WL Jacobs

Name: Jacobs, William Lawson
Date of Birth: 5 January 1918 (d 29 July 2011)
Career: 1937/38 - 1955/56
Teams: Fitzroy
Matches: 266
Batting Style: RHB
Bowling Style: Wicket-Keeper

Few players have had as much influence on District cricket as Bill Jacobs, and few have seen as much of the local game. Jacobs played 266 consecutive games with Fitzroy between 1937/38 and 1956/57, winning three of six finals, including 1953/54 as captain.

He then was a Victorian selector from 1959/60 to 1972/73, watching local matches with his eagle eye and astute knowledge of a player’s form and potential. He stood down only because he accepted a post as assistant secretary of the Victorian Cricket Association. Yet at the end of the first century of District cricket, Jacobs, at 88, remains a constant visitor to local games, assessing players and enjoying the game he loves so much.

The centenary year will be the 69th year since Jacobs stepped onto the District first XI scene, and he again will be venturing to grounds to watch the newest generation.

Throughout the years, Jacobs has had a tremendous influence on the local scene, as player, captain and coach at Fitzroy; as a Victorian selector; an administrator; a 3AW radio commentator and television cricket expert; a powerbroker; father of Cricket Victoria chief executive of the past 25 years, Ken, and as an Australian team manager, manager of the Rest of the World team, and, last but not least, a spokesman for cricket itself, especially at the grass roots in Victoria.

Along the way he has rubbed shoulders with the greats of the game _ Sir Donald Bradman personally asked him to manage the Rest of the World team against Australia in 1971/72 when the tour by South Africa was cancelled. Besides all the internationals, he was particularly sought after and used as council by a succession of legendary Victorians, ranging from Jack Ryder, John Scholes, Bert Rigg, Neil Harvey and Keith Miller, Sam Loxton and a host of administrators.

Jacobs always has been a keen thinker of the game. More, his forthright approach never left anyone in doubt of his thoughts: players, administrators, media listeners or anyone within earshot. With Jacobs, you listened and learned.

His remarkable contribution to District cricket began at Brunswick in the sub-District ranks. A local, he headed to the club at 15 and began in the third XI as a wicketkeeper and useful batsman. He graduated to the seconds the following season (also playing a game in the seniors) before seniors captain/coach, former Test player Bert Ironmonger, elevated him to the top job in his third season. “He was a tremendous player, and he was very good to me,” Jacobs recalled.

Higher honours obviously were at hand and Jacobs had interest from Essendon, Fitzroy and Carlton. “I wanted to go to Essendon but Bert Ironmonger convinced me to stay on for a year in the Brunswick seniors to prepare myself. It was great advice. After that year in the seniors, I went in Fitzroy in 1937. The main reason was that two Brunswick players, Roy Gardiner and Morrie Sievers, were there.

“I started in the Fitzroy seniors immediately and never left them. My first season was memorable for several reasons. First, it was the last time that the two top teams played in the final (there was no finals series as such). And we made it, playing Melbourne. This was the last game played by the great batsman Bill Ponsford, so it was more than a final, it was a genuinely special and historic occasion.”

Ponsford began his District career with St Kilda in 1916/17 and played 117 games before moving to Melbourne in 1931/32. The opening batsman was regarded as the next best to Don Bradman, who had to break many of Ponsford’s records on his road to immortality. Ponsford, after whom a grandstand is named at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, naturally was an icon in Jacobs’ eyes.

“Naturally I didn’t see the best of him, but he must have been an extraordinary player,” Jacobs recalled. “We were lucky enough to dismiss him relatively cheaply in both innings, but we failed in our premiership bid. The match went into the fifth day, and chasing 130 we fell 13 runs short. Although Ponsford didn’t have a great influence on that particular game, he was part of a great side that included skipper Hans Ebling, Percy Beames and Bert Rigg.

“It was a great experience playing against players of that calibre. You learned quickly and that was particularly the case with me, because as a wicketkeeper you studied every movement of those great players. And we had a few useful players ourselves at Fitzroy: Sievers and skipper Joe Plant were two. Sievers captured 5/21 against the touring England team and had just returned from a tour of South Africa before the final. And Joe Plant was an outstanding player, and an excellent captain. People today talk about man management, well, he was one of the best at it.

