The first in a series of interviews with former-New Zealand cricketers whose careers were fleeting, this week’s Limited Overs features 2-Test New Zealand rep, Grahame Bilby.
What was your inspiration into sport; both cricket and football? Was there a bit of a sporting upbringing?
My dad and my uncle both played cricket and football, and I just followed along really. On my mother’s side, her name was Roberts, and that was a famous rugby name back in the ’20s. They played for New Zealand at rugby, but I followed my father and played football. I played rugby at primary school, and then when I went to college I switched to football. That’s what the family did, so that’s what I did, and I just liked it so I carried on with it.
In terms of cricket, why did you become a batsman?
Couldn’t bowl! I could bat and field, but I was an average bowler to say the least. I just bowled pretty straight up-and-down and I wasn’t much good at it. And I wanted to play cricket, so that’s what happened. That’s why I became a batsman. And I had some moderate success, because in my last year in primary school, I was at Hataitai School, I got picked in rep team at that age-group, and just carried on from there.
And then got into Brabin Shield and played a couple of years there, they had a Rothsman tournament in those days, and then I got picked for Wellington when I was about 20, 21. Then luckily scored a hundred in my first innings [in First Class cricket, 1962-63].
Against a pretty useful bowling attack, with Gary Bartlett, Bryan Yuile and Murray Chapple.
Bartlett, he was a bit fearsome and quick. But I was young, and I managed to get out of the way. We didn’t have helmets and things like that in those days, so you just went out there with your pads and your gloves and did your best.
With 260 runs in five games (averaging 37) you must have been pretty proud of that first season as a whole?
I was, I didn’t expect to have that kind of success, but that’s what happened and that gave me the confidence to just carry on. I kept getting picked, so I just kept playing. I was fortunate enough to have a job, I worked for an insurance company, that paid me all the time I was playing cricket and football. So I never missed any salary or any payday or anything like that, they just kept putting money into my bank account all the time I was playing. So I was able to carry on playing to whatever level I wanted to, and they just happily paid me and credited me with annual leave — I didn’t have to take any annual leave, they just gave me the time off.
In that Wellington side you had John Reid as skipper, and senior figures like Barry Sinclair and Artie Dick. Were they good senior influences to have around?
And Paul Barton and Artie Dick and Bags [Bruce] Murray and Les Butler and Richard Collinge and Michael Coles and Bob Blair and Bruce Morrison. They were, they were great really. They looked after us youngies pretty well really. And we were reasonably successful, so we had a pretty good bunch.
You had a bit of a dose of the second-season blues, but came back the year after that.
Yeah, that’s what happens. You can’t keep scoring runs. Don’t forget we only played five games a year, that was all we played. There were only the six Plunket Shield teams and you played them once, and you didn’t get ten innings because John Reid used to get 250 every now and again, so you’d only get one innings. You didn’t play like they do now, so if you were a little out or you just weren’t quite in form, or things didn’t work for you, you didn’t have a lot of innings left to come back at them. You just had to put up with what you got. And that happened to all of us, we all had our outs from time to time.
You did come back well, including a half-century against the touring Pakistanis.
Got hit on the head that day. No helmet, and it whacked me on the forehead. It was just a point of having to knuckle down and concentrate and do your best. But sometimes if you got run out, something happened and you got stranded, or you nicked one and you’re out – you’re out, and you’ve only got another few innings to go before the season’s over. You didn’t have another 10 games or 20 games to play. It’s just the way it was, we got used to it. We didn’t think about it, really.
Being opener you were in a pretty specialist position, so were you comfortable up top?
Yeah, yeah. I opened with Bags and we just ran up and down the wicket together. Both of us had some success, and we put on some reasonable partnerships sometimes. He was really good because he was very tall, and played off the front foot, and I was a little short – well, not short like Sinclair, but I was short-ish – and I played off the back foot, so we complemented each other in that way. And made it a little bit difficult for the bowlers to adjust, Bob Cunis used to complain about bowling to us because he had to completely adjust his length all the time depending on who was playing, who was facing.
And then early in 1965-66 you made 161 against Otago and batted for a long time.
That all happened, that was just one of those days. Against the Alabaster brothers, whacked them round the park, that was just one of those days that everything came right. But I enjoyed it.
From there you found yourself in the Test side to play against England.
To be honest with you, I found it a bit stressful, I wasn’t completely relaxed about it all.
I scored another 50 I think, against Auckland, and found myself in the Test side. To be honest with you, I found it a bit stressful, I wasn’t completely relaxed about it all. I found it quite difficult. I didn’t take to it like a duck to water, where I was playing football and playing for New Zealand at that time and I found that quite easy, quite comfortable. I’d just run out to play for New Zealand the same as I did for any other team, but with cricket I found I didn’t really relax, and fit into it as comfortably as I’d like to have done.
But it’s just one of those things, it wasn’t anyone’s fault or anything, it was just me. I was alright at First Class level, but I found the Test level a bit stressful really. And I have no idea why, it’s just the way it was, the way I am.
