The brief international cricketing career of Roger Woolley

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Today as part of my series on obscure early 1980s Australian cricket matters, I thought I’d look at the brief international career of Tasmanian wicketkeeper, Roger Woolley.

Succession can be a tricky thing, as any business or political organisation knows, and nowhere is this truer in the case of the Australian wicketkeeping position. You see, while there are several spots for batters and bowlers (even, at times, spinners) there’s only one keeper.

So when you change them, it’s a Big Deal.

Transferring from one wicketkeeper to another is always fraught with danger. It helps when there’s an obvious successor but even then it can be tricky – for example, when Adam Gilchrist was ready to take over from Ian Healy, Healy didn’t want to go, and still whinges about being “pushed out”.

By the early 1980s, Rod Marsh had made the job of Australian wicketkeeper so obviously his own there was no clear successor. He’d had rivals, certainly, but he’d seen them off, such as Brian Taber (who Marsh replaced), John MacLean (who many thought should’ve replaced Taber) and Richie Robinson (who might’ve been Australian captain had he not signed for World Series Cricket).

So when Marsh’s career was approaching its finishing line it was unclear who would take over from him. There were options, certainly. Steve Rixon had understudied on the 1981 Ashes and had many years of service for New South Wales plus test experience during World Series Cricket.

Kevin Wright was highly respected at South Australia and, like Rixon, had test experience. Ray Phillips of Queensland had a decent reputation and a good rapport with Greg Chappell. Then there was Roger Woolley from Tasmania.

Woolley was born in 1954 and made his first class debut in 1977-78, Tasmania’s first season in the Sheffield Shield. He was originally selected a batter (he made the first Tasmanian Shield century, and played a key role in their first Shield victory) but soon moved to keeping, a job he did for the Apple Isle until 1985-86.

Woolley was generally held to be a less skilled keeper than Philips, Rixon, Wright and Geoff Miles (Victoria’s new keeper, probably too green to be a candidature for the top job). However he had something they didn’t – a first class batting average of 40. That would be showy now but back in the early 1980s was outstanding, when all Woolley’s rivals averaged around the mid twenties.

That, more than anything else, led to Woolley’s elevation to national honours. Australia were anxious to have a keeper who could bat so the tail didn’t start at seven.

They used to have that with Marsh, but his batting form declined sharply after World Series Cricket (Marsh was part of many famous Australian collapses in the 1980s eg Headingly 1981, World Cup 1983, Pakistan 1982). There’s a big difference between averaging 25 and 40.

Woolley had a strong 1982-83 first class season taking 39 catches and making 551 runs at 42 including 111 against New South Wales. The Australians were touring Sri Lanka over the 1983 winter and Rod Marsh had elected to sit this tour out (rare for him).

In March the selectors announced Woolley as the keeper in a the 13 man Australian squad. He was the first Tasmanian home based player to represent Australia since Laurie Nash in the 1930s.

Woolley’s selection was generally held to be a surprise, at least among mainland journalists – Peter McFarline wrote Woolley “is not in the same class as any of the other Sheffield Shield wicketkeepers” and that “no one, not even Woolley, could envision him as the successor to Marsh”.

Cricket balls

(Credit: Wolliwoo/CC BY-NC 2.0)

On the same day the Sri Lankan squad was announced, the Australian Cricket Board also selected an Under 25 side to Zimbabwe, appointing Wayne Philips as a wicketkeeper even though Philips didn’t keep for his state or club.

McFarline snapped, “It seems that the selectors, faced with a glut of good batsman, have decided that either Marsh will continue forever or that in the future, batsmen who can keep socially, will fill that role for Australia.”

Woolley’s selection surprised him, too. He later recalled, “When I got a phone call from the chairman of selectors that I’m on the plane with Greg Chappell and Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, I really had to pinch myself. It was a real buzz to be able to say that.

“Then the reality set in that Wow someone from Tassie has actually made it to the Australian side. That was very fulfilling.”

“We were staying in Sydney as a team before we left for Sri Lanka,” he added. “There was a big box in the corner of my room. I opened it up. It was a bit like Christmas and there was my Baggy Green. I have to admit I did spend some time looking at it in the mirror.”

