We first laid eyes on Warren Smith as a ginger-haired 11-year-old who would hang about our cricket practice sessions and pick-up matches at the Duke of Kent Oval, just around the corner from his home in Shaw Street.
The group included future Wallaby and NSW Seconds cricketer, Ken McMullen; Greg Russell, who twice headed the Sydney grade cricket bowling averages and brothers Geoff and Robert Kingston, Geoff went on to be one of our city’s best AFL exports right up there with Wayne Carey and Paul Kelly and a future All-Australian full forward himself.
Already a natural left-hand batsman who would chase balls all over the park for us, by the time he was 14 Smith had played third grade for Jim Patton’s South Wagga third grade team and moved to the newly formed West Wagga club with whom we played.
By that stage we moved early morning practice sessions to the Wagga Cricket Ground (WCG) turf practice area and “Smithy” came with us, waiting at 6am each day outside his home, opposite the McIntyre’s horse racing stables for me to pick him up. Patton, who was the long-time curator at the WCG always had a couple of practice strips ready for the early morning sessions which by then had escalated to include Alan Grentell, another good cricketer and AFL footballer, Harry Penrith (later to be known as the aboriginal activist Burnam Burnam), and occasionally classy batsmen Peter Barrand and Len Angel and Wests skipper and great golfer, Morrie Hetherington.
It was evident then that “Smithy’s” passion for cricket had no bounds. He would be first to practice and last to leave. He was obsessed. He read every book, magazine and article about the sport and it is to his great credit (and the sport’s) that he developed his coaching prowess and career.
Along the way he collected memorabilia about many sports, mainly cricket, but learnt coaching skills from great coaches locally and internationally of all sports. They included rugby league coach, Jack Gibson, boxing trainer Johnny Lewis, the great AFL full forward Gary Ablett senior but he also revered Greg Hawick and his coaching of Wagga Kangaroos.
All this leads to the excellent decision by Wagga City Council and the Museum of the Riverina to stage Wazza - A Local Legend, an exhibition of his obsession with cricket, in particular, his coaching career and his life as a coach working in rural communities although he has also coached in India and Britain.
The launch of Wazza is on Friday, December 7, at the Museum of the Riverina at the Historic Council Chambers site. I am assured curator, Catherine Spreitzer and museum manager, Luke Grealy, have left no stone unturned to make this exhibition an exciting contribution to the City of Good Sports. It will be open to the public from December 8 until February 17; the timing includes the school and university vacation period, an ideal opportunity for parents and grandparents to share a visit to the exhibition with their kids and grandchildren.
During this vacation period a visit to Wagga’s Sports Hall of Fame at the Museum’s Willans Hill site in the Botanic Gardens would put the icing on the cake for sports enthusiasts.
Underneath his stern exterior Smith shares a concern for the welfare of the kids he coaches, throwing his and wife Pam’s home open so that a talented young boy or girl could stay for extra coaching from their homes across the Riverina. Just as easily a lad who is not “playing the game” in his approach to training or the sport would be shown the exit door from the club he is coaching, with Smith using one of his favourite funny lines to the club secretary - “give him five clearances in case he loses the first four”!
He worries about the welfare of players but has no regard for sports people who waste their obvious talent or ignore advice. After 50 years, during which he fashioned and made many training aids, he never wasted an opportunity to listen to a better way of doing things.
It isn’t just all about playing cricket, as Smith imparts to his charges, but about life’s lessons ...
To whet the taste buds the Wazza exhibition will include a rare bat from the Bodyline series signed by Sir Donald Bradman and Douglas Jardine and a framed autographed handkerchief including Dr W G Grace’s signature.
It isn’t just all about playing cricket, as Smith imparts to his charges, but about life’s lessons, something he gleaned from Bradman, with whom he once dined with in Adelaide and whom he admired more than any other cricketer. The column commends the exhibition to readers.