William (Bill) Morris Lawry was born in Thornbury on 11 February 1937, the youngest of three children by 14 years. Tall for his age, and beanpole skinny, Lawry’s talent was first noticed by a teacher at Thornbury’s Penders Grove School. During lunch breaks, this teacher, Mr Reid, noticed that the same tall left-handed boy was always batting in the playground cricket matches. Given the standard rule in playground cricket said that you kept batting until you were bowled out, Mr Reid’s curiosity was piqued by the ability of the young Lawry to keep all the bowlers at bay.
The young Bill Lawry was just 11 when Jack Baggott, then the captain-coach of Northcote Cricket Club invited him to join. Baggott was a long time Northcote cricketer who was also an accomplished footballer enjoying a career at Richmond and then as coach of Essendon and South Melbourne in the VFL. Lawry steadily made his way up through the grades at Northcote, making his debut in the First XI at the age of 16. In his late teens, he began training with the Victorian squad and played for the state’s second XI in a game against South Australia at the age of 18. His performance was uninspiring, but he did gain the nickname that would stay with him his whole career, ‘Phantom’. Dick Maddocks, the team’s captain, created the name after Lawry had been tasked with buying food, drinks and reading material for the train ride to Adelaide and had returned with, among other things, a Phantom comic book.
Bill Lawry celebrated his 19th birthday in 1956 by debuting for Victoria. There was no dream debut for Lawry, and most of the following season’s matches were not good ones for him either. He had several years out of the team, suffering poor form for Northcote as well. It wasn’t until the second half of the 1959/60 season when Lawry finally established himself for Victoria. He ended that season as Victoria’s leading batsman and repeated as the state’s leading run scorer the following season. Not surprisingly this pushed him into the national spotlight and he was selected to tour England in 1961 under the captaincy of Richie Benaud. Sparkling early form on the tour led to a test debut in the first Test where he made 57. He followed that with 130 in the second Test at Lord’s. Lawry had arrived.
Returning home from England, Lawry continued to pound state attacks, and was elevated to captain of Victoria at the age of 24. Meanwhile on the national scene, a long and successful opening partnership with Bob Simpson was born, becoming one of Australia’s longest standing and most successful. Lawry eventually succeeded Simpson as captain of Australia in 1968, leading the team in 30 Tests.
Despite his lofty status as one of Australia’s premier batsman, Lawry continued to turn out for Northcote when the opportunity arose. Most famous of his performances for Northcote occurred in the Grand Final of the 1965/66 season, Northcote’s first appearance in a Grand Final for 40 years. After hot favourites Essendon had smashed 9/514, few gave Northcote a chance, but Lawry played a chanceless hand of 282 not out to lead the Dragons to their second Premiership in one of the greatest finals in District Cricket history.
After a disastrous tour of South Africa in early 1970, and facing the loss of the Ashes in the home summer of 1970/71, Lawry was surprisingly and controversially dumped as captain and dropped from the national team. No captain had ever been dropped during a series before, and while Lawry’s form was poor by his standards, he had been superior to several team mates who retained their place. In the end, Lawry paid the price for the team’s lack of success. Despite fair form for Victoria the following summer, he was not selected for the touring party to England in 1972 and retired from first-class cricket. He also moved on from Northcote after 24 years, spending three seasons as captain-coach of St Kilda before retiring completely.
After the conclusion of his playing career, Lawry combined a role as manager of Email Ltd with his more famous role as commentator for Channel Nine. Lawry had been a trained and qualified plumber, a trade he’d learnt at Preston Technical School and worked in during his early career with Victoria. In 1989 he returned to Victorian Cricket in an administrative role, helping to spark the state’s side out of the doldrums and on to a Sheffield Shield title in 1990/91, their first for over ten years.
Coleman, Robert. (1993). Seasons in the sun: the story of the Victorian Cricket Association. North Melbourne, Vic: Hargreen.