Woolley had a decent tour of Sri Lanka. He scored 57 in a tour game, and took five catches in the sole test (although he didn’t get to bat, apparently making him the first Test debutant never to bat or bowl). He also played in all 4 ODIs, suffering cramps from dehydration in the first one.

McFarlane said Woolley kept “with increasing confidence” through the tour.

Woolley thus moved in to prime position to take over Marsh’s spot if and when Marsh decided to retire – which appeared increasingly likely over the 1983-84 summer.

During this time a new candidate emerged: Wayne Phillips debuted for Australian as a test opener with spectacular success. “Ooh he can keep as well” went some, and a recruit-Phillips-as-keeper-in-the-ODIs-at-least movement started, much to the annoyance of Marsh, though it did seem to prompt Marsh to a late burst in ODI batting form. Woolley had another excellent season with the bat, scoring 535 runs at 44.58.

Reading newspapers from the time, journalists heavily pushed Ray Phillips as a possible Marsh replacement – I don’t know why Steve Rixon or Wright weren’t more of a favourite, but maybe they were in other newspapers I haven’t read.

Generic cricket pitch image

(AAP Image/Sean Garnsworthy)

To complicate matters, when Marsh was injured during the 1983-84 one dayers, Wayne Philips substituted, indicating the selectors may have started planning to split the keeping role between formats.

Anyway, in January 1984 Marsh retired for good and Woolley was named in the Australia squad to tour the West Indies, with Phillips as a batter and reserve keeper. “For the next three months I’ve a job to do as a batsman-keeper,” said Woolley on his selection.

“That’s all I’m thinking about for the time being. I was worried about Queenslander Ray Phillips this season – he had taken a lot of catches and I hadn’t. Strangely, we were not getting wickets that way and my tally, along with the other Tasmanian fieldsmen, was down. But I felt the Sri Lankan tour has brought me along and my batting was improving with the responsibility of being Sheffield Shield captain. However I’m still learning, even at 29”.

Jack Simmons, former Tasmanian player, said Woolley’s selection shows “that one day you can be Cinderella and the next day you can play for Australia.

Five or six years ago our layers couldn’t think of being selected in a touring team.” Woolley’s state vice captain Brian Davison said the selection was “absolutely magic. It is what we have worked at ever since getting into the Shield competition.”

Bob Simpson declared “I don’t feel that Woolley is the best gloveman in Australia but he is undoubtedly the best wicketkeeper batsman and with the theme appearing to be ‘bolster the batting’ he was an obvious choice.” Simpson felt the spinning of Greg Matthews and Tom Hogan wouldn’t challenge Woolley in the West Indies as opposed to a leggie like, say, Bob Holland.

(If the selectors had picked Holland in the squad, as they should have, they may have been tempted to take the more-experienced-with-spinners Steve Rixon instead, and the course of Australian cricket history would be very different. But of course the real mistake was not appointing Rod Marsh captain at the beginning of the 1983-84 summer which would’ve delayed his retirement at least another year.)

Woolley played in the first two tour games in the West Indies. McFarline, covering the tour, reported that Woolley’s keeping was “sloppy” and “rather less than we have come to expect from an Australian keeper. The legacy of Rod Marsh is that his standards may be too high.”

This included missing a catch off Andy Jackman in a game against Guyana when Jackman was only two – he went on to score a century. Woolley broke his finger during that game and could not keep in Guyana’s second innings. He missed the first ODI (Phillips kept) but was pencilled into the Australian eleven for the first test. However when that came around it was felt Woolley’s finger had not recovered enough, Hughes declaring “We decided we couldn’t risk a wicketkeeper who was not 100 percent sure of his fitness.”

Phillips, who was set to be dropped from the side in favour of Steve Smith, took over as keeper. He had an okay game behind the stumps and scored 76 in Australia’s second innings. McFarline wrote, with admirable foresight, that without Marsh “the Australian side looks a little lopsided”.