“And one thing about the final was that it went into the fifth day. Too often today teams surrender, but not then. You fought for the outright win and you never surrendered. Play was tough and occasionally a few words were exchanged, but all was forgotten when you left the field.

“They were the days when socialising was a major part of the scene. We at Fitzroy were lucky enough to have licensed premises, and the St Kilda, South Melbourne and Richmond clubs were similar. But it was six o’clock closing in those days and most of the action was at house parties. Clubs would gather at a particular person’s home, along with the opposition if they wanted to come, and parties would take place on any given Saturday night. The main attraction usually was singing and dancing. Some blokes could really sing and entertain for hours: St Kilda’s John Edwards and Essendon’s Norm Blundell are two whom I recall had lovely voices, while old Keith Stackpole had a great sense of humour.”

And Jacobs and most other players didn’t have to worry about .05 and drink driving. “I used to ride my pushbike everywhere,” Jacobs said. “I rode from my home in Brunswick to North Melbourne to work, from North to Fitzroy to play or train and from Fitzroy back home to Brunswick. Most were the same because few had cars, although fast bowler Keith Campbell’s father used to drive us to some games.

“District cricket was a metropolitan competition with few clubs any great distance away. There was Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Fitzroy, Footscray, Hawthorn-East Melbourne, Melbourne, North Melbourne, Northcote, Richmond, South Melbourne, St Kilda and the Colts. The Colts, who practised at the Albert Ground, was made up of one young player from each club and used to fast-track promising players. His club had first rights to him when the Colts played that team, and the game was always at the District club’s ground. So nothing was too far away to reach, either on a bike or public transport, or, as the years rolled along, in a car. Usually we worked on a Saturday morning and made it to the ground in plenty of time.

“And the grounds were good. To make it into District ranks in those days was like a footballer making it to Victorian Football League standard. You were pretty much a celebrity. All grounds had to be fully enclosed and you had a members section and an outer area. You had people on the turnstiles to collect admission fees. University was the only ground that was not enclosed, but they were granted approval because the entire University was enclosed. Apart from University and Northcote, which had a team in the Victorian Football Association, all grounds were VFL football grounds in the winter, so naturally they were enclosed. You had Fitzroy at Brunswick St, which was a fine surface with a good wicket area; South Melbourne at Lakeside Oval, St Kilda at the Junction, Hawthorn-East Melbourne at Glenferrie Oval, North Melbourne at Arden St, Carlton at Princes Park and Essendon at Windy Hill. And of course you had Melbourne at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where everyone waited eagerly to play each season. We called it The Melbourne in those days.

“There was football in winter and cricket in summer. You had champion Melbourne footballer Norm Smith playing cricket for Northcote, Test all-rounders Keith Miller and Sam Loxton playing football for St Kilda, Collingwood’s gun footballer Ron Todd playing for Northcote, South Melbourne’s great Laurie Nash playing cricket for Fitzroy and South and so on. Later there was Brownlow Medallist Peter Bedford who played cricket for Melbourne, and towards the end Collingwood’s centre half back Bill Picken playing for the Pies. He played in a final at the Albert Ground and headed off for the second half of a footy practice match and fronted up in the first round of VFL footy the next week. And Carlton’s Craig Bradley also combined the two sports in the 1990s, but unfortunately football became so professional and the demands so great that the traditional six months of footy followed by six months of cricket simply disappeared.” 

Jacobs went on to play in six finals, winning three. His career at Fitzroy began with three finals in three years, and two wins following the loss to Melbourne. The other victory came in 1953/54 when Jacobs was captain. Fitzroy trailed Prahran on the first innings by 50 runs but set 180 to win on the third day, the team accomplished the feat for the loss of only three wickets. Prahran was under the leadership of Val Holten and included Sam Loxton.

