When you become living history, tales from inside the SCG Scoreboard

In the middle of 1980 when I sat down to write my first work experience letter, I didn’t think that 38 years later I’d still be talking about where that very letter would take me.

I can still picture the scene, me sitting at my desk, blue biro in hand, writing in the pages of a school exercise book (remember those?). There was nothing unusual about the scene, except that on this night I was inspired. Earlier that day, my Year 10 cohort and I had been told we had to write a letter to an employer or organisation in a field that either interested us or we might consider as a career.

What interested me?

Cricket!

So now, utilising this inspiration and my imagination, I concocted a plan. I wrote a letter to the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust and explained to them that I wanted to be a groundsman and that there was no better place to learn this art than at the SCG itself. As supporting evidence I told them the (true) story that I’d already rolled and prepared cricket pitches in my parents’ backyard. The roller that I used had another life packing down the ant-bed tennis court at our property at Duffy’s Forest, which (as you might have gathered) was rather large.

I was pleasantly surprised when some weeks later a letter arrived in the post telling me that the SCG would be happy to host me for three weeks of work experience. They were also interested in my prospective career and during my stint with them two major cricket matches would be played at the ground during which I’d be required to work.

Breakthrough! After a protracted, train strike-affected and somewhat frantic journey into the SCG on day one of my adventure I arrived about two minutes’ late for ‘work’. That was the only hiccup in what quickly developed into a dream run.

During an Australia versus New Zealand One Day International in November the head curator at the SCG, Athol Watkins, gave me a trial as a scoreboard operator. It hadn’t taken my colleagues long to work out that I was very keen on cricket and had a pretty good knowledge of the game.

I could pick the difference between the batsmen, knew the different brands of cricket bat, the background, mannerisms (and also the statistics) of the players. In short, I was ideally suited to the job. These skills of player identification and differentiation were to prove very useful in my later life as an ABC commentator.

I passed my audition with flying colours and from that time until the end of the scoreboard’s life in early 1983, I worked every available moment inside the board, rolling the numbers, identifying the players. A silent witness to history at just 15 years old.

Many people are familiar with the external layout of the old scoreboard but only a select few remember what it was like inside.

It was large, built over two levels, and the atmosphere inside was industrious and quiet. There were six operators, including the old school foreman, Jack Bryson, who disliked any visitors (police included) coming inside. My job was the batsman’s score and identification light. There were three two-hour shifts through the day.  One of those I spent doing the sundries, perhaps posting the crowd figure or helping out during a change of innings. In any spare time I’d look down at the hill below us, across the playing area itself, to the green-roof of the heritage grandstands and beyond to the evolving skyline of the city. My lunch was a chicken sandwich and a can of soft drink. Older hands would snap the top of a long neck or two for the afternoon session.

In a dark corner of the scoreboard was a place that filled me with awe, and still does. It was a neat orderly cupboard with 26 alphabetical pigeon holes. In each of those pigeon holes were carefully wrapped roles of canvas. Each had a name pencilled (also neatly) of every player who’d played on the SCG since the scoreboard started operation in 1924. They were all there: Larwood, Jardine, Sobers, Benaud, Trueman, Lindwall and a particular favourite of mine, the then recently retired Chappell I. The one notably absent name was Bradman himself who, as always, was a player apart and whose canvas had been removed for safer keeping. I’ve wondered many times since what happened to all those cricketing treasures but even now I’m not sure of the answer.We know of the existence of a few but the fate of the majority remains to me an intriguing mystery. I wish I had one.

Away from the quiet awe of the place, inside the scoreboard there was fun to be had. If there was a mistake (and it could happen) ABC radio via the official scorers would let us know. If it was late in the day the punters on the hill would express themselves in their own way. A volley of steel KB beer cans might be rained upon us. One day a roast chicken flew threw my viewing window while I was trying to concentrate on the game. If it all got too much, the foreman Jack would call out, ‘Right boys pull down the shutters.’ Everything would then stop because a cricket game without a scoreboard isn’t much fun, the mob on the hill would take the hint and everyone would get on with it.

It hadn’t occurred to me until I heard of the recent plan to rebuild and restore the SCG scoreboard somewhere in the Moore Park precinct, that with the passing of the decades,  me and the other surviving operators of the board had become living history. We are able to give life to the story of a much-loved landmark.

When the restoration job is complete, I’d very much like to once again stand and admire that building that, in its day, was one of the most beautiful in Sydney. No longer as a wide-eyed work experience student but as someone who in all the years since has never encountered a story teller quite like it.

When you write your letter for work experience boys and girls, think big and be bold. You never know where it might lead you…

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