A view of Ventnor Cricket Club's Steephill Ground

The Steephill ground on the Isle of Wight, Ventnor's home ground, though Travis Head would play just once there as the club's overseas player

© Stuart Tree

Three men on an island: when Smudge, Trav and Marnus cut their teeth in England

A look back to the time Steven Smith, Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne spent paying their dues in club cricket

Scott Oliver  |  

Once upon a time, before cricket's increasingly crowded schedule and players' increasingly hefty earnings made it a road less travelled, spending a formative season in English club cricket was a rite of passage for many overseas stars. Future Australian greats, from DK Lillee to AR Border, the Waughs to Warne, Adam Gilchrist to Matthew Hayden all trod this path, making friends and influencing people along the way.

The batch of Australian tourists currently playing the World Test Championship final contains a trio who each left their English clubs awed by their passion, talent and dedication but also by their humility.

"Marnus was exactly the same then as he is now: down-to-earth, no ego. He couldn't do enough to help us," recalls one such team-mate of Labuschagne. "Travis was by a million miles the best overseas we've had, both as a cricketer but especially as a bloke," purrs one of Head's colleagues. And someone who shared a dressing room with the teenage Steven Smith observes that "his contribution may not look spectacular but it was exceptional for an 18-year-old, first time in the country and in a good standard. Everyone fed off his enthusiasm."

When the Ashes gets underway, there will thus be a cluster of clubs dotted across southern England, where, beneath the hard yearning for a Bazball-flavoured bruising, there will be a soft spot for the Aussies' famous three-four-five.

Well, not quite all the clubs.

Will Sharp, captain at Grappenhall CC outside Warrington in Cheshire in 2007, still wonders what might have been that season. As it transpired, his hired help comprised "a West Indian offie who chucked it, and a Kiwi seamer, 'Killer', who couldn't bowl a hoop down a hill". This deadly duo had taken the place of a 17-year-old legspinner from the Sydney suburbs whom the Sydney Telegraph was already hailing as "the next Shane Warne: only, this one can bat". However, Steven Smith would spend only a handful of days up in Cheshire, without playing a single game.

The day after his arrival, Sharp bundled Smith to the traditional meet-and-greet at the local, which, long story short, culminated in violent teenage vomiting. Sickness quickly shaded into homesickness, and the following day the famously cricket-obsessed Smith turned down the chance to go for nets, locking himself away in his room instead. Sharp didn't think too much of it - teenagers! - but Smith had already phoned his English mother, Gillian, telling her he wanted to come home. "I got back from work on Friday and he'd gone," recalls Sharp. "No note, nothing.

By then, Smith was 250 miles away in Kent. Mum had called a family friend, Tony Ward, best man at her wedding, who scooped Steve up in London and ferried him to the offices of his wax-blending firm, and from there to the Ward clan's traditional Friday-evening rendezvous in the Farm House pub in the village of West Malling, outside Maidstone. Over more moderately gauged libations Ward told his new ward that his options were: go home; return to Cheshire and see out his contract; or stay a couple of months with Ward, who would try and fix him up with some cricket. Having decompressed somewhat, Smith opted for the last of the three. Ward smoothed things over with Grappenhall, then, after one village club nobly told him Smith was too good for them, put in a call to Kent Premier League outfit Sevenoaks Vine.

Teenaged Steve Smith enjoyed the perks of living with family friends in Kent

Teenaged Steve Smith enjoyed the perks of living with family friends in Kent

"Tony offered us a free cricketer, who he said was going to play for Australia one day," recalls Sevenoaks chairman Gavan Burden. "The problem was, we already had an overseas player, Matt Wallis, also from Sydney, so I told Tony to bring Steve along but we could only offer him second-team cricket." Ward didn't see the problem. "Steve would have played in the fourths, done the teas, anything to be around cricket."