Do you think part of that was where with football you had 90 minutes to do your job, where with cricket it was one mistake and you’re out?
A bit like that, yeah. Also, of course, with football you’ve got all your mates to rely on, and they cover for you. In cricket you’re on your own, you do it yourself. If you’re a bowler you need guys to catch it, but as a batsman you’re just on your own, and you either do it or you don’t. I never really studied it in depth or anything, but looking back on it that just appears to be the way it was.
Looking back on your eight caps for the national football side, you have one goal — do you remember that one?
Against New Caledonia I think. I actually played for New Zealand about 28 times but they’ve now changed all of that and they’ve separated them – in those days, we used to play a lot of club sides. We were the New Zealand team, but we’d play against a Hong Kong team and it would be Jardines which was a club side, and we did that quite a bit. We did that in England was well, we played Notts Forest and we’d play people like that. And although we were playing for New Zealand, it finished up not being a true international. That’s how that happened, so although I was selected all that many times they didn’t give you credit as a full international.
In terms of balancing the two sports, which was your favourite to play?
Probably football to start with, when I was playing, and I was able to compete I enjoyed the football. But then, as I got older, it became cricket. So I was very fortunate that I was able to do both, so that when my football finished I was able to play cricket for another four or five, six years. And I really enjoyed it. But I enjoyed both really, I can’t particularly say that one was more enjoyable than the other. I enjoyed both.
And in those days, we had distinct seasons. They didn’t cover each other, so when the football season finished in September/October you played cricket, and then when the cricket season finished in March you played football. And so apart from having to train before the football season, you were able to play them separately, it was no problem. Unlike now when it’s impossible, they’re all mixed up.
Through the late 60s, after having a bit of a nightmare in 1966-67, you had a couple of good seasons and then had three years out of the Wellington team.
Yes I did, I hurt myself playing football and I couldn’t play cricket because my football injuries went over that period for the first season, and then for the next two I played club cricket and didn’t make myself available – and I wasn’t really playing well enough, so it didn’t matter.
I’d I finally decided about ’71, ’72 I’d do it again. I started playing cricket because I’d retired from football, I couldn’t play anymore, my hamstrings all gave up on me. But I was able to play cricket, and they didn’t bother me in the summer, so that’s why I started back playing cricket again.
When you came back to cricket, you came back firing, averaging 38 after your return to the Wellington side compared to 30 beforehand.
Somehow I just picked it up from where I left off, and I was fine. Scored some runs, got back in the Wellington team, never played for New Zealand – and I never even thought to be considered, I really didn’t even aim for it, it never occurred to me that I might, I was very happy just playing First Class cricket with Wellington. I really enjoyed it.
Do you think that form after your return was just due to having added age and experience?
I think so, yeah. I think so. I was older and wiser, is that what you’re meant to be?
And then you were made older-and-wiser in chief by being appointed captain!
We used to stand in slips and have a chat, ‘what do you think we should now guys?’ ‘oh, why don’t we give so-and-so a bowl’ so that’s what we did.
For my sins you reckon? I think all the alternatives had retired! So I was the oldest one left, something like that. I had a couple of seasons as captain, I quite enjoyed it. Bruce Taylor, he flagged it, he retired, and I was next. I took that on, but I had a lot of help. We had a really good team, the Smith boys [Bruce and Robbie] and Collinge and Coles and Harry Morgan, a lot of guys. It wasn’t arduous, it was a lot of fun really. We used to stand in slips and have a chat, ‘what do you think we should now guys?’ ‘oh, why don’t we give so-and-so a bowl’ so that’s what we did. But Chafield was our winner, our main man in those days, and Collinge. They knocked sides over all the time.
You must be pretty proud to be able to claim you captained Wellington though?
Yeah, I suppose so, I don’t think much about it really. It’s there, I don’t look back and say ‘ooh, look at me I’m captain’, I just never think about it. It’s such a long time ago now. It was good at the time, I enjoyed it and had a lot of fun, and was very pleased about it all. But to be honest I don’t think about it very much anymore, because I don’t have anybody here that I discuss it with, it’s all history.
You are able to look back and say you’re one of not many double internationals.
Yeah, but it’s not something you dwell on too much. I was very fortunate that I was able to do it, I was very fortunate that I had the ability to do it, I was very fortunate that lived in a time when I could do it, because I don’t think there’s going to be too many from now on. I consider myself fortunate that I didn’t have any injuries or had anything bad happen that prevented me from doing it. I look at these Paralympics and I think they’re heroes. Look at them, they’re amazing, just absolutely amazing with the adversity and everything that they can do those things. The fortitude it takes, and the strength, and the sheer perseverance, and all those good words that you can use.
Undertaken by Devon Mace, Limited Overs is a series of interviews with former-New Zealand cricketers whose careers in the silver fern were fleeting. From their introduction to cricket, through their rise to the top, and on to life after pulling stumps, these are the players’ own stories. For more from Devon, visit Mind The Windows for cricket writing & @DVMace09 on Twitter.