For Bill Lawry, it may not all be happening anymore. When the revered commentator and former Test captain puts down the microphone next week, who knows if it will mark the end of his 61-year association with Boxing Day, which started as a player for Victoria, then and in the past 37 years as a caller for Channel Nine.
The TV rights are up for grabs and the network that has beamed the national team into living rooms around the country for 40 years faces a fight to retain them.
“Channel Nine haven’t got the contract yet, so I don’t know,” Lawry tells Fairfax Media from the backyard of his one-hectare outer-Melbourne property as he takes a break from sweeping the morning after a big storm. “I’ll see what happens. I’ve never had a long-term contract. Channel Nine will ring up and say, ‘We want you do to it’, I’ll ask [my wife] Joy and if she says OK, I go. I don’t look that far ahead. I know if it finishes this summer, I couldn’t have one complaint.”
Nor would his legion of fans. Those who saw him play knew him first as an opening batsman whose resolute defence earned him the title “the corpse with pads”. Those born post World Series Cricket have come to know him as the excitable, pigeon-loving, Victoria-barracking commentator whose catchcry “got him, yes” has become part of ‘s soundtrack of summer.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Lawry’s broadcasting career – some innings considering he had no aspirations to be a commentator. It almost never happened.
It was 1977, Lawry was in his pigeon loft when Joy answered a call from Austin Robertson, a former star footballer in Western who had become central figure in media tycoon Kerry Packer’s World Series revolution. It sparked a three-way conversation in which Joy would relay messages from both men over Packer’s job offer to be part of his WSC commentary team. “I said, ‘What’s WSC?’ It hadn’t broken at that stage,” Lawry recalls.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, Lawry turned it down. Robertson tried again 10 minutes later. This time Lawry had finished tending to his pigeons.
“He said, ‘Richie Benaud is setting up the commentary team for WSC and he wants you to join the panel’,” Lawry says. “Richie was my first Test captain. I said, ‘Well, if Richie’s going to do it then that’s good enough for me’.”
Benaud passed away in 2015 but Lawry remains in awe of his great friend. The highlight of every Sydney Test for Lawry was the dinner Benaud and his wife Daphne would host in their Coogee home.
He shakes his head at how Benaud “carried” the team, filling in lengthy rain delays by himself. Nine’s telecast would not have been as successful if not for their captain, Lawry says.
“We’d sit there and watch Richie. It was a good gig, there was no pressure,” Lawry laughs.
The Nine team has copped plenty of criticism in recent years, most recently for a lack of diversity. He’s shouldered arms to the issue. It’s clear he has plenty of respect for his colleagues.
“Even today when I look around at 80 years of age, I see [Shane] Warne the greatest bowler of all time, [Mark] Tubby Taylor, a great captain, Ian Healy the wicketkeeper of the century,” Lawry says. “I’ve been mixing with the best of the best the last 40 years and very few have had the honour of doing that. They’re all individuals, completely different, they’re all good guys.”
He has much respect for host Mark Nicholas, the only caller on Nine not to have played at international level.
“He’s done it admirably, he’s done it very well,” Lawry says. “It’s very hard today because we have to fill an hour before the game starts, Richie only had 10 minutes. Lunch time would come and we had 18-foot sailing yachts for 15 years.”
f Nine had not come calling, Lawry would have continued his job as sales manager for a whitegoods provider, where he had worked for 28 years, “and raced my pigeons”.
The job has given him financial security, something his playing career did not, and also the chance to see the greats with the greats. Like Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, the powerhouse West Indies teams of the 1980s, Warne and now Steve Smith. His affection for Smith is obvious. Whether the topic is the future of Test cricket, his favourite phrases or pigeons, Lawry repeatedly refers back to Smith during our hour-long discussion.
Lawry, 80, caught only the post-war phase of Don Bradman’s career but knew all about the game’s greatest player through his brother and sister, who were 14 and 11 years older respectively. “All I heard was Bradman, Phar Lap and Walter Lindrum,” Lawry says.
He can see similarities in how fans have warmed to the n captain, whom many regard as the best batsman in the world.
“What we’ve seen this Ashes series in , the response of the public when you get a champion like Smith come along – it’s almost Bradman-like,” Lawry says. “They’ll come here and hopefully see England get beaten. They’ll come to see Smith, like they came to see Bradman in the Depression. It’s a tremendous boost.”
Lawry fears for the future of the five-day game in the age of Twenty20. He’s worried too much T20 will stop the likes of Warne, Lillee and Starc coming through the ranks. Smith, he believes, can be a saviour.
“He’s special, I hope he keeps making hundreds for the sake of Test cricket,” Lawry says. “Test cricket needs blokes like Steve Smith. You want your heroes. If you haven’t got your heroes, then the game will struggle.”
Lawry scaled back his commentary commitments in 2013 to just the Melbourne Test so he could care for his wife. This summer, though, Joy is catching up with Daphne Benaud and Vivian Greig in Sydney, so Lawry will be heading north to call the Ashes finale.
“I do miss it but at 80 it is a big gig, you’ve got priorities. Priority’s now my wife,” Lawry says. “For 56 years of our marriage it’s been me, I’ve done exactly what I wanted. Now Joy’s number one, it probably should have always been that way.”
But what about his beloved pigeons? “I have to be careful what I say. I might do a Richie and make no comment, I might get myself into a bit of trouble,” Lawry says with his trademark laugh.
The birds have been his lifelong passion, more so than cricket. He used to tend to them in the loft first thing every morning, now he has breakfast first. He breeds and feeds them, then trains them for racing. Once they are a month old, they leave the loft and if they fly back they are homed for life. On training days, he drives as far as 100 kilometres then releases them.
Races range from 100 to 500 miles (800 kilometres). Most make it back, though bad weather and predators are ever-present dangers. Lawry moved 25 years ago from Reservoir, about 11km north of the city, as the impending wave of apartment blocks being built were not compatible with his pigeons. So he traded the suburbs for the bush, which brought other perils.
“We get lots of falcons, hawks, so they get carved up a bit,” Lawry says. “You have to pay a price for living out in the bush.”
Lawry is philosophical about his losses. It’s nature, he reasons. He now keeps about 100 birds, with 20-25 racing each week. Like racehorses, the good ones are rare. Does he have a favourite?
“It’s like Steve Smith, everybody likes Steve Smith. When you breed a winner you like him more than others,” he says. “They’re hard to breed. If you breed 100 and get four good ones you’ll have a very good year.”
You get the feeling if this is the last time we hear Lawry on the box, he will not be too upset.
“The best part of my day is when I walk through the front gate at home,” Lawry says. “I played cricket in England, South Africa and India, it’s still not the same as being at home.”