The whole incident annoyed Ian Chappell who said Woolley “should have grabbed the keeping chance he has waited for so long with both hands, even if one of the fingers on those two extremities wasn’t functioning at full capacity. I heard Rod Marsh’s thoughts on Woolley making himself unavailable for the Guyana Test and they were unprintable.” Chappell felt Phillips “should not spend even spare moment he has improving his wicketkeeping” and should be inspired by Jeff Dujon, who started in cricket as a batter before turning into a keeper (although he still had more first class experience at that trade than Phillips prior to making his test debut).

Chappelli added, “I have felt for some time that Rod Marsh’s long term replacement isn’t among the present Shield keepers” which was a mean knock on Rixon, Phillips and Wright – and anyway, what’s wrong with a short term keeper? But Chappell’s views would have carried a lot of weight.

Anyway, Philips was kept on for the next two tests, scoring a marvellous innings of 120 in the third game. He was going to keep for the fourth test but Graeme Wood broke his hand, meaning Australia was short an opener (Kepler Wessels had gone home injured). Hughes pushed Phillips up to the top of the order but didn’t want him to keep as well, so Woolley was recalled, taking in some batting form having scored a half century against Barbados off 44 balls in a tour game.

Generic cricket fielding pink ball

(Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

This team balance was much criticised – specialist opener Steve Smith was dropped, and Phillips opened with Greg Ritchie.

Woolley’s second (and, as it turned out, last) Test match was a bad one for him and Australia. He scored 13 and 8 with the bat and his keeping was not great. In particular, the West Indies were 2-100 with Richardson on 38 when he snicked a Lawson delivery to Woolley, who dropped it; Richardson went on to score 154 and Australia lost by an innings.

McFarline called Woolley’s form “most upsetting… his tour with the gloves has been as poor has I have seen in this class of cricket…. A tragic failure.”

Even allowing for mainland press hyperbole, Woolley himself admitted, “I kept pretty badly in the West Indies. I broke my finger and only gave it a week to recover. So, every time I kept, I used to keep snapping it. So that didn’t help. I batted ok and when I came back after that tour, I batted really well and kept well.”

Woolley was overlooked for the Australian Cricket Board’s contract list that winter and never keeps to have been seriously discussed as an international prospect again. Indeed, it was as if he’d never played for Australia – that happens when all your internationals are overseas, I guess.

Woolley continued to bat very well (717 runs at 51.21) but his keeping declined. Eventually he gave it up (Richard Soule took the gloves) and continued as a specialist bat for Tasmania. He is, deservedly, a legend of Tasmanian cricket.

Wayne Phillips was kept on as Australian keeper for the 1984 ODI tour of India, and did well (“I think I can keep as well as any specialist wicketkeeper in Australia now” he said during that team. “I can become the all rounder.”)

He kept the job over the 1984-85 summer, where his aggressive batting was a bright spot in a tough season. It was generally felt (in the media at least) that the job of keeping was “his”… even though Australia’s fielding standards shot up sharply when Steve Rixon took over for three Tests.

But Rixon didn’t get the runs (and then signed to tour South Africa). Phillips was Australia’s keeper until the end of the 1985-86 summer.

His batting – which could be excellent – protected him for much of that time but in the end his limitations behind the stumps became too obvious and he was replaced by Tim Zoehrer.

Zoehrer had a relatively short stint before being replaced by Greg Dyer, who had a short stint before being replaced by Ian Healy, who was picked for his attitude as much as his keeping and was a great success.

The Roger Woolley case should be remembered and discussed because it goes straight to an important conundrum in cricket selection – who should be your keeper?

The best keeper or best keeper-batter? It’s said that Adam Gilchrist changed Australian cricket, and I guess he did, but the selectors were looking for a Gilchrist well before Gilchrist came along, and their search in the mid 80s did a lot of damage.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast here – I don’t think you have to pick your best keeper but I think you have to pick a good keeper. If someone can’t keep to international standard, whatever gains they give you in extra runs will be lost in terms of missed chances and stumpings, byes and – most of all – infecting the rest of the side with their sloppiness.

The wicketkeeper is the captain of the fielding team – he or she needs to be able to take every chance, hold the fielders to strict account. And we need to start collecting statistics for dropped catches. Australia should have picked a keeper they really believed in in 1984.

Anyway, Roger Woolley. He was Australia’s keeper.

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