And so it was that Smith's debut for "the Vine" came in a midweek friendly for its veterans' side, Old Oaks, against Kent Over-50s, in which he slammed 90-odd with such panache that Burden was soon alerting the county coaches at Canterbury.

Smitty's next outing was thus a three-day game alongside Eoin Morgan for a combined Kent and Middlesex 2nd XI against their Essex and Sussex counterparts, in which he sent down 63 overs while scoring 85 and 39. That set him up nicely for his competitive Sevenoaks debut - for the twos in the sixth tier of the Kent League, not the usual habitat for an emerging 17-year-old genius.

Smith bowled ten overs in the first innings of that match, against Blackheath seconds, the last few of them seam-up, and conceded 72. By tea, Blackheath were feeling pretty content, having racked up 366 for 4 from their 50 overs. Three hours later they had lost by seven wickets with 27 balls to spare, Smith having plundered 185. Heads were then scratched around the selection committee table. Loyalty to Wallis and league rules meant Smith remained with the stiffs. But not for long.

"You could see straight away that Steve was a different specimen," says first-team opening bowler Tom Parsons. "The way he fielded, how much time he had when he batted. In the end, [Wallis] just said, 'Look, this guy's better than me. He should be playing firsts. It's fine, I'll drop down.'"

Bumped up six rungs, Smith began with a golden duck, lbw to Beckenham's Johan Malcolm-Hansen, Parsons' erstwhile colleague at Loughborough University, who claims his mate is "still very much dining out on that!"

There was one more duck in what turned out to be a ten-game Kent Premier League stint, plus 23 against Blackheath firsts, and everything else between 41 and 76, including an unbeaten 62 off 44 balls on his 18th birthday. Earlier that week he had played his final game for Kent twos. Murmurings of his freakish abilities - and British passport - had crackled along the cricketing grapevine from the Vine to The Oval: Surrey invited him to play a few games for a look-see. In one of them, against Kent, he took 6 for 14, sealing the game by trapping his chauffeur for the day, Parsons, lbw with a googly. In another, he launched five sixes in an 18-ball 46. The cheque book was readied.

Floppy-haired boy wonder: Smith in the field for Sevenoaks

Floppy-haired boy wonder: Smith in the field for Sevenoaks

When not playing, training, watching endless reruns of Home Alone or familiarising himself with the rudiments of domestic self-reliance (signature dish: chilli con carne), Smith would work eight-hour shifts packing boxes in the wax factory. He spent some of his earnings at the Farm House, Ward says, "where a young French barmaid took a liking to him, calling him Cricket Boy, but it failed to go anywhere". He would also hop on Ward's mower and happily cut his orchards, mulling over the immediate professional security Surrey's offer would provide.

It was an idyllic few months of gentle self-discovery in England for the shy kid from Sydney as he took steps toward adulthood from much closer to his comfort zone. He even skipped the game against that year's eventual national club champions Bromley to attend his host's annual ten-band, 500-guest back-garden music festival, Wardstock. While Sevenoaks were winning by 134 runs without Cricket Boy, Smith worked the bar all day, dressed as a clown, photographic evidence of which remains under lock and key.

A couple of weeks later, Sevenoaks' serendipitous signing was saying his farewells to go on an Australian Institute for Sport tour of India. Surrey were aghast, and a representative turned up at Ward's house at 8 o'clock on the morning of Smith's departure, contract in hand. "It was a fantastic offer," recalls Ward, "and they pushed quite hard. I said, 'Let him take it home and talk to his peers. If he likes it, fine.' They said, 'No, no, we'd prefer him to sign it now and if he doesn't like it, we can talk about it.' I said, 'Well, it's not really a contract if it's negotiable after it's signed, is it?'"

And with that, Smith was gone, contract untouched, head unturned, heart belonging to Australia. A few days later he was offered a three-year deal by New South Wales. After that - spoiler alert! - he pushed on quite nicely.

