Victoria has been blessed with leg-spin bowlers during the century of pennant cricket, but few have been more consistent or productive than Keith Kirby.
And he learned the art of leg-spin from a coaching manual! “I was only 15 when I started with Essendon in the lower XIs and Dowling Shield. I made my debut as a batsman in 1959/60, scoring an unbeaten 68. Then I was dropped back to the seconds and one day I was reading a paperback coaching manual by Lindsay Hassett and Ian Johnson, Hassett writing about batting and Johnson about bowling. I was fascinated by the leg-spin grip drawings in the book and I thought I would give it a go. The following season I was back in the seniors taking hauls of five and six wickets and I never looked back,” Kirby explained.
The right-arm leg-spinner and capable lower-order batsman played Premier cricket for 23 seasons until 1981/82. He captured an incredible 623 wickets in 262 games, both the wickets and games tallies still all-time records for the Bombers.
He was the competition’s leading wicket-taker in 1966/67 with 56 wickets at 15.98. He took five or more wickets in an innings on 39 occasions and twice took 13 wickets in a match - 13/113 (6/39 & 7/74) against South Melbourne in 1965/66 and 13/78 (9/34 & 4/44) against Footscray in 1976/77. His 9/34 remains the best innings analysis in the club’s history. He also contributed 2373 runs during his career.
Kirby played in five Finals for Essendon during the 1960s, playing in their first-ever premiership in 1963/64 and their second in 1969/70. Kirby, along with John Grant, John Swanson and Tom O’Neill played in both flag wins for Essendon and formed the nucleus of one of the best combinations in the competition’s history.
However, he knows he will never be allowed to forget the famous match when Bill Lawry’s Northcote scored 5/516 to out-do Essendon’s 9/514 (dec).in 1965/66. “All I can say was that I was 50 not out when we declared,” Kirby joked. “It was a colossal match, a superb final. We played in a lot of finals in the 1960s. We had a tremendous team with the likes of Ian Monks, John Grant, John Swanson and Tommy O’Neill, and another great character Greg Brown.
“I was really fortunate to have O’Neill behind the stumps and Nookie (Swanson) at first slip. O’Neill could read my bowling and Nookie was as good a fieldsman as I have seen in the game, up there with Ray Harvey. Leg-spinners try to make batsmen look silly, so you need quality behind the stumps in catching positions.”
The Essendon ground became a home away from home for Kirby from his teenage days until he retired at 43. “You would be there all the time, either training or playing or watching the Bombers at football. After the home games we had a great social life. We had functions in one of the bowling club bars and it was hugely popular with all the opposition players too.
“It was a real wrench when I retired and really I didn’t feel much like playing cricket anywhere else.
“It was a long journey and I met a lot of great players and characters. Bob Cowper was elite at that level, as was Lawry. Keith Kendall at South Melbourne always gave you a real battle, and down the years you ran into Ken Eastwood and Jack Potter and Graham Yallop, all wonderful batsmen. And you will notice that most are left-handers!
“I found Rodney Hogg frightening and Eddie Illingworth was a champion competitor. When you went to South you ran into Ian Meckiff and Alan Connolly. Every club had quality players.
“I loved every minute of it.”
Kirby also played 25 first class matches for Victoria between 1960/61 and 1969/70, taking 51 wickets at 51.51. His best figures were 6/82 against New South Wales at the MCG in 1967/68.
From "100 Not Out" by Rod Nicholson and Ken Williams.