When it comes to modern day larrikins it’s hard to look any further than Mike Whitney. A man who made his name blocking out Sir Richard Hadlee at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in the process saving the game and winning the series.
On the field he was a fast bowler and a self-confessed bunny with the bat. Away from the pitch he’s one of the biggest South Sydney Rabbitohs tragics you’ll ever meet.
Long before the leather ball graced the edges of willow, before it was crashing into middle stumps on pitches from around the globe, Whitney was toiling around in the South Sydney suburb of Matraville. Supporting the Rabbitohs was inevitable. “I was born and raised in Matraville, lived in Maroubra most of my life although we still have the family home in Matraville,” Mike said.
“My anointing was basically done by my father. That side of my family came from Mascot and Eastlakes. As far as I know anyone else in my club has not supported any other club.”
Despite carving a name for himself in the cricket arena and later in the entertainment industry, Whitney’s childhood dream was to always don the Cardinal and Myrtle jersey with the baggy green ranked third. “I had a lot of dreams in my head as a kid, cricket was not the feature sport in my head I was a rugby league tragic and also a little athlete,” he said.
“I was a really good long jumper and triple jumper. I had a couple of dreams of going to the Olympics at one stage and representing Australia at the Commonwealth games.
“Playing first grade for the Rabbitohs was the dream and playing Test cricket was number three, so as the other ones dropped off then cricket became a part of me and I played first grade the next season.”
Whitney spent four solid seasons playing for the Mascot Juniors in his late teens. His dream of pulling on that Souths jersey was always going to be long shot made even more difficult by a dodgy knee he blew out at 19 years of age.
“In 1978 -79 I just got into second grade with the Randwick Cricket Club and I was playing really well,” said Mike.
“That winter I hurt my knee and had to have the cartilage taken out. The doctor said to me I don’t think your knee’s going to last playing football but I think it might go alright if you continue with your cricket.
“So I played one more season of footy and then decided to give it away because I was on the verge of breaking into first grade for Randwick. I don’t know about that doctor because I ended up having another eight knee operations,” he laughs.
While Whitney never got the opportunity run out for Souths, he did play a vital role in bringing the club back from the brink after it was dumped unceremoniously from the competition during 2000-01.
“Souths were not in a very good position at the time,” Mike reminisced. “And Don Lane, the great Don Lane, the entertainer, had started this thing. He always had number 14 on his shirts and we always thought that number 14 were the supporters. He started this thing called Group 14 and started to get together a really high profile group of people that supported Souths.
“Alan Jones, Andrew Denton, Nick Greiner, former Premier of New South Wales. There were a couple of other guys Johnny Martin, Mikey Robins, heaps and heaps of people, who loved the Rabbitohs. I joined up to see because I wanted to be a part of group number 14.
“Shortly afterwards a couple of them approached me and said there’s going to be a position on the board and we need someone who’s young, energetic and loves Souths, would you like to take that position? So I did and before I knew it I was elective deputy chairman, then quickly after that Souths got kicked out of the competition.
“I was on the board for almost two and a half years. I stood down just before the last court case which we won and those two years were some of the hardest of my life. Excruciating at some stages, there were friendships that were lost, friendships that were gained a bit of blood spilled on the table but in the end, we won our case and Souths got back into the competition and everything was good but it was a very difficult time for everybody. I learnt a lot about boardroom politics and how things operate at that level.”
If he could see me now
For all his efforts in edging the Rabbitohs back into the comp, Whitney was inducted as a life member of the club in 2009. He may have represented his country at the highest level in the cricketing arena, but for this man, any baggy green cap or five-wicket haul can’t compare to his induction as a permanent fixture on the Rabbitohs Membership list.
“At the annual general meeting when I got elected, nominated and passed as a life member I took my mother along that day to Redfern Town Hall, which is a historic place anyway.
“I’ll never get over it, I’m still stunned when I think that I’ve been given life membership to this Club that I have adored and celebrated for years. My dad took me and my sister to the 1970-71 Grand Final so I’ve waited 43 years to see the club win again and, in the time, I’ve become a life member to this club that I’ve looked up to and revered.
“My father died when I was 16 and missed everything that my sister and I achieved. One of the first things I thought when I was inducted was 'Jesus, could you imagine if my father was alive and knew I was going to become a life member of the South Sydney Rabbitohs?' He would not have been able to contain himself.”
Hadlee v Whitney
It's one of the moments Mike will always be remembered for. It’s December 30, 1987 at a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground. It’s Whitey’s first international test match in six years. He strolls out to the middle bat in hand. It’s not the familiar leather ball that he’s used to, it’s the weight of English willow.
Whitney finished his career with a test batting average of 6.18 and prior to this match was coming of the back of scores of 0, 0, 0, 4 and 0 not out. There’s five overs left in the days play. If Australia block it out, they take the series 1-nil following a win in Brisbane and a draw in Adelaide.
Whitney takes guard, surveys the field and faces up to Sir Richard Hadlee, one of the greatest Test bowlers of all time. He steams in and bowls with every ounce of strength left in his body. The ball whizzed past the outside edge numerous times while Whitney occasionally gets on the front foot to block one back to the bowler. Every dot ball is met with a raucous cheer from the crowd. Soon enough the cheers turn to applause as Whitney jogs off with batting partner Craig McDermott. Match saved. Series won.
