As the party moved from the grass bank beneath the historic Adelaide Oval scoreboard to one of the bars in the grandiose ground’s members’ stand, and finally across the River Torrens to an inner city pub, stories shared by the brotherhood of the baggy red grew taller by the glass.
The summer’s first day of domestic men’s cricket at the venue that hosted the inaugural Sheffield Shield match in 1892 had been chosen by South Australia’s general manager cricket (and ex-Redbacks captain) Tim Nielsen for an ambitious reunion of the state’s living Shield players.
Of a possible 370 attendees identified by the SA Cricket Association, around 140 assembled to share memories, rekindle friendships and forge new ones, as well as receive a pristine red cap embroidered with the number that identifies their place in a playing lineage that now stretches to 653.
SA’s number one supporter Barry ‘Nugget’ Rees was symbolically the recipient of cap #1 (with the hashtag included to denote his non-player status) and also handed out the new headwear and accompanying certificates to the roll call in numerical order.
The most senior member of that cohort was 94-year-old Neil ‘Nodder’ Dansie who made the first of his 107 Shield appearances in 1950, the season after Don Bradman hung up his boots.
One of the most recent additions to the past players collective – swing bowler Daniel ‘Frankie’ Worrall, who left SA earlier this year to play for Surrey in the UK – bookended the guest list.
Among the others who kept half an eye on SA’s unfolding Shield fixture against Tasmania that afternoon were hometown heroes and household names including Ken Cunningham, Ashley Woodcock, Wayne Phillips, Peter Sleep, Darren Lehmann, Greg Blewett, Callum Ferguson and Chadd Sayers.
Ken Horsnell – the 89-year-old whose career stretched from 1953-1960 – was there, as was Bob Gilbourne (a member of SA’s star-studded teams of the late 1960s) and former opening partners Rick Darling and John Nash who had reunited as state selectors decades after their playing days.
Ex-Test spinner Tim May made the trip from Texas in the US where he lived for more than a decade, and others such as John Inverarity, Joe Scuderi, Darren Berry, Dan Christian and Matthew Elliott traveled from interstate.
Scuderi revealed it had been so long since visiting his former home ground he had never seen the redeveloped players’ rooms, at which point current Redbacks coach Jason Gillespie organized an impromptu guided tour.
Nielsen, the former Australia men’s team coach, began formulating the reunion plan last season when the SACA decided the motley collection of fading red caps worn on-field by players (whose tenure in the team varied from a decade to debutants) needed a make- over.
To instil a sense of sartorial uniformity, a system was adopted whereby in addition to new caps being presented to players on their maiden appearance, replacement versions would be issued to those who reached milestones of 25, 50, 75 matches and beyond.
“The detail of 25 games or 50 games or whatever is displayed under the SACA logo on the cap, so it’s almost a badge of honor and if you play 100 games over your career you’ll have four caps that record your journey,” Nielsen told cricket.com.au
“That means if you play a significant number of games you’ve got something that’s pretty special to say you’ve made an important contribution to the SACA and to the team, and even if you don’t you’ve still got your original , individual cap with your number on it.
“We posted that initiative on our socials last season, and quite a few people saw it.”
Among those who noticed the post was Nielsen’s former teammate in SA’s most recent Shield-winning team in 1995-96, James Brayshaw.
The former SA and WA batter then rang Nielsen to say the social media missive had also caught the attention of his son, who then quizzed his dad as to where he kept the caps from his playing days in Perth and Adelaide.
“And he (Brayshaw) had told his son, ‘I don’t know mate’,” Nielsen said.
“We realized that when you were wearing it, the cap was one of your most important possessions but when you moved on or you finished playing it was almost like, ‘put it in the bag and see you later’.
“So when he said to me, ‘I think the milestones caps are a great idea, and I’m sure blokes will love it’, I started throwing around some ideas and it was February last year we came up with the plan to get caps made for all the living SACA players.
“It took a fair bit of time to chase up email addresses and get organised, and there’s not many of our vintage who are computer savvy.
“So most of that early work was done by ringing our mates and saying, ‘right, you need to find me the email addresses of these five blokes’, which they would then go away and do.
“We also had enough older blokes we could call on to say, ‘can you find these blokes from your team in the 1960s or 70s’, and (former SACA chair and past player) Ian McLachlan and a few others were really helpful with that .
“Then it was when and how it might all work and we came up with the idea that the first day of the first Shield game of the summer at Adelaide Oval was a great chance to get a few blokes back through the gate, and we ended up getting about 140 of them.”
Those who were contacted but couldn’t make it to Adelaide Oval can arrange to have their caps sent to them, and others such as former South Africa great Barry Richards and Zimbabwe’s Andy Flower sent best wishes as well as an apology for the day.
Other former SA imports proved more difficult to track down, and Nielsen was unable to elicit a response from luminaries the likes of West Indies legends Sir Garfield Sobers and Joel Garner who donned the cap in the 1960s and 80s respectively.
But Nielsen believes the occasion and the presentation carried potentially greater significance to those who played just a handful of games in eras when successes were few, and thereby haven’t enjoyed the chance to maintain bonds the way trophy-winning teams often do.
“Some of the blokes that only played or five or less games and perhaps weren’t around for a full season – those who had a go, but didn’t quite crack it – they walked away and maybe felt almost a little bit of embarrassment , which can make hard for them to come back into the environment,” he said.
“So to have the opportunity to come back, combined with the fact everyone was together in the same place and they had the bond of the red cap – they really enjoyed that.
“There’s also the fact we’ve had four or five different iterations of our cap – starting with the baggy blue, to the red and then the Redbacks logo, we even had a baseball cap for a while – so to give everyone the same cap it was quite special.
“A few blokes were absolutely chuffed to get a SACA baggy red cap with their number on it, and we’ve got a heap of emails since then saying, ‘we had a really great day, thanks a lot’, so that was really gratifying.”
Gillespie, who along with current Tasmania coaches (and former SA representatives) Jeff Vaughan and Rob Cassell, made the short trip from the Adelaide Oval dressing rooms to the scoreboard hill during the ongoing Shield game to receive their caps, described it as “a wonderful initiative”.
“I know Tim (Nielsen) put a lot of time and effort into making it happen, and the feedback we’ve got from all the past players has been sensational,” Gillespie said.
“To a man they were very grateful and thought it was a wonderful day.
“We want to do as much as we can. We’re all part of a pretty exclusive club, and I think it’s important that we acknowledge that, as well as the good feel it generated.
“It was just terrific to see a lot of guys I hadn’t seen for a long time, and to meet some others I hadn’t crossed paths with in the past.”
Nielsen, who noted he was able to catch up with former Redbacks teammate and ex-Australia ODI opener Glenn Bishop who he hadn’t seen “for about 15 years” even though they both still live in Adelaide, claimed it was unlikely the event of such scales will be repeated.
“Not in that format,” he said. “We may have one day a year when we try and get everyone together, but it was also a chance to see how we might run something similar for smaller groups of past players.
“We might be able to get groups from say the 1970s or 80s or 90s back together, where guys do know each other and can link up.
“So if we can do something like that in the future at one of our Shield games, where we just sit out there and have a beer, it reunites those blokes that played together knowing they all have a common link of having played for SA, regardless of where you’ve come from or where you are now.”
Images supplied by Tom Roschi Photography