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Swing, fate & a WACA great: The tale of Chris Matthews

Nine days out from his 60th birthday, Chris Matthews is packing his suitcase, and once again preparing to fly into the middle of nowhere.

It is a fortnightly routine he has been following for the past decade, the rhythm of a life he shares with his long-time wife, Anne, who hails from England’s north-east. 

“I work on what they call an eight-and-six roster,” Matthews explains to cricket.com.au. “So eight days on, six days off.

“It gives a pretty good lifestyle. I leave on a Wednesday, I’m home on a Wednesday, so you’re getting six months off a year, really.

“But I still don’t enjoy planes, after all these years. People always have this idea that flying around for a living is a good lifestyle, but when you’ve done it like I did it for a cricket career, and now working in the mines, it wears pretty thin.”

It is but a minor quibble from an otherwise happy-go-lucky man, who these days leads a quiet, contented life between his home in Perth and his work at a small ore crushing plant near Wodgina, in Western Australia’s remote north-west, existing in the cricketing sphere as the state’s less-discussed Chris Matthews.

Matthews quickly proved himself a handful for Shield batters // The 1985-86 Western Cricketer Year Book
Matthews quickly proved himself a handful for Shield batters // The 1985-86 Western Cricketer Year Book

There was a time however, long before the hip and knee replacements that spared his weary joints, when the young WA fast bowler was a name on everybody’s lips.

Even the great Adam Gilchrist later recalled Matthews as “… the best and most aggressive bowler in the (Sheffield) Shield”, while well before the emergence of Gilly, he was a hot topic for national selectors charged with the task of pushing Australia through its mid-1980s funk.

But fame can be fleeting. Good fortune fickle. A whopping 30 per cent of the 464 players to have worn Baggy Green have appeared in three Tests or fewer.

For many of them – as for Matthews – it might have been different.

* * *

Christopher Darrell Matthews had played just 11 first-class matches for Western Australia when he was called on to make his Test debut in the 1986-87 Ashes.

He had started the summer strongly. An innings haul of 6-75 against New South Wales, and figures of 4-40 (as well as a blazing 56) against the touring England XI had taken his overall first-class wickets tally to 49 at an average of 23.

Matthews could generate good pace and bounce, and had the advantage of being a left-armer. He was strong and durable. But his biggest weapon was his ability to swing the ball prodigiously.

When it clicked, he was virtually unplayable.

In the 1987-88 Sheffield Shield final, he took first-innings figures of 8-101 – still the second-best ever in the competition’s decider – and in a tour match a couple of summers later, he ran through a Pakistan XI in an hour to the tune of 7-22.

Matthews proudly displaying the colours of his native WA // Rick Smith
Matthews proudly displaying the colours of his native WA // Rick Smith

But by his own admission, Matthews’ fate with ball in hand was invariably underpinned by a wavering self-belief.

In his book, True Colours, Gilchrist, who on his Shield debut for NSW faced Matthews, continued his description.

“Unfortunately, when he was picked for Australia he’d suffered attacks of stage fright and sprayed it around,” Gilchrist wrote. “What that meant was that he spent most of his career in first-class cricket when he was really Test standard.

“He was probably the best bowler in the entire Shield competition, and he proved it by taking bags and bags of wickets each season.”

That he certainly had. In fact, in Shield history, only Matthews and Queensland greats Andy Bichel and Michael Kasprowicz have taken 47-plus wickets in three separate campaigns. And Matthews is part of another exclusive Shield trio, with Ray Lindwall and Matthew Nicholson as bowlers to have taken 100-plus wickets with two states, which he did with WA and Tasmania.

But as complimentary as Gilchrist’s assessment is, it is the term ‘stage fright’ that demands further enquiry.

“I think you definitely suffer from apprehension at times when you’re playing Test cricket, and I think everyone suffers from nerves,” Matthews says.

“I was a bowler that tended to play a little bit on confidence, certainly with regards to new-ball bowling.

“I was very green to first-class cricket, and suddenly I found myself playing Test cricket. For me, it was a bit of a shock, in a way.”

100+ Shield wickets for multiple states

Ray Lindwall | NSW: 34 matches, 139 wkts @ 20.89 | Qld: 32 matches, 104 wkts @ 24.93

Chris Matthews | WA: 44 matches, 188 wkts @ 24.88 | Tas: 35 matches, 119 wkts @ 35.57

Matthew Nicholson | WA: 35 matches, 115 wkts @ 31.74 | NSW: 44 matches, 151 wkts @ 28.73

Matthews looks back on all of it now not through a lens of regret, but as one small part of a grand cricketing adventure. He never expected to scale the heights he did. There was no single-minded ambition driving him to the top.

Born in Cunderdin, in the wheatbelt region around 150km east of Perth, he moved with his family to Corrigin as a three-month old, and then to the state capital as a primary schooler. Growing up, he tended more towards footy than cricket, but injuries put paid to that pathway, and when he was one day tossed the ball and told by his fourth-grade captain to bowl as fast as he could, another sporting life began to reveal itself.

Not that he ever considered it work.

“I never really thought that it was a career path,” he says. “I always thought it was something that I did and I loved; we were maybe the last era where we all tended to work anyway, so I never really saw cricket as my job.”

Matthews took 56 wickets in the '87-88 Shield season // The 1987-88 Western Cricketer Year Book
Matthews took 56 wickets in the ’87-88 Shield season // The 1987-88 Western Cricketer Year Book

Matthews soon broadened his horizons via a year as an amateur cricketer with Chichester in Sussex, and later as a professional for Whickham, when he met Anne in 1984. He returned to play cricket in the UK on six or seven occasions, and while Darlington in the hills of Perth has been their long-time home, their ties to the country remain strong through Anne’s family.

“Having family all over the world, with Anne coming from England, I think that’s one of the big life hurdles that we’ve faced,” Matthews says.

“We have one son who’s now 28 years of age, and he’s based in Perth at the moment, but when you travel as much as what we have over the years, your children tend to get the travel bug as well.

“Working out where you’re going to end up … we live in Perth at the moment, but is it our long-term home? You just don’t really know. And I suppose it’s a blessing and a curse in a way that you don’t feel as though you’re always completely settled.”

The same was true of his place in the Test side during that ’86-87 summer, for one specific reason.

* * *

In those two Tests against England, Matthews didn’t actually fare badly on the scorecard. He took three wickets in each match, including David Gower and Mike Gatting, and only bowled five no-balls and a couple of wides.

But with the new ball, he struggled to settle into a consistent line and length, and when Australia found themselves one-nil down in the series, they opted for a second spinner in the third Test in Adelaide, before a young quick named Craig McDermott returned for the fourth.

It meant Matthews was relegated to state cricket and the periphery of the Test scene where, much like the revolving door of spinners trialled in the immediate post-Shane Warne era, the prior exits of Dennis Lillee, Rodney Hogg and Jeff Thomson in a short window meant pace bowlers were selected and quickly discarded.

Not that fast-bowling stocks were thin. The previous summer, Bruce Reid and Merv Hughes had debuted in the same Test, while Terry Alderman, Mike Whitney, Geoff Lawson and Carl Rackemann were all on the scene.

All of which meant Matthews needed everything working in his favour. Yet that wasn’t the case.

“At WA, we’d always have ‘Reidy’ (Bruce Reid) opening the bowling and I’d come on first change,” he explains. “And then maybe I’d take the second new ball. Maybe later in my career when I was at Tassie, I wasn’t too bad with the new ball, but I think I was a better first-change bowler.

“When I got into Test cricket, it was (to be) a new-ball bowler, and I don’t think my radar was that good for that, but when you’re picked as an opening bowler for your country, that’s what you’ve got to do.

“At times, like with the second new ball or when I bowled all day, I was fine with that and had no problems, but with that new ball, right at the start of the innings, I did used to get a bit of the old scrambled radar at times.

“I used to see (Ian) Botham, coming on as that first-change bowler who bowled a reasonable pace and swung it – I always felt that’s where I could do my best work.”

The great David Gower was Matthews' second Test wicket // Getty
The great David Gower was Matthews’ second Test wicket // Getty

Two summers later, as a 26-year-old, Matthews had what turned out to be a final shot at Test cricket. It came against the West Indies, who flattened the Aussies by nine wickets in the summer opener at the Gabba. Again asked to open the bowling, Matthews took match figures of 0-80.

Between those brief flirtations, there was a flood of Shield wickets; as WA stormed to back-to-back triumphs in 1986-87 and 1987-88, Matthews was their spearhead, taking a staggering 103 wickets at 23.60.

Injuries meant he was only a bit-part player as the Western Australians made it three straight titles, but by then he had already racked up a record that would earn him honorary life membership of the WACA in 2011, and one which made him an attractive proposition to rival states.

* * *

By the eve of the 1991-92 season, Matthews had played 52 first-class matches for WA and his body was tiring of slamming itself into the hard WACA Ground surface.

He had performed strongly across the previous two seasons, but played less often, taking 49 wickets in 12 Shield matches as injuries and the wear and tear of fast bowling took their toll.

WA's Shield winning XII from March 1988 // The 1987-88 Western Cricketer Year Book
WA’s Shield winning XII from March 1988 // The 1987-88 Western Cricketer Year Book

In November 1990 he had appeared close to another Test recall when he took eight wickets for an Australian XI against the touring English, however he was ultimately overlooked for fellow left-armer Reid, who was returning from injury.

So when Matthews received an offer from Tasmania, where his former WA teammate Greg Shipperd had taken charge, he and Anne barely hesitated.

“Tassie had been quite keen to get me down for a couple of years,” he says. “And we thought it’d be a good change towards the back-end of my career.

“We really planned to only go down there for two years, but then I had a really, really great two years, and I took a lot of wickets.”

Chris Matthews’ best Shield seasons

1987-88 | 11 matches, 56* wkts @ 21.69

1991-92 | 10 matches, 48 wkts @ 22.20

1986-87 | 10 matches, 47 wkts @ 25.87

1992-93 | 10 matches, 43 wkts @ 28.48

1989-90 | 7 matches, 32 wkts @ 21.43

*Eighth-most wickets ever in a Shield campaign

As the Tasmanians enthused over their bright new generation of homegrown batting talent, Matthews added experience and know-how to the pace attack.

In his maiden season with the Tigers, he took 48 wickets at 22.20 – a then record for the state.

He followed it up with another 43 wickets at 28.48 in 1992-93, and while his numbers in the ensuing two seasons were disappointing as the Bellerive Oval pitches shifted from spicy to flat to best serve the rising Tigers batting talents, he remained very much part of a pioneering group for Tasmania, who made a first Shield final in 1993-94. 

“Those last two years were certainly a lot harder as I was getting to the end of my career,” he says. “But in my four years there, there was such an influx of talented young cricketers that I really enjoyed that time, watching those guys come in – (Jamie) Cox, (Michael) Di Venuto, (Ricky) Ponting.

“There was a whole heap of guys who come into that side who were very talented, and seeing their cricket grow so much in that period was a real joy for me.”

Beyond cricket, the Matthews’ Tasmanian experience was made special not only for the places they visited and the friends they made, but for their successful IVF journey, which led to the birth of their son, Luke.

Matthews fishing with his son Luke in Exmouth, earlier this year // Supplied
Matthews fishing with his son Luke in Exmouth, earlier this year // Supplied

As a consequence, Anne says they maintain an affinity with the island state, where in January 1995, Matthews played his final professional match.

Across both formats he had taken 425 wickets in 134 matches, winning three Shield titles and two Australian one-day domestic competitions.

As much as the wickets and the trophies though, he remembers the people he played with, the friends he made, and the moments he shared.

Having a mid-innings joke with Reid and Alderman. Bowling to a young Brian Lara. Giving an even younger Ponting throwdowns, and marvelling at his precocious ability.

“It all feels a long way away,” he says, “but at the same time you also carry some really strong memories, and strong feelings from that period of your life.

“For me, the cricket family is very much a big community, and I don’t think that changes as you get older.

“The cricket people will always be friends, but I think you do move on in life … if we all stayed in cricket, there wouldn’t be much room.”

* * *

When he flies home from Wodgina in WA’s remote north-west ahead of his 60th this week, Matthews will be alert to the annual stitch-up from his colleagues.

“It is a little bit of a worry,” he grins, “because the blokes at work tend to carry on a bit. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a birthday on the plane and been announced as an ‘ex-Test cricketer’. I’m gonna be telling the hosties that it’s not my birthday.”

He will have no such luck avoiding a fuss on Saturday, with Anne having organised a get-together with a group of friends at the Matthews residence. Chris has requested a pizza oven for his birthday so he plans to take on chef duties, while the AFL grand final will provide the entertainment.

A couple of weeks ago he and nine mates headed to the Abrolhos Islands, around 80km west of Geraldton, for a fishing weekend to mark his milestone.

“I think like a lot of ex-cricketers, I love fishing and the outdoors,” he says, “so I really enjoyed that.”

It was a quintessentially Western Australian experience, in the same way that bowling fast at the WACA Ground has been for generations of quicks.

And as he thinks back, it is that which he takes as a defining memory from the game.

“Running in, with the sea breeze blowing in the afternoons, knowing that you could dominate a game, and it was your job to do it, and you had the confidence to be able to do that, I think that’s what I’ll always remember,” he smiles. “Playing out there on those wickets that had such fantastic bounce and carry, and seeing the eyes of the batsmen, knowing they were going to have a very torrid time.”

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