Trans-Tasman rivalry has not always been the best between the two sides in years gone by, but on that day there was no questioning the mutual respect that both countries felt alongside Whitney and Hadlee.
“Walking off Richard came up to me straight away and put his arm around my shoulders and said ‘you’ve done a wonderful thing for Australian Cricket mate, congratulations.’ Ian Smith the wicketkeeper handed me the ball and said ‘mate you’ve earnt it.’ So that was the end of that, I put the ball away with some other special balls, along with a few wickets from Test matches.”
Moments forever in time
“I remember five or six years ago I saw him at one of the functions and there was Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee and they’d all been knighted by this stage. We were sitting there having dinner and Richard goes, ‘that ball from the third test in Melbourne.’
“And I go yeah, he said ‘you still got that?’ And I went yeah of course I’ve still got it, and he goes, ‘you know where it is?’ And I go yeah of course I do. He said, ‘out of the 41 five wicket hauls I took in international cricket, that’s the only ball I don’t have.’ So my response to that was unlucky mate, he gave it to me. It’s my ball.”
“Years went by and I remember seeing him a couple of gigs and he mentioned it again and I thought to myself, well I took two seven-fors in test cricket and I’ve got both those balls and their very special to me.
“Richard is a stats history cricket tragic, I mean he can tell you the over he bowled to Sachin Tendulkar to get him out. If you looked at that on replay of the incident it’ll be exactly how he said it. I thought about it and pretty soon after that I got a call from another mate of mine who was running a function the night before New Zealand played Australia in the 2015 World Cup final down in Melbourne.
“He said ‘you’ve been telling me about the ball with Richard and all the stuff like that. They’re all going to be at this gig, if you want to give it back to him why don’t we fly you down to Melbourne secretly, march into the room and you can get on stage and give it back to him.’ So halfway through that function Mark Nicholas who was presenting the gig addressed everyone and said ‘ladies and gentleman you all know like this bloke, I’ll introduce you to him it’s Mike Whitney.’
“Richard’s there and a lot of other of my friends in the cricket world. I get on up, tell that story and ask Richard to come up on stage and I said: 'we talked a lot about this ball mate, put my hand in my coat pocket, pulled it out and handed it to him'. And this is Sir Richard Hadlee one the greatest of all time, the first bloke to take 400 Test wickets. So I put this ball in his hand, and the look on his face was incredible. He just sat it in his fingers like he was about to bowl an outswinger,” recalls Whitney.
“Then I saw a tear roll down the side of his face. He got very emotional and I said look, this is my cricket ball that Ian Smith gave me and it’s going to be mine forever but I’m going to give it back to you on permanent loan forever so you can take it home and set it up with your 40 other balls to complete your set. He got really emotional."Mike Whitney
“I’ve been in New Zealand working on television a number of times and people have pulled me up in New Zealand and gone, ‘I remember the day you blocked out Sir Richard Hadlee and we were all really blown out because you had a batting average of five and we thought he was going to knock you over!”, he laughs.
Worth the wait
43 years is a long time to wait for a Premiership. Some might say it’s a drought. Prior to 2014, many supporters would have only witnessed the trophy being lifted in their dreams. Whitney on the other hand, has been lucky enough to see five Premierships. The last one being the sweetest for a number of reasons.
“I was only young when we won in the sixties and early seventies,” he recalls. “But as a grown up man going through those couple of years where Souths were out and how tough that was. I will always remember those last couple of tries that were scored like when GI scored the last one and it set up and unassailable lead,” he grins.
“This is another weird story because the last 12 years I’ve been the lead singer in the Mike Whitney Band. I really don’t like that name but the other guys in the band said ‘we wouldn’t get a gig if we didn’t used your name.’
“We book gigs months ahead. Anyway Souths make the Grand Final and I can’t believe it - we've got a gig booked at the Collaroy Beach Club in the afternoon for Grand Final day but no one realised that. So we finish playing about 20 minutes before kickoff, I run out of that joint and listen to the first forty minutes on the radio. I hear Sam’s got a busted cheek first tackle of the game and we’re going good. I’m home to watch the second half of the game at my house on my own, the full-time siren rings, I stand up, I yell, I do a little jig, I cried,” he says.
“I had every emotion as much as I had playing cricket in Test match situations that day, as much emotion in that situation than I ever had in my life knowing what the Club had been through and how many people had held their hand up.
“How we had to rebuild to get some of our players back. We had nothing, we had nothing! We had the NRL and News Limited on our backs. It would have been worthwhile for me just to see the team play again and it was. To see them run out after they’d been shunned out of the comp for a couple of years.
“I remember Johnny Sutton, he came up and puts his hands in the air and he said we did it! We did it! And I just broke down again. It was unbelievable. That’s what sport’s all about. The emotion, the love, what it can do to you, how you learn things from it.
“Without sport I haven’t got a life. There's not a day without rugby league, cricket, surfing to an extent.
“Without the Rabbitohs my life would not be the life I’ve been able to live.”
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