks and stones that otherwise looked like making sure any fielder would only ever try one sliding catch, or retrieval of a ball that's headed for the boundary. As it stands, it's still hardly a feather pillow to land on, but time and a thicker grass cover will make it as good as most grounds, anywhere. But any time you're up there, feel free to pitch any errant loose stones you might find on the playing area off into the bush. Just make sure you give them a thorough once-over, first, though, in case they show a sparkle of "colour"...
Smoothing the surface was the result of some very imaginatve hardware that was towed endlessly around and around the ground by volunteer drivers. Next came the fertilizing and re-seeding of the entire oval, with 1.2 tonnes of kindly-donated fertilizer and 350kg of grass seed, valued at around $2,000. Brian Brewer was led to suggest that the cricket ground had probably now become one of the most fertile areas in the entire town! We were remarkably fortunate in that the seeding was promptly followed by a day or two of quite drenching rains, and the wet weather gave the ground, and more importantly the newly-laid grass seed, just the boost that it needed to get going.
In conjunction with Parks Victoria, there are now plans — tentative only at this early stage — to limit vehicle access to the ground when it's not in use, in order to prevent further thoughtless vandalism of the type that got us here in the first place; and also for providing parking, and improving road access to the ground when it is being used for events, and to provide more civilized amenities for spectators once they get there than just an invitation to "duck behind a tree" if necessary. (In places, in fact, you'll find that the hill falls away fairly steeply once you do get behind that proverbial tree, so you'd want to tread carefully for that reason) (, too).
Regularly placed seating and interpretive signage is planned to provide an opportunity to pause along the steep walking track to the ground, which begins just to the north of the Star Hotel. If you don't stop on the way, however, the 2km return trip should take most reasonably fit people around 45 minutes. Remarkably, the walk down is not as much easier than the walk up as you might initially think; and if you're not reasonably fit, at the very least, your knees are likely to be trembling by the time you get to the end of the path.
You shouldn't think we've arrived where we are without pain, though — Brian Brewer's nice new 4x4 crew-cab suffered some significant damage when he inadvertently tried to make the Britannia Spur short-cut down from the ground just a bit shorter still. The truck rolled, but not too far, confirming my theory that the stories my dad used to tell me about cars that went off the road in Walhalla ending up hundreds of feet down at the bottom of a very steep hill just don't apply any more. If you're ever unlucky enough to come off the road these days, in fact, you'd almost certainly be stopped by a fairly robust tree before you get too far at all. Fortunately, Brian emerged from the incidcent quite unscathed.
Why not become a member of this very special club?
Membership enquiries for the Walhalla Cricket Club can be made to The Secretary, Walhalla Cricket Club, c/o Post Office, Walhalla 3825, or by phone via the Corner Store on 5165 6250.
Rob Wilson, of Veterans Cricket Victoria, has already organised a match that was played between two veterans teams at Walhalla on Monday, November 19th, 2018. That match had to be rescheduled at the request of Channel 7, in pursuit of better weather than had been forecast for our originally-proposed date, a few days later. You might see some of their footage if you're watching the lunch-break entertainment for the Boxing Day Test when it's broadcast on Channel 7.
And if you're after something a little more physical, why not challenge yourself to climb the “1000 steps track”, beginning just up the Left Hand branch from the Star Hotel, to the famous mountain top Walhalla Cricket Ground? Take the family, a bat and ball — well, maybe more than just one ball, just in case — and take home the bragging rights of having enjoyed a game on one of Australia’s most unusual sporting grounds!
You'll pass many historic home sites on your way to the ground, and, depending on the time of year, it might occur to you that that's why you're seeing so many ornamental garden flowers in the middle of the bush, where miners' cottages and their pocket-handkerchief gardens might once have stood. As you go higher, you'll catch glimpses along and across the valley from the zig-zag path. When you're closer to the ground, and maybe even within earshot of any play that's going on, you'll also pass the lonely grave of the young, newly-wed Sarah Ann Hanks. It's on the right-hand side going up, or the left-hand side coming down, about 200 metres from the top.
She died around 150 years ago, in March, 1869, at the tender age of 21 years, long before the cricket ground had even been thought of. She was one of the last people in Australia to ever die from smallpox, a terrifying, horribly disfiguring and highly infectious disease, which she had contracted at a boarding-house in Latrobe Street in Melbourne. She fell ill when she and her new husband, a Walhalla miner, were returning to the town, and she died painfully in isolation less than two weeks later, in a house that originally stood at the foot of this hill. After her death, the house and all its contents were burned to the ground in a successful bid to finally eradicate any further risk of contamination. In those early days, Walhalla was a very crowded, unhygienic and polluted township, whose population would almost certainly have been decimated otherwise.