Jacobs ended his stint as captain/coach at the end of the 1956/57 season, basically because he was weary of training. “I still loved playing, but as coach I had to be at all the training sessions and in the end I had just had enough. Besides, I had Neil Harvey ready for the captaincy and I just figured it was time.” Jacobs dismissed 448 victims in his career, with 279 caught and 169 stumped in an amazing ratio. He also scored almost 3000 runs, played in three premiership teams and led one of them. It was a remarkable career over 266 consecutive matches. During his 20 seasons at Fitzroy, the club had only three captains: Joe Plant, Merv Harvey and Jacobs. It was a golden era in the club’s history.

It is all the more impressive because cricket then was played on uncovered wickets. “When you were faced with a sticky wicket, the medium-pacers pretty much were in control and all players were pretty much reduced to one level. They were tough days. But you had to learn to adapt. I reckon the real beauty of covered wickets is that you can get a game despite the weather. We lost a significant number of games over the years because the wicket was unplayable, and if we did get on, it was a raffle and usually over quickly with dismally low scores. So I’m in favour of covered wickets. However I have a pet hate these days, and that is roping off grounds. Some grounds are nowhere near as big as they were with the traditional picket fence. I can understand the safety issue and concerns that players may injure themselves sliding into the fence, but at some grounds the roped off area is ridiculously large. It detracts from the individuality of grounds (particularly at state and international level) and makes a mockery of previous records.”

After only two years off the scene as Fitzroy’s stalwart wicketkeeper and leader, Jacobs became a Victorian selector, joining legendary Jack Ryder, gentleman Keith Rigg, Hugh Baring and Sam Loxton. “I really enjoyed my time as a selector. We had great discussions and we talked frankly about personnel, conditions and the opposition. One of the most enjoyable aspects was watching as many District matches as I could, to see first hand who was playing well, who had form that warranted consideration at the next meeting, and who was showing potential to keep in mind for the future.”

Almost from the time he finished his District playing days, Jacobs was a voice of passion, reason and opinion on 3AW. He began with football and became part of the legendary team alongside Harry Beitzel and Tommy Lahiff. His cricket comment segments never left anyone wondering what Jacobs thought on any particular issue.

Jacobs was so highly regarded by other administrators that the Australian Cricket Board (now Cricket Australia) broke with tradition to appoint him manager of the team to South Africa in 1966/67. The game’s governing body traditionally reserved such a prestigious position for one of the board members. Jacobs was no longer a VCA delegate for Fitzroy, and obviously was not an ACB board member. Yet the ACB appointed him by opening up the criteria to include selectors as eligible candidates. This, of course, was done solely to qualify Jacobs for the post. Although Bob Simpson’s team lost 3-1, Jacobs made a huge impression on the players under his command, and officials back home. So it was a fitting tribute that Sir Donald Bradman sought Jacobs to manage the Rest of the World team that was flung together for the 1971/72 summer when South Africa was banned from international cricket because of the apartheid issue. Jacobs took control of cricketers with different political and religious beliefs and moulded them into a winning combination. He then managed the 1973 Australian team under Ian Chappell to the West Indies.

It was at this point that he was approached to become assistant secretary of the VCA, on condition that he gave up his duties as a selector. He did so and spent several years introducing innovative measures to attract people to cricket, including give-aways at the MCG for Victorian matches under the banner: December is cricket month.

In 1982/83 Jacobs was again seconded to become a Victorian selector. He immediately went on tour to Western Australia and South Australia for a look at the team and its leadership. He returned and told VCA president Ray Steele that a new captain and a new coach were required, and stunned Steele with his opinion that the man to take over as captain was South Australian David Hookes. After several secret meetings with Hookes, Jacobs eventually failed to lure him. Jacobs retired as a selector after two seasons, but clearly was a man of vision, for Hookes eventually arrived as coach of Victoria, and proved the success that Jacobs correctly predicted.   

 From "100 Not Out" by Rod Nicholson and Ken Williams.

Innings N.O. Runs Batting Avg High Score 50s 100s
255 74 2765 15.27 100* 4 1

Runs Wickets Bowling Avg Best 5wi 10wm Ct/St
55 2 27.5 2/24 - - 279/169