Sevenoaks eventually finished four spots off bottom in seventh, to which Smith had contributed 11 wickets and 309 runs at 44.14, sixth in the Kent Premier League averages: a solid A-minus. His team-mates knew they had witnessed a very special talent, however, a feeling they would next have about half a decade later, when another Australian Test star with an ostentatious leave-alone blew into town.

M arnus Labuschagne arrived for a first bite of English club cricket in 2013, signing for Plymouth CC in Devon, whose Mount Wise ground, situated on the Royal Navy base, was a couple of solid slog sweeps from waters through which the Pilgrim Fathers had set sail for the New World in 1620. It was aptly symbolic for a fiercely self-starting and adventurous cricketer still a long way from getting a foot in the professional door.

Smith in the gear of Sutherland, his club in New South Wales, circa the late 2000s

Smith in the gear of Sutherland, his club in New South Wales, circa the late 2000s

Labuschagne made an immediate impression, on field and off, and quickly had the place bouncing to his beat. "He would hit thousands and thousands of balls at training," says current club captain Sam Stein, "but no one could ever get him out! I was our opening bowler and bowled at him for five months and only managed it once, nicked off on a Saturday morning before one of our games. He said, 'What have you done?! You can't get me out before I go and play!'"

For a club looking to kick on from a fourth-place Devon League finish in 2012, adds Stein, signing an 18-year-old was "a bit of a risk". Two games into the campaign, it looked a steady punt: Labuschagne began with 126 not out in a 150-run victory over against North Devon, following up with 130 not out in another big win on a turner at Bradninch. Opener James Toms was dumbfounded. "They were two very different pitches, two completely different styles of batting, same result: unbeaten hundreds. He just looked a different level to everyone."

Sometimes, however, recalls team-mate Jake Luffman, Labuschagne's desire to be in the thick of the action was taken to ludicrous extremes. "There was a game against Exeter," he says, "when Marnus clipped one to square leg, who's caught him out, single figures, and he just stood there. Basically, he didn't want to be out, so wasn't moving until the umpire put his finger up!"

Still, this hyper-competitiveness would ultimately serve the team well, never more so than against powerhouses Sidmouth, champions in four of the previous five years. Labuschagne scored a sprightly unbeaten 87 to set up a fighting total of 221 and Plymouth were sitting pretty when the visitors slipped to 148 for 6 with overs running out, only for the No. 8, Scott Barlow, to launch five sixes in 15 balls.

"They needed six or seven off the last over," Luffman recalls, "and we were looking around for someone to bowl. Marnus always wanted to be involved: bat, ball, in the field, or just chatting bollocks at people. He just said, 'Give me the ball.' He was desperate to bowl. It got down to the last ball, two needed, an ex-Devon player on strike on 98 not out, and Marnus bowled a dot and went absolutely mental."

Whether Labuschagne's default effervescence was irritating or energising rather depended on your dressing room. At Plymouth they adored him, says Stein. "He was so bubbly, always buzzing around, never shy of a word, always giving as good as he got. He used to cycle down to the club and if someone asked him to roll the wicket or work behind the bar, there was never any hesitation. He couldn't do enough. He'd sit on the roller for two hours, hit balls for three."

Labuschagne (kneeling, second from right) with his Plymouth team-mates after the club won the Devon area T20 title in 2013

Labuschagne (kneeling, second from right) with his Plymouth team-mates after the club won the Devon area T20 title in 2013 © Getty Images

Just occasionally, however, the bulletproof bullishness got the better of him. Take a now folkloric game in which Plymouth were plundered for a mammoth 366 for 3 from 50 overs by Budleigh Salterton. "They were a good side but had lost every game at that point," recalls Toms. "They came off thinking they'd finally turned the corner; there was no way they weren't going to win this game. They were quite boisterous in their changing room and we heard that in ours. Marnus calmly said, 'Guys, there's still a game to be won here.'"

An early wicket brought Labuschagne to the crease, and he cruised serenely to 42. "I'd bumped a couple out to the cover boundary," continues Toms, "and sauntered through for one. Marnus says - not loud or trying to be disrespectful - 'If it goes out there, there's two every time.' Next ball, literally, he pushed out there - 'Yes, two!' - and the guy picks it up and runs him out from the cover boundary, direct hit. You can imagine their reaction!"

Toms anchored with 130 and Luffman crashed a 65-ball 115 as Everest was scaled, a record run chase, the Devon League's version of the 435 game, with Marnus in the Kallis role. A good night was had by all, although Labuschagne didn't really do post-match mandatory intoxication in the English style. "He didn't really need to," observes Stein. "Even without a drink, he was buzzing more than anyone else!"

Nevertheless, come fines night, his performances obliged him to partake. "Anyone who'd done well had to neck this lethal punch concoction made by the older guys," says Luffman. "He obviously had a lot of drinking to do, and we did make him do it. I remember coming upstairs about an hour afterwards and seeing him slumped in the corner holding a bucket, looking very much worse for wear."

After that electrifying start, Labuschagne's scores inevitably fell away. Still, Plymouth finished a creditable fifth and made the semis of both Devon Senior Cup and T20, losing to Sidmouth in each, while Labuschagne managed 730 Devon League runs, sixth on the list, at a far from shabby 60.83, to finish third in the league averages. Toms is adamant he could barely have done more.

"If you study the stats, I think most of us had our best year that season. That's not a coincidence. That's because of Marnus, who had this infectious desire to pull everyone along. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about him in the whole of Plymouth."

The <i>Dover Express</i> dines out on a big score by Labuschagne for Sandwich Town

The Dover Express dines out on a big score by Labuschagne for Sandwich Town © Dover Express

While Labuschagne was making waves in Plymouth, 130 or so nautical miles east along the English Channel, the man with whom he would share a Test debut five years later was busy galvanising another young team. Only, where the uncontracted Labuschagne was bootstrapping his way into the pro game, Travis Head, 14 first-class appearances already under the belt, was cruising along a more green-and-gilded pathway.

He had come over with five colleagues from the Australian Cricket Academy on a short-lived exchange programme for intensive training and occasional games with the Hampshire Academy. The six shared a waterside apartment in Southampton, and after a lottery-style draw had assigned them their clubs, played competitive cricket in the local leagues on weekends. Ashton Turner went to Chichester Priory Park in Sussex, following Adam Zampa's stint there the previous season. Fellow Perth Scorcher Ashton Agar went to Henley-on-Thames, and by July into the Test side. The other four played in the Southern Premier League.

Head had been drawn to play at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, which meant he needed to take a 30-minute ride across the Solent on the Red Funnel ferry to get to his home games. Alas, besides a solitary T20 outing in which he scored a 50-ball hundred, launching several balls into the exotic flora in the adjacent botanical gardens, these SPCL home games were not at Ventnor's charmingly peculiar and hyperliterally named Steephill ground, whose short square boundaries and velodrome-shaped outfield (diminutive bowlers would come under the sightscreens) did not meet the league's standards. Six times in eight years they won the first division, and each time they were denied promotion, so in 2010 they moved first-team games to the brand new and well-appointed Newclose ground in the centre of the island.

Latterly used by Hampshire as an outground, Newclose with its true pitch was perfect for Head's aggressive shot-making, and he finished top SPCL run-scorer, with 733 from 14 cavalier innings, starting with a breezy 44 in defeat that impressed opener Olly Mills, who had felt there might be some nerves about on debut. "Second or third ball just disappeared over cow corner off Richard Logan, a ten-year professional. 'Ah, okay, so he's not particularly nervous!'

"His self-belief really stood out. And his presence, which isn't a particularly tangible quality, but seeing it live, you realised this person was going to do things."

A week later the overseas gun fell lbw for a single against Lymington, but with two crunched fours from last man Mark Holmes - a publican with whom Head would pass many a lively evening - squeaking them over the line, Ventnor set off on a run of four straight wins that took them to the top of the league for the only time in their history. Head contributed 142 not out, 30 and then 77 in a demolition of Havant, champions in four of the previous six seasons, and giddy dreams started to form. Momentum was stalled, however, by a washout against Alton on the weekend of the Isle of Wight Festival, an iconic countercultural event played by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin in the 1960s and revived in the 2000s (headlined by Travis, of all bands, in 2005, the greatest Ashes summer of them all).

Head bats in a T20 for Ventnor

Head bats in a T20 for Ventnor © Dave Reynolds

"We all went along on the Friday night to see the Stone Roses," recalls veteran middle-order batter Neil Westhorpe, "but Travis stopped drinking quite early and got a taxi to my house. I didn't know he'd gone. We stayed another two or three hours, and I found him later, asleep on my doorstep, readying himself for the game the next day, which was abandoned after two overs, so we all piled into the minibus and back to the festival."

Defeats to Hampshire Academy - who winkled Head out for 9 and 5 in their two encounters - and eventual champions South Wilts pushed Ventnor back into the peloton, but Head was now hitting full stride and unfurled a mid-season sequence of 48, 53, 82, a 65-ball 93 not out against Lymington (which all his colleagues consider his standout knock), 69 and 58, after each of which, before cracking open a coldie, he would fire up a laptop and fill out an Australian Cricket Academy form, assessing his performance in the game. Ventnor captain Ian Hilsum's verdict: "He hit the ball harder, further and cleaner than probably anyone who's ever played in the league."

"That Lymington knock was incredible," reflects Holmes, Head's regular host when he stayed overnight on the island. "Their opening bowler, Matt Metcalfe, is the Southern Premier League's all-time leading wicket-taker. Matt came in at tea that day, took off his bowling boots and said, 'That's it, I'm not bowling again. This guy's just too good!'"

"Metcalfe was 70 klicks and nibbled it," says Olly Mills, "the sort of guy who gets in your head when you try and play him properly. Someone like Travis was like, 'What's this?! This is going in the bush.' And it did."

With four games left, Ventnor were in the mix, but an abandonment coupled with defeats to Havant, Hampshire Academy and South Wilts pushed them back to fourth place, still their highest-ever finish. It was a golden summer, with team-mates enjoying Head's company off the field as much as on.

"He was a salt-of-the-earth bloke," says Mills, "as good mates with people in the fourths as the firsts. No airs or graces. He just saw himself as another member of the club. Batting with him was great. He knew how to say small things at the right times, things that made you feel a million dollars."

By the time Labuschagne returned for a second summer of English club cricket in 2014, he was still essentially an amateur player targeting a first contract with Queensland. Having moved along the south coast to the highly competitive Kent Premier League, he was therefore absolutely determined to squeeze everything out of himself, even adopting a gluten-free diet - ironic given that his club was Sandwich Town.

Head bowls at the Newclose ground.

Head bowls at the Newclose ground. "His self-belief really stood out," one of his team-mates from then says. "And his presence, which isn't a particularly tangible quality, but seeing it live, you realised this person was going to do things" © Dave Reynolds

Even someone as implacably chipper as Labuschagne could not realistically have hoped to make as big an instant splash as he had at Plymouth. In fact, he trumped it, starting with 127, following up with 203 not out, then 87 against eventual champions Sevenoaks. There were no wins but 413 runs in three hits already had colleagues contemplating the Kent Cricket League record for most runs in a season: the 1012 set in 1992 for Dover by none other than Justin Langer.

Among Labuschagne's team-mates was 2005 Ashes winner Geraint Jones, hired by Sandwich as player-coach, having been displaced at Kent by Sam Billings. Jones was immediately convinced that Labuschagne was made of the right stuff.

Well, maybe not his legbreaks. "They were filthy," Jones says, only half-joking. "The thing was, he just believed he could bowl and would always be badgering to get on. That was Marnus: front and centre. You always knew he was about."

There was the usual manic devotion to practice. Rory Smith, the first team's current No. 3, then a 16-year-old second teamer fresh off his GCSEs, was the designated training partner. He got an up-close view of a cricketer who stopped at nothing for a little extra edge. "[Labuschagne] lived about five minutes from the ground," says Smith, "so on the way, he'd sit down on one of the benches and visualise himself scoring runs that day. Most club cricketers get to the ground an hour before the start, and that's where their game starts. His game started as soon as he woke up."

Although results weren't great - Sandwich finished one spot above the relegation trapdoor - Labuschagne quickly energised the whole team, even the saltier old dogs. "It was contagious," says Jones. "I loved it. For me, at the latter end of my career, maybe looking to have a quiet Saturday afternoon, having Marnus about, full of beans, was great. He'd also be doing the commentary when batting, the oohs and aahs. I work in a school and there are loads of kids who'll do a leave-alone then shout 'No run!', Marnus-style. They like the way he wears his personality on his sleeve."

With 14 KPL outings left to score exactly 600 runs for the record, Labuschagne followed a duck against Lordswood with 61 not out, 73, 28, 20 (poles sent cartwheeling by Dan Christian), 66, 69, 81, 4 (also against Lordswood), then 54 and 114 in a pair of vital wins that lifted Sandwich out of the drop zone. With two games to go, he needed 34. He was relentless, insatiable.

Labuschange at work for Sandwich Town.

Labuschange at work for Sandwich Town. "Having Marnus about, full of beans, was great," former England keeper Geraint Jones, who was a team-mate of Labuschagne's at the club says Will Evenden / © Dover Express

Still, despite long hours of Saturday crease occupation, Jones says, "trying to get Marnus to understand the etiquette of friendlies was challenging: you know, the idea that when you get to 100 you then have to give your wicket away was totally alien to him." One week he was told flat-out he couldn't bat properly, says Rory Smith, "so he asked if he could bat left-handed and scored a fifty."

The penultimate Saturday brought an 11th 50-plus score in 15 league innings and with it what remains the KCL record. The final ledger was 1049 runs, although it's unlikely he bantered too much about it with Langer when he was handed his first Test cap in the UAE four years later, a debut attended by his two flatmates and practice partner from Sandwich, who were even in the huddle when the sacred baggy green was presented.

"We left work on Friday, flew overnight, spent Saturday exploring, then had dinner with Marnus and his family, even though it was the eve of his Test debut," Smith says. "Being there for the cap presentation wasn't intentional, though. There was a delay at the hotel in the morning as they sorted out transport to the ground for Marnus', Travis Head's and Aaron Finch's families, so as soon as we arrived, we got shepherded straight from the bus to the pitch. In the chaos, it was almost too much effort to send us somewhere else, so we went and stood in the circle as the three of them were given their baggy green."

Labuschagne remains close friends with Smith, who spent five months living with the family after a homesick month playing cricket in Townsville, then almost a year with Marnus and his wife as Covid struck. These are deep bonds, testament to a player who left as much at his clubs, if not more, as he took from them. Labuschagne remains in contact with friends in Devon, too, visiting the club in the lead-up to the 2019 Ashes.

It was during that Ashes campaign, of course, that Labuschagne took ownership of the Aussies' No. 3 spot, deputising as a concussion sub for his partner in quirk, Steven Smith, who, Sevenoaks say, is always happy to oblige requests for signed memorabilia or tickets. Head, too, has been back to visit mates on the Isle of Wight, both prior to that 2019 Ashes and to perk himself up during a lean trot at Sussex a couple of years later.

For Sandwich and Sevenoaks, Plymouth and Ventnor, these were unforgettable seasons hewn into the clubs' folklore - lucking out with hungry young pups on their way to becoming outstanding big dogs of the international game. It says much that the future superstars remain so affectionately connected to those small chapters in their now far bigger